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The El Niño Birds Have Arrived in Costa Rica

It’s official, 2023 is an El Niño year. In other words, the waters of the central Pacific Ocean are warmer than usual and will affect weather in various places. Some regions will be wetter, others will be hot and begging for rain. We don’t know yet how long it will last but the peak might not happen until December.

In birding terms, this weather cycle means that some birds may take advantage of the rains but others will suffer. Sadly, seabirds have a rough time, especially species adapted to cold water, especially the ones that live in the Humboldt Current. Those cold waters off the coast of Peru and Chile are a true marine bio bonanza. I can easily picture the first time I witnessed their avian abundance.

Some years ago, I was traveling by bus in Peru, somewhere along the coast north of Lima, maybe near Lomas de Lachay, an important reserve protecting arid vegetation sustained by coastal fog. The land was incredibly dry and barren but offshore, there were flocks and flocks of birds. Hundreds of Belcher’s and Gray Gulls, wintering Franklin’s Gulls, Inca Terns, Peruvian Boobies, pelicans, and cormorants.

The contrast between life in the desert and in the cold gray waves was astounding. On a trip to the Paracas Peninsula, I got a closer look at the incredible amounts of life supported by the cold currents. As the boat made its way to view cormorant and penguin colonies, I noticed dark areas in the water, long, dark lines below the surface. Looking closer, I could see that they were fish!

There were literally millions of anchovies or some other baitfish, massive numbers of small lead-colored fish that formed living rivers beneath the waves.

These were the building blocks of the huge cormorant colonies offshore, the life support system for penguins, pelicans, larger fish, and, I suppose, most everything out there.

A scene from the Paracas Peninsula in Peru.

But those small fish need cold water and birds can only dive so deep. If the ocean warms up, I’m guessing the anchovies go deeper, head to the cool depths because it’s do that or die. Since this is such a big change to their regular ways, I’m supposing that the fish don’t fare well. For the birds, it’s a disaster.

The boobies and other birds that depend on those and other cold water fish simply don’t have enough food, To cope, they do like the gnus, so like any mobile animal that can’t find enough to eat. They split, and keep on moving until they find enough food to survive.

That basic need brings them far north of their usual range, this year, some as far as 1,586 miles (2 552 kms) to Costa Rica. That’s the distance from Lima to San Jose on a plane. For a bird, the trip is probably similar in length but instead of six boring hours of sudoku in a metal tube, they flap their way over countless waves, always pushing north, looking for cooler waters, joining the other birds of the oceans in their search for accessible baitfish.

Given the current El Nino situation and sightings of Peruvian Boobies from Panama, I figured the odds were good for this and other species reaching Costa Rica. A few days ago, that forecast came to pass when four Peruvian Boobies and a juvenile Inca Tern were found on rocks off of the Osa Peninsula. The arrival of Humboldt-related birds has also been happening in the form of Sooty Shearwaters.

Several of the dark shearwaters have been seen on recent pelagic trips, much more than usual. The sightings are notable but we’ve been hoping for rarer birds to appear on those trips. No dice, though, at least not yet.

With the recent Peruvian Booby sightings in mind, I figured today would be a good day to visit Puntarenas. The port city is the most accessible and reliable hotspot for vagrant seabirds in Costa Rica, all you gotta do it get there and start scanning from the lighthouse, right from the tip. Whether because of the mixing of inner and outer gulf waters or because it sticks straight into the ocean, or a blend of those and other factors, Puntarenas turns up the birds.

You might have to wait a while, you will be offered trips to watch dolphins by a guy a bike, and someone will probably try to sell you something but, if you are diligent, you will also see birds. Watch carefully too because you can see some seriously good birds!

Puntarenas is a place for the unexpected flying in with the usual. It’s all good and the longer you stay, the more you’ll see. This morning, we started our birding in Puntarenas at 7 a.m., scanning calm ocean waters. At first, it seemed dead. Where were the pelicans? What about all of the frigatebirds?! The seeming absence of birds was rather alarming but what could we do? The only thing to do was wait and keep watching and sure enough, the birds eventually showed.

One of the first ones we saw was a surprise young Elegant Tern. I expect the slender-billed birds in winter, not so much in summer. It flew past, we never saw it again and began to see more Royal Terns as other regulars flapped into view; small flocks of White Ibis and egrets flying across the gulf, Mangrove Swallows and Gray-breasted Martins zipping over the waves, and fish action.

Scanning the water, we could see dark patches here and there, baitfish being driven to the surface, some flying clear out of the water in their quest for immediate survival. Sometimes, an enticing larger fin would break the surface, a few Devil Rays jumped, and we had great views of the Bottlenose Dolphins that live in the Gulf of Nicoya.

With the baitfish happening, I still wondered, “Where were the birds?”. Scanning eventually revealed some terns and other birds flying inside the gulf and larger numbers as specks on the horizon. Some birds from the inner gulf flew towards us. A few Sulids….not dark enough to be a Brown Booby…dusky head, white tail….Blue-footed Booby!

A Blue-footed Booby from a few years ago.

We had at least four and that was sweet. I hadn’t seen any for a few years. Scan some more and wait…what’s that? Small black and white football of a bird fluttering and gliding low over the water. Yes! Galapagos Shearwater from shore!

It made its way to the inner gulf and that’s when I noticed a black and white bird floating way out there. I said, “Now that’s an interesting bird, I hope that comes closer!” From a distance, it looked black and white, a pattern sort of like a female frigatebird. The only thing that came to mind was one of those lost Peruvian Boobies but to clinch the identification of such a rarity for Costa Rica, closer looks were needed.

Thankfully, that suspicious black and white bird tired of sitting way out there, eventually took to the air, and made its way towards us. Closer it came and I wondered if it would keep coming and give us a super close, detailed flyby. No dice there but it did fly near enough to clearly see that it had a bright white head, dark back, and looked like some dark marking on the face or throat. No doubt about it, even trying to turn it into something else, I had to admit- Peruvian Booby!

I figured this would be a good year to find one at some point but it’s really nice when a hunch pays off. We watched this Costa Rica El Nino mega make shallow dives into the water and float way out there for at least half an hour but had to leave it to its floating ways so we could scan for other birds.

Heck, there might be a tropicbird nearby, there could be an Inca Tern flying way offshore or a storm-petrel or some other major bird. Further scanning failed to turn up any of those niceties and by 8:30, bird activity quieted down but I did manage to scope one more good bird to top off a memorable morning in Puntarenas. While scoping, I saw a dark shearwater flapping and then gliding but not like a small Galapagos Shearwater. This one was gliding in arcs, was bigger, and had a short tail. Sooty Shearwater!

If we had stayed longer, I bet more birds would have showed up. That’s how the birding in Puntarenas rolls but it would have also taken hours of watching, would have been a really long hot day.

We were happy to settle with four year birds, one of which was a major country tick, and at least three were lifers for Marilen. Back at home, I heard that an incredible 120 Blue-footed Boobies were seen from the ferry from Puntarenas along with two Peruvian Boobies. What’s next? I’m thinking Inca Tern and/or Guanay Cormorant. I can’t wait to go back, meditate on that ocean and see what I find!

Support this blog and get ready for your birding trip with my bird finding book for Costa Rica. I hope to see you here. If you do any seabirding, please tell us what you find!