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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

Twitching Blackpoll Warbler and Cedar Waxwings in Costa Rica

“One birder’s twitch is another birder’s trash.” At least that’s what some members of the birding realm say. In non birding vernacular, that would mean that the bird species yearned for by some are so common as to be ignored by others. Examples include local birders in Ohio rushing outside and letting that screen door bang shut as they race to see a Ruff. Birders from Kansas driving 6 long desperate hours to meet with a seriously lost Spotted Redshank before it keeps on moving. Birders from Toronto skipping on over to Toronto Island to lay eyes on a Variegated Flycatcher (I was one of those lucky birders). All prioritize and move into birding action because those lost birds were brought into twitching range by the same evolutionary dead end wanderlust that could, just as quickly, urge the birds to destinations unknown.

When chasing birds that are common in other places, one of the rather obvious questions that might be asked is, “why not travel to the places where those birds are common?” These days, the answer to just about any question pertaining to travel is obvious (it starts with a C and ends with 9) but during other, easier times, well, it’s always a heck of a lot easier to see a bird near home or in one’s own country than flying to another part of the world. Yes, there are more new birds waaaay over there but…easier said than done. Not to mention, there’s also that country or county or province list thing going on, the urge to collect stuff for a certain area, to maintain and add to a list for some sense of achievement.

Twitches of course don’t just happen in North America, major twitching goes on in Europe especially in the British Isles as well as most other parts of the globe. From the other side of the Atlantic, a twitch might include calling in sick to pilgrimage your way to a Lesser Yellowlegs, or dropping everything for a once in a lifetime meeting with a Gray Catbird (Eurasian soil at least). In Costa Rica, as with every place, we have our own set of “twitch birds” and although rare and local birds are on that list (note the major RVG Cuckoo twitch), most of the wanted species are migrants. In other parts of their range, most are also a dime a dozen.

But it doesn’t matter how common a bird is elsewhere, it only matters how rare that bird is where one happens to be birding. This is why I recently spent precious time driving up a muddy track and walking through tropical pastures to look for…Cedar Waxwings. It’s why we followed that morning jaunt with a drive to a hotel where a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen.

Yes, Cedar Waxwings. They might have been a common bird of parks in western New York, a regular old lazy whispering bird of the northern summer, but in Costa Rica, the sleek crested berry eater is one of the most wanted species on the block. Think of it as our Pine Grosbeak, as an irruptive winter finch that rarely shows, and hardly ever in big numbers. It’s a bird that doesn’t favor Costa Rica, one that occasionally appears at fruiting figs and maybe it’s just me but just to make them a bit harder to find, it doesn’t seem like they call as much in Costa Rica either. But then again, I’ve only seen them here a few times.

They might be common up north but I completely get why local birders strive and drive to see waxwings. It was a while ago some time in the late 70s but I still remember my excitement at seeing my first Cedar Waxwings, can vaguely picture them in the willows by a creek in Pennsylvania. My aunt Chris recalls it too, last time I saw her, she told me she remembered me saying, “Cedar Waxwings!”, being excited about those waxwings by the creek. I sure was, there were a few hundred, they looked amazing, and they were incredible lifers. A golden day for an 8 year old birder.

With that same sense of excitement, Marylen, Samantha, and I went looking for a group of waxwings just a half hour drive from where we live. They had been seen for a few days before then, had been seen the day before but would they still be there? Since they had been feeding on huge figs full of fruit, I figured we had an excellent chance but as with any twitch, who knows? Waxwings are migrants, they could leave at any moment, get too much of an urge to head north, just vanish and leave a twitcher staring into empty trees.

However, as with any twitch, you never know unless you try and if you stay home and someone else sees that bird, you run a big chance of being hit with a big fat sour lemon pie of regret. Since the regret option sucks (and because our chances seemed good), we went for the waxwings. After going to the wrong spot first, thanks to friend and fellow birder Diego Quesada, we got back on track, made our way to the right spot and walked up a muddy track past the songs of White-eared Ground-Sparrows and Rufous-capped Warblers.

Migrants were also around and included the likes of Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Olive-sided Flycatchers. An excellent area of green space, of coffee farms with huge figs, it didn’t take long before a flock of waxwings appeared! They flew into view, lisped a couple of times and quickly dropped out of sight. We couldn’t say we didn’t see them but better views would be a lot nicer. Trudging up and down pastured hills couldn’t refind them but fortunately, just as we were about to leave, we ran into Diego and fellow birding guide, Jheudy Carballo. They had the birds and even had them in the scope!

As you can see, they weren’t exactly perched in full easy view.

After getting our fill of scoped waxwings in Costa Rica, we triumphantly returned to the car (because how else do you return to a vehicle after a successful twitch?), made our way to the house and got right back in the vehicle for the drive to bird number dos- le Blackpoll Warbler.

This second twitch of the day was about as easy as you can get (and is just how we like it!). We entered the Buena Vista Hotel, the receptionist welcomed us and upon seeing our binocs, pointed us to the trails where the bird was being seen. Thanks to directions from Diego, we made our way to the spot, and thanks to a local birder who was watching it, saw the bird with seconds.

In typical warbler fashion, the male Blackpoll didn’t exactly sit still. Getting ready to migrate, it didn’t have any time to rest. It might have come from Alaska, might have lived in Quebec. Both places are pretty far, both require a lot of flying fuel. It was getting those resources for its personal, perilous flight from a fruiting fig, eating insects, maybe even even some fruit.

The good thing is that it was fueling up right in front of us, was favoring this one fig tree only a bit above eye level. Even better, it was an adult male in breeding plumage. Since we rarely get Blackpolls in Costa Rica, the views, the experience, was a rare treat. It’s one of those birds that probably winter here and there in Costa Rica, that pass through on occasion but in numbers small enough to seriously limit chances of finding them and so when one is found, you might just want to go see it.

A successful twitch is always a good day, success with a double twitch that includes good looks at the target birds is fantastic. I wonder what the next twitch in Costa Rica will be? A Gray Gull would be pretty nice…

As with every twitch, they wouldn’t happen without birders finding and sharing the gen. Many thanks go to local birder Alex Molinas Arias for the waxwings and Diego and Jheudy of Birding Experiences for helping us see them, and to the author of The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues, for finding that Blackpoll!

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