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Birding Costa Rica Guanacaste

Shorebirds, Dickcissels, and a Missing Aplomado Falcon

In the northern hemisphere, September takes on several meanings. For kids and parents, it’s new shoes, a clear plastic protractor (at least it used to be), notebooks, and other school supplies. For millions of people in the USA, it means that Monday nights will once again be dedicated to football. For the birder, it also means migration.

Millions of wood-warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and shorebirds are on the move. While we watch football, YouTube, or sleep, they race through the night on their way to wintering sites where the summer never ends. Go birding on the right morning and you might see hundreds of migrant birds. If you live in the right place, you might even see them in your backyard. It’s also important to go birding because accompanying those thousands of common and expected birds, are a few species that should be elsewhere. At this time of year, somewhere in the northeast, there are always a few Black-throated Gray -Warblers, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and other species of the west whether birders find them or not.

In Costa Rica, it’s a similar situation, and two weeks ago, the chance at seeing one of the those rare vagrants was enough to send me on a four hour drive to the northwest. The bird in question was an Aplomado Falcon, I have seen them elsewhere but laying eyes on one in Costa Rica would be a seriously sweet tick for my country list. The bird had been seen at the same site for at least two weeks, there was nothing keeping me at home, and my friend Johan Kuilder was up for the trip. So, instead of some birding closer to home, off we went at 5:30 a.m. for the hot, windy dry lands of Guanacaste.

A windswept rice field in Guanacaste.

The destination was the rice fields on the road to Playa Panama but there were other birds to look for en route, especially because we would be passing near the best shorebird sites in the country during high tide.

With that in mind, we figured that a quick check of the Cocororas salt ponds would be worth it. The only “problem” was too many birds for a quick check!

We just had to check through a few hundred Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers
It was hard to stop looking at flocks of Wilson's Phalaropes.
A Long-billed Curlew lounged by itself on a mud flat while Marbled Godwits mingled with Black-bellied Plovers, Red Knots, Surfbirds, and other more common shorebirds.

Although we didn’t turn up any rarities, Johan got a lifer, I got a couple of year birds, and it’s always fun to hang out with the shorebirds. Shortly after, we were back on the highway and heading north towards a hoped for rendezvous with an adventurous falcon. On the way, we made another stop, this time at a turf farm! Every birder in the know knows that a turf farm in fall is always an opportunity for excitement. In Costa Rica, it’s the same situatation and we were hoping for the same exciting birds. However, although the conditions looked perfect, we didn’t see any golden-plovers or grasspipers. At least Pectoral Sandpiper made it onto the year list though, and it was interesting to see  several Collared Plovers in the grass.

We also saw a dancing Crested Caracara, Southern Lapwings, and some other birds.

After that, we made a bee-line to our destination, the Finca Trancas, or rice fields on the road to Playa Panama. Getting there was easy enough, and there are plenty of places to look but we did not find the falcon. Either it was doing some serious hiding, or it had left the building because I scoped every tree, hedgerow, and the ground in search of that bird. Since others also checked that site that day and came up zero for the falcon, I think we were two days late. Hopefully, it will show up again there, at Palo Verde, or maybe even Chomes (according to eBird, a juvenile was also seen on that date in 2010).

Despite the missing Aplomado Falcon, all was not lost because there were plenty of other interesting birds to see while searching for the raptor. Back along a vegetated canal, we were entertained by hundreds of Dickcissels. Flock after flock of these mid-western migrants moved along the canal in nervous flocks, a few birds calling the whole time. There were at least a thousand that fed in a tall, grassy field next to the canal!

A few of the Dickcissels.

Bank and Cliff Swallows foraged over the open fields and a Zone-tailed Hawk made an appearance. On the other side of the main road, we found a small group of Solitary Sandpipers, herons, and, best of all, two Jabirus in flight!

Jabirus! This site is often good for the king neotropical stork.
We had great looks at Solitary Sandpiper.

Scanning the fields failed to turn up grasspipers or other interesting birds but we did see a Harriss’s Hawk soar overhead, saw a juvenile White-tailed Hawk, and had nice looks at Tricolored Munias.

Tricolored Munias.

After a quick stop at the nearby catfish ponds (mostly dry and a locked gate) and the German Bakery (good stuff), it was time to head back home. We arrived by 5 p.m. and although we missed the falcon, we realized how feasible it was to do a short day trip to that area and see some really cool birds at the same time.

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