Recently, there have a few twitchworthy birds in Costa Rica. Lesser Black-backed Gull in Tarcoles- second country record, first chasable bird! American Avocet at Ensenada- a very rare vagrant scything the brine for several days! White-eyed Vireo also at Ensenada- rare vagrant, good bird to see in Costa Rica!
All present for more than one day, tempting for the Costa Rica birder, and all very twitchworthy. This past Thursday, temptation had its way and we found ourselves driving to Ensenada Wildlife Refuge. The plan was to see the avocet, maybe even visit the shorebird hotspot at Punta Morales, and keep tabs on the Tarcoles gull situation.
At least that was the plan, here’s what happened, here’s what I learned. Even if you don’t chase vagrant migrants in Costa Rica, the following just might help your regular birding in Costa Rica too.
“Twitchworthiness” Doesn’t Guarantee Anything
When you start following the birding way, it doesn’t take long to learn some hard truths. Among those many birding facts of life, we quickly find that birders like to make a weird hissing noise referred to as “pishing”, that warblers look a lot nicer in spring, and that owls verge on being invisible.
We also learn that just because we think we’ll see a particular bird species, noy an ounce of your confidence and faith will make that bird materialize. Beyond field skills, birding is sort of a game of chance. You can use weather, time of day, and other factors to nudge the odds in your direction but nothing’s guaranteed.
But hey, there are upsides to birding chance! You might find something rare! You might see the unexpected and if you pay attention, you’ll always learn a thing or two.
On our avocet chase, I was reminded that even if the bird was seen one day before, it doesn’t have to be there. Twittering flocks of Western Sandpipers were present. Wilson’s Plovers, yellowlegs, stilts, and other expected shorebirds rested and picked in the mud of Ensenada’s brine pools but nope, no neat bird with the extra fine, upturned beak.
We ran into other birding friends, notable our friends from Birding Experiences but even with more eyes looking and checking every pond, the avocet was no more. Well, we thought, at least we can check for the vireo a la white eyes! We knew just where another guide friend had found it, right where to pish and make pygmy-owl sounds. That little thicket dweller was destined for the birding bag.
But, no, the vireo didn’t want to come out either. I can’t blame it, if two-legged beings were making funny noises at me while the tropical sun baked the land, yeah, I would ignore them too.
Noon isn’t the Best Time for Birding on the Pacific Coast
Yeah, a better time to look for those White-eyed Vireos would have been much earlier in the day. You know, when birds are active and calling because it’s a lot more comfortable when it’s not a stifling, windless 90 plus degrees.
So right, why would we go birding in a natural oven at high noon? Our decision was based on upping the birding odds in our favor. On Thursday, noon was high tide and that there is prime time for shorebirds in Costa Rica. At low tide, most of the sandpipers and plovers forage way out on the mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. They spread out too and many are just too far away to watch.
You gotta visit the shorebird spot at high tide, check the salt pools and other places where they congregate. In keeping with the no-guarantee rule for birding, they might not be at the pools you happen to be checking but hey, what are you gonna do? Stay home and not watch birds instead of being lasered by the long vertical hands of Helios?
Not necessarily! However, you could forget that noon birding stuff and stick to pleasant and productive birding efforts in the morning and late afternoon. You don’t have to stay home either. Like, you could find an ice cream shop or enjoy cold drinks in some shaded place until 3 in the afternoon. I mean, that’s sort of what the birds do anyways…
Slow Ride, Take it Easy…
Another benefit of leaving extra early is avoiding the traffic. You won’t be exempt from bumbling trucks and slow blocky vehicles and other oddities but there won’t be as many. It’ll still be better than driving at other times.
I can’t emphasize enough, on roads in Costa Rica, drive real early or give yourself some extra time! It really is slow going, especially on the highway between Puntarenas and somewhere around Limonal. I suppose at least when you drive slow, you have a better chance of spotting some perched raptor or maybe even finding a Northern Potoo. But please remember to leave that bird searching to the passengers. The driver has to constantly watch for pot holes, bad drivers, and other weird stuff.
Late Afternoon Dining in Puntarenas- a Big Yes!
We did not see the twitchworthy birds, and our extra side trip to the Colorado salt pans added on quite a bit of unexpected driving time but at least we visited Puntarenas!
We got there just in time for a late afternoon meal at the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill. Let me tell you, 4 p.m. could be the best time to visit this small seaside city. From our outdoor seating, we had a beautiful view of the gulf of Nicoya, Franklin’s Gulls picked at the shoreline, and other birds flew by.
While scanning the gulf from my seat, I even saw a distant storm-petrel sp.! Wish I would have had more time to scan for seabirds but we were hungry, we needed a real meal. Along those gastronomic lines, the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill delivered. I very much recommend it and not just because they support sustainable fishing. The food was good and the owner also offers boat trips into the Gulf!
Don’t Do Ensenada as a Day Trip
I used to visit Ensenada and Punta Morales as a day trip from the Central Valley. And yeah, you still could but it’ll just be a longer day than it used to be. Birding time has been reduced by traffic and the roadwork situation to the point where it’s hardly worth it to drive back and forth from that area.
I guess you still could if you left the Central Valley at 4 a.m. but even then, it’ll be a lot more fun and relaxing to bird the coast early and stay somewhere in that area for a night or two, maybe even in Puntarenas or at Ensenada Lodge. That way, you can have plenty of time to check shorebird spot, dry forest, and do seawatching and even boat trips from Puntarenas. There will also be plenty of time for mid-day siestas, cool drinks, and breezy tropical ocean views.
Ensenada, Punta Morales, and other shorebird sites also work well as birding stops as you make your way north to Guanacaste.
On Thursday, we dipped on the avocet and vireo, and we didn’t even try for the gull (which has also gone AWOL). However, we of course still saw other birds (a foraging Gull-billed Tern was a highlight), enjoyed a nice seaside meal, and learned a thing or two. It was also nice to end the birding portion of the day by listening to the rumbling gruff voices of duetting Spectacled Owls near Orotina.
There will always be more birds to chase and as I write, there’s certainly many more birds to find. Time to go look for them! Just not at noon…
To learn more about the birding sites mentioned and prepare for your fantastic birding trip to Costa Rica, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 page site guide ebook for Costa Rica with accurate bird lists, tips for identification, finding birds, and more. I hope to see you here!