Like most bird counts, Christmas counts included, Dieter Holdt and I started the day so darn early that it was the middle of the night. This strange behavior is fairly typical of birders on count days. Be it a Big Day, Bird Race or Christmas Count, the more gung-ho (read psycho) birders take advantage of the midnight start time to listen for Nightjars, Owls, Rails and maybe disturb some poor sleeping bird with a bright light and excited whispers. In our case, we weren’t even looking for birds; we had to meet other Carara Christmas Counters at 4:30 A.M. Since we both live in the Central Valley, this meant a 2 hour drive down to the Pacific coast. At least night driving in Costa Rica is maybe 1,000 times better than during the day. Although drunk drivers might be a significant factor (and we saw one), traffic is more or less non-existent. This is in extreme contrast to day driving when the roads are clogged with honking cars, motorcycles zipping by and slow, behemoth trucks that reduce your average speed to about 20 miles per hour.
On the night of the count, driving was particularly nice with a full moon lighting up the roadways and painting the jade vegetation silver as we twisted and turned past the towns of Atenas and San Mateo. At one point we actually did look for a bird. This was in Orotina where a resident pair of Black and White Owls amazingly resides in the central plaza. During our plaza drive-by, though, Owls were replaced by a few drunken night people. Continuing on, before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination an hour before the meeting time- on a side note, if you drive at night in Costa Rica, you can probably cut off at least a third of your driving time.
We rested in the car for close to an hour until fellow counters arrived. After meeting up with the two other members of our group and getting our boxed (plastic bagged) lunches, we drove to our morning territory; the river or Vigilancia Trail. This trail/road/rainy-season mud-bath, accesses gallery forest, second growth, an oxbow lake before eventually reaching upland, primary rain forest. The variety of habitats combined with accessibility and ease of walking make it one of the best birding spots in Central America. It is one of those places where the birding seems to always be good and our day was no exception.
Our first species were typical of the pre-dawn lowland rain forest chorus; Pauraque from a nearby clearing, a mournful Collared Forest Forest-Falcon and Woodcreepers trilling and whistling into the dusky air. As we slowly made our way to our first and principal stop on the trail, other species were added to the list one after another, all by their vocalizations; Great and Little Tinamous, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Pale-billed Woodpeckers double-knocking, Mealy Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets overhead, Spectacled Antpitta, Black-faced Anthrush, Chestnut-backed and Dusky Antbirds, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes, several Flycatchers, Grey-headed Tanagers and so on.
Dieter, Maria and Nestor looking for birds.
Our main stop was the best Christmas tree a birder could ask for; an immense fig tree in fruit. Adorned with palatable ornaments of its own device, it was busy with over 20 species of birds. The umbrella-like crown of the tree was so high up that we found birds by scanning with our binoculars. You could look with bins at almost any part of the tree and pick out at least one bird perched or feeding. Watching this incredible tree was surreal; three Trogon species looked as if they were in a feeding frenzy as they flew back and forth beneath the umbrella-like canopy, Kiskadees called and sallied for figs, even a few Long-tailed Manakins appeared now and then to snatch a fig. The strangest bird of all was a Band-tailed Pigeon, a species typically found at much higher elevations. Although we did not see the Turquoise and Yellow-billed Cotingas we had hoped for, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two had shown up and we just missed them because the tree was so big.
Looking up into the amazing fig; I am the one styling with boots with shorts.
After a couple of hours at the fig we noticed fewer fruits and fewer birds and so continued on down the trail trying to keep track of the birds we were constantly hearing and seeing. We picked up Ruddy Quail Dove (always a good spot for this terrestrial species), Gray-fronted Dove, flyby Wood Storks and a Great Blue Heron, Blue-throated Goldentail, Purple-crowned Fairy, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and so on. Some of the more common species were Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Orange-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, and several Wren species. Carara is a great example of Wren diversity by the way. We saw 7 species along that trail, most common being Black-bellied, Rufous and White and Riverside.
Eventually we reached the oxbow lake. This was the perfect spot for a mid-morning rest.
We watched a few crocodiles
and counted various widespread waterbirds including 4 Black-necked Stilts and several Boat-billed Herons that roosted in nearby trees. We also picked up Prothonotary Warbler and Ringed and Green Kingfishers. A bit further on was beautiful upland primary forest. We heard a few Rufous Pihas there and saw more of the same. Being midday, it was pretty quiet in the upland forest. If you are there at dawn, I am sure it is a whole other matter.
At that time, we made our way back up the trail, hanging out at the fig tree to get better looks at Long-tailed Manakin and hope for Cotingas. Although no Cotingas showed, we picked up one of our target birds along the way; Royal Flycatcher. This trail is a very reliable spot for this species.
We munched our bagged lunches of bread, cheese, fruit and crackers and wished we had slept longer the night before even though that would have broken the big day and Christmas count traditions of feeling exhausted most of the time. Since one of our count group forgot his bagged lunch, we drove to the nearby Guacimo soda so he could refuel. This was about 5 minutes from the Tarcol bridge, on the right side of the highway heading towards San Jose. The change in habitats is amazing; as soon as you cross the bridge, you enter into drier habitat which holds many species not found in the humid forests of Carara. The Guacimo had a nice overlook and we picked up a few new birds here.
From the soda, we continued up the highway towards San Jose taking a right at the next intersection for our afternoon territory. This area is called Sandillal and accesses much drier, grassy fields, and good moist forest before reaching the Tarcol river. We continued to get new species along this road. Best were Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendolas (both uncommon birds around Carara) and Gray-headed Kite. We also had excellent Hummingbird activity at flowering Ingas. Dozens of Hummingbirds of 8 species were buzzing around these trees. The most common Hummingbird species on the dry side of the bridge were Steely-vented, Green-breasted Mango, Ruby-throated and Rufous-tailed. Our best Hummingbird species were White-necked Jacobin and Plain-capped Starthroat.
Down at the river we picked up a Snowy Egret and Gray Hawk but not much else so we sped over to the Tarcol river bridge hoping for flyovers of something new.
The Tarcol bridge.
We saw a few Macaws in the distance but very little flying over the bridge itself. Nevertheless, we managed to scope a distant Common Black Hawk, get our Spotted Sandpiper, and our only Cherries Tanagers and Grayish Saltators. By this time, it was 5 PM and we were more than exhausted enough to call it a day. We headed back to our lodging (dormitories in the park) and rested up before driving over to dinner provided by the Crocodile tour. This is another nice thing about some of these Costa Rican Christmas counts; the organizers do an excellent job of not only planning out routes but also getting local businesses involved to the point of providing food and a tee-shirt.
At dinner we caught up with other counters and found out that our team probably got the highest species total with 151 species. This is also the most I have recorded in one day in Costa Rica; a total I hope to soundly top with a Big Day possibly in 2009. Although our Yellow-billed Cotinga never showed at the amazing fruiting fig, another team got one female in the mangroves. The mangrove team also got the best bird; Nashville Warbler! A common species further north, this is a very rare vagrant in Costa Rica. Although the photos weren’t the best, they looked pretty convincing as were their descriptions. I think its no wonder this bird showed up in mangroves since a migrant at the periphery of its range is likely to be a juvenile that ends up using substandard habitat; mangroves being substandard for many Warbler species. I am still waiting for the final total for all teams but expect it to get close to or top 300 species as several shorebirds were recorded and a variety of cloud forest species from higher elevations that fell into the count circle.
After a night of much needed rest, Dieter and I birded the primary forest of Carara. This forest is just fantastic; giant trees that soar above a thin understory making it easy to see understory birds, clear streams, and of course lots of good birding. Over the course of an hour on the trails, some of the better species we saw (and typical of Carara) were: a few Crested Guans, Scarlet Macaws, White-necked Puffbird, Spectacled Antpitta (possibly the easiest spot to see this species), Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a likely lump with Spot-throated Woodcreeper), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Rufous Piha.
After excellent forest birding, we drove to Tarcoles in search of wetlands and associated bird species. Along the road into Tarcoles, we had close looks at a pair of Yellow-naped Parrots and eventually found our waterbirds somewhere between Tarcol village and the Crocodile tour. The birds were in the flooded portion of someone’s backyard and this temporary pond must have been filled with aquatic goodies because there were..
at least a dozen White Ibis,
and Bare-throated Tiger Herons.
Further on, we took a left near the crocodile tour to head towards the beach. This section of road passes through more wetlands and mangroves before reaching the beach. We saw little in the wetlands and mangroves but had several new species on the beach such as hunting Ospreys, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, and many Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There were also a good number of birds perched on sandbars at the mouth of the Tarcol river. Unfortunately, we couldn’t check them out because it was time for us to head back to San Jose and we still wanted to stop in Orotina.
The beach near Tarcoles.
At Orotina, we walked through the plaza checking the trees for the local Black and White Owls. As per usual, the plaza was busy with all sorts of people and as on other occasions, I could not find the Owls until the local ice cream vendor pointed them out. On this day, we only saw one of the Owls and it was roosting in a fairly open tree at the edge of the park. If the ice-cream guy isn’t there, check for white-wash as there was plenty under the owl’s perch on that day.
With Black and White Owl under our belts and 168 other species in just a bit more than one day of birding, we felt more than satisfied as we drove back up to the White-winged Doves and Tropical Kingbirds of the central valley. As always, I can’t wait to get back to Carara.