At the mic: Patrick Newcombe is a Caroline D. Bradley Scholar and sophomore at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. He enjoys birding with the Youth Maryland Ornithological Society and his school’s birding club on weekends and before school. Patrick is interested in research and conservation and has interned at the American Bird Conservancy, helped a graduate student with Red-naped Sapsucker research, and attended the NAOC conference. He uses his photography to support conservation. Patrick hopes to return to Costa Rica in the summer of 2018 to continue his research

As we flew through a gap in the lush, green mountains to land on a thin airstrip, I anticipated the birding and research I was about to experience on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, the world’s most bio-intense area. My mom and I had flown into San Jose, Costa Rica, and spent one night in the city. The next morning, we woke early to catch a flight on a tiny plane to Golfito, where I practiced my Spanish with some taxi drivers, and we rode to the pier to catch a ferry to the Osa Peninsula. On the Osa, an SUV took us through seven rivers to the Piro Research Station.

The author

When I first arrived on the Osa, the tremendous diversity of birds astounded me. I seemed to find a species I haven’t seen before each time I walked into the forest around the Piro Research Station, and even at the station itself I saw such birds as the Fiery-billed Aracari, a Panama and Costa Rica endemic. This high diversity stems largely from the selective pressure insectivorous birds put on their prey, which are constantly specializing to evade their avian predators. In turn, the birds must specialize to catch the insects.

Fiery-billed Aracari

The Black-cheeked Ant Tanager is one of these insectivorous birds, and its population numbers fewer than 15,000 individuals. I found the IUCN Red List species at four locations on Osa Conservation, noting their frequent presence in mixed species flocks and observing their fascinating behavior for hours.

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager

I also studied the distribution of manakins, largely frugivores, around Osa Conservation by birding the surrounding trails and recording manakins in a GPS. I was thrilled to find 21 locations, including at least five leks where the birds give their elaborate displays. These data help understand the effect of old or new growth forest on manakins. Knowing where the leks are will also be useful for guides from Osa Conservation’s new ecolodge.

Blue-crowned Manakin

Another highlight from my time here was helping to conduct point counts of birds at Osa Verde in areas that will be reforested with different concentrations of the fast-growing balsa tree, an experiment that tests the efficacy of this idea for reforestation. Learning the methodology for conducting point counts, as well as understanding the reason for using them in grasslands, as opposed to transects, fascinated me. These counts reflected the Osa’s enormous avian diversity, and I am glad that I contributed to such an important project that could help the birds I am so passionate about.
Near the end of my time at the research station, a conservationist who just received his PhD studying soft songs of thrushes, took me to the Yellow-billed Cotinga reserve that the American Bird Conservancy and Osa Conservation purchased. We were lucky to see one of these birds flying over the well-known Rincon River Bridge, as well as Mangrove Hummingbirds.

Mangrove Hummingbird

On top of the enthralling birds, the tropics have some of the most unique animals in the world. We saw sloths, multiple species of poison dart frogs, four species of monkeys, and even a deadly Fer-de-lance snake. In the rainforest, I always wore thick, rubber boots for protection. The conditions were rugged, and my clothes never seemed to dry from the constant humidity, but I quickly adapted to the climate that supports so much tropical diversity.
I know that the memory of my experience with my mom on the Osa will last a lifetime. I am presenting my manakin research at a Society for Neuroscience conference, so I look forward to sharing the results of my hard work, and I am also letting Osa Conservation use my photos in their publication, which will hopefully continue to help protect the marvelous wildlife I experienced. With luck, I would love to be back on the Osa sometime soon!