Any day that involves binoculars and birds is a good one. Even if the only birds you see are common, familiar species, hey, at least you are out there watching them! Even so, it’s extra nice when the day is exceptional, when the birding day treats you to rare, unexpected sights with little effort. That’s how January 23 was for Mary and I and unless we chance upon an extra large eagle in the next 12 months, the bird luck from this particular day will be hard to beat.
Since we had already planned on getting in some birding while stopping at Freddo Fresas and Cinchona, the drive over the mountains would have always been good. When Mary told me that an Aplomado Falcon had been seen in the middle of La Fortuna on January 23rd, though, we suddenly had expectations for a much more exciting trip! This species wanders to Costa Rica pretty much every year but they are few in number and tend to be sporadic. Last year, fortunately, many local birders got onto a young bird that took up residence in San Isidro del General and for all I know, it may still be there. However, since heading over the tall Talamanca Mountains is quite a drive for us, we never made the trip. Therefore, hearing about an Aplomado at La Fortuna and on a day when we were already scheduled to be in that area was welcome news indeed!
I figured we could still drive past Poas and Cinchona and just go to La Fortuna before continuing on to San Carlos. Hopefully the falcon would stick around for at least the morning and en route, we should be able to get an update about the whereabouts of the bird.
Off we went on the morning of the 23rd, our hopes lifted by reports and photos of the falcon taken the same time we left the house. The stop at Freddo Fresas was more to talk to the owners about promoting birding, something they are very much interested in doing, that watching birds. We saw little in the garden but I will give it a thorough morning check within a week and will likely write about finding a roosting screech-owl. Wishful thinking but if the luck from the 23rd continues, I should find an owl, Dusky Nightjar, and a rare warbler in a couple of hours.
As for Cinchona, we actually didn’t even stop. With barbets, hummingbirds, and a stealthy quail-dove possible, not stopping for at least a few minutes would seem to be an odd decision for a birder to make. However, some species take precedence over others and it was the message Mary received somewhere between Freddo Fresas and Varablanca that gave us serious reason to make haste for La Fortuna.
Not only was the falcon still present but so was another mega for Costa Rica, a Palm Warbler! I know, most birders from eastern North America would wonder how “mega” and “Palm Warbler” could be linked in any way or form but one place’s common bird is another’s mega and in Costa Rica, the Palm Warbler is a serious mega. Like the falcon, it also shows just about every year or two but there seem to be very few that can be chased. In classic Patagonia Rest Stop effect fashion, this Palm was discovered by two local birders while they were watching the Aplomado. They also took photos. I know because when I glanced at the image of a Palm Warbler on Mary’s phone while driving on the mountain pass between Poas and Barva Volcanoes, I nearly slammed on the brakes in surprise.
From that moment, our trip suddenly became a drive with just one main destination, the aptly named town of La Fortuna. We could only hope that the place would live up to its name because birds do fly, disappear, and get eaten even on the same day you race to see them. The only way to increase your chances is getting there sooner rather than later so with that in mind, we sped right past Cinchona and kept moving, only making one brief stop to check out some Red-breasted Meadowlarks on the way.
As we drove into La Fortuna, we went into search mode, scanning the tops of buildings and watching the sky for the telltale shape of a large lanky falcon. I wondered if it might be in the tallest spot in town and sure enough, as we approached the town plaza, there was indeed a suspicious lump of a bird perched on the very top of the main church. A quick look through optics confirmed that yes, the Aplomado was still present! Like most reports from Costa Rica, it was a young bird and one that made us think of a cross between a Peregrine and Bat Falcon with a dash of Merlin.
After a few more looks, we had a tense, straightforward drive to the Palm Warbler spot; a small baseball field bordered by trees, a chain link fence, and a small bull ring. Yes, you read that right, perfect Palm Warbler habitat. Luckily, there was a place to park the car and we started pishing in earnest. A Yellow Warbler responded and we scanned the grass. We walked to the corner of the field and glassed a promising brush pile. House Sparrows chipped, a Ruddy Ground-Dove flew into view but not our target bird! I pished some more and wondered if the bird had somehow given us the slip. But during one of those silly bouts of pishing, I was pretty sure that I had heard a dry chip note, one that was not a Yellow nor Chestnut-sided but the likely voice of Mega numero dos. Mary suggested checking the trees again where it had been seen and sure enough, as we approached, I glimpsed a warbler flying up from the ground. After a few seconds of scanning the foliage, yes, there it was in all of its tail wagging distinctive glory, a lovely Palm Warbler and my 807 bird for Costa Rica!
We watched Mega Dos for a few minutes, wondering out loud how we could be so lucky and then went back to the falcon to admire it in that relaxed, post successful twitch mode. The falcon was still on top of the church but it looked restless. It was looking back and forth and having doubtlessly scared all the other birds away, didn’t really have any prey in sight. We watched as it stretched its wings and took to the air, big and lanky, flying higher and higher up towards the circling vultures. The last I saw it, it was way up there, a silhouette kind of like a Mississippi Kite. I hope it comes back, I hope it finds enough pigeons to eat in one trusty spot so more birders can see it. As with any twitch, we would have never known about this nor the warbler if other birders hadn’t found and reported them. Many thanks to Erick Castro and Gerald Pereira for doing just that!