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Saltators- The Pseudo Cardinals of Costa Rica

Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.

“Northern cardinal” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.

With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.

Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:

Grayish Saltator

A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator

Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.

Black-headed Saltator

Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.

Streaked Saltator

This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.

Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!

While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.

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Costa Rica Birds to Know- The 10 Most Common Raptors

“What is that, an eagle? It’s huge!” This or a similar version in any number of languages is a common phrase heard by birders from Tennessee to Thailand. It makes sense, our primate instincts just won’t allow us to forget about the honest threat that big raptors posed to our little ones way back before the height of the Anthropocene. Not to mention, big raptors are easy to notice, especially when they take flight and tend to look bigger than their actual size.

That thing about perspective tricking us into concluding that big birds are a lot bigger than they really are is one of the first things a birder learns, especially when binoculars reveal that that the massive “eagle” was actually a Turkey Vulture or a healthy Red-tailed Hawk. Until you learn and accept that perception of size is deceptive, you can bet that you are fooling yourself.

Rest assured, Tommy Shaw wasn’t talking about birding when he wrote this song but whether you listen to Styx while birding or not, being aware of the size/perception illusion is partly why we as birders know that condors and giant eagles aren’t really roaming the countryside (although we sure wish they were, we know it’s just some Grand Illusion). Depending on the part of the northern hemisphere where one wields the bins, Red-taileds, Common Buzzards, and Black Kites also remind us of how frequent big birds of prey can be.

In many places, it doesn’t take more than a drive down any country road to start seeing raptors perched here and there on posts, or to notice the silhouette of a raptor flying high overhead. In Costa Rica, that flying raptor is usually one or both common vulture species (Turkey and Black). Since these scavengers are such a regular part of the avian landscape and probably the first birds seen upon exiting the plane, I’m going to leave them off the following list. The birds I will mention are the 10 additional raptor species (non-owls) most commonly seen in Costa Rica. Go birding in Costa Rica and you will find that they aren’t as frequent as roadside raptors in some other parts of the world but you can probably still bet on seeing them.

White-tailed Kite

Locally known as the “bailarin” (dancer), this rodent catcher often hovers in place above grassy fields. Like most raptors in Costa Rica, it’s not exactly abundant but because there is plenty of habitat for it and because it isn’t shy about hovering in plain sight, get ready to see it.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Another bird easily seen because of aerial behaviors that make it wonderfully obvious. It occurs year round in parts of southern Costa Rica and is a wet season visitor in other parts of the country. Enjoy the elegance in hilly and mountainous areas with humid forest.

Gray Hawk

In many parts of Costa Rica, including the Central Valley, this is our buzzard, our Red-tail, our common kite species. Based on how often one hears and sees this “Mexican Goshawk”, this edge bird does quite well in the patchwork of habitats created by human endeavors.

Roadside Hawk

True to its name, this smallish hawk is a regular feature of roadside cables, telephone posts, and trees. In hot lowland areas, it can be more common than the Gray Hawk. Like the Gray Hawk, it also frequently calls and soars.

Short-tailed Hawk

Another of the most common hawks in Costa Rica, keep an eye on the skies and you might see this species every day of your birding trip. It often takes to the air with groups of Black Vultures, possibly flying with them to reach its aerial hunting grounds as unobtrusive as it can manage. Once up there, it soars and hovers in plain sight until it can fall like a rock onto some unsuspecting bird or lizard. Even better, it also comes in two cool color phases!

Common Black-Hawk

This cool and chunky raptor lives up to the “common” in its name but only on the coast. Watch for it soaring or perched near any coastal habitat but especially areas with coastal forest, including mangroves. This expert crab catcher can also hang out right on the beach.

Crested Caracara

A big bird that flaps around here and there as it searches for carrion and small and easy prey. Deforested lands and drier weather have made this large falcon a common sight even in the Central Valley. Its shape and foraging behavior sort of remind me of the Common Raven.

Yellow-headed Caracara

Another flappy, screechy falcon that thrives on carrion and small, easy prey. This bird is especially common in the Pacific lowlands where it sometimes perches on cattle so it can pick off their ticks or just be up to its own odd caracara devices.

Red-tailed Hawk

Although this bulky Buteo is not as abundant as birds up north and is restricted to the highlands, it soars a lot and is common enough to make it onto this list. As a bonus, resident birds look quite different from the birds of the north.

Broad-winged Hawk

Only in the winter and on migration but worth a mention because during those seasons, this small hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors in Costa Rica. It makes Costa Rica a great place to study the subtleties and traits of Broad-winged Hawks.

These species are the most commonly seen raptors of Costa Rica but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a few more. On account of them being regularly seen in appropriate habitats, honorable mentions must go to Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Swainson’s Hawk (since literally thousands migrate through Costa Rica), Gray-lined Hawk (replaces the Gray Hawk south of Dominical), Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey.

And that’s not all! Quite a few other sharp taloned birds also live in Costa Rica including hawk-eagles, the wily Crane Hawk, the striking White Hawk, and others. To learn more about identifying raptors and sites to see them in Costa Rica, check out this Costa Rica bird finding book. Use the Costa Rica Birds app to study vocalizations and images, and make target lists, and get ready for some truly fantastic birding. As always, I hope to see you here.

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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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4 Months Birding in Costa Rica, 540 Species

In the times of our pandemic, official and personal restrictions have placed a certain degree of boundaries on birding. The view through the window has become a prime channel for bird observation. Backyard birds have been watched far more than at other times, not necessarily because we don’t want to watch the neighborhood woodpeckers, finches or caroling thrushes but because they end up being the only birds we have access to.

It’s nice to have access to this bird.

At least that’s how it’s been for myself and I suspect much the same for many other birders.

In other times, we would have spent more time further afield, travelled to more places, perhaps birded much more with other people. Such a higher frequency of birding options generally results in a higher year list and indeed, in a non-pandemic 2021, I would have probably identified more bird species by this point. However, thanks to occasional guiding in strategic sites, and going birding in Costa Rica when I can, so far, I find my year list surprisingly higher than I had imagined.

After a couple of recent trips to Tortuguero, I am at the edge of 550 species for 2021, here are a few observations about my ongoing year list:

Some Rare and Challenging Species

A fair number of rare and tough species for Costa Rica have found their way onto the list including ducks like Northern Pintail and Cinnamon Teal, Sungrebe, Reddish Egret, Mangrove Cuckoo, White-chinned Swift, Ochraceous Pewee, Tody Motmot, Grasshopper Sparrow, and others. The rarest birds have probably been Ruff and Violet-green Swallow, favorite sightings are many and include from shore Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers and such migrants as Cooper’s Hawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Scarlet Tanager.

Still Missing Quite a Few Common Species

It’s interesting to note that I have yet to hear or see Long-tailed Tyrant, Rufous Motmot, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Royal Flycatcher, and various other bird species hard to miss during visits to Carara National Park and the Caribbean lowlands. With that in mind, I guess the absence of those species from my year list makes sense as I have yet to visit Carara in 2021 and haven’t done much birding in places where these birds are common.

Costa Rica is a True Hotspot for Birding and Biodiversity

A bird list of nearly 550 species from a very limited number of trips (and missing several common species) is a reminder of the incredible birding possible in this small country. In Costa Rica, you don’t need to go far to see a lot and many sites with quality habitat are easily accessible. Know where to go in birding in Costa Rica, stay focused, and you can see literally hundreds of species.

A Fair Chance at Breaking 700

Given the species on my year list and it not even being the end of April, if I can still go birding at the same rate, I should break 700 by the end of the year. Not if strict restrictions suddenly take place and keep me at home for 90% of the time but if I can at least manage key trips to the right places, 700 is in reach. If I can keep up the rate of new birds, I might not even need to visit Durika for Ocellated Crake.

No matter where I end up going birding, or what sort of restrictions take place, I will still be doing a lot more from home. That’s alright, there are birds to see out back but to be honest, after today, I do wonder how many will still be seen. This morning, on the other side of the wall, a crew of guys with saws were diligently cutting back vegetation from the wall. We suppose that’s what the purpose was, to cut back from the wall, perhaps to fulfill some regulation. The terrible part of it was cutting a couple of fairly large trees along with smaller trees that would have played important, precious roles in reforesting an area in desperate need of green space.

Those same trees would have also played some role in carbon sequestration at a time when we damn well need as many trees as possible, need to let trees grow big and old and magnificent. The larger trees were used by many migrant and resident species, the flowering vines on them were constantly visited by butterflies, Blue-vented Hummingbirds, Tennessee Warblers, orioles, even wintering Painted Buntings. I even saw Cerulean Warblers on a few occasions, I saw Golden-winged Warblers there as well. It was where the Merlin perched on a few special mornings, it was where an Olive-sided Flycatcher sallied for insects just last week.

It wasn’t a huge amount of habitat but given the number of birds I saw there (every single morning) and the scant bit of reforestation taking place, I dare say that even that bit of habitat was important. I apologize for going somewhat off topic at the end of this post but when they cut those trees down, knowing what used them, what lived there, it was like losing a vital patch of locally woven life that interconnects the Amazon, Andes, and places to the north. It was seeing important and rare potential, decades, maybe a couple centuries of carbon sequestration being needlessly eliminated. And for what? Too close to the wall. Those trees, you know, they might cause trouble.

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A Day of Productive Birding in Costa Rica

One could argue that any day of birding that includes birds is productive but personal birding success also depends on personal birding goals. Last weekend, in keeping with a Zen mindset (to ward off disappointment), I placed the goal bar on a low, bobwhite level rung. In keeping with secret hidden hope, I ventured into places that upped the odds for uncommon birds.

Our first site was the Ceiba Road near Orotina, a place with odd, open ag. habitats that have become a veritable Patagonia level hotspot for rare birds. Merlin, Northern Harrier, sparrows, even an uber rare for Costa Rica Burrowing Owl (!) have been found at Ceiba. As with other sites that attract odd birds, you bird there with extra careful eyes and ears, you bird with the awareness of rare possibilities. Really, one should bird like that everywhere but in the places where multiple rare birds have occurred, it’s easier to keep an open, focused mind.

Our first stop on the Ceiba road was in a riparian zone and as if on cue, we were greeted by the voice of the northern prairie, the calls of Western Kingbirds. An uncommon bird for Costa Rica, this winter seems to be an especially good one for them. Either that or climate change is pushing them into new areas. Either way, hearing and seeing those quintessential birds was a fine, productive start to the day and one that reminded me of road stops in western Kansas, of walking the wide-open, sun-baked Comanche lands in eastern Colorado.

A WEKI from 2018 in Guanacaste.

Further down the road, careful birding in the open areas turned up some usual suspects and target birds. There goes the hoped for Pearl Kite perched in a high tree! There goes Mourning Doves moving along a distant treeline! That small falcon in the distant haze was an American Kestrel, another one was harassing a pair of Harris’s Hawks.

It was also instructive to study Bronzed and Shiny Cowbirds at close range. Educational yet worrisome to see so many.

Checking the many White-winged Doves failed to reveal any Eurasian Collared-Doves but it’s always nice to be watching birds.

There were several small birds around too, birds like Scrub Euphonia, Blue Grosbeak, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and chipping Yellow Warblers but nothing rare, no lost wood-warblers who should have been gleaning in the breezy palms of the Caribbean.

A birding check of a side road further on turned out to be a good choice when Mary found a Grasshopper Sparrow! We had stopped next to a scrubby field and I was scanning swallows when she mentioned a bird perched on a wire. In Costa Rica, we probably get hundreds of Grasshoppers in the winter but see if you can find them. You will here and there but they aren’t exactly abundant, probably spread out over thousands of acres of pasture and grassy fields.

We had two of them and fantastic looks! The first bird perched so close, we should have had amazing photos; it sat still and refused to move. It would have stayed long enough for a shot too but before we could get the camera ready, it was flushed by the only passerby for miles, an older woman dressed in a green and red outfit that came straight out of the realm of Strawberry Shortcake. She just happened to walk up just at the very moment when we could have taken the picture, right at the exact moment!

Every experience is new and unique, there are no repeats on this shared timeline but how many can say that they missed taking a picture of a Grasshopper Sparrow because it was flushed at just the right moment by someone sort of dressed like a strawberry? And in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica? Like, what are the odds? I’m not complaining, just contemplating the unexpected and reaffirming that life is full of surprises.

We did enjoy wonderful close looks and could see how those pale brown whispers of a bird can so easily vanish into the equally whispering habitat of dry brown grass. The Grasshoper Sparrows were a very productive part of that morning and it wasn’t over yet!

Next stop on the birding train was the point at Puntarenas, a place that always offers a chance at interesting seabirds. Despite a stiff wind that hinted at storm-petrels, scanning from the lighthouse didn’t reveal much more than choppy waters. The birds were out there, though, most just a bit too far for identification.

The intriguing view from the point.

Nevertheless, while scanning the terns, one bird stood out. It was a dark brown bird and flying straight and fast, I thought, “now that has to be a jaeger”. When it veered after a tern and followed its every move, its sea-falcon identification was confirmed and then there was another! The second jaeger had more white on the belly but was the same size and shape. By their tern-pursuing antics, size, shape, and amount of white in the wing, I saw them as Parasitics (aka Arctic Skuas). They perched way out there in the Gulf as people walked past on the sand, oblivious to the drama and scandal stirred up by those high-Arctic visitors.

I was reminded of another productive day some years ago during a BOS trip to the shore of Lake Erie when I saw my first ever jaeger, a Parasitic that burst through our field of view too fast to appreciate. On that day, there were also a few people walking on the sand, oblivious to the drama of migration, of the Sharpies flapping by, of the warblers and Least Flycatchers feeding to keep making their way to Mexico. It’s alright, what is productive for some is of no consequence to others, we all walk our own timelines but if you aren’t watching birds, you don’t know what you are missing!

I wonder what the coming days will bring?

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Costa Rica Birds in Waiting, Guanacaste- 7 Species to Look for Not on the List

How many birds are on the Costa Rica list? Although some sources mention somewhere around 870 or so species, the official list of birds for Costa Rica has 923 species. Why the discrepancy? I’m not entirely sure but part of the difference is surely related to bird species having been steadily confirmed and added to the country list.

While most are vagrants, given changes in habitat, distribution, and populations of various species, it’s not out of the question that there could be more of certain vagrants, and that some “new” species could establish breeding populations.

The official list has grown but believe it or not, there’s room for more! In fact, much more than I had expected. After having looked into the most likely additions for Costa Rica, quite a few more species came to mind than I had imagined (and I never even thought about Orinoco Goose but that’s another story). This post is the first in a series discussing birds that may eventually find themselves on the list and is in conjunction with a separate post written by fellow local birder, Diego Ramirez (aka “Mr. Birder”). He wrote a good post about this theme in Spanish, check out, Las Potenciales Nuevas Especies de Aves para Costa Rica.

Although the occurrence of any of these species would be an occasion of extreme rarity, for various reasons discussed below, all of them are possible. While none of these can be really expected when birding Costa Rica, I feel like it’s better to know about what might occur, to have that information available, than potentially overlooking a country first because a Long-toed Stint was assumed to just be a funny looking Least Sandpiper, or that the Black-headed Gull was a weird Bonaparte’s with a red bill.

This is also why the latest free update for the Costa Rica Birds field guide app includes 68 species that aren’t on the list but could occur (photos used in this post are screenshots from this latest update to the app). Despite such a high number of potential species, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had left out at least 3additional species. Expect those on the next update! Without further ado, the following are some birds to keep an eye out for when birding in Guanacaste (expect shorebirds in a future post!):

Gadwall

Photo by Tony Leukering.
If you think you see a female Mallard in Costa Rica, take a closer look. Photo by Stanley Jones.

Yep, the good old Gadwall. A familiar, svelte species for many birders of North America and the Palearctic, it has yet to fly south to Costa Rica. Given its large population and strong possibility of migrating with other ducks, I believe this species is one of the strongest contenders for being the next addition to the list. The marshes of Palo Verde and nearby sites, the Sandillal Reservoir, and the catfish ponds of Sardinal would all be good places to check.

Spot-tailed Nightjar

Spot-tailed Nightjar by Hector Bottai is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What? Yes and Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean one may have actually seen one in 2003. The Spot-tailed Nightjar is a small nightjar of savannas and other open habitats that has migratory populations in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Where do they go for the winter? No one really knows and it would be very easy for s small, nocturnal bird to go unnoticed during migration, especially if it is silent. Heck, if a few of these inconspicuous nightbirds wintered in Guanacaste, they could also easily go unnoticed.

Guanacaste Hummingbird

No, I’m not making this up, this is one of the names given to a mystery hummingbird known from one old specimen and referred to as, “Amazilia alfaroensis“. Searches have been carried out yet have failed to refind it. Nevertheless, maybe it’s still out there? If you are birding around the Miravalles Volcano or other sites in northern Guanacaste, keep an eye out for any odd-looking Blue-vented Hummingbirds, especially ones that have blue on the crown. Take pictures, if you find one, you will have refound a critically endangered “lost species”.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Photo provded by Alan Schmierer.

This small woodpecker of open habitats could certainly occur at some point in the Upala area. There are sightings of this species from sites near there, just across the border in Nicaragua. If you think you ehar a Downy Woodpecker in that area, it’s very likely a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Pacific Parakeet

Given the propensity for parakeets to wander, group up with other parakeets, and possible sightings in Nicaragua close to the northwestern border with Costa Rica, this species should be looked for. If I get the chance to bird up that way, I would look for flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets and carefully check them for birds with green fronts. Flowering trees might be a good food source, and in the southern esge of its range, the Pacific Parakeet might be partial to mangroves.

Cassin’s Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird by GregTheBusker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This one is a long shot but since one was found in Panama, it could certainly occur in Cost Rica as a very rare migrant vagrant. In other parts of its range, this typical kingbird uses a variety of open habitats, often in grasslands with tall trees. With that in mind, a vagrant Cassin’s Kingbird could show up anywhere in Guanacaste and be easily overlooked as a Tropical Kingbird. I would not be at all surprised if a few have made it to Costa Rica now and then.

Altamira Oriole

Photo provided by John C. Sterling.

This beautiful bird is just waiting to be found. It occurs in Nicaragua fairly close to the border with Costa Rica and lives in a variety of scrubby and dry forest habitats. It could also be very easily overlooked as a Streak-backed or Spot-breasted Oriole. Watch for it at flowering trees near the border, look for orioles that have a small patch of gray on the base of a stout bill and no spots on the breast.

Other possible additions could occur in Guanacaste such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and Virginia’s Warbler. It’s a reminder to take a close look and listen at every bird, you really never know what you might find.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

10 Best Birds from Birding in Costa Rica, 2020

According to the unwritten universal rules of birding, the best birds of the year are always the birds we see. That’s the default and it promotes positive living by placing the focus on appreciation but let’s be honest, yesterday’s House Sparrows just can’t compare with the Evening Grosbeaks of today, or three years ago, or even twenty years back.

Whether by appearance, frequency of occurrence, or personal choice, some birds can’t help but be more exciting than others.

In Costa Rica, thanks to a list of 900 plus species, there’s birds like the White-crested Coquette and lots of other excitement things to choose from.

Each year ends with a fine number of impressive sightings and in 2020, despite driving restrictions and closures, local birders still managed to connect with a healthy assortment of stand-out species. This is no doubt related to higher numbers of local, dedicated birders with cameras who spend more time in the field and thank goodness for that because if not, we would have missed the following best Costa Rica birds of 2020:

Waterfowl- Duck, Duck, Goose!

Sometime in spring, back when the closures were about to happen, Carlos Solano found a country first Red-breasted Merganser in a Caribbean coastal lagoon at the edge of Limon! I did not get a chance to see this major country tick but thankfully, lots of other birders did.

Around the same time, a female, second country record of Hooded Merganser turned up at Lake Arenal! Found by Ever Villegas, the first record in 2010 was a surprise, this second one even more so. With more eyes in the field, hopefully we will be in for more sightings of vagrant piscivorous ducks.

Speaking of other ducks, Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences and CaraCara found a mega rare White-cheeked Pintail this year in the Las Pangas area of southern Costa Rica.

As for the goose, that happened with the recent crazy sighting of an Orinoco Goose on the Tarcoles River. Found by Lori Haskell on a Jose’s Crocodile River Tour boat trip, luckily, the bird has stayed around and been seen by many other birders. I suspect that it’s a local escape but who knows? I hope it sticks around long enough for me to see it too.

Masked Duck

They live in Costa Rica and are seen every year but since I finally connected with this nemesis species in 2020, I have to mention it for personal reasons.

Tahiti Petrels

These cool tropical pelagic species are also regular in Costa Rican waters but I never heard of anyone seeing a flock of them! On a trip to Cocos Island, Serge Arias, Tom Shultz, Shelley Reeves, and others documented several of these petrels along with many other exciting species in a trip organized by Serge. He is organizing more birding trips to Cocos, there might be room!

Ruff (Again)

A Ruff was once again found and seen by several local birders at Las Pangas in southern Costa Rica, and in marshes of the Tempique basin in northern Costa Rica. Could there be more than one individual?

A Ruff from Israel.

Hudsonian Godwit

No, we don’t get this one often! According to information about birds fitted with transmitters, during Hudsonian Godwit migration, most “Hudwits” fly from the rich deltas of western Colombia all the way to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. These power flyers mostly skip over Costa Rica but once in a while, maybe even every year, a few birds make a stop on the Pacific coast of this birdy nation. Birders have to be in the right place at the right time, this year, in May, one was found in mudflats near Paquera.

Gray-hooded Gull

We have very few records for the country but maybe it shows up more often than we realize? In 2020, a Gray-hooded Gull was found by McKoy Umana at Punta Morales. As luck would have it, Mary and I arrived shortly thereafter and had excellent looks at this country mega.

White-crowned Pigeon

With a Caribbean coast, you might expect this species in Costa Rica. But, we since we don’t have any islands on the Caribbean coast, this island-loving pigeon species is a rare find indeed. I suspect it occurs here and there along the coast more often but with so many inaccessible areas to search, the few birds that may be present go unseen. Last year was good for this rarity in Tortuguero as was 2020.

Burrowing Owl!

Not new for the country list but given its century plus absence, without a doubt, bird of the year. Found by Beto Guido and some other, lucky, local birders at an open habitat hotspot near Orotina in early December, it unfortunately was not seen the following day despite 60 or so birders intently searching for it.

Since the owl happened to be found in a spot heavily checked by birders that also looks like many other spots, I figured more are probably around. It could be one or two or even five more birds but since they have huge areas of suitable habitat to choose from, who is going to find them? As luck would have it, an experienced guide did find the same or a different individual at Palo Verde National Park! I bet a few more are out there, I hope we get a chance to look for them.

Gray-headed Piprites

Yes, a resident species but yes, also one of the most difficult and little known birds in Central America. Sites near Rancho Naturalista can be good for it and once in a while, a piprites occurs on the trails of this classic birding eco-lodge. In 2020, a Gray-headed Piprites showed up at Rancho and has been reliable for several months. Several local birders finally connected with this rare species, we sure hope it sticks around!

Savanna Sparrow

A slight, streaked little brown bird might not seem exciting but it’s a rare one for Costa Rica! It look like at least a couple of Savannas were seen at La Ceiba, the same spot as the Burrowing Owl. Once again, thanks to dedicated local birders, especially Beto Guido, this rare bird for Costa Rica was seen by many people.

As with every year (and the unwritten rules of birding), there are lots of honorable mentions. These include the Western Gull at Puntarenas, the Aplomado Falcon from Fortuna, the Palm Warbler seen that same day, the Prairie Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler seen in highland sites of the Central Valley, along with the usual Paint-billed Crakes, Bare-necked Umbrellabirds, cotingas, hawk-eagles, and so much more. I hope you make it to Costa Rica in 2021, let’s look forward to more birds in a more positive year!

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica birding lodges planning birding trip Costa Rica

Where to Kick Off a Costa Rica Birding Trip- Insider Tips

The birding trip has to start somewhere. For many a birder, it begins in an airport, usually a waystop en route to the main show. Sandhill Cranes seen through windows in Orlando, distant crows at Narita airport, pipits flushed from runways in Milan. Such birds are welcome but to be honest, those are the incidentals, the few birds seen on the way to the prime destination.

It’s not until you are finally in-country, officially admitted with a stamp and leave the airport that the main trip truly begins. In Costa Rica, that usually means Black Vultures somewhere above, a Tropical Kingbird here and there, Great-tailed Grackles poking into gutters. Stick around the airport and other birds will appear but there’s no point in wasting time when more bird species are waiting in much more beautiful places.

Upon leaving the airport, we head to the first site, usually a hotel and this is where we can truly kick off a birding trip to Costa Rica. These are my insider tips on where to truly begin the birding:

Close to the Airport

For many, staying near the aiport is what works best. Flying in late after a long day of travel? Believe me, in such situations, it’s better to pick up the rental and head to the hotel than getting the car and driving through the night. I understand the excitement and desire to get into Big Day mode but it’s no fun driving at night in Costa Rica, especially if your personal equation includes such factors as exhaustion, poorly illuminated roads, rain, road conditions, and crazy traffic.

Stay near the airport BUT don’t just stay anywhere, pick a place where you can do some birding on your first morning in Costa Rica. No matter what your plans may be, you might end up doing more birding on that first morning than you had expected.

Further from the Airport?

Is it worth driving far from the airport? As in an hour or more drive? It might be if that works better for the itinerary but once again, it won’t be exactly fun to drive at night, in heavy traffic, or on winding mountain roads. For the first night, to avoid traffic, think twice about lodging towards Heredia, San Jose, and Cartago.

Some Place with Green Space

There are a few places just across the “street” from the Juan Santamaria Airport. They are indeed convenient but they lack green space. To maximize, optimize birding, stay at a place that has access to green space. I’m not talking about gardens either but actual remnants of forest. Gardens are fine but to maximize the birding, maybe catch an owl or two on that first night, your best, closest bet will be Villa San Ignacio or a couple other options a bit further afield.

Villa San Ignacio is ideal because it blends quality habitat with proximity to the airport as well as comfort, security, and excellent cuisine (the bar is pretty darn good too!). Begin the birding there and your first list for Costa Rica might include everything from Gray-headed Chachalacas to Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin and Plain-capped Starthroat. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow might also show…

Not Just a Place to Hang a Hat

A good place to begin a birding trip to Costa Rica is also one that offers more than just a room with a bed. Stay where you can take advantage of time away from home and enjoy delicious cuisine, a dip in the pool, beautiful gardens, and of course wonderful birding because a birding trip doesn’t have to be a constant Big Day. It can also be a relaxing adventure.

Start and End the Trip at the Same Place

If the lodging is close to the airport, has green space, and other amenities, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be the best place to end a trip. You might get in some final birding and can finish your time in Costa Rica as it deserves to end- with celebratory libations and delicious cuisine.

With two vaccines moving towards eventual approval and distribution, now is a good time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Want to know where to stay? Where to go to see certain birds? I would be happy to help. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Roadside Birding in Costa Rica- Many Possibilities, Always Fantastic

We bird in all places. At least those of us who have the birding switch set to “on”, all the time. It’s hard to turn off when it’s an automatic response. It doesn’t matter if the goal is birding or not, if you are really into birds, know what’s out there and yearn to see, to identify the feathered biodiversity that surrounds us, you can’t help but wonder about the calls of Screaming Pihas in films set anywhere, the hawk flying overhead as you rush to work, the sharp calls of woodpeckers and the steady lazy trills of Chipping Sparrows in a cemetery.

A high percentage of incidental birding occurs while we drive, or ride, in cars, buses, on trains. The views are quick and identification of many a small bird impossible but even buses and trains can connect an observant birder with lifers. A train to Arizona gave me my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, a train to Washington my only Sharp-tailed Grouse (!). In Costa Rica, roadside birding is likewise replete with possible lifers, if you stop in the right places, the possibilities are many, and the birding is typically fantastic.

On Sunday, we were treated to incidental and easy-going birding during a trip up and over the mountains in the central part of the country. There are a few routes one can take and each of those has its birding benefits, but on Sunday we opted for the road we usually take. Closer to home, easy to drive, and always easy to bird, you can’t go wrong on Route 126. With literally hundreds of possibilities, a birder knows that any stop can be productive, that the Via Endemica can result in views of pom-pomed Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, of tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds, maybe even a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

On Sunday, we only made a few stops but each was crowned with birds not possible in the backyard. Our first stop after ascending the mountains and crossing the continental saddle that links Poas and Barva was at a place I often visit, the “Esquina de Sabor”. A perfect place for a restroom stop, and to purchase coffee, organic chocolate, and other goodies, habitat out back and across the street always has birds. On Sunday, after stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the jumbling song of a Yellow-bellied Siskin. A scan of the trees and there it was, a beautiful yellow and black male.

Although not uncommon in that area, Sunday’s siskin was a welcome year bird. We didn’t stick around but if we had, we may have eventually listened to the lazy notes of Yellow-winged Vireo, enjoyed the cheerful antics of Collared Redstarts and seen a Purple-throated Mountain-gem flashing its colors at highland flowers.

Heading downhill, towards the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but detour on to the San Rafael road, a byway that accesses cloud forest and the intriguing edge of wilderness in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Our visit was brief but as is typical when birding in good habitat, one sees some birds.

Chips and high-pitched notes vaguely reminiscent of some thrush calls revealed the presence of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. A couple dozen of these glittering orange-bellied beauties were partying in groves of fruiting trees. They were joined by Mountain Thrushes, Common Chlorospingus, colorful Silver-throated Tanagers, and the faint calls of chlorophonias.

A few other birds joined them in a sort of pseudo mixed flock centered around the fruiting trees. As we breathed in the fresh, scented aromas of cloud forest, a female Barred Becard called and briefly showed herself in the foliage. As always, this species is smaller than you expect. A couple of rufous birds creeping up mossy trunks were Ruddy Treerunners, a few with rufous tails and faces, Red-faced Spinetails.

Yellow-thighed Finches also showed their pom-poms, and we were treated to perfectly-lit views of both resident and migrant Red-tailed Hawks.

With roadside cloud forest beckoning to be explored, to wait and see if a Barred Forest-Falcon moves into view, if an antpitta makes a rare decision to reveal itself, we could have stayed and birded for hours. But we had places to be, many miles to cover and so we continued on to our next stop, the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

A classic birding stop, it’s a challenge to drive past this local gem of a site, a test to not stop and see what’s coming to the feeders while enjoying a coffee or a delicious, home-cooked lunch. On Sunday, we had the time to pay a short visit and even during our few minutes of watching still saw several hummingbirds; endemic Coppery-headed Emeralds zipping back and forth, singing hurried songs from adjacent trees. A sprite of a female Green Thorntail carefully feeding. A big flash of purple and white as a Violet Sabrewing fluttered into magnificent view.

The rest of our drive was more focused on arriving than on birds but on the way back, another route gave us more birding opportunities. Taking a back road to the main way between Fortuna and San Ramon, we noticed several sites that merit dawn surveys, places with patches of rainforest that could have Bare-necked Umbrellabird and other rare possibilities.

When we stopped at the Loveat Cafe, warblers and tanagers called from tropical vegetation. As I always do, I scanned the forests of a distant hillside. Nope, no Solitary Eagle today (same as other days but you never know…). No White-Hawk either but closer thermals brought us another year bird, one I always hope to see as we travel the highland roads. Easy to see in the north but decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, right on time, a Cooper’s Hawk soared into view with the Black Vultures. Another year bird during our day of driving!

With numbers of this raptor having increased, I wonder if we can expect more of them in Costa Rica? They seem to prefer highland sites and can also occur in open habitats in the lowlands.

Our next stop was the entrance to the Manuel Brenes Road. Brief looks turned up a small tight flock of Blue-winged Teal before we moved on, hoping to bird an interesting highland wetland known as El Silencio. However, before we could get there, November weather caught up with us and draped the highlands of San Ramon in fog. With such limited visibility and an hour’s drive ahead of us, we opted to focus on driving home. El Silencio could wait for another day, it really deserves a morning of focused birding in any case.

With Costa Rica having opened back up and news of a vaccine being likely available in 2021, this is a good time to plan a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about the birding on the Via Endemica, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and identification tips in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Want to see how many endemics you can find in a day of easy, fantastic birding in Costa Rica? Contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to hear about guided day trips from the San Jose area.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration raptors

Sunday Merlin Surprise

Most mornings, I am out of bed shortly after dawn. In Costa Rica, that translates to the calling time of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Rufous-naped Wrens; somewhere around five-thirty. I do the early thing because that’s when the birds are active, that’s when I can focus on birds from the back balcony and get mentally prepared for the day. This past Sunday, I had a good excuse to wake up later, valid excuses to sleep in and catch up on rest. It was the day after Global Bird (Big) Day (GBD), a day when I had done my part to bird as much as possible.

On GBD, a birder doesn’t need to be awake before dawn so they can listen to the night sky. You don’t have to be out there birding at the break of day, nor keep the birding going, keep on moving when you feel tired. There is no requirement for celebrating a day dedicated to birds and birding but if you roll like me, expect a long one, expect to stay focused on birds just about until you drop. If more birds are what you want, being awake pays off even during the night. Otherwise, I would have missed the calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, that one call of my year Gray-cheeked Thrush (!), the barks of a Mottled Owl.

This past October 17th, although Team Tyto didn’t pull any all nighters or even bird until exhaustion takes over, we still had a long, wonderful day of birding. I’ll probably talk about that some other time or maybe cover it in a post at 10,000 Birds. For now, though, I’ll just mention the Sunday Merlin surprise.

As I was saying, I had a good excuse to sleep in on Sunday but how so during the height of migration? That knowledge of possibilities got me out of bed and to the coffeemaker. It brought me to the back balcony with a cup of high quality Costa Rican brewed fuel in hand. I watched and listened, I didn’t see much, but this was still migration, anything could happen.

Maybe it was time to check the news, eat breakfast. Maybe the birds had taken a day off after starring in the best live reality in town? As I pondered whether to trade watching for practicing a Chen form or some other type of focused exercise, a sudden movement of the avian type brought me back to my birding senses.

Out of nowhere, with a flurry of feathers, a small raptor appeared directly in front of my field of view! Too close and quick for binoculars, much to my good fortune, it immediately landed in the dead tree just out back. Before I realized it, I was watching the bird through optics and could see that it was a young Merlin!

A regular but local migrant in Costa Rica, this was one of the birds I had hoped to chance upon during my mornings at the balcony. If I was going to see one, I figured it would take the form of a small, quick bird zipping overhead. That’s how I usually see this species and I’m sure more than one has flown through my skies while I sat inside, watching the computer screen, unaware of its lethal presence. I never expected a Merlin to land in that tree just out back and even better, it stayed more than long enough to study it at close range and see that it had caught a Blue-and-White Swallow.

One of or many neighborhood Blue-and-White Swallows.
Merlin with swallow.

Although I didn’t actually see it make the catch, I am pretty sure that my year Merlin had caught it right in front of me. It happened that quick. Like the unfortunate swallow, I didn’t see the small falcon make its approach, I had no idea where it came from, I only saw it when it was too late, when it had the swallow in its long sharp claws. I doubt the small bird had suffered, I think it was dead on impact. It had certainly expired when its grim reaper brought it to the tree out back.

As the falcon plucked and ate the swallow, I wondered what other birds it had caught on its voyage here? Which warblers, swallows or other small birds had kept it going, had fueled its trip to my shores, Costa Rica? I remembered the other times I have seen Merlins and before then when I had longed to see one. Since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, to me, raptors were always the coolest of birds. It was simply amazing to see a kestrel in the field near our house in Niagara Falls. A pair sometimes flew out there and called, “killy, killy, killy!” Our beloved neighbor, Frank Paterniti (aka Grandpa Frank), called it a Sparrowhawk.

I don’t know if he would have referred to a Merlin as a Pigeon Hawk, I’m not sure if he knew that bird. I didn’t see one until years later in some other place but on occasion, they were surely nearby. A Merlin from the north was occasionally zipping overhead during migration and in the winter, menacing smaller birds and chasing crows off roofs. Once in an industrial area of Buffalo, I did see one doing just that, it had no need to do so but it didn’t stop until each one of a dozen American Crows had taken flight!

Merlin ponders over which birds to beat up on next…

Seeing the small falcon out back reminded me of the Merlins I eventually saw in boreal places, waiting at the edges of large lakes to catch a siskin or any small bird whose luck had ran out. There was that Merlin that harried a big flock of chickadees at Whitefish Point, it kept at them until it finally did catch one that had ventured a bit too far. I once found a Merlin in summer in the Colorado Rockies, the habitat was like the boreal zone only with big mountains, that bird had surely taken up residence.

The ones I see in Costa Rica mostly fly along the Caribbean Coast, that’s where a birder can espy a dozen or more in a day, where their presence over rainforest decorated with calling toucans is a reminder of the connections between the boreal and the tropical. Our young post GBD Merlin eventually flew off, I wonder where it will spend the winter?