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Costa Rica Still a Hotspot for Birders

Travelers flock to the Central American nation with high hopes of seeing rare and beautiful birds

On an overcast day in the middle of Costa Rica’s green season, the boat floated down the murky Río Frío (cold river) along the border of Nicaragua. Large trees, seemingly pulled from a Dr. Seuss book, lined the waterway, casting shadows along the water’s edge.

This was my first trip to Costa Rica, a 2013 journey to catch sights of as many exotic species as possible. I went into the rainforests, cloud forests and unique water environments like so many other camera-toting tourists. I was looking for a sloth, those adorable, smiley mammals that have become a must-see in this Central American locale. If no sloth were ready available, a caiman alligator would do, maybe even a Baird’s tapir or fer-de-lance snake (at least from a safe distance). I was not naïve enough to think that a jaguar sighting was in the cards.

Resplendent_Quetzal_Costa_Ricaphoto by myheimu, on FlickrBirders travel to Costa Rica to catch sight of the resplendent quetzal and other birds.

However, rather quickly, and especially along the bubbly highway of the Río Frío, I realized that Costa Rica’s bird species are far greater an attraction than anything with four legs or no legs at all. After 10 days of touring, visiting some of the usual jaunts like the area around Arenal Volcano, Monteverde and its cloud forest, and the beachside tranquility of Manuel Antonio, my bird list had grown voluminous. From the resplendent quetzal, a transfixing bird I found in the Monteverde region, to a female anhinga swiveling its neck into an “S” shape on a dead tree up north, the discoveries were relatively easy to find. They were breathtakingly stunning for this inexperienced birder, almost to the point where I wanted to ask the howler monkeys to quiet down so I could focus my eyes on each bird’s plumage.

My new obsession for these winged creatures is an obsession shared by many other travelers. Richard Garrigues, author of The Birds of Costa Rica from Zona Tropical Publications, has been birding since he was 16 and living in suburban New Jersey. He chased his birding dream all the way to Costa Rica, where he’s been living for more than 30 years. “I just happened to stumble into tourism here in Costa Rica,” Garrigues said recently. “Never thought about writing a book either.”

He now leads birding trips in the land of pura vida (pure life, a common Costa Rican saying). It was actually a client of his who first suggested he put together a book of his knowledge. At first, Garrigues was resistant, thinking that an existing field guide already featured “wonderful information,” but he noticed that people would rip out a few pages, namely the color plates from the center, and leave the rest of the weighty tome in the car or hotel. Eventually he teamed up with artist Robert Dean to create a compact, field-friendly illustrated guide.

In his 30 years in Costa Rica, he’s seen the country’s birding and tourism industries grow with much speed. The Costa Rican Tourism Board reports that 633,640 United States tourists arrived in the country in 2004. That number ballooned to 929,402 in 2013.

“It’s a country which is really fortunate to be in the right latitude and the right angle to the prevailing winds, the trade winds, coming in off the Caribbean,” Garrigues said of the prime real estate for the more than 850 bird species in the country. “So you get wet and dry, and then you get high and low.”

It doesn’t hurt that Costa Rica’s dry season occurs when northern tourists are looking to flee the winter months. “People looking for some place warm and sunny to escape their northern winter, it just so happens from December to April is the dry season on the Pacific side of the country,” he said. “So you’re not only going to get sunshine, you’re pretty much guaranteed not to get much rain if you’re on the Pacific side of the country.”

The lowlands and highlands of the country also make for some unique habitats to find a full gamut of bird species. In Garrigues’ 30 years in Costa Rica, the amenities and facilities have been built up, so now previously inaccessible areas are becoming birding destinations. His clients have similarly built up their knowledge and display a variety of interests on what species make their must-see lists. “The big showy birds are always going to be attractive,” he said, referencing the quetzal and macaws. “Lots of hummingbirds and tanagers that are just gorgeous things,” he added.

He’ll also encounter travelers who have done extra homework and want to see a more esoteric specimen, like the ant bird, a grey and brown-colored species that doesn’t always get the same spotlight as, say, a toucan. To see any particular bird, it’s the luck of the draw and the ability of a good tracker to hear the unique songs high in the air.

“I always say you can’t even guarantee a city pigeon in downtown San Jose because the one day you do, they won’t be there,” he said. “You have a good chance of finding the more common birds that you pretty much expect to, and then there are other birds that you don’t expect to see, but you hope to see if everything goes right.”

Benjamin Jones, current director of Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas and alumnus of the Dallas Zoo staff, has joined the birding frenzy in Costa Rica, leading his first trip to the Central American country this past March. The trip, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, traveled a counterclockwise square in Costa Rica, starting in the capital city of San Jose and eventually stopping in such places as Carara National Park and Savegre, a small community in the Talamanca Mountains.

The finds were numerous, everything from great green macaws to kill-billed toucans and emerald toucanets. One site offered a view of more than 20 species of hummingbirds. “A lot of the folks on our trip were really interested in hummingbirds, so that was a knockout,” he said. “We went up into the cloud forests and got an endemic junco way up high, I think maybe the highest point in Costa Rica. … Then we got fiery-throated hummingbirds up there in the cloud forests, too, which was amazing. That’s when we got quetzals, a nesting pair. It was really great to watch them go in and out of the tree trunk.”

This tourism spike in Costa Rica is part of a larger birding resurgence, at least in the United States. Research from the US Forest Service in 2013, completed as part of the Southern Forest Futures Project, states that birding is “very popular in the South, involving 34 percent of the adult population or 27 million people.” Of course, this birding classification can include everything from “watching feeders to pursuing sightings in remote forests or along the coast.” Birding participation grew nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2009.

The range of birders on Jones’ trips varies, much like Garrigues’ experiences. For example, Jones has had the “militant birder” on a trip, alongside a tourist who didn’t even own binoculars. This is par the course for birding trips in general, but especially in Costa Rica where other active pursuits – whitewater rafting, zip lining, caving – are frequent distractions. “On this trip, some folks were just ready at five every morning to go, and others were not that interested in being up every morning at the crack of dawn for birds,” he said.

The best time to see the birds is either at dawn or dusk. “So they sleep all night without feeding, and they are very hungry in the morning because their metabolism is so high,” Jones said. “So that’s when they’re out feeding, and that’s when you see them as a birdwatcher. That’s why they’re so active first thing in the morning. That’s why mornings are great for birds, same thing for evenings. They’re eating up; they’re about to go on an eight-hour fast or so. So that’s when they’re moving. They usually hunker down and rest midday.”

The Costa Rica trip provided Jones with a chance to connect some of the species he sees in Texas, including warblers and flycatchers, with their migratory home south of the border. In Texas, he works in an area known as the “gateway” to the central flyway of migratory birds. Many songbird species in the United States winter in Central America. As they take their flights from northern to southern locales, they often make a pit stop along the Texas coast. “They have the migrants; that’s absolutely for sure,” he said. “They also have an extraordinary group of resident species.”

For Jones, who first fell in love with these winged flyers after viewing a magnificent frigatebird in Mexico, another trip to Costa Rica – that place where the birds he’s been chasing his entire life fly off to for warmer temperatures – may be on the horizon.

John Soltes
John Soltes is an award-winning journalist based in New Jersey. He has previously written about White Nose Syndrome killing of bats across the United States, ambassador wolves, and wild turkeys for for Earth Island Journal.

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