By Julie Brown
HMANA sponsored a very successful birding and hawkwatching tour to Costa Rica, October 15-24, 2010. On this tour, we journeyed through the country exploring the Central foothills and highlands, Caribbean lowlands and the Pacific slope rainforest and dry forests. It was 10 glorious days full of colorful birds, beautiful rainforest and coastal landscapes, a lot of laughs, authentic cuisine, good coffee, and plenty of birds.
Overall our group saw or heard an amazing 393 species of birds on our tour, nearly half the species in Costa Rica! Among those were 31 species of raptors, 26 hummingbirds, 21 antbirds, 35 flycatchers, 29 warblers and 30 tanager species. How was it that we managed to see or hear so many species? The answer is simple – we birded a diverse cross-section of the country’s varied habitats, and our guides were stellar. Aside from my husband, Phil our assistant guide, and me, our main Costa Rican guide was Daniel Martínez, coordinator of the Kèköldi Hawkwatch and Bird Monitoring Program. Daniel’s enthusiasm, fantastic knowledge of the country’s birds and ability to mimic and call in so many different species was a gift to our group’s birding adventure. He often had us up at 4am, calling in Great Potoos and Paraques, and out after 10pm hooting for Mottled Owls and searching for snakes and tree frogs.
And then there was Niño. In general, I don’t think too many people remember their tour bus drivers. Well, Marcos (Niño) Morales was unforgettable. Niño had some of the best eyes and ears in our group. Whether it was spotting four Resplendent Quetzels feeding in an avocado tree at 50mph on the road to Volcan Irazu, or singling out a green honeycreeper in the thick green canopy 100ft above our heads, Niño was always there, with his gentle spirit and incessant smile, finding us one more bird for the day while keeping us safe and comfortable. And if that wasn’t enough, we had the pleasure of having Richard Garrigues, author of The Birds of Costa Rica join us as our main guide for the last leg of our tour. Having Richard’s expertise and knowledge of the Pacific coastal lowlands was a tremendous resource to our group, and participants learned more about the local ecology with his insights.
Of the seven participants and all the guides, I think we would all agree that the grandest part of the tour was spending two days at the Kèköldi Hawkwatch inside the Kèköldi Indigenous Reserve on the Caribbean slope. Kèköldi, one of the few sites in the world with over two million migrating raptors per fall, it also maintains the highest season count for Peregrine Falcons in the world (they average 2031 Peregrines/year with the record high of 3,219 counted in 2004). Counts at Kèköldi began in 2000 and are conducted by a team of international volunteers. HMANA is currently working with the site to organize their spring and fall data so it can be added to the HawkCount.org database.
Visiting Kèköldi in mid-October offered a chance to see a diverse mix of raptor and non-raptor migrants passing through the reserve. Most abundant were the Turkey Vultures passing in hundreds of thousands. Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks were also passing in the thousands, with occasional Mississippi Kites, Ospreys and Peregrines mixed in. Once reaching the tower after a long muddy hike, tour participants shifted binoculars from kettle to kettle and stream to stream, trying to take in the sheer magnitude of the movement. Counters Mark DeDina from the US, Carmela Marrese from Canada, and Duaro Mayorga, a Kèköldi local, had their hands full, furiously clicking their “clickers” (used to tally large volumes and multiple species) as the birds poured by. It was refreshing for me to return to Kèköldi as a visitor – not a counter as in past years – and to just relax and enjoy the spectacle of migration.
The skies over Kèköldi were also full of Chimney Swifts and various swallow species that swept past in the thousands. Other local highlights here were Short-tailed Hawk, King Vulture, Black Hawk-Eagle and various forest falcons. During our brief time spent on the Caribbean coast, an amazing total of 207,900 raptors and vultures were tallied!
Here is an excerpt from tour participant Carl Howard’s journal that captures our Caribbean slope experience nicely…
“Despite a drizzle, Liz, Elaine, Phil, Julie and I walked to the beach and swam in the warm Caribbean. I swam straight out. When I finally stopped, I lay on my back enjoying being tossed around like the totally irrelevant mass of protoplasm that I am when out alone in Nature (at least that’s the only time I’m content to admit to such lowly status). I swam back toward shore where the others were lying on their backs in the water saying ‘look at all those raptors!’ Squinting up I saw nothing w/out my glasses. I ran out and got my glasses and took my place on my back w/ the others floating atop the waves and there above us was an immense kettle of thousands of raptors. Thousands more streamed toward the kettle directly above us. We lay there in the warm water until the top of the kettle streamed out. I counted 1,600 Turkey Vultures with another 1,000 or more still kettling and streaming in. It was late in the day and the birds were losing altitude, getting ready to roost nearby. It was a magical experience”.
Heading to the cool central highlands after a few days in the steamy Caribbean was a welcomed change for our group. We explored highland trails and soaked in the great variety of species like Snowcap, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and Immaculate Antbird and enjoyed kicking back on the lodge back porch, drinking coffee and watching the 10+species of hummingbirds, with a view of smoldering Poas Volcano in the background. We had very productive stop at Volcan Irazu, where we saw many of the quintessential high-elevation specialties like Volcano Junco, Volcano Hummingbird, Sooty Thrush, Flame-throated Warbler, and Slaty Flowerpiercer.
We concluded our tour on the lovely Pacific coast, complete with its own unique habitat and species diversity. We looked down on large American Crocodiles from the Tarcoles River Bridge, ventured deep into a mangrove swamp by boat in search of the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird and other mangrove specialists like Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Mangrove Vireo, and Mangrove race of the Yellow Warbler, and we took in the dry forest and its associated species on the last day en route back to San Jose.
Thank you to all who made HMANA’s Costa Rica Tour such a great success. With your participation, we hope to run it again in coming years.
Raptor Species List from HMANA’s Costa Rica Tour
Common Black Hawk
Black Hawk Eagle
Ornate Hawk Eagle