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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Looking for Year Birds on the Pacific Slope

It being September and still hoping to reach 700 species, we are getting into crunch time for a birding year. Yeah, we still have a few months to go before the cavalcade of fireworks announce the end of 2019 but now is when Cerulean Warblers move through the country. Now is when we have a chance at Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and some other choice species making their way to wintering grounds further south.

Mississippi Kite is one of those birds moving through Costa Rica right now.

With those avian options in mind and a day or two to work with in Costa Rica, it’s hard to pick where to go. The cloud forests at Tapanti and other sites hide several uncommon and rare species , most of which would be new for the year. There might be interesting migrants down there near sea level on the other side of the mountains, especially on the Caribbean. Then there are the shorebird sites on the Pacific. Throw in a chance at Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl and other high elevation birds on Irazu and the best spot for a bit of year birding in Costa Rica become less than obvious.

Scenery on Irazu.

Taking various factors into account, not the least of which was seeing how we could blend birding with some pool action for a non-birding 9 year old, we settled on the Pacific Coast. The warm lowlands are literally just down the “hill”, are relatively close and easier to do than say the cold mountains, and we could stay somewhere with a pool. Not to mention, sites like Punta Morales, Chomes, and other places on the Gulf of Nicoya always offer chances at the rare and unusual in addition to expected species.

We ended up staying at the Brisas del Mar Cabinas in Punta Morales. A small family run hotel with rooms that had air-conditioning, cable TV, and a fridge, although they didn’t have hot water, there was a nice little pool outside and shorebird-rich salt pans a brief jaunt down the road. The birds at the hotel were pretty standard dry forest species, our best being Spot-breasted Oriole singing from a tall tree in the garden. Just outside the hotel, a birder also finds a bird-rich blend of open fields, woodlands, and wetlands ripe for exploration.

With limited time, our exploration was likewise limited so we focused most of our birding time at the salt pans. After an early morning of occasional Dickcissel flocks flying high over the hotel, the afore-mentioned Spot-breasted Oriole, and a fantastic, rare Cave Swallow moving with Bank, Barn, and Cliff Swallows, we drove to our meeting with the wading birds from the Arctic.

As usual for Cocorocas at Punta Morales during high tide, the salt pans were dotted with at least a few hundred shorebirds, many of them calling and chattering from the shallow mud. Knowing that the birds can get up and leave at any moment, we got to scoping and scanning straight away. The most abundant species were Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Plover, and Willet with lesser yet still impressive numbers of Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Phalarope, Least Sandpiper, and a few others.

Among those others were several chunky-cool Surfbirds, a few choice year Red Knots, one lone long overdue year Collared Plover, a single lesser Yellowlegs, and some terns. The long-winged swallows of the sea were mostly Royal and Sandwich (Cabot’s) Terns along with one Gull-billed and our third year bird for the site, a single Caspian Tern. It was sweet to take in the deep red bill of that the big Caspian, finally marking that gullish tern down for the year.

We didn’t luck out with finding an American Golden Plover or other not so common shorebirds, nor did we find fortune with Mangrove Cuckoo or Mangrove Rail or the wood-rail but the birding was still satisfying (if mosquitoey). Nor did we find any of the few Upland Sandpipers that were moving through the country but just the day before a few had been seen at a site that we could fit in on the drive back so we still had a chance, and a good one. So, we did just that, exiting the busy highway to take the much quieter road from Ceiba to Orotina.

This is a really cool road because it passes through some interesting wide open wet pastures that tend to attract interesting birds. The only shame was not being able to take a lot more time to check out the area. Our birding was thus essentially a quick drive-by experience with occasional brief stops to scan the grass, and during light rain. Despite giving it a good try, no Uplands were to be had by us that day, nor any Buff-breasteds for that matter. As consolation, at least we know that other local birders who checked the site shortly after we did likewise dipped on the grasspipers.

However, we didn’t leave empty-handed. One female Purple Martin made an appearance to up the year list, and driving that road was a good reminder to dedicate more birding time on another day, preferably for a few hours in the morning. Grasshopper Sparrows have been seen there and I bet other surprises await on the Ceiba Road.

I’m not sure if we will get in any birding next weekend, but if so, no matter where we go, I know the birding will be satisfying. It always is in mega birdy Costa Rica.

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