October 14, 2023 was a random day for the non-birding part of humanity. For the rest of us, this date was one of the big ones; a special time when birding takes center stage. Thanks to eBird, October 14th was the perfect excuse to put birds at the forefront, lend them more importance than traffic jams and mall walks or milking cows.
That doesn’t mean you had to ignore such pleasantries or duties or otherwise. It just means that while you bumped along in that oil-infused taxi, while you worked or carried out the farm chores, you could still pay attention to birds and participate. Give them avians their due by remembering what you identified and uploading to eBird.
Of course there were other, more appropriate ways to celebrate October Big Day, the main one being all out birding. No chores, nothing else on the table, just you and the birds along with thousands of other like-minded people doing the same bird-focused thing.
During our collective watching of birds, what did we manifest? Alas, no Eskimo Curlew or other extinct species but us birders all around the world still managed to identify thousands of bird species. In Costa Rica, we played our part and tallied 718.
Thanks to better knowledge about finding birds in Costa Rica, our October GBD results included all the quail-doves, all the wood-quails, and some. I was surprised not to see any pelagics on the list but oh well, I guess no one made it offshore. Perhaps the waves were too high? In any case, 718 birds sans pelagics is a grand total, one worthy of self congratulation accompanied with fine cold beer.
As I had mentioned in a previous post, Marilen and I also participated. Things didn’t go as planned as I had hoped but it was still good, we still saw a good number of birds. This is some of what I learned from October 14th, 2023.
Keep owl silhouettes on your mind
My outrageous Big Day strategy needed an early start. Well, I’m not sure if midnight is early but since that’s when you can start counting birds, I suppose we can refer to it as such. That early hour found us driving through the open areas of Ceiba de Orotina.
I stopped and listened every so often. No night migrants, no nothing but eventually a Common Pauraque. On Big Days, that road bird of the night is usually our species numero uno.
Moving along, I tried to keep an eye on the surroundings, hoped to spot an owl or something out of place. That idea worked when I noticed a distinct shadowy little shape standing on a post. Oh a Burrowing Owl would have been amazing but we were still happy with point blank views of a Pacific Screech-Owl.
That looking for owl silhouettes also came through with Striped Owl near Jaco. In classic Striped Owl fashion, it was perched on a roadside cable and gave us fantastic views.
Reconsider night driving
Our passage through the dark of quiet Orotina was fleeting. More time would have brought us several other birds but we had another, more vital place to be. Our destination required an hour and a half drive but it would be worth it. The site was our big shorebird break, our tern hattrick destined to reward us with waterbirds.
Getting there was not for the faint of heart. Nor for folks with cataracts or anything less than nerves of steel. Taking the Zen approach, I’m proud to say I managed to move us along without giving myself early arthritis. That would have been generated by gripping the steering wheel with hydraulic prowess.
You see, the road to Guanacaste is being worked on. At the moment, one big section is a rather narrow two lane road that looks more like a forgotten alley to limbo. At least during the dark of the night. And with very little to no illumination, oh yeah, it’s necessary night lights dark!
But what about the road lines? If they had been present, yes, they would have been a wonderful help. But in Costa Rica, such lane paint and reflective little things that keep you from sailing into a ditch are often absent. Especially on roads being worked on.
We traveled at a steady pace. Some other less concerned fools passed several cars at once or blinded everyone with bright lights. At least it didn’t rain. That came several hours after we had left the area. Thank goodness too because part of the “highway” became a lake, and another section suffered a landslide.
Suffice to say, if you can avoid driving in Costa Rica at night, by all means, avoid it!
Flooded roosting areas for shorebirds means no shorebirds
Night driving from Puntarenas to Punta Morales was not the dreamiest of trips but it had to be done. I wanted those roosting birds! Except that after we had bumped down that rocky little road to sandpiper salvation, all was quiet.
Oh snap! It couldn’t be! But nope, my ears weren’t fibbing. Instead of being greeted by calling Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, and Western Sandpipers, I heard a single flyover Royal Tern. Yes, that was a bird too and we took it but it wasn’t quite what we had hoped.
Upon checking the salt pans, we saw that yes indeed, they were as full as monsoon swimming pools. Not a single shorebird in one of the best shorebird spots in Costa Rica. I couldn’t blame them, little webbed footers and mud probers would have drowned.
As consolation, we picked up both night-herons and a bunch of Wood Storks but we left there ASAP. It was back to the night road to the other side of limbo; that would be Caldera and then on to Jaco.
Owls don’t always call when and where they did on other days
We made it to the much better lit road next to the Caldera mangroves and gave them a quick check. I was hoping to relive finding a Northern Potoo. We spotlighted some and stared at suitable branches but nope, “only” a couple more Pacific Screech Owls.
We got to Jaco around 3:45. That would be just in time to listen for more night birds, things like Double-striped Thick-Knees, whistling-ducks, and maybe a few other birds.
The thick-knee did indeed comply, one Purple Gallinule called to connect us with success, and yes, whistling-ducks flew over! Heading in on the Teleferico Road, we also quickly heard Tropical Screech-Owls and saw that aforementioned Striped Owl.
Things were going to plan but then….they weren’t. The other owls we usually heard at that site just weren’t calling. I did my best to coax them; barked like a Mottled Owl, wailed in true Black and white Owl fashion, even played calls of impossible to imitate Crested and Spectacled Owls.
Nope. They didn’t want to call on October 14th. That’s alright, we could still get them on the other side of the mountains, way over there at the exhausted end of the day.
Dawn chorus in October?
With dawn approaching, we drove up the Teleferico Road to some intact-looking areas of forest. With luck, maybe an owl would still call? After all, on other occasions, I have heard all of our wanted owl species during the dawn’s early light.
However, the main reason I went up there was to start the dawn chorus. The plan was to begin there and slowly bird/listen our way out to open areas, ticking everything en route!
That would have worked if the birds had called. Some did, birds like Riverside Wren and Gray-headed Tanager, but most did not. We needed more forest birds, the woodcreepers and so many others that can easily make it onto your list with their early morning calls.
Except they didn’t. Maybe October is a bad time for them to vocalize? Maybe some of those birds just aren’t there anymore? Sadly, between rare forest habitat being degraded by climate change and destroyed for development (especially along that road), fewer birds is a real possibility.
Nor hearing enough, I headed to the more open areas. But nope, even there, almost nothing sang. Not even Black-hooded Antshrike and other species I know are present. We did eventually hear and see several other species but to approach any sort of record, we still needed more.
But hey, maybe we would get them in Carara?
BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN BUYING TICKETS FOR CARARA NATIONAL PARK
Except that we didn’t go in Carara.
Yeah, sadly, the national park system has succeeded in raising their levels of bureaucracy to even higher levels of ridiculousness. Not long ago, one could go to Carara, purchase a ticket at the gate, and go in to the park. You know, like how you normally do in most places?
Then, during Covid, entrance tickets could only by bought with a card. Nope, you only have cash? Sorry, you can’t walk these trails! However, you could still buy tickets right then and there, no problem.
Recently, for some unknown yet surely amazing reason, the national park system included Carara in the parks that require buying tickets online, in advance.
The system is cumbersome and doesn’t always work. I suppose yes, then, they know who exactly walks on those short trails and they already have their entrance fees. But what if the system doesn’t work? Well, then you are out of luck.
We tried to buy tickets the night before. However, each time I tried to get tickets, their system said something about there being an error. I tried a few more times, same thing.
I figured well, what are you gonna do, maybe we would try tomorrow? And then I noticed the email from my bank indicating that yes, my transactions actually did go through and that it was for Carara National Park.
So, on October Big Day, 2023, we arrived to Carara and went to the entrance booth. We explained what had happened, we showed them the receipt indicating that we had bought tickets not once but more than once and that SINAC had accepted the transaction.
But nope, they said, “I don’t know what to tell you but the system doesn’t have problems, it should have sent you one of these reservation codes.” I will mention that they did their best to find us in their system but no, even though they could literally see that SINAC had taken our money for entrance fees to enter that specific park, no, they just didn’t know what to tell us. There couldn’t be any problem with their system, we should have gotten that code. The fact that they could see the receipt to enter that park on that day didn’t compute. There was no way, we had to have the code.
Otherwise, you just can’t walk in on those trails. God forbid. Now we could have gone and bought tickets again but after they had basically forced me to give them a donation, I wasn’t too eager to do that again. I mean, if it didn’t work another time, even if I had made the purchase right in front of their faces and did not receive a code, I would have made another donation and they still wouldn’t have let us in.
I’m not sure if I ever will try again because sadly, if their system can take your money like that, what other problems might it have? It’s a sad situation but if you plan on going to any national park in Costa Rica that requires advance purchase of tickets, be very careful!
If you go through the cumbersome process and buy the ticket but don’t get a reservation confirmation, DO NOT TRY AGAIN. Accept that they have stolen your money and make other plans. The thing is if you try to buy it again, they will probably take your money every time you purchase tickets and you still won’t be able to enter the park.
Another option is doing a tour with a local company. That way, they take the risk. In all honesty, it probably doesn’t happen all that often but then again, one of the local guides did tell me that he had heard of that happening more than once.
It’s a shame but there are other options than visiting Carara. I’m going to see if I can set something up for a site or two near there that have the same birds along with actual common sense.
Be flexible but know when to quit
After not being able to enter Carara for ridiculousness, we decided to head up the road that goes to Bijagual. There’s always the chance that we could get many of the same birds from Carara.
We did see a White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and some other birds but no, it was very quiet. Far too quiet to approach the goal required for hitting a Big Day record. Who know’s maybe Carara would have been quiet too?
With that in mind, we aborted the full Big Day attempt. On the bright side, the pressure was off and we wouldn’t have to worry about time. We casually made our way over to Tarcoles, watched some shorebirds, and made the drive back uphill and home.
Lots of people birding is a recipe for rarity finding
Whenever more birders are in the field, more rarities are found! October 14th in Costa Rica was no exception. Thanks to other local birders, we have the option of trying to twitch rare migrant Palm Warbler, and two Prairie Warblers.
I’m sure there’s other stuff to look for too, I’ll have to check and see.
Inspiration to check the dawn chorus in other areas
This past October Big Day experience also encourages me to visit a few sites for the dawn chorus. Instead of Jaco and Carara, what can I find on the roads from the Macaw Lodge area to Tarcoles? There’s a lot of possibilities, I’m looking forward to finding out!
What about the dawn chorus at key sites in the Caribbean lowlands? I’m curious about that too. Will I find a Great Jacamar, Tawny-faced Quail? Only one way to find out.
This past October Big Day might not have gone as well as I had hoped but we still saw a lot of birds. Any morning with 150 species is a good one!