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Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

A Ferry Trip in Search of El Nino Birds in Costa Rica

It’s 2014 and it looks like the El Nino warm water deal is back in town. This is when the normally cold, nutrient rich water in the eastern (South American) Pacific becomes much warmer and less nutrient rich than normal. The small fish aren’t where they are usually found and the birds and larger fish that feed on them suffer. It’s actually a bit worse than suffering because they sadly perish if they lack the strength to find food elsewhere. Die-offs of boobies and other birds in Peru and Chile show that El Nino is having its sinister effect and yes, some birds are making it north of their usual haunts (Gray Gull and Peruvian Booby have shown up in Panama).

There is a fair chance that those two species and other vagrants are looking for food in Costa Rican waters right now (!). All it takes is someone to find those feathered needles in a watery haystack but given the size of the search area and need for a boat, chances of crossing paths with those El Nino birds are about as small as a lost barnacle. We knew that when myself and some friends took the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry the other day, but that didn’t stop us from watching, waiting, and hoping.

To jump to the end of the story, no, we did not find an Inca Tern, Gray Gull, or other rare visitor to our shores, but we did see some nice seabirds, including more Blue-footed Boobies than normal.

One of the Blue-footed Boobies we saw.

Even before we reached the ferry, scoping the morning waters of the gulf revealed distant flocks of Black Terns and a few unidentified storm-petrels!

Watching from shore.

At 9 AM, we left the dock along with a bunch of people headed to the beaches of Tambor, Montezuma, and other places on the Nicoya Peninsula. While they enjoyed the scenery and drank a few beers, we scanned the water, made odd exclamations like, “There’s a booby!”, and hoped for avian weirdness.

The ferry departs, we watch for birds, and some people watch us.

There weren’t huge numbers of birds on the the way to Paquera, but we still managed several Brown Booby, two Common Terns (hey, they aren’t that common in Costa Rica and it was a year bird), a few Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels, and our first Blue-footed Booby (a distant one on the island). Gulls and other terns, except for a few Royals, were notably absent.

Watching for birds from the boat.

After exiting the ferry in hot Paquera, we just got right back on, found a good spot at the front top deck, and started watching.

We saw these cool fish at Paquera.

Further out, we noticed schooling fish and a lot more Sulid activity than the way to Paquera. We saw quite a few Brown Booby and were happy to see almost the same number of Blue-footeds, some right near the boat!

Check out the schooling fish!
Brown Boobies near the boat.
A Blue-footed Booby takes to the air in front of the ferry.
A flight shot.
Showing the distinctive white spot on the back.

Even better, we got fairly close looks at several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, and a few Black Storm-Petrels zipping over the waves.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

Since we didn’t have any large groups of birds, we decided not to have another ferry ride, and made a quick stop at the Caldera mangroves instead for Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and a glimpsed Mangrove Hummingbird.

While the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry isn’t going to chum or stop for any birds, it is a stable, cheap way to get in a bit of pelagic birding in Costa Rica. Save money by parking the car at Franks Cabins (just down the street from the ferry and 800 colones an hour or 4000 colones for more than 5 hours) instead of putting the vehicle on the ferry ($24 or so each way). I hope I get the chance to do some more ferry birding soon because there is probably a few super good birds out there in the Gulf of Nicoya!