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Birding Costa Rica weather

Back From the USA and Recent News from Costa Rica

I apologize for those who have visited this blog and wondered why there wasn’t any new posts. I was visiting family in Niagara Falls, NY for two weeks and just didn’t have enough time to write for the blog. Also, I figured that no one wanted to read about getting a kick out of hearing and seeing common birds of western New York at a blog about Costa Rica. However, now that I’m back in this birdy land, I will start by saying that I hear a Striped Owl calling somewhere in the neighborhood.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this neotropical cousin of the Short-eared Owl was commoner than that other open country species, the Barn Owl. They appear to do alright in just about any open habitat, and at night, you can sometimes see them perched on wires at the edge of parking lots at local big box stores like “Mega Super” or “Hypermas”.

I was also reminded that some birds are getting into post breeding mode when a flock of White-crowned Parrots flew over the house. If you visit at this time of year, you could get some interesting altitudinal migrants that move to lower elevations after breeding. One of these is White-crowned Manakin. Although I have only ever seen females of this species at Quebrada Gonzalez, they count just as much as males and should be there right now. Watch for the grayish head and reddish eyes.

Bellbirds are apparently still calling and easy to see at Monteverde right now, Red-fronted Parrotlet was seen at Tapanti on the Oropendola Trail two weeks ago, and I need to go birding!

On the weather side of things, a week of heavy rains appears to have ended and the forecast is for milder, more predictable weather for the next two weeks. Let’s hope that prediction comes true! Upala and parts of Guanacaste are flooded due to the rains, and there is always the possibility that the residents of Atenas will block the new highway because they are tired of risking their lives in crossing it. They are still awaiting a pedestrian bridge that was promised to them. If it happens to be blocked, just take the old route through San Mateo and Orotina. It will take longer and the road has more curves, but at least it’s scenic!

Oh, and I should also mention that volcanic activity is picking up a bit at Volcan Poas. Geologists have said that people with asthma should avoid visiting the park due to the higher level of gases being emitted by the volcano. The rangers shut down the park if gases get above a certain level in any case. If you can’t go to Poas, there is always Volcan Irazu  with its Volcano Juncos and Timberline Wrens.

So, sorry again for the two week hiatus! Next time, I hope to post some bird photos.

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!

Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip weather

Birding Costa Rica during the 2010 rainy season

September to early December is always a rainy time in Costa Rica but this year is expected to be worse. Although El Nino will be taking a break from wreaking meteorological havoc on the region, we won’t luck out with dry weather like last year because La Nina has decided to show up and throw a massive, celestial pool party. Since her games with Costa Rica will involve dumping 60% more precipitation than usual for this time of year, we wish she would hold the festivities elsewhere. She’s gotta finish what she started however, so I think I better get an industrial-strength umbrella and become accustomed to getting wet. I also need to get used to birding in the rain because I’m not going to let the precipitation keep me from watching birds AND I’ll probably see more anyways!

It’s nice to keep dry but hot, sunny weather really is bad for birding in Costa Rica. Honestly, the birding norm for days with clear skies punctuated by a blazing-hot sun involves a couple hours of morning activity followed by a slooooooowww rest of the day until cloud cover gives some respite from “El Sol”. Raptors tend to fly more often on sunny days but overall, the birds seem to be on strike or influenced by Jimmy Buffet as they snooze for hours in their hidden, bird hammocks.

Sunny weather is much better for butterflies and you can also waltz through the rain forest without experiencing one drop of falling water but it becomes very difficult to see any birds. If you can manage binoculars in one hand and an umbrella in the other while it rains, however, you will see a lot more than on sunny days. Better yet, find a sheltered spot that has nice views of good habitat and scan the vegetation for perched birds, fruiting trees, and flowers. Sooner or later something cool will show up at such food source hotspots and when the rain slows down or stops, your field of view will suddenly be filled with birds that are hopping, flying, singing, and generally going nuts. I recall a day of birding at Tapanti last year when it was like this and bird activity was on the verge of being ridiculous. I mean Black-faced Solitaires were hopping out onto the road, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers were racing through the treetops, Collared Trogons were coming down low and looking at us with curiosity, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle made an appearance….yeah, it was pretty awesome!

Although heavy rains can become a bore (especially when riverbanks overflow and roads get washed out), birding in Costa Rica can still be good and is often more productive than sunny days, especially so when skies are overcast. On days like that, it’s like a birdy morning all day long and even shy things like quail-doves and antpittas are more active. In fact, it’s like that today and I wish I was out birding because as I write this, Melodious Blackbirds, Clay-colored Robins, and Rufous-collared Sparrows are calling just out my window and I bet there’s a lot of other overcast-inspired avian activity going on. I hope it’s like this on Sunday because I plan on birding the Volcan Barva area.

If you are headed to Costa Rica sometime between now and December, my advice is to be prepared for the rain but also to get ready for seeing more birds throughout the day. It’s also a good idea to keep updated on the weather and road conditions (more or less easily done by asking staff at hotels, reading the Tico Times, or watching local, evening news on channels 6,7, or 11). I should also add that the Caribbean Slope is not expected to receive much more rain than usual because La Nina will be carrying out her bucket brigade on the Pacific Slope.

Birding Costa Rica weather

Advantages to birding Costa Rica in the wet season (it’s not 100 degrees)

It’s the wet or rainy season now and as I write, the cloudy sky is dumping its daily downpour that soaks the rich volcanic soils of central Costa Rica and turns the rivers into raging muddy torrents. Believe it or not, despite the dire weather description, this is a great time of the year to bird Costa Rica! Rain usually falls in the afternoon when bird activity is low anyways and mornings are often sunny.

The following are several reasons why you may enjoy birding Costa Rica in June, July, and August rather than during the dry season (January to early April):

  • No Boreal migrants. Although this isn’t a birding boon for non-North Americans, those birders from Canada and the USA won’t have to be concerned that the tiny bird they are straining to see in the canopy is just a Chestnut-sided Warbler, that the little yellow thing in highland brush is actually a Wilson’s Warbler, or that most raptors turn out to be Broad-winged Hawks. At this time of the year, just about every bird is a resident species not likely to occur in North America.
  • Cooler weather than the dry season. It’s still warm and humid in a lot of areas but the frequent cloud cover keeps things comfortably cool. This is especially the case for the Pacific slope where birding during the dry season can be a test of heat endurance. I usually fail this test during the blazing hot dry season but pass it with flying colors during the wet season.
  • Cooler weather than home. Going to the tropics to cool off? Sure, why not! I guarantee that even the hottest areas of Costa Rica won’t be as hot as the heat wave that is presently melting the northeastern USA. Costa Rica doesn’t even get as hot as average American summers and the mountains always have a crisp, cool climate.
  • Cloudy weather=awesome birding. Although cloud cover isn’t the greatest element for bird photography, it’s definitely the best weather for bird activity. The dimmer light conditions and cooler temperatures make birds forget that morning is over and they are active all day long! Really, birding on days like this are the most exciting. Due to overcast weather, on a recent day of guiding near San Ramon, we recorded 127 species!
  • It’s less crowded. There are still a number of tourists around but aside from Manual Antonio National Park, there are fewer people on the trails.
  • Green season rates. Fewer tourists means lower rates for lodging.
  • The July mini dry season. Yes, it is the wet season, but things get slightly drier on the Caribbean slope during July.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid to visit Costa Rica during most of the wet season. The exception is October and November when it can rain non-stop for days. It doesn’t always do that though, and last year was pretty dry so don’t become overconcerned about weather conditions for a birding trip to Costa Rica no matter what time of year you visit.

Birding Costa Rica middle elevations preparing for your trip weather

May, 2010 is a rainy time for birding in Costa Rica

While birders up north are watching  and listening to the myriads of warblers, vireos, thrushes, grosbeaks, and flycatchers that make their way to the hardwood and coniferous forests of their breeding grounds, it’s getting pretty rainy down here for birding in Costa Rica. Since the rains are often restricted to the afternoon, though, all of that falling water doesn’t hinder birding very much.  The effects of the rain on the roads, however, makes it much more difficult to get around.

The road to Guapiles and Limon (route 32) has always been subject to landslides during heavy rains and is closed on and off every year, but that usually happens during the constant rainfall of October and November. I swear, when I was birding Costa Rica in November of 1999, it rained so much on the Caribbean slope that I thought I was going to go crazy. It rained non-stop for literally weeks on end and I only recall three days when it stopped raining during the whole month! It felt like fish were going to just start swimming right through the humid air at any time.

a rainy day for birding Costa Rica on the road through Braulio Carrillo

May usually isn’t too bad, though, and the amount of rain that has fallen has seemed to be pretty much par for the course. However, so much water has been dumped on the mountains of Braulio Carrillo that the highway has suffered several big landslides. It ended up being closed for at least a week nearly a month ago and still hasn’t been fixed!

Well, the highway is open, but the road experts say that too much of the slopes along this important road are still unstable and therefore they close it for the night. This unfortunately makes it difficult and risky to get to Quebrada Gonzalez from San Jose until the road is deemed to be stabilized. On the other hand, if you have a car and are coming from Guapiles (which is closer to Quebrada Gonzalez), you can visit Quebrada Gonzalez no matter what landslides might occur because they happen further up the road near the tunnel. In fact, if a landslide does close the road and you are in the Caribbean lowlands, by all means, you should rush on over to the highway to take advantage of birding right from the road because there won’t be any traffic!

Because there are few places to park and there is a potential for thieves along the highway away from the ranger station, the fantastic forests of Braulio Carrillo are off limits when the road is open. Close the road, though, and you will probably have some of the best Csta Rica birding in your life. If the sun comes out, Black and white Hawk-Eagle and Solitary Eagle are real possibilities, the mixed flocks will be amazing and might hold Sharpbill, you could see Bare-necked Umbrellabird with a flock of aracaris and toucans, and might even get lucky with a flyover of Red-fronted Parrotlets. All of these are also possible at Quebrada Gonzalez but you would be able to cover more territory and have a better chance at seeing soaring raptors from the road. I haven’t been lucky enough to have this chance yet but I hope I do some day!

While the highway is closed, traffic in San Jose gets even worse because most traffic headed to the Caribbean (including big trucks) pass through San Jose on their way to the alternate route to Limon that passes through Turrialba.

As for other problems with natural forces that could hinder your birding trip to Costa Rica this May, 2010, I just saw on the news today that the new highway to Caldera had some problems with huge rocks falling onto the roadway. Some representative for the company that built the road said that this was expected but wasn’t a problem.

Rocks the size of a house potentially squashing a car along with the people inside not a problem? Well, I guess it isn’t a problem if it doesn’t happen to you but since they said this was expected, I will be taking the old road to the Pacific lowlands during prolonged, heavy rain.

Another potential hazard that was announced today was fairly large lava flows at Arenal. They were big enough to close the park although I doubt that anyone was close enough to them to even feel the slightest bit more warm. Tourists in the area are probably thrilled to have the chance at viewing the eruptions. The Arenal area, by the way, is a great area for birding Costa Rica with rarities such as Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Keel-billed Motmot all possible and I would go there whether Arenal was spitting out lava or not because a lot of the good birding isn’t very close to the volcano anyways.

me and the volcano on a rainless day for birding Costa Rica

Rain or not, I am eager to get out and do some Costa Rica birding even if I have to crawl over a landslide (which I actually once did in the Ecuadorian Andes). The migrants will be gone like this Tennessee Warbler,

After a bite of this banana, I am flying back up to the boreal zone!

but local birds such as the angry-looking Common Tody-Flycatcher will be around and are always fun to watch.

Yeah, I'm common..you wanna make something of it?
Costa Rica living Introduction weather

When to visit Costa Rica; not in October

Although Costa Rica is always fun to visit, some months are better than others. Two months to avoid unless you absolutely adore buckets and bathtubs of rain are October and November. October is typically the worst month of the year for rain and I’m not talking about pleasant downpours ot cool you off. No, more like giant faucets in the sky left open for too long that will remind you of a story about Noah the animal lover. The rain itself isn’t so bad (although most locals, my wife included, seem to be afraid of getting wet), but the results are; annual flooding, landslides and closed roads. At least the rest of the year isn’t too bad and I still prefer all this water over a cold, snowy, breaking the ice off your car winter. The frequent rain can be tiresome though. It’s especially bad when a cold front from the north stews like an airborn whirlpool directly above the country. I witnessed one of those temporadas when it rained for nearly all of November, 1999. And I mean nearly all, not just a downpour or two rain each day. No, CONSTANT rain day and night; it just didn’t stop! It let up and now and then to mist but the water kept coming for nearly a month. It was driving me nuts! At least I could escape it by visiting the Pacific slope as the torrents from the sky were limited to the Caribbean slope. In general though, the worst flooding occurs on the Pacific slope. At this moment, much of Parrita near Quepos is under water as are several areas of Guanacaste. The nightly news shows scenes of flooding every along with other related stories such as; 3 people bit by snakes displaced by the rains, closed roads, and various accidents; the worst of which were some poor guy who died along the road up to Monteverde and a couple kids who were crushed by a falling wall while they slept).     

No, October isn’t the best of times to visit Costa Rica. Don’t be fooled by cheap tour packages. I mean, you can still have a good trip but there is an excellent chance that you will have problems getting around and might not be able to visit sites on your itinerary so I think it is worth considering a visit at some other time of the year.  

Here is a link to the Tico Times with english articles about Costa Rica, including the weather. This week’s edition shows someone wading through a flooded area near an oil palm plantation. Since terribly venemous Fer-de-Lance snakes thrive in oil palm plantations, you couldn’t pay me enough to wade through that water!