Meeting the Sea Birds: Pacific Ocean Pelagic from Sierpe
|Isla Violincitos (Part of Isla Violín), Sierpe's Mangrove|
"If you are doing big year you must take a pelagic tour", was the words from my coworker at Rancho, Harry Barnard. The only thing that came in to my mind was a dizzy feeling when imagine me in the middle of the ocean far from the coast in a little boat, so I respond: No way, that is crazy!
And the little "pelagic" seed started to grow in my mind. Finally, three months later I was convinced that would be amazing to explore such an amazing and different bird habitat: the ocean. Maybe with some anti-dizzy pills I can survive to be all day out in open sea, I thougth. By that time, I found in the AOCR (Costa Rican Ornithological Association) Bird Alarm Facebook page, a post from a guy who was looking for people to join a pelagic tour, that was my oportunity. I asked my birders friends but none of them were interested, so I decide to go by my own and signed up.
The boat tour depart from Sierpe at 5am. Sierpe is located five hours from San Jose, the capital city so I managed to travel the day before to make it. I took the 8.30 am bus from San Jose (the only one!) and arrived at 1.30 pm So I went to bird around the town before dark, I have no idea what could I find there, and was very interesting to discovered them by my self. The spectacle of more than 10 pairs of Scarlet Macaw crossing the sky was amazing and easy to spot because of the raucous sound they make. Red-lored Parrot, Palm Tanager, White Ibis and Gray-breasted Martin were the most common species of the afternoon, but I got surprised with two Pale-billed Woodpecker and a Yellow-headed Caracara in the distance.
When it was getting dark around six I decide to go a restaurant with view to the estuaries, to have dinner but still be able to see the last birds. While waiting for my meal, it was very nice to see four Lesser Nighthawks flying over Sierpe river.
Next day I was at the port at 4.45am and after some inconveniences we departed at 6am. It was a bright morning and Sierpe's mangrove looked amazing. On the way out to the ocean we went very fast, even though I had the chance to see a couple of Ospreys and lots of White Ibis.
|View from the port in Sierpe river|
Our first stop was in Isla Violincitos, and there I realized how difficult it could be to bird from a boat on the ocean, and I was definitely happy for having taken those dramamine pills. Isla Violinctos is part of Isla Violín, which is bigger and very near one from the other. Because of being more exposed to the open ocean, this little island has became an ideal place for hundrends of Magnificent Frigatebirds and dozens of Brown Boobies to nest.
|Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata Magnificens, Isla Violicitos, Sierpe|
After seeing both of the species very well, the guy who organized the tour said that on the other side of the island there were also nesting some Red-footed Boobies. With its distinctive red feet, slaty colored body and blue bill with pinkish at the base, for me this species is one of the most beautiful Boobies in Costa Rica. So, I was very exited when I finally saw them at the top of the highest trees in leaf, some of them already with chicks!
|Red-footed Booby Sula sula|
It was funny to see down below a pair of Tropical Kingbirds also hanging out on the Island, and next to them I got nice views of the Brewster's Brown Booby, which is a Pacific sub-species of the Brown Booby. Brewster's has pale-gray head, and can be confused with a Red-footed Booby juvenile.
|Brown Booby (Brewster's) Sula leucogaster|
We kept going south and past Isla del Caño, there we saw our first pods of dolphins, Spotted and Bottle-nosed Dolphins swimming around the boat. They were too fast to even try to take a picture, so I desisted after several failed attempts and decided to watch them with my binoculars instead.
Continuing the expedition further past Isla del Caño, we started to see the birds over the open ocean. First a Nazca Booby flew in front of the boat, not a good view but enough to identify it. Fortunaletly, soon we get good views from one that was perched on a floating piece of wood.
|Nazca Booby Sula granti|
One of the most common bird there, was Black Tern, which is a migrant on both Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Even though we spotted several of them, just two had complete breeding plumaje (all black with a white patch on the wing and white undertail coverts).
|Black Tern Chlidonias niger (complete breeding plumage)|
Another bird we saw several times around was the Red-necked Phalarope in non-breading plumage. This bird is a type of wader, but is typically found offshore (also on salt ponds), and feeds and rests afloat picking plankton from surface.
|Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus|
Getting to the farthest point of the trip (60 km past Isla del Cano), we found, floating on the wáter, an extensive flock of Storm-Petrels: at least a thousand Black Storm-Petrels, about two-thousand Least Storm-Petrels and just got the chance to see one Band-rumped Storm-Petrel amongst them. I was glad to see them because I had studied that bird family for the trip, but was surprised to realize that they are smaller than I thought, Least is the size of a Summer Tanager (15cm, 6in) and Black is about a Great Kisadee size (23cm, 9in)!
|Band-rumped Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma castro, Least Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma microsoma, Black Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma Melania|
Once we were at 60 km from land, the captain ask for some time for fishing, taking advantage we were on a very good fishing area. To be honest I'm not a fan of fishing and already was feeling a little bit dizzy, so I didn't want to stay there, but the majority won and we stayed there for an hour. My bad humor started to change because meanwhile standing in the heavy sun, a Galápagos and a Wedge-tailed Shearwater past by several times, giving me the chance to observe them well!
Another lifer for this trip, was Bridled Tern, wich we also saw very far from land. This bird breads on Costa Rican Pacific coastal waters from March to September, so we got the opportunity to see it in breeding plumaje (Black cap).
On the way back we had very nice, close views of a pair of Pomarine Jaegers,one of them dark morph. As Stiles and Skutch affirm in their ''Birds of Costa Rica", this species is quite oportunistic, sometimes can even steal from other seabirds as Shearwaters and could follow fishing boats. So, as soon as the captain throw little pieces of fresh fish, they stuck behing the boat. This allowed us to photograph both of the individuals. With 66cm inlength, this is Costa Rica's largest Jaeger (same size as South Polar Skua), and needs a lot to get full. They stayed feeding aroung until both of them were too full and flew away.
Back to Cano Island, we had great looks of a pod of Common Dolphins and more Brown and Nazca Boobies, but no more new birds. We made a quick stop on Isla Violincitos again to try for Red-billed Tropicbird (it was the one I really wanted to see) but no luck, so we headed back to Sierpe.
At the end of tis trip I had 571 species recorded for the year and 11 life birds, but also the experience of getting to know such an incredible place as Sierpe, the mangrove and the open ocean, all conected.
Sierpe river is the entrance to the biggest mangrove system in all Mesoamerica, it protects a wide variety of wild life, as it works like a nursery and feeding station for birds and marine fauna, also helps reducing the climate change by producing oxigen and capturing CO2.
Every new place I travel to and every adventure I have, make fell in love even deeper with my country but especially with nature in general. Having such a close look at such a variety of ecosystems and the interaction of all organisms together, create a peaceful feeling in the field. Being aware about the importance of preserving this sanctuary is the duty of all human beings because it is very important for natural balance and we are all part of it as an organism. That's why the Costa Rican people are defending Terraba-Sierpe Natural Wetland (the biggest in Mesoamerica) against a massive pinapple monoculture project, hopefully all of our efforts will prove sufficient to preserve such a fragile and precious ecosystem.