’TWAS the season for counting birds – not how many trussed turkeys were consumed, but how many species of live birds were soaring, flitting, scratching and perching around the country. Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 3, hundreds of ornithologists, bird guides and amateur birdwatchers participated in what has become a birding holiday tradition: Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs).
The annual bird census, under the aegis of the Audubon Society, is the longest-running bird survey in the world; it began in 1900 and encompasses all of North America, many Caribbean islands and much of Latin America, including Belize, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and, of course, bird-rich Costa Rica. Last year, more than 50,000 birders took part.
There are five official CBCs in Costa Rica: Grecia, in coffee country northwest of San José; the Teleférico (Aerial Tram), on the Caribbean slope; Monteverde, in the north-central region of the country; La Selva, near Sarapiquí, in northern Costa Rica; and the Fila Costera (Dominical/ Uvita), on the southern Pacific coast.
In its 22nd year, the Grecia count, headed by master bird guide Rafael Campos, is the longest running, followed closely by the La Selva count, now in its 21st year. The youngest is the Fila Costera, only three years old. And this year there was a fledgling, unofficial count around Jacó, on the central Pacific coast, as well as the annual Cartago count, east of San José, conducted by National Curator of Birds Julio Sánchez.
EACH CBC has an official count circle, 15 miles in diameter. Teams of birders are assigned specific routes, with instructions to count both species and individual birds throughout a 24-hour time frame. All the data is sent to the Audubon Society to be compiled and added to their database.
Who wants to get up at 3:30 a.m. and trudge for 12 hours through forests, swamps and pastures and along highways and rivers, eyes constantly scanning the underbrush, trees and skies? An amazing number of people.
The La Selva count, which I participated in, is usually the largest. This year, 66 birders covered 19 routes. The Fila Costera was counted by 50 birders, some of whom got rained on this year. Along with the biology students and guides whose business is birds, enthusiastic amateurs revel in the camaraderie and the chance to see a heck of a lot of birds.
SOME tourists even schedule their vacations to coincide with a CBC. Nick Smith, an avian aficionado, came all the way from Yeovil, England, to participate in the La Selva count Dec. 30. While his wife and family enjoyed the beach, he brought his binoculars, boots and scope to La Selva and joined my team, which spent 11.5 hours scouring the reserve’s less traveled and very muddy river trails. David Mitchell traveled from Austin, Texas, with his son Josh to participate in both the Aerial Tram and the Monteverde counts.
The highlight of the CBCs is always the closing dinner, when all the teams convene to shout out “¡Sí!” as the organizers call out the species list. Along with a keen spirit of scientific inquiry, there’s also a strong undercurrent of competition between each count’s teams, between the various CBCs in Costa Rica and between countries.
Organizers are loath to make their total species count public until they have vetted and wrung every possible bird sighting out of the official lists each team fills out. So, as of press time, I can’t report any final tallies other than the 86 species my Aerial Tram team, brilliantly led by Robert Dean, netted, and the 73 species my La Selva team, led by local guide Jahaira Rojas, saw and heard.
Special thanks to Robert and Jahaira for adding nine lifers to my list! (In birder lingo, “lifers” are birds you see for the first time in your life.)