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How to Watch Birds in Costa Rica during an Earthquake

The answer to the title of this post can be found at the end if you don’t want to read about the 7.6 earthquake that happened today. I wrote this about 20 minutes after the quake hit.

I was going to write a post today about listening for nocturnal migrants in Costa Rica but given the circumstances of 9 AM on September 5th, I opted for an earthquake theme. As I write, we don’t have electricity, phone service, or Internet but the battery on this Toshiba laptop works! Every time there is a strong earthquake in Costa Rica, I guess it shakes some wires loss to disrupt any sort of electrical service. This morning, we finally got hit with another strong earthquake. I don’t say “finally” meaning that I was hoping for a plate tectonic jolt. No, I use that “finally” in terms of trepidation, dread, and probability.

Costa Rica is one of the newer land forms on the globe. Unlike the ancient, uplifted Appalachians, the mountains here are maybe 3 or 5 million years old at most and the same dynamics that caused their formation are still going on to a certain degree. Since I am not a geologist, there are probably inaccuracies in what I just wrote but I think readers should get the picture. To sum things up, this place is seismically active. We’ve got a few active volcanoes, others that are sleeping, and dozens, maybe hundreds of fault lines. Sometimes the earth on either side of these big cracks slips or crashes together and the darn ground moves. The closer that deep earth movement is to the surface, the stronger the shaking. This morning, the epicenter was almost as close to the surface as the Cinchona quake a few years ago and the shaking was uncomfortably and disconcertingly long.

As with most quakes I have felt in Costa Rica, it started out as a gentle swaying of the ground back and forth. When it got stronger and the rumbling noises started, I called Miranda to my side, picked her up and went into the backyard. As the ground kept on shaking and we saw the house moving back and forth, I realized that this was at least no 4 or 5 on the Richter scale. It was bigger and when it gets above 5, things can get serious faster than the flight of a White-collared Swift. We heard a few objects crash down, I started to feel a bit dizzy from the swaying of the ground, the neighborhood dogs were barking, and Miranda clung to me in fright. Thankfully, everything calmed back down before any serious damage was done and we got in the car to go to Mirandas pre-k. I told her it was an earthquake. She told me that “the planet was moving!”

Given the strength of the quake, I wasn’t sure if school would still be open or if roads might be blocked by fallen posts. The guard at the gate was pretty frighted and said that he could see the ground moving back and forth and thought that the big, cement, telephone line posts were going to fall down. Thankfully, none of the above occurred, I brought Miranda to school and came back here to a house bereft of the refrigerator hum. On the radio, I heard that the quake was 7.6 on the Richter scale and that its epicenter was in the Nicoya peninsula. No damage reported yet but I will be surprised if that’s the case. I can hear helicopters flying around no doubt to asses damage but wont get the full story until later today or even tomorrow.

Now as far as birding goes during an earthquake, since the shaking doesn’t last too long, the actual quake itself won’t disrupt any birding activity and would actually provide a rare glimpse into bird behavior during a strong quake. Will they fly into the air? Take shelter in trees? Do certain types of bi9rds act differently? I didn’t notice any activity at all but since I wasn’t actively watching birds at the time, those observations might not count for much anyways. If you are in a hotel, I am sure that the employees would guide you to a safe zone and there are signs for that too. If outside, it would be better to be in an open field than standing under the trees. With that in mind, I’m not sure what one should do while birding in a forest! Maybe stand against the trunk of a big, stable tree so as to decrease the chances of being hit by falling branches?

While driving, I would say to pull off to the side of the road except that in Costa Rica, the lack of shoulders and presence of eager ditches makes this a bad idea in many areas. Probably best to stop right where you are in the road and wait it out. I think that the most dangerous places during a quake in Costa Rica are on mountain roads, especially beneath a steep slope due to possible landslides and rock falls. Of course there is little or no time to react but if you can, try to immediately get away from any steeply sloped spots.

Also, be prepared when traveling around Costa Rica by carrying such basic essentials as drinking water, high energy snacks, and a small first aid kit. Really, those should be carried for any type of travel to any country in any case. After all is said and done, though, your chances of even feeling a small earthquake during two or three weeks in Costa Rica aren’t very good. People who live in Costa Rica might feel quakes in the 3-5 Richter scale range a maybe 4 times a year and I haven’t felt a strong one like this since the Cinchona quake three years ago. Since I hadn’t felt any quakes for several months, I wondered if we were in for something strong so I can’t say I’m too surprised that a fairly large earthquake happened this morning. I hope no one was injured. I am also supposed to go on a trip to Laguna del Lagarto on Friday, I hope the roads are open!

The electricity is back on now and reports are coming. Thankfully, no injuries yet but buildings are damaged in many parts of the country, especially near the epicenter where some roofs have collapsed. The hospital in Puntarenas was damaged and subsequently evacuated and most businesses, government ministries, and schools have closed for the day and sent employees and students home. A bunch of aftershocks have also been reported although I haven’t felt any.

By the time I posted this, reports have come in about damage to dozens of buildings and structures in Guanacaste and elsewhere. Two deaths have been reported so far (one a heart attack and the other someone who perished beneath a falling wall), and several roads are closed. Let’s hope it’s nothing worse than that. Given the intensity of the quake, it’s a welcome surprise to hear about so few injuries and deaths.

Costa Rica living earthquakes Introduction

Earthquake January 8, 2009

The upsides of living in a seismically active country are the hot springs and I suppose visiting active volcanoes. The downside is of course the possibility of having your house collapse onto your head or other nasty effects caused by an EARTHQUAKE.

Costa Rica has more fault lines criss-crossing its territory than cracks in a broken sidewalk. At least a few of these fault lines are always up to something; their subterranean movements shaking the ground when you least expect it. Yesterday, some chunk of a tectonic plate moved enough to cause a small earthquake (here called a temblor). It was a gentle shaking back and forth and hardly anyone took notice. Apparently though, that fault line was just getting warmed up for today, stretching a bit before jumping awake with the 6.2 earthquake that occurred around 2 P.M.

My wife and I had just got back from bringing my parents to the airport. I haven’t had a chance to speak with them yet because the phones didn’t work for an hour after the quake. At least their flight was able to leave after a bit of a delay. I was in the very middle of making lunch; chicken patties and plantains in the electric skillet, refried beans in the microwave when the ground began to shake strongly. This was no gentle swaying, no friendly temblor. No, this tinkled the cheap chandeliers that came with the apartment, opened the doors, toppled the neighbors pots and pans, and shook the foundations.

After the surprise segwayed into realization, I ran into the bedroom to find my wife on the bed praying over Miranda. Despite living here her whole life, she was so scared that she didn’t know what to do. I got her to her feet, grabbed Miranda and got us to the front door frame. On the way, I distinctly recall seeing the lights going on and off and everything swaying. Once we got to the door, the quake was almost over. We stayed there for a while in case of strong aftershocks but didn’t feel any at that time (I have while writing this though; several temblores of short duration). At the end of the shaking we lost all electricity and cell phone connections. The streets rang with car alarms, a few people standing around outside of their homes. A woman with 4 children was waiting to use a corner phone; her face was smeared with make-up from sobbing. Ari’s mom arrived shortly thereafter and told us she had electricity so we went to her house to have lunch, our half-cooked lunch food on hold in the electric skillet.

We have been watching and listening to the news ever since. Sadly at least two children died, trapped beneath a landslide. For the most part, though, people were just very frightened. My mother-in-law said it was one of the strongest she has ever felt during her whole life here. Windows broke in some of the taller buildings and there was structural damage near the epicenter; San Pedro de Poas. The road near the La Paz waterfall gardens and Cinchona is severely damaged; one guy said it has disappeared in parts. I’m not sure if the birding cafes at Cinchona were affected- hopefully they are still there. In any case, if you hoped to drive down the road from Varablanca to Cinchona, change your plans because that road will not be opened for a while.

editor’s note: The death toll from the Cinchona earthquake ended up being around 50, including some people I knew from the birding cafes. After more than a year later, the road through Cinchona is still officially closed and the town still abandoned.