San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Birds of a Feather: Avian Migration Under Way

THEY’RE back. Long before “snowbirds”arrive to escape the rigors of northernwinters, migrant birds begin arrivingone by one, in flocks and in massivecolumns. Many have already arrived, butmore are still making their way and all arespreading out through the country.Beginning in August and usually peakingin October, these feathered visitorsswell the ranks of Costa Rican residentspecies by 222, according to Julio Sánchez,curator of birds for San José’s NationalMuseum.If you’ve noticed increased bird activityin your garden, it’s partially owing to thearrival of these migrants. After journeys ofthousands of miles, these birds are hungryand have to make up for lost feeding time.Although most people think of birds’southerly migrations as an escape from thewinter cold, it’s really more a matter ofdwindling food supplies – insects, seedsand fruits – up north.This year, of course, the wingedmigrants have had to contend with anunusual number of hurricanes in theCaribbean and Gulf of Mexico, two majorflight paths. Ornithological AssociationPresident Willy Alfaro says some of themigrants are a little late arriving this year.“All these hurricanes are having aneffect on some of the later migrants, especiallywarblers and Baltimore orioles,”Alfaro says.WARBLERS lead the way in terms ofnumber of species and individuals, followedby flycatchers, swallows, thrushes,vireos, tanagers and orioles. Some of thevisiting warblers have names that giveaway their northerly provenance: Kentuckywarbler, Tennessee warbler, Canadawarbler.Yellow is the predominant color inwarbler plumage, ranging from the palelemon of the female yellow warbler to thefluorescent sulfur of the prothonotary warbler.But visiting warblers also displayother eye-catching colors, such as theprison stripes of the black-and-white warblerand the Blackburnian’s orange and between the Talamanca Mountains and thesea. From an observation platform in theKekoldi Indigenous Reserve near Cahuita,on the southern Caribbean coast, researchersmay count as many as 200,000individual birds a day during peak times.Many of these raptors are just passingthrough en route to South America.On the other coast, tourists aren’t theonly ones flocking to the beaches. Migrantshore birds, including sandpipers and plovers,are the early birds here, appearing inearly August on the Pacific coast, especiallyaround the Gulf of Nicoya, and munchingtheir way through abundant vegetationuntil they head north again around May.According to Alexander Skutch andGary Stiles in “A Guide to the Birds ofCosta Rica,” many of these long-distancemigrants actually spend more than half theyear here in their “winter” – but CostaRica’s “summer” – homes. So they “arerightly regarded not as northern birds thatcome south to escape winter’s dearth, butas tropical birds who go north to breed.”Many of the migrating birds do, in fact,belong to Neotropical families.NO matter where they originate, themigrants enhance Costa Rica’s reputationas a birders’ mecca, especially fromOctober to April or May, when the wingedvisitors start to head back north to breedand nest. Since most binocular-totingtourists won’t arrive here until afterChristmas, this is the best time for residentsand locals, especially in the CentralValley and on the Caribbean coast, to getout and enjoy watching these birds.As long as you’re up and out early –when birds are most active anyway – youdon’t need to worry about the afternoonrains. In fact, more rain in the afternoonsmeans birds are hungrier the next morningand will be out feeding, according toMonteverde-based bird expert Robert Dean.More rain also means more insects to eat.So get out and enjoy the winged migrationin person. All you need are a pair ofbinoculars, rubber boots and a good fieldguide, or, better yet, a local guide to leadthe way.Birding Resources and InfoThe Birding Club of Costa Rica (BCCR) organizes day and overnight outingsevery month, with bilingual guides. E-mail or callBCCR Secretary Pat Piessens at 282-5365.La Asociación Ornitológica has monthly meetings and lectures in Spanish, as wellas organized birding bus trips each month. Visit Selva Biological Station, one of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS)research stations, has some of the best birding in the country, with 420 species logged,as well as some of the best guides. Located near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí on theCaribbean slope, at this time of the year La Selva has some of the best weather, too, anda multitude of migrants. The Early-bird Morning Walk starts at 5:30 a.m. (until Dec. 15,it’s $28 per person for four to seven people; $36 per person for fewer than four). Laterguided nature walks, which include bird sightings, are at 8 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. ($26; $16for residents and nationals). Lodging rates include meals and a guided walk, with lowerprices for residents. Call 766-6565 (La Selva) or 524-0607 (OTS in San José, to make reservations.“A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica,” by Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch, illustratedby Dana Gardner, is still the most comprehensive and useful bird guide around.The book is packed with informative text on both migrants and resident species. Butsince it is rather bulky to carry in the field, most birders cut out the center illustrationplates and have them bound in an easy-to-carry book.The Gone Birding Newsletter at, produced by expert guide Richard Garrigues, is a great resource inEnglish for recent sightings of birds, both migrant and resident.

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