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Birding Costa Rica

708 Species Identified in Costa Rica on Global Big Day, May 8, 2021

This past Saturday, Global Big Day (GBD) 2021 happened. Unlike pre-pandemic GBDs, this big birding day was potentially limited by driving restrictions and other measures meant to slow the spread. In some countries, birding was somewhat sidelined by tragedy in the form of instability and a massive rise in cases. It can be hard to watch birds when you don’t feel safe, feel outrage, or when you or loved ones are suffering from a terrible disease. On the other hand, birding can also act as an escape, a mental salve for temporary yet needed and real healing to get you back on track, give you strength to keep on moving (yellow is the color of sun rays…).

Despite some driving restrictions in Costa Rica, the local birding community kept on moving and kept up with local GBD tradition to surpass 700 species. 708 to be exact! It wouldn’t have happened if the local birding collective had not reached most corners of the country, had not made a serious team effort to find and count key rare birds.

Those would be birds like the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, a denizen of cold dark high mountain nights. This tropical cousin of the Northern Saw-whet Owl made it onto the list because someone spent nocturnal time up there in he mountains to hear one call. Local and rare bird like Sharpbill, Lovely Cotinga, various crakes, Lanceolated Monklet, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and other species also made it onto the day list because various people focused their birding in just the right places.

Although around 20 possible species were still missing from the list (mostly very rare or local species like Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle, Speckled Mourner, and Black-crowned Antpitta), we still ended up with a high percentage of birds likely to occur in Costa Rica at this time of year. Once again, it shows what can be found, what can be seen when you get hundreds of people outside and birding on the same day. It shows how rich Costa Rica is in terms of avian diversity, how incredible the birding in Costa Rica can be.

As for Mary and I, we were fortunate to be healthy and able to head further into the field on this past GBD than the previous year. Really, “the field” just means birding away from home and although we didn’t try for any major Big Day madness, didn’t go for any 300 species bird focused trip, we still managed to escape and celebrate with some memorable birding. That’s par for the course. This is Costa Rica after all.

During our somewhat casual GBD, we started with early morning birding from the back balcony, listening for and recording expected regular species like White-eared Ground Sparrow, Crested Bobwhite, Ringed Kingfisher, and other species from the riparian zone out back. After submitting that first list, we made our way to the Pacific Coast to look for shorebirds, see if we could connect with a Savannah Sparrow that had been seen a few days before, and just see whatever else we might find.

Stops near Carara gave up various moist and humid forest species including Long-tailed Manakin, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and Gray-capped Flycatcher. If we had stayed longer, we would have seen and heard much more than 30 or so species but we didn’t want to linger. We wanted to explore the Playa Hermosa area, see if a sparrow might jump into view.

Over at Playa Hermosa, we saw far more surfers than any sparrows but leaping Mobula Rays were cool! We also saw birds- tiger-herons and other waterbirds in the wetlands of the Playa Hermosa Wildlife Refuge, more Groove-billed Anis than you could shake a stick at, a Laughing Falcon focused on looking for its serpent prey, and other birds here and there. No sparrow but any time near the ocean is much appreciated.

An ocean view just outside of Jaco.

Next on the site list for our casual GBD was the Jaco wetlands. These are a series of wetlands just outside of Jaco that always host an interesting set of birds. Maybe not as many in the hot mid morning hours of our visit but that’s quiet time for tropical birding no matter where you go. Even so, we still saw birds, still heard and saw some choice species. The best was a sweet surprise Paint-billed Crake that happened to give its diagnostic call just as we stopped next to a ditch!

We waited with camera in hand, wished it to walk into view, even if for a moment but had to settle on it being a heard only bird. I can’t blame the crake. I mean, if I was a small bird that could either (1) hide in the grass and keep my feet cool or (2) walk into a sunny opening where any number of raptors could swoop on down for an easy kill…yeah, I would stay in the ditch too.

From Jaco, we drove a ways up the coast to our next main stop, the salt ponds at Punta Morales.

Birding this hot lowland site at noon can be chancy for connecting with the birds. Even if the visit does coincide with high tide (high tide floods the mud flats of the adjacent Gulf of Nicoya and drives the birds to salt and shrimp ponds), the birds might be elsewhere. Luckily, upon arrival to the salt ponds we were fortunate to be treated to the welcome sight of shorebirds and terns resting on the berms.

It didn’t take long to scan and see that several were Black Skimmers and that the majority of species were Whimbrels, Black-bellied Plovers, and Marbled Godwits. Among them were some Willets, a scattering of Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers, and some other species. It was some hot lowland heat scanning bereft of getting lucky with a Hudsonian Godwit or other rarity but it was still worth being there.

We ended up seeing what was probably the only Stilt Sandpiper for Costa Rica’s GBD list, saw a Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and added some other dry forest species to our day list before driving back towards home. Since one or two choice birding spots were on the route back, well, we couldn’t not bird there. At least not on the Ceiba-Orotina road.

A mix of open fields, dry forest, and scattered trees, this is an excellent area for odd birds to occur. Our casual birding turned up a pair of Harriss’s Hawks, another Crested Bobwhite, many Turquoise-browed Motmots, and 3 species of cowbirds among various other dry forest species. No amount of scanning revealed any Upland Sandpipers, nor could we parse out a Eurasian Collared Dove among the many White-winged Doves but the other birds were nice.

After that final stop, we drove straight back home. We were happy to have participated with thousands of other global birders on a day dedicated to birding that identified more than 7,000 species, happy to not have had to drink any Red Bull, and look forward to a GBD when we just might have to drink Red Bull to keep on moving during 20 hours of record breaking birding. Until then, stay healthy, be happy, and consider visiting Costa Rica for birding.