If you pay attention to this blog, there’s a fair chance that you know about my Big Days in Costa Rica. If not, then allow me to explain. Each year, I spend way too much planning and analyzing a route that can result in 300 plus species of birds. With more than 900 species on the country list, that shouldn’t be a problem, except that I’m not talking about one or two weeks. No, the craziness comes in the form of a one day event of all out birding, hunter concentration smack in the face of no sleep, and eating chocolate to see more birds. Actually, eating chocolate for birds isn’t crazy at all (in fact, I absolutely recommend it) and it really does help at 2 pm when you have been awake for 12 hours and still need to see a caracara, kingfishers, and hundreds of other species.
This year, the Big Day was originally planned for March. Susan, Robert, and I were going to blast through the country with blazing binoculars from Cano Negro all the way over to the Pacific coast at Chomes with rainforest and cloud forest in between. We were going to do that but then each of us got sick right before the day of reckoning, so, with a heavy heart, it was postponed until April 24. Most of the wintering birds would be gone and that does leave a hole in the final tally, but there would also be migrants coming through and maybe more birds singing as well. At least, that was the gamble and we didn’t have a choice anyways if we wanted to do a Big Day in 2016.
Although Robert couldn’t make it, we still met up with him and Eduardo Amengual on the eve of the Big Day at Cano Negro. We saw a Short-tailed Nighthawk, enjoyed some fine conversation, shared laments over the passing of Prince, and, thanks to Eduardo, also shared a smooth and delicious Spanish Rioja. This was followed by an attempt an getting five hours of sleep. That almost worked except for when I had to get up and slaughter several mosquitoes. Luckily, they weren’t as quick as me and I smashed them in triumph. Triumph-this is what you feel after enduring that damn buzzing in the ear and getting bit in the middle of the night. A bit of sleep after killing mosquitoes was followed by the alarm going off at midnight and the official start of our Big Day!
In the yard at Kingfisher Lodge, we heard a Common Pauraque, and got a response from a Common Potoo- Yes! Two birds down, 298 to go! Looking for roosting birds turned out to be fruitless, but a walk to the dike and dock at Cano Negro gave us Boat-billed Heron, our only Black-bellied Whistling Duck of the day, and a few other species along with the mesmerizing ruby red eyeshine of a couple dozen caimans.
I was hoping we would find one of these guys roosting but no avian cigar for us…
After getting some extra exercise by way of walking in a circle in Cano Negro village, we eventually found the lodge (and the car), and headed out into the night in search of more birdies. Stops on the road out gave nothing new until we reached the bridge at San Emiliano. However, lucky for us, the hoped for Great Potoo was perched at eye level just below the light.
A friendly Great Potoo. These birds are really big!
Off in the fields, no Striped nor Barn Owl (and forget about the super rare Ocellated Poorwill) but it was still cool to hear another Common Potoo. Then, we were off for an easy night drive to our site for more owls and the dawn chorus. This was around Luna Nueva and Pocosol and almost two hours from Cano Negro. To make a long story short, we heard one Mottled Owl, nothing else, and had a disturbing absence of dawn chorus. As the first light of the day became visible on the way to the Pocosol station, we did pick up some birds here and there including Crested Guan, our only Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and various second growth species, but in the forests of the station itself, the trees were eerily bereft of bird song.
Seriously, this was not good and not just because it was a Big Day. I settled on the rainforests at Pocosol as a dawn starting point because these are some of the highest quality forests I have seen in Costa Rica. They host a huge array of common and decidedly uncommon species, and the hope was that being there at dawn would give a better chance at getting more species. Simple as that. On past trips at this time of the year, the dawn chorus at this site was so profuse, it was hard to distinguish which species were calling. Just amazing. On April 24th, though, the forest resounded with cicadas and almost nothing else. Trust me, this is not normal, nor were the dry leaves and wilted moss. If some of the most intact rainforests in Costa Rica are like this, I can’t help but wonder how many areas are approaching ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a drought, it’s prolonged hot, dry weather caused by global warming in places not adapted to those conditions, and the outlook is bad.
A view from the dining area at Pocosol.
We walked the forest trail in silence, hoping for some bird to call and got nothing. At least not until the cicadas slowed down well after dawn. Then, we did pick up birds here and there including some good, expected ones like Black-headed Anthrush, Dull-mantled Antbird, Russet Antshrike, and Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Motmots were also calling but it was way too quiet overall. Since we needed more species from that area that we expected during dawn chorus, we stayed longer than scheduled and did pick up more here and there, including White Hawk, King Vulture, and some species near Luna Nueva. I’m not sure what our total was at that time but probably somewhere around 140 species.
Next on the list was the drive up to sites on the way to San Ramon. En route, fortunately, we connected with species seen from the car like Black-cowled Oriole, Rock Pigeon (oh yeah, it counts!), Olive-throated Parakeet, and some others. A stop at the small marsh turned up Great Blue Heron and a few other species, and San Luis was good for tanagers. Our next main stop was the Cocora Hummingbird Garden. Although this cloud forest site had treated us well in the past, it was dead on April 24th. Whether because of dry weather or the loud music from an adjacent birthday party, we came up zilch in the forest but at least picked up some hummingbirds in the garden. The lack of birds prompted a brief stop in front of Nectandra which finally gave us givens like Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch but overall, the cloud forest was a bird silent bust.
One of the birds we picked up was Green-crowned Brilliant.
The stops from then on were better, including Tropical Mockingbird, Purple Gallinule, and several other targets at the Silencio marsh, a quick Vaux’s Swift while filling up in San Ramon, and driveby Rufous-breasted Wren, Plain Wren, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (I love driveby birds on a Big Day). No luck with any driveby birds on the descent to the coast but we lucked out in terms of traffic. Our next main stop, Punta Morales, also provided with a sweet combination of mangrove species and waterbirds. Scanning produced several shorebird species, two gulls species, and five tern species, along with some dry forest stuff. We picked up more dry forest birds on the drive to Chomes, and then got up a few more shorebirds at Chomes itself, best being American Golden-Plover. Although shorebird numbers there were surprisingly low, we also had nice looks at Wilson’s Phalaropes, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and other waterbird targets, and a surprise bunch of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flying to roost. As dusk approached, I figured that checking the fields on the way out might be interesting. This turned out to be a good choice as we heard Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Collared Forest-Falcon, Double-striped Thick-knees, and the best bird of the day, Upland Sandpiper! Two called a few times just as it got dark, and they were probably flying into the night sky to migrate north. It was magic. Last but not least, we also managed a Barn Owl that flew in front of the car on the drive out. That was a serendipitous relief.
We quit after the Barn Owl at 6:30. This was early by Big Day standards but we were pleased and pretty much too tired to keep listening for non-calling owls. The final tally was 260 species, and I figured that we could have added at least 80 common species if more birds had been singing (such as tinamous for example), but we weren’t complaining because it was, after all, a memorable, fine day of birding.
Our list for the day: Big Day list 2016