Monday, December 8, 2008

... and we're back!

The Costa Rica trip has ended; Alberto and I are back in San Salvador, from where each of us will start our Golden-cheeked Warbler field season proper, Alberto in Honduras, and me in Chiapas.

And no: we didn’t find any goldencheeks in Costa Rica. We suspect that they might winter there only sporadically, and that it is not a significant wintering area. Truth be told, this trip was plagued by much adversity, mostly in the form of bad weather, and in the end we only visited three potential sites. With more planning and better funding, plus an endorsement from the weather gods, we might have done better. But it was not to be.

Thursday afternoon, we left Tortuguero and headed south again, this time to Guapiles, in the foothills of the Caribbean side of the central mountain range. The plan was to meet up again with Paola in Acosta on Friday evening, so that we could revisit the Acosta site Saturday morning under hopefully better weather conditions. That site seemed the one with the highest potential for goldencheeks, and we didn’t want to leave Costa Rica without having surveyed it thoroughly.

Early Friday morning it was overcast but dry, so we decided to bird the area around the La Selva biological station, recommended to us as a great birding spot by Marcelo, one of the Ticos (Costa Ricans) who helped us on this project.

We got some cool birds, including one of those yellowthroats closely related to the Common Yellowthroat: Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. But of course soon it started raining, and we resumed our way to San Jose, where we would meet Paola at the university library.

While driving, we chanced upon a super-touristy but actually very nice spot called Los Jardines de la Catarata La Paz, or in English the Gardens of the La Paz Waterfalls. It had spectacular waterfalls, a hummingbird garden, an aviary, and cool displays with snakes and frogs. At this point, however, our financial means were severely depleted. Although we joked that this place definitely merited to be checked out for goldencheeks, we obviously couldn’t go here on the project’s budget, and had to shell out the very steep entrance fee ourselves.

But this is where it got interesting. In the eyes of one of the staff, we resembled a wealthy American birding tourist (me) and a local bird guide (Alberto). A blatant case of racial profiling. He then informed us that the entrance fee of USD 32 is waived for the guides.

Instead of telling him we were poor biologists trying to find a bird that isn’t even there, we decided to play along with this scenario, and immediately had great fun performing our respective roles.

I told Alberto that he needed to get me at least 25 lifers from this place, and that I didn’t want any sly tactics from him leading the wealthy gringo birder to yet another souvenir shop – although I did want a very specific T-shirt with all endemic Costa Rican hummingbirds on it. In a word, I was being a difficult client. Alberto played his role and pointed out ‘endemic’ vultures to me, which you could tell from the regular ones “because the endemic vultures don’t flap”. Nice touch, Alberto!

Occasionally, I had to tell Alberto to stop chatting up cute staff members and spend more time getting me birds, but overall the experience here was enjoyable. An ample supply of feeding stations made viewing (and photographing) certain species really easy, like the Emerald Toucanet pictured above.

Here’s another photo of that magnificent bird.

One of the better hummingbirds at the hummingbird garden was this Green Thorntail.

Silver-throated Tanagers are very easy to observe at this place, where feeding stations with peeled bananas keep them busy. We even found a few Tennessee Warblers feeding on banana!

Blue-gray Tanagers are common birds in much of Mexico and Central America, but the feeding stations in combination with a scenic background made for excellent photo ops.

More or less the same thing can be said about Keel-billed Toucan, although the Costa Rican tourist industry would have you believe that this bird is unique to Costa Rica. This photo was made in the aviary. They also had a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan in there, which was so habituated to humans that it would allow people to stroke it.

Worth mentioning are also the free samples of excellent coffee and delectable chocolates available at the gift store. As true freeloaders, we had to sample each and every one of them, and then had to go back to compare some especially good ones… Some of them were ridiculously good.

Speaking of freeloaders... These guys were abundant near the second gift store, and their job is to look cute whenever a tourist points a camera at them. In return, they get free, pre-peeled bananas.

Late afternoon, probably a little later than we should have, we left for San Jose, to pick up Paola from the university library and drive to Acosta.

Saturday morning, it was – lo and behold! – not raining, actually it was quite sunny. And windy. In fact, it was so windy that normally, when looking for warbler flocks in the Golden-cheeked Warbler study, we would not go out in such weather. High winds make it almost as difficult to find insectivorous warblers as pouring rain. But we bravely soldiered on, and found small pockets of birds here and there. We found Slate-throated Redstarts, Black-and-white Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and quite a few Black-throated Green Warblers – heck, even a Worm-eating Warbler – but no goldencheeks.

We declared the Costa Rican field season over. We were almost completely out of money, and needed to go back to San Jose to the only bank that would change Mexican pesos into Costa Rican colones. (Mexican pesos…? Long story, don’t ask.)

Well, this bank was of course closed on Saturday, even though several others were open.

Suddenly, we found ourselves having to scrounge dramatically, if we were to make it back to San Salvador. We ate cereal for breakfast, cereal for lunch, and had cereal dinners. Kinda stupid I guess, as a European I always underestimate how difficult it is to change money in Central America. I really should know better by now.

So off we went on our journey across borders, back to San Salvador. We now felt much better prepared for the hassle of crossing the borders, but of course wondered what else they would have in store for us this time.

At the Nicaraguan border, we were not surprised when they told us they wanted to inspect the car again. Sure, go right ahead. Inspection this time was minimal, no doubt because it was already quite late and folks wanted to go home. Oh, but wait… the border is about to close! So we had to hurry up, decided to forfeit the ‘assistance’ of local boys, and thought we had everything in order, when the customs official dryly pointed out that a stamp was missing from my slip of paper. “Ah, but the guy signed it!” “Yes, I see his paragraph, but I also need his stamp. You don’t have that stamp. Please come back with it tomorrow morning, this border is now closed.”

So we thought we almost made it, but a missing stamp made us spend another night in the vehicle.

The next day, said stamp was obtained and we were free to enter Nicaragua.

We drove for maybe 7 hours, from one Nicaraguan border to the next. There, at the border with Honduras, we were assisted by two nice ladies and actually spent less than an hour on all the paperwork. It did cost us a few dollars, and we were running severely short on cash, needing to save some for gas.

Not 200 m into Honduras, we were stopped by the police.

Police road blocks are a common thing in Honduras. The police generally want to see the car’s papers and a driver’s license. Sometimes they ask to see the fire extinguisher and an emergency triangle.

Our police officer was a young guy, who indeed wanted to see these items. We showed them to him, but then he coolly remarked: “You have only one emergency triangle. You need to have two, one for each side. I’m going to give you a ticket.”

I told him I had worked in Honduras before and have had to show the emergency triangle many times, but this was the first time I heard about needing to have two. He was not impressed.

We pleaded with him, telling him we had no money, which at first I think he thought was just our spiel. But we really did have no money, just some Mexican pesos that no-one seemed to want to change for me. Of course, he had no idea what the Mexican peso is worth, and when I offered him some – in exchange for my driver’s license – he was reluctant to accept. His superior eventually was more lenient and accepted the 200 pesos.

Half an hour later, another police road block. Please pull over and park over there.

This time, no flak over the so-called missing triangle, but for this cop, the fire extinguisher wasn’t quite up to par. The safety pin was there, but apparently some kind of cap that goes over it was missing, and out came the ticket book.

Again, pleading on our side, and eventually we were let go without the ticket.

Half hour later. Another police road block. Please pull over.

Here, the cops wanted to hear about what we were doing, about the Golden-cheeked Warbler project, etc etc. We spent some time explaining and went over the project in quite some detail, even bringing out the pine-oak forest alliance report, which they obviously were rather impressed with.

And another half hour later, not far from the border with El Salvador, a fourth police officer stopped us. He asked us if we had the fire extinguisher and the triangle, and when we said yes, he just said OK, and we continued on our way.

We spent maybe two hours in this country but got stopped four times.

At the Salvadoran border, they saw our Salvadoran license plates and waved us through. They never bothered to check our passports.

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