It’s the Monday after Global Big Day. I write this as the Grayish Saltators call and a breeze threatens to bring rains and almost find it hard to believe that we birded from midnight until dawn and on through to the next night, from one side of the mountains to the other. From the hot low coastal region up to more than a cool 2,000 meters. A non-stop birdathon, a day dedicated to celebrating birds collectively shared with thousands of birders across the globe and to think that we almost didn’t partake in Global Big Day, 2019. We wanted to, I had a route planned, but Mary’s daughter had exams, she had to study, needed help studying and we also needed someone to watch her.
Nevertheless, thanks to being able to study during the week and family members who were happy to watch her, it all worked out. With enough refreshments, snacks, sandwiches and caffeine drinks on hand to last us through a night and day, Mary and I (aka Team Tyto) were ready to dedicate ourselves to finding as many birds as we could in Costa Rica, on May 4th. Luckily, I even had a chance to sleep during the day before the clock struck midnight. That happened for us somewhere on the road to the Pacific Coast and there was no quick first bird. Only highway and occasional street lights, no luck with roosting birds, nor a serendipitous flyby Barn Owl.
The first of many happened at our first stop, a dusty road in the Pacific lowlands. Common Pauraques took that distinguished title as they called and leaped from the road. No Pacific Screech-Owl though, no other night birds, no faint calls of migrants up there in the dark sky. There was a light rain and that probably kept things extra quiet but we pushed on, eventually picking up shorebirds that roost at salt ponds. As we arrived, the “terlee!” of Black-bellied Plovers echoed over the dark still waters and Black-necked Stilt gave their sharp barking calls. Eventually, by way of brief looks and vocalizations, we picked up several other shorebird species and even Wood Stork before flying through the night to the next stop, the mangroves at Caldera.
A brief stop there was just as quiet but spotlighting paid off with close, perfect looks at a target Northern Potoo! With that excellent addition to our GBD, we continued on towards more humid lands south of Carara National Park, spotlighting roadside wires en route. Despite our efforts, Striped Owl failed to show and Barn Owl never called but we did pick up the faint notes of a Pacific Screech-Owl just before needing to move on to our main birding venue for the day, the Jaco area.
Although it was tempting to start the morning at Cerro Lodge (and that plan might be just as good or better), the combination of forest, edge, and open country birds near Jaco seemed to promise bigger returns. Not mention, our starting point is also very good for owls. At least it was in February and much to our pleasure, it was just as good on May 4th! Tropical Screech-Owls called from the second growth, thick-knees vocalized, and then we heard Mottled, Black-and-white, and Crested Owls calling from the hills. At one point, a flying shape materialized right over our heads and quick work with the flashlight got onto our only Barn Owl of the day!
We had 7 owl species under our belts and the first light of day was quickly approaching; just how you want a Big Day dawn to happen! It came with a cavalcade of bird songs that issued forth from a good combination of habitats. We must have had 50 species by sound alone before actually seeing anything and that included several key species like Great Currasow, Crested Guan, Marbled Wood-Quail, tinamous, woodcreepers, two motmots, Slate-colored Seedeater and others. As the light of day grew, we started picking up more species by sight including a surprise Shiny Cowbird, Giant Cowbird, both tityras and others. At the same time, more birds vocalized giving us five species of trogons among many others!
Whether because of the cloudy weather, time of year, Zen attitude birding or a combination of the above, The Big Day birding was good and it kept getting better.
Just before leaving the Jaco area, a last minute attempt brought in such key species as Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Scrub Greenlet, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. No luck with Upland Sandpiper but well over a 100 species by 7 a.m. was nothing to complain about! Onward we went to Tarcoles before entering Carara National Park at 8 a.m. We added most key waterbirds at Tarcoles and then, just as last year at this time, the park treated us very well with vocalizations from a high percentage of possible species. Green Shrike-Vireo! Streak-chested Antpitta! Dot-winged Antwren and a few dozen others. Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting off the trail! We didn’t get everything and hummingbirds were disturbingly absent but at times, it almost seemed too easy! And that’s just how we want a Big Day because although I welcome challenges in birding, I absolutely treasure and am very grateful for a day when all the birds are calling and making themselves available.
After Carara (where we ran into other teams of GBDers, including the guys who got a mega Gray-hooded Gull!), we went back to Tarcoles, checked a roadside wetland, and made a stop in dry forest. Although the beach was more sand and water than birds, we still picked up a few expected species, got onto Solitary Sandpiper and a couple other shorebirds at the wetland, and connected with several dry forest birds before beginning the two hour drive to highland habitats on Poas.
Thankfully, the driving was also quick, and we even picked up Vaux’s Swift and a few other birds before birding the road to Poas. Thanks to lots of vocalizations and knowing the area quite well, we managed a high percentage of key species in a short amount of time, best of the bunch being Resplendent Quetzal, Wrenthrush, and Yellow-bellied Siskin. As both silky-flycatchers also showed along with several other birds, I mentioned to Mary how good that afternoon would have been for guiding. With more time, I think we would have found 90% of the species that live up there. But, we had run out of time, we had other places to be and so we drove down to Varablanca and Cinchona.
En route, we picked up several more species by call and got some birds at Cinchona. At a stop between Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro, we also found our best bird of the day, a Yellow-winged Tanager! The only one for GBD in Costa Rica, we lucked upon it on the side of the road while also adding Black-throated Wren, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and some other species.
On down the road we went, scoping and adding a Roadside Hawk, American Dipper and some other species before reaching our final main stop, the San Miguel-Socorro road. Thinking that we wouldn’t reach the lowlands in time and knowing that this area harbors a high number of bird species, we focused our final efforts at this site. Broad-billed Motmot, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Cinnamon Becard, Carmiol’s Tanager, and other birds of the Caribbean slope came out to play. Although I have had many more species on other days at this site, we still added a good number of birds especially when a Central American Pygmy-Owl (!) appeared.
A last ditch attempt to reach lower elevations was mostly futile except for a roadside Rufous Motmot ticked from the moving car. Nor did any more owls or other nightbirds call but by 7:45 p.m., I was ready to call it a day. In a small hotel in Puerto Viejo, I submitted our final lists and we tallied the results. We checked it once, we checked it twice, and we were pleased indeed to see that we had surpassed 300 species, 305 species to be exact! Although Mary almost talked me in to heading back out to see if we could find a Green Ibis or that missing Spectacled Owl, no amount of caffeine energy drink could have moved me back into birding action.
But we had more than 300 species (!) and although the guys who had found the gull got the highest bird list for Costa Rica (with 335 species!!), we still ended up with the fourth highest list in the world for Global Big Day, 2019! Although eBird shows us in 14th place, that’s because several of the lists with more species are actually group lists and should therefore be shown in another category.
It was satisfying indeed to finally break 300 species in a day in Costa Rica. Now if I look into that route a bit more, I wonder how much better we could do…