Sunday, November 30, 2008


Saturday around noon we left Monteverde empty-handed, and headed out to our next site, Acosta.

Acosta is just an hour south of San Jose, but – unlike Monteverde – is not a major tourist destination. The weather was sunny and warm when we stopped for ice cream in a park in one of the towns along the way, where our Costa Rican assistant Pablo got me this life bird: Black-and-white Owl. What an awesome bird!

By the time we got to Acosta, the weather had changed to gloomy, overcast skies and moderately heavy rain. We were happy to get there nonetheless, because this site seemed the one with the most potential for encountering a Golden-cheeked Warbler. In Monteverde, despite several records of goldencheeks, we never really found suitable wintering habitat for this species. But Monteverde gets birded a lot, by birders of all skill levels, so those records may represent chance encounters with a really rare species through abundant coverage (the so-called Patagonian Pick-nick Table Effect), or they may represent misidentifications by less careful birders. Who knows? Females and immatures, after all, are quite similar to Black-throated Green Warblers, a species that does winter in Monteverde.

Around Acosta, however, we found ample suitable habitat, and we agreed that this was likely going to be our best site. If we don’t find them here, we’re not going to find them anywhere.

Two Tico birders, Adilio and Paola, graciously provided a place for us to stay, took us out to a concert at night, and got up with us at 5 AM the next morning, to help us look for our warbler.

Although still overcast, it was dry when we left their homes, the five of us all slightly hungover from the previous night. Soon after, it started raining, and steep, unpaved mountain roads turned into slippery mud baths, some of which were difficult to navigate even with 4WD. But at least it wasn’t windy, and light rain often makes for excellent warbler watching.

But then the rain became heavy, and birding became difficult, or pointless. We returned to the car for some coffee, and after one and a half hour in the car, tried to bird the area again.

Adilio took this photo of me, pointing to a non-existent goldencheek; Alberto, pointing to another one; and Pablo and Paola, both saying “oh yeah, sure, we see ‘em”. We saw some Black-throated Greens there, some Wilson’s Warblers, some Black-and-whites, a Summer Tanager, but no goldencheeks. Around 11 AM, we decided to return to the village and look for some food, instead of birds. We found a nice meal at great value, and even though we now had to leave our most promising site empty-handed again, at least we got to experience the warmth and the hospitality of the Costa Ricans we met here.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Butterflies in Monteverde

We've finished our field work here in Monteverde, and are about to head out to our next site. Sadly, we didn't find any Golden-cheeked Warblers here, although this morning we finally had better weather and encountered several flocks of insectivorous birds, including several Chestnut-sided Warblers and Tennessee Warblers, and a couple of Black-and-white Warblers. We also found the following, as of yet unidentified butterflies.

The Monteverde cloud forest is an amazing place, but one is reminded here of the Joni Mitchell lines "they paved paradise, and put up a parking lot". In my opinion, eco-tourism went overboard here, and there is very little local atmosphere. It's also a lot more expensive than other cloud forests I've been to in Central America. But the forest has birds and butterflies that you might not find elsewhere.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Although tedious, the border crossing at Peñas Blancas wasn’t a complete waste of time. While we were waiting, I photographed this White-throated Magpie-Jay. I also helped a Nicaraguan truck driver change the language on his cell phone from Simplified Chinese back to English (it didn’t have Spanish).

In San Jose, we met with Pablo and Marcelo, two Costa Rican birders who are willing to help us on our quest for Golden-cheeked Warblers. Pablo is now with us at our first stop, Monteverde National Park, about 3 hours from San Jose, in the northwestern part of the country. Marcelo will join us in a few days.

We haven’t found any goldencheeks here yet, but Alberto and I picked up several lifers: Prong-billed Barbet, Collared Redstart, Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Spotted Barbtail, Brown-hooded Parrot, Black Guan, Orange-bellied Trogon, Coppery-headed Emerald, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Purple-throated Mountain-gem, to name just a few.

Here’s a Coppery-headed Emerald, one of the hummingbirds that is very easy to see here at the Hummingbird Café, a strategically located gift shop at the edge of the cloud forest, with many hummingbird feeders on the porch. Tourism is Costa Rica’s number one industry, and it shows: the town of Monteverde is little more than a collection of gift stores, restaurants and wildlife museums. Tourism is big business here, and everywhere we go, we are surrounded by Germans.

There are also more familiar birds here, like this male Summer Tanager.

This Barred Forest-falcon we found in a shade-grown coffee plantation, just below the cloud forest. We also saw a Broad-winged Hawk there, and wondered if one of these raptors had perhaps eaten a goldencheek recently.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Crossing borders

At the Golden-cheeked Warbler Workshop in Honduras, I was asked would I mind going to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks to look for Golden-cheeked Warblers there? In other words, an all-expenses-paid birding trip to one of the world’s top birding destinations? No, obviously I said that I would very much be available for such a thing. So, last Monday, Alberto Martinez and I left the workshop a day early to drive from Honduras to Costa Rica. Easier said than done, as it turned out.

Getting to Nicaragua was easy enough. At the border, however, we were greeted by a bunch of boys who all claimed they could help us with the apparently complicated process of crossing into Nicaragua. They carried semi-official-looking quasi-government-approved cards that were meant to illustrate these kids were legit. “Pick me! Pick me!” they all shouted. So we picked one, who assisted us with what was indeed quite a lot of paperwork. We never had to wait, yet the whole process took us an hour, around nightfall.

It was dark as we drove into Nicaragua, through unlit winding mountain roads, until after a couple of hours we reached Esteli, where we had dinner, chatted with some very friendly locals, and stayed for the night.

The next day we left early because we figured we still had a lot of driving ahead of us. Around two in the afternoon, we reached the Costa Rican border at Peñas Blancas. Again, the same hustle and bustle of boys who could help us navigate the obstacles of Immigration and Customs.

I figured leaving a country is always easier than entering one, but I was wrong.

In the eyes of the Nicaraguan Immigration people, a Dutch guy and a Mexican guy traveling in a vehicle with Salvadoran plates fit the profile of drug traffickers. We were asked to park the car at the side of a building, where the Nicaraguan Immigration Service, Dept. Grease Monkeys, proceeded to take apart the whole car! At one point, seven guys were ‘working’ on our car, although in reality there was mostly just one or two guys actually doing stuff, while the others were busy distracting them with jokes and clowning around.

This had been going on for a good two hours, when I spotted an iguana walking around in front of the car. Soon, this animal also attracted the attention of the grease monkeys, who immediately dropped what they were doing in order to chase it around the various trucks parked there.

Eventually, they caught it. They had smacked it on the head with a hammer, and when they proudly showed it to me for a picture, I could see that the animal was almost dead, but not quite.

Work on the car was resumed. Knowing we didn’t have any drugs, I wasn’t worried so much as irritated, although it did give me the creeps when a little later cheers rose up from under the car, as if they had found something! But after four hours, they declared the car drug-free, and we were free to leave the country. They never bothered to check our bags.

Again, night had fallen and it was dark when we still had to get into Costa Rica. Again, the same circus with boys who could help us with this. Except this time, the boys weren’t boys but shady-looking young men, who told us that the border was about to close, but they could help us cross it in no time if we paid them. I thought they were crooks, but I did not know if they were speaking the truth. And I was pretty exhausted from all the driving and from being a suspected drug trafficker in a corrupt country. So we went with them. Here the process took another hour, and then finally we were in Costa Rica!

Alberto and I both agreed that next time, we fly into Costa Rica and rent a car there.

We drove for a few hours until we got to Liberia, a fairly large town where we found a hostel. The next day, as I inspected the car, it was obvious to me that the Nicaraguan grease monkeys had done a shitty job putting the car back together again. I was not surprised by this.

But just exactly how shitty became evident when we stopped for gas, and I saw how the gas that was pumped into the car splashed directly onto the street! Great. So we had that fixed at a nearby garage.

We weren’t done yet.

At our next stop, about an hour from final destination San Jose, the car alarm suddenly went off and would not respond to my frantic pushing of the buttons on the remote. So it dutifully howled for a few minutes and then went into auto-lock mode. Here we were, at another gas station, with a car that wouldn’t start, because it was locked by the alarm system. First we cursed the Nicaraguan immigration service, and then I took apart the remote, in order to clean the battery contacts, because the little light on the remote seemed weak to me. That did nothing. Then I took away the board right under the steering wheel, where the wiring of the car alarm was located. I checked and retightened all wires, then tried again. This time, the car alarm responded. After we screwed the board back on, we drove off, and as of this moment, have had no further problems with the car.

Next time, hopefully more on birds and less on stupid shit like this.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

In Honduras

Yup folks, "back by popular demand" as they say, I'll try to continue blogging while zigzagging through Central America, in search of Golden-cheeked Warblers and just sheer adventure. The first we already found - see picture above - during a highly enjoyable workshop in Honduras. Next week, my colleague Alberto and I are off to Costa Rica to look for these birds there. Recent sightings indicate that some females and immatures of the species may winter outside of the Central American pine-oak eco-region, perhaps even as far as Costa Rica and Panama.

I'll be sure to let you know if we find them in Costa Rica. Here's another bird we found yesterday in Uyuca, not far from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. We found five individuals in one flock!

And here are some of the workshop participants. This is an international ensemble, with from left to right: Alberto (Mexico), Pablo (Nicaragua), Becky (USA), Jose (El Salvador), Chico (Nicaragua), Aura (Nicaragua) and Oscar (El Salvador):

Other team members from Mexico, USA, and Guatemala are not in this photo. The guy in the middle, explaining something to Becky, was our botanical expert yesterday, and helped us identifying trees in the pine-oak forest. I'll be traveling to Costa Rica next week with Alberto (far left).