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Birding Costa Rica el nino weather

Heavy rains and landslides in Costa Rica

Despite the grim forecasts back in early October that a ridiculous amount of rainfall was going to drown Costa Rica for the rest of 2010, most of October was downright beautiful! Clear, sunny mornings with acceptable rain in the afternoons seemed to have trumped the weather people. This past Tuesday, however, the rains came back with a  vengeance and the results were tragic as Hurricane Thomas in the Caribbean and a low pressure system in the Pacific combined forces to dump all of October’s expected precipitation in just 48 hours.

It started on Tuesday, didn’t stop until Thursday, rained again for all of Thursday night and appears to have finally let up as I write this on Friday morning. As I was scheduled to guide in the Carara area on Wednesday and Thursday, I witnessed some of this deluge in my attempt to reach the coast on early Wednesday morning. As it had rained for the entire night and was still pouring down at 5 a.m., I left the house wondering if I should just stay home because such heavy rains typically result in landslides.

I figured I would at least drive past Atenas to where I could see into the Pacific Lowlands from an overlook. It was raining hard in the Central Valley but I thought, “Who knows? Maybe the sun would be shining on the coast”. My anxiety grew, however, as I drove on the highway and noticed massive puddles forming on the sides of the road and drainage ditches overflowing with torrents of rushing, clay colored water. At times, I could barely see out the windshield but decided to continue on to Atenas because the rain was a bit lighter once I took the exit to that quaint town at the edge of Central Valley.

As I approached Atenas, I saw a line of stopped cars straight ahead and as I had feared, yes, there was a small landslide blocking the road in both directions. To avoid possibly being stranded somewhere just shy of Atenas, I quickly turned around and drove back through the driving rain to home in Santa Barbara de Heredia. And a good thing too because as it turned out, there were bigger landslides further down the road that I was taking to get to the lowlands. There were also landslides that closed other roads, bridges were washed out, roads near Manuel Antonio were literally destroyed, and worst of all, twenty people were killed and more had their homes destroyed by a mudslide in San Antonio de Escazu.

Although few areas on the Caribbean Slope have been affected, the landslides have left the country in a state of emergency and mourning. Dozens of Ticos have lost their homes in Parrita, Escazu, and Aserri and thousands are without water, electricity, or cell phone use. Visitors to the country over the next two or three weeks could run into problems if traveling to such areas as:

  • Manuel Antonio- Damage to roads and flooding in Parrita.
  • Dominical- No access at the moment.
  • Cerro de la Muerte and the Dota Valley- Landslides have shut down the highway over the mountain.
  • Braulio Carrillo- Landslides have closed the highway.
  • Southwestern Costa Rica including San Vito and the Osa Peninsula- At the moment, only accessible by air.
  • Driving from the Pacific Coast to San Jose or vice versa- Landslides and road damage on all routes.

I suspect that most problems will be fixed by December (as long as we aren’t bombarded with similar amounts of rain in a short span of time), so I doubt that visitors to Costa Rica during the high and dry season will run into too many problems. On a side note, I am scheduled to guide at Irazu tomorrow. No issues have been reported from that area and the rain should stop by today so hopefully it will be sunshine and quetzals for tomorrow morning!

el nino weather

An El Nino year for Costa Rica

In July, meteorogists made the official announcement that El Nino is back for another visit to the Pacific Coast of Latin America. Termed “El Nino” (the child) because this weather phenomenon typically occurs around Christmas (in Latin America, this same term is often used in reference to the arrival of baby Jesus), this is one kid that farmers in Guanacaste, Costa Rica don’t want around. Although the warm waters associated with El Nino bring rains to some areas of South America, Costa Rica typically suffers from droughts in the Pacific Northwest and the Central Valley. Instead of the daily afternoon rains that people are used to and expect at this time of year, the hot, tropical sun beats down upon the zinc roofs day after day. While worried Ticos in the Central Valley have been talking about the dry season that never stopped, farmers in Guanacaste have become frantic as important crops such as rice and beans are lost due to the lack of deperately needed downpours. Farmers in the highlands, though, have benefited from the hot, dry weather. Their crops of potatoes and onions that typically suffer from fungis and molds that proliferate in wet conditions have done very well.

As far as the birds go, I suspect that although populations of most species in the Central Valley and Guanacaste probably won’t have a very successful breeding season, this won’t be very noticeable to the visiting birder as one bad breeding season won’t affect bird populations too much. Although they will unfortunately be stressed, birds might also be easier to watch in the Pacific Northwest as they concentrate around scarce, wet areas. Whereas birds in the dry forest would typically be benefitting from the annual “greening” of the vegetation, with the lack of rains, plants not found in riparian corridors or watered areas such as golf courses or hotel gardens may be too stressed to produce flowers and fruits. This will probably affect frugivores such as trogons, manakins, and bellbirds to the point that we may see some of these as vagrants to other parts of Costa Rica or could see more around hotels planted with fruiting trees.

As opposed to the Pacific Slope, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica has not been affected by El Nino and has actually experienced higher rain than normal. I personally hope that the rains on the other side of the mountains take a break this weekend when I head to Pocosol to co-guide a BCCR trip. Watch for a report about that place! Rarely visited, it has some of the wildest forests on the Caribbean Slope. Although I won’t be surprised if we end up birding from the shelter of the biological station during constant rain, we will still see some good stuff in any case. Lovely Cotinga? Keel-billed Motmot? Tawny-faced Quail? All of these occur there although now that I have mentioned them, I have assured that I won’t see them. Well, maybe someone else in the group will.

For birders who decided to risk a visit during normally rainy October and November, they are in luck because the El Nino of 2009 is expected to last until 2010 with lighter rain than normal during those normally extremely wet months.