October is migration season in Costa Rica. It can also be heavy afternoon rain season or even rain all day season but the massive influx of birds is fair compensation. This is the month when us local birders do well by watching green space and inspecting the many Red-eyed Vireos for birds with black whiskers. I’ve put in a fair amount of vireo checking time and although I’m still whiskerless, I’ll keep on looking.
Looking at every gray-capped, pale white and olive bird is worth it and not just because one might have black whiskers. I enjoy each and every one because they have flown from the leafy green summer woods of Ohio, New York, and Ontario. I owe it to them; these are the birds that survived the window gauntlets of the north. I admire their soft, unobtrusive ways and knowing that Costa Rica is just one stop on the flyway train to Amazonia makes these foliage-colored birds sort of unbelievable.
During October Global Big, 2021, I had expected to pass the time checking vireos and other less mobile species right around the home. On account of local driving restrictions, we weren’t allowed to use the car on October 9th, I had become resigned to the idea of local exploration. Not to mention, I had things to do on the day after Global Big Day so why go anywhere? It was birding from home or no birding at all. That was alright, there’s always stuff to see, especially during migration times.
At least that was the idea until my Sunday plans were changed to a later date. Suddenly, the door of possibilities opened to going somewhere for the big eBird count on October 9th! We would have to leave on Friday in order to stay overnight in a place where we could bird on foot or bicycle on Saturday (because of those driving restrictions). Since we would have to wait until Sunday to drive home, well, we would just have to watch birds on that morning too.
It took some quick planning and very few places had availability but before we knew it, our later afternoon and evening plans for Friday included a long drive to Costa Rica’s promised land for migration; the southern Caribbean zone.
The South Caribbean region of Costa Rica includes any of the lands south of Limon. I always love visiting this underbirded part of the country because there is a good amount of nice forest habitat, beaches and estuaries that turn up interesting seabirds, cool resident species, interesting Caribbean culture, and fantastic bird migration.
Stay just about anywhere south of Limon and you will see a lot. Partly because of room availability, we ended up in Manzanillo. I’m not complaining. This little town near the end of the line around 15 kilometers past Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is surrounded by the rainforests of the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, an excellent underbirded area that host a healthy variety of lowland species along with a big helping of migrants. Since the village of Manzanillo acts as a clearing in that forest, it can attract some interesting open country species as well as be a great place to see birds in flight as they make their way south.
Some suggestions and highlights from our trip:
Guapiles-Limon Highway- Night Driving is a No No
This principal highway has been under construction for some years now. It will still be some years before it’s finished. When it is finished, the driving should be fantastic, day and maybe night too. Until then, I highly advise only driving that road during the day. On Friday, we found ourselves doing some night driving and…it was like participating in a road trip from another dimension, one where nightmares are the norm. No illumination, no painted road lanes, the only reflectors being some small posts that marked the edge of the road (which happened to be a small cliff that dropped a meter or more). There were also big trucks, a few confusing lane changes, and a few random criminally negligent road craters.
If you do find yourself driving that particular byway during the dark hours, if you make it to Limon and its any consolation, the driving after that point is sweet and easy-going. Time your trip accordingly.
Birding in Manzanillo Village- Check the Streams
In the early morning of October 9th, I walked a block or two up the road to a small stream that passes next to an empty weedy lot and heads straight into wetlands with Raffia palms. As soon as I got there I heard a splash followed by soft ticking calls. I knew it had to be one of the small kingfishers and as I had suspected, yes (!), it was the smallest one.
That American Pygmy-Kingfisher flew downstream but right after its departure, I heard more ticking calls, this time from the part of the stream next to the vacant lot. A quick scan and I couldn’t believe my luck, it was the rarest of the small kingfishers, a Green-and-Rufous! Next thing I knew, it was zipping my way, seemingly pursued by a Clay-colored Thrush. The jade and burnt orange kingfisher flew about a meter next to me as it jetted past.
Birding that same spot also gave us nice looks at Prothonotary Warbler, Canebrake Wren, and some other birds, the most interesting being a surprise Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, a bird much more normally encountered on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific slope.
Pay an Early Visit to the Trails in Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
We ended up visiting the official trails of the refuge after in the later par of the morning. We hadn’t planned it that way, in fact, we hadn’t planned on doing that at all. But since we were walking over that way, we ended up entering and walking the trails for a short ways.
We saw several Tawny-crested Tanagers (very common in this area) and some other birds but if I could do it again (and I would like to), I would enter the trails right at the opening time of 6:30. That would result in much more bird activity coupled with less people activity. On our weekend visit, the place was crowded like Disney.
I should mention that visiting the trails (of which there are a few, most follow the beach) was as easy as writing down your name and some other information, having your bag briefly checked for alcohol beverages (leave the wine back at the hotel!), and visiting a hand washing station (commonplace in Costa Rica since the start of the pandemic).
Check Out the Soccer Field (Football Pitch)
As with settlements of all sizes in Costa Rica and most parts of the world away from Canada and the USA, Manzanillo had a soccer field (football pitch). This is always a good place to check, especially during migration. It’s where Costa Rica’s sole record of Whistling Heron was made and where other occasional vagrants have appeared.
On our visit, the field hosted a bunch of Eastern Kingbirds, Dickcissels, and a few resident species. The kingbirds were perched on the ground either resting and/or fluttering after bugs. I have never seen anything like it! As a major bonus, one of the only kingbirds perched in a tree next to the pitch just happened to be a long overdue country bird; a Gray Kingbird!
The pale Caribbean version of a TK gave us fantastic looks in perfect light. At some point, we had to stop watching it, a shame we didn’t bring the camera!
Bird the RECOPE Road or the Road Towards Puerto Viejo for Great Forest Birding, or Bird Both
Both of these options are just outside of the village and both are excellent for a number of Caribbean lowland species. We didn’t see anything crazy but the birding early Sunday morning was nevertheless excellent. I heard fruitcrows and Central American Pygmy-Owls, had fun watching Northern Barred and Black-striped Woodcreepers, and was challenged by trying to watch dozens and dozens of small birds way up there in the canopy. Most were Red-eyed Vireos but other bird were with them too, it was the fun type of busy.
Don’t Forget About the Village Birding
Manzanillo itself also makes for some nice birding. We enjoyed flocks of Eastern Kingbirds and streams of migrating swallows. Common Nighthawks in the evening and plenty of parrots, tanagers, flycatchers, and other birds during the day. There were also the two aforementioned kingfishers, a calling Great Potoo at night, the Yellow-crowned Tyarnnulet, and other species. It’ the type of place where every bird should be checked and where a Tiny Hawk can suddenly appear at the tip top of a tree.
Our October Global Big Day turned out to be a pleasant 127 species surprise. Not bad for doing all of our birding on foot, taking a short afternoon nap, and meeting with friends for drinks on the beach. I can’t wait for my next birding trip to the southern Caribbean zone of Costa Rica.
To learn more about this and other birding sites in Costa Rica, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“; a 700 plus page birding companion for Costa Rica.