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Birding Costa Rica Christmas Counts

Some Tips for Christmas Count Birding in Costa Rica

I can’t believe that it’s November. It was easier to accept that part of the calendar while living in Niagara Falls, New York. After Halloween, the surroundings abruptly changed from a russet Autumn brown with golden highlights, to a gray, half-lit world with cold lead waiting in the atmosphere. Taking an hour of the afternoon daylight out of the picture was a contributing factor to that gray scene but really, everything seemed to be dipped in some brand of liquid gray. The oaks and other deciduous trees had gone to their annual sleep, and the bird scene was dominated by large numbers of ducks and gulls fleeing from the winter that had already grasped the north.

Those cold winds, and rafts of Canvasbacks on the river also signaled another point on the calendar, that of the Christmas Count season. Do you think we birders really look forward to hearing Bing Crosby at every corner and discussions over unlabeled coffee cups? At least I don’t. While I do look forward to seeing family and friends, savoring home-baked Christmas cookies, and watching my daughter get really excited about Christmas, I also anticipate the annual counts. I’m not sure why we get so crazy about them in the north.I mean, you can see a lot more birds in much more pleasant green surroundings at other times of the year. But, even if we only saw ten birds up north, it would still be a key birding day of the year. Do we want to see if we can best last year’s count? Do we want to test ourselves? Enjoy a special bird-holiday with good birder friends? End it with egg-nog or maybe a fine, micro-brewed beer? Yes to all of the above and in Costa Rica, it’s even better because this is when we can actually see more birds!

Summer Tanager is one of many wintering birds we can see.

Christmas Counts in Costa Rica are a celebration, sponsored events, and of course we look forward to them with gusto. We get a chance to see friends that we never run into the rest of the year, to see how many hundreds of birds can be recorded in the count circle, and to push the “limits of machine and man” (maybe not but that partial quote from “Red Barchetta” by Rush is nevertheless inspirational). Well, if you would like to participate in any counts in Costa Rica this year, here are a few tips:

  • Sign up now: Like a concert, the counts are very popular, and some might have limited number of participants. Sign up today and say that you would love to help out. The AOCR publishes a list of the counts, and count contacts every year.
  • Don’t try to do all of them: Since some are on the same date, this will be impossible anyways. Or, try to do as many as you want but keep in mind that each one is almost like an adventurous Big Day. Just tell yourself to keep going and break out the chocolate.
  • Be ready for rain: But isn’t this the dry season? On the pacific slope, yes. On the Caribbean slope, welcome to the wet. Instead of snow, we get generous amounts of rain. Like a Christmas present for the forest ecosystems, the precipitation soaks the mountains and Caribbean slope (La Selva, the Aerial Tram, and several other places). Just be prepared and go with the flow, 300 plus bird species are usually recorded anyways, and you can go after rarities found during the count on the following day.

    Sometimes, you see even more birds during rainy weather. This Cinnamon Woodpecker was seen on a rainy day during the Arenal 2014 count.
  • Consider not staying in national park barracks: Some counts offer the possibility of lodging . If you don’t mind sleeping in an open, noisy dormitory warmed by tropical heat, then you might like it. But, if you would rather go for a good night’s sleep, look for other accommodation.
  • Cliff bars and Gatorade: Many counts provide participants with a lunch. But, just in case you don’t like it, Cliff bars can help save the day. Since the counts also take place during the good olde  Yule tide, rewarding oneself with chocolate and/or brownies is also in order (this is a celebration after all). Gatorade also helps during a long, hot, humid day of non-stop birding.
  • Get the shirt!: Because who doesn’t like a birding event shirt? It helps us recognize fellow members of the tribe when we aren’t carrying binos (like at a coffee shop, the DMV, funeral, etc), and makes for a nice souvenir. Most counts give you a cool shirt, get one!
  • Buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”: It will help you get ready for any degree or level of birding in Costa Rica, and it’s now available on Kindle!

This year, sadly, my counting in Costa Rica might be restricted to just one event. So it goes with odd timing, travel, and obligations. If you do any counts, have fun, I hope to see you at the one I do!

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