by Laramie Aspegren

Imagine getting up at 2:30am and driving for two and a half hours to stare at mudflats and eat lunch out of the back of a van, all while getting covered in mud, sweat and bug bites. The average person would rather not spend any day in this way, let alone their birthday. Well, as I’ve learned in these past months, birders are definitely not average.

But 2:30am is actually pretty early, even for a birder. I was only half awake through breakfast and the loading of the van and I slept pretty much the whole way to the Gulf of Nicoya, here in Costa Rica. We were headed to the small village of Chomes, a modest town in northwestern costa Rica, populated with fishermen and shrimp farmers. We overestimated our drive times and arrived about an hour early; there’s not much driving on the Carretera Nueva in the wee hours of the morning. Anyway, it was a good thing we arrived early because we got pretty lost and had to retrace our path about ten miles or so to get back on the right road.

By the time we made it to the outskirts of town, it was just getting light enough to see the pineapple fields and pastures on either sides of the road. We slowed down, rolled down our windows and listened and looked for a bird to start off this grand day. And then, from a grove on the side of the road came a chorus of explosive whreeee! notes. Great Kiskadee. So much for a grand beginning.

As if cued by the kiskadees, the surrounding grasslands came alive with activity. Huge flocks of Cattle Egrets went soaring overhead. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flew by, flaunting their flashy wings.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks/Photo by Bob Stratton/USFWS
Small flocks of Orange-chinned Parakeets whizzed around. We stopped for a moment to look at some Rufous-naped Wrens, and as a bonus, spotted a pair of Double-striped Thick-Knees stalking about in a nearby field. We took off driving after savoring the Thick-Knees for a few minutes. There were plenty of Ruddy Ground-Doves on the fence lines and in the road. They have this odd propensity for waiting until they are just about ready to be hit, and then they explode up into the air and wing off about 30 feet up the road and walk around for a bit. Then the whole process repeats itself over and over.

After a bit off confusion over the number of blocks we had gone, we made it to shrimp ponds and mudflats. Blue Grosbeak sang in the marshes and tiny Blue-Black Grassquits flitted about. While we were arriving, I got a small glimpse of the first mudflats through a break in the tall reeds on either side of the road. Literally hundreds of good sized sandpipers covered the whole thing. I was overjoyed, but my elation was soon dispelled. A quick look onto the mudflat merely showed hundreds of tiny bushes shaped like sandpipers and a solitary Wood Stork. As we waited, though, activity started to pick up a bit. A couple of Least Sandpipers walked around, probing the mud. A Whimbrel stalked out from behind some bushes. There were plenty of flyovers, including some Roseate Spoonbills, and we got a quick look at a Ringed Kingfisher. There were plenty of herons around around, too, including Great Blue, Little Blue, Green, Tricolored herons and some Yellow and Black-crowned Night-Herons. After seeing everything we could, we piled back into the car and took off for the sandbars at the beach.

Black-crowned Night-Heron/Photo by Lee Karney/USFWS
The drive was uneventful, besides a Semipalmated Plover and a quick greeting of some fellow
birders, an old Tico (Costa Rican) and his gringo (foreign) son-in-law. Arriving at the beach, the birders' little 4×4 vehicle plowed straight through a little mudhole and parked on the far bank. My dad tried it also, but alas, a 12 passenger microbus doesn’t have the same capabilities as a Jeep, and we got hopelessly stuck. By common consent, we put off the towing until after we had seen everything there was to see on the beach. There were plenty of pelicans roosting on the sandbars along with some Sandwich, Royal and Least terns, Black Skimmer, Anhinga and a small group of cormorants. Two American Golden-Plovers flew overhead, and then everything else followed, pushed off the sandbars by the incoming tide.

Black Skimmer/Photo by USFWS
With only a small handful of birds left on the sandbars, we towed the van out and worked our way back the way we had come, noticing the considerable difference in numbers and species on the mudflats before and after the onset of the tide. Our best stop on the way out was little mudflat that afforded some nice views from a raised path on the side. Black-necked Stilt, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied Plover and Least Sandpiper abounded, plus the omnipresent Whimbrel and Willet. One of our best finds of the day was a nice, long look at a Long-billed Curlew. It stood in a small group of Whimbrels, and the size comparison was excellent. Although somewhat common in the states, Long-billed Curlew is extremely rare and hard to find here in Costa Rica. Some terns and skimmers were also roosting with the shorebirds. After seeing everything and doing a final scan to see if we missed anything, we packed up and left. Lunch was simple, just some roast beef sandwiches, Cheetos, and Mountain Dew.

Marbled Godwit/Photo by Lee Karney/USFWS

Long-billed Curlew/Photo by USFWS

Our last stop was at a couple of salt ponds on the outskirts of the tiny fishing village of Colorado. The farmers who own the place were very friendly and let us bird the area without restrictions.  There were lots of small sandpipers here, including Western, Solitary, Least, Semipalmated, and Stilt. Some Northern Jacanas were wandering around and there were probably 15 Black-necked Stilts circling around and making a lot of noise. Just like the book says; they’re easily excitable. For some reason, we decided to take a long outer loop around a mudflat to see if we could find anything. The paths were totally covered in thick sticky mud that caked on your shoes. After a while, it felt like you were walking with at least two extra pounds hanging from your feet, and it looked like we all were wearing huge, thick-soled shoes that were totally covered in mud. And, to make matters worse, it started to rain.

As if to compensate for our irritating hike, right near the end we got our reward. Two Rufous-necked Wood-Rails popped out of some undergrowth and took off into the adjacent mangrove. After that, we spent about 5 minutes trying to get the mud off our shoes and ourselves. We realized it was hopeless and loaded into the van and headed home. Little did we know but after the mud dries, it begins to stink. My dad’s car still smells pretty horrible. It was a longer drive back than it was coming, but in the end we made it home exhausted, sweaty, muddy, itchy, and smelly, but exhilarated. Our total species count 81, including four rarities and seventeen lifers.

And that’s my idea of an absolutely perfect birthday!

DSC06676 About the author: Laramie Aspegren turned 15 years old on August 25. He has lived in Costa Rica for seven years, but only recently discovered the wonderful avifauna of this beautiful country. Laramie’s favorite birds are the Brush-Finches and Ground-Sparrows; he loves the contrasting bright colors and easy IDs. He was a participant in the ABA's 2011 Camp Colorado.