A Bird Bander’s Life
In a letter sent home to friends in Canada
John describes their Costa Rican Bird Banding Adventures:
“Maureen and I work in four different
locations in the province of Guanacaste in northwest Costa Rica. We
purchased a small car last year, a Hyundi Excell, to get around in and
essentially live out of. We spend about a week at each of our four bird
banding locations mid-November to mid-March and usually return to Liberia,
the provincial capital, at the end of each week. We usually stay at Hotel
Liberia, in the center of town where we are close to grocery stores (Supermercado),
Internet cafes, and where we can get some laundry done.
We are camping most of the time so it is
always a treat to sleep in a bed once in a while and have a nice shower.
To get to our banding locations we either
drive to Playa Grande and Estero Tamarindo, about an hour and a half away,
or drive to Playa Panama then take a boat ride with our friend El Gato to
Estero Iguanita, or hire Eladio to take us to Estero Naranjo in his 4
wheel drive Toyota Landcruiser. Either way it’s a full day to get into one
of the sites and set up, followed by 3 days of bird banding then another
day to get back to Liberia.
We’ll take you through a trip to Estero
Naranjo, a mangrove swamp adjacent to Playa Naranjo in what was formerly
known as Santa Rosa National Park but is now part of the Area de
Conservacion Guanacaste, Sector Naranjo. After driving to Eladios, about
half an hour north of Liberia, we load up his Landcruiser with enough food
and water for a week, along with all our camping and bird banding
equipment then head north to Santa Rosa. The trip across Santa Rosa to the
Pacific Ocean is on a very rough road and takes about and hour and a half.
About half the ride is through regenerating
tropical dry forest that was once pasture. On the slope down to the ocean
the forest is more mature and we see a rich diversity of trees. When we
arrive in November, at the end of the rainy
season, everything is very green but over the course of the winter we see
a great change as the trees gradually lose their leaves. Many of these
trees are covered with gorgeous blossoms by the middle of the dry season.
Arriving at Playa Naranjo we set up camp
near the ocean then go for a swim as it is generally mid-day by this time
and the temperature has climbed to at least 30C. Around 3 in the afternoon
we take our mist-nets into the mangroves, about a ten-minute walk from the
campgrounds, and set up for the next day. We have wooden net poles in
place so it is just a matter of attaching and adjusting the nets. This
usually takes a couple of hours, leaving just enough daylight left to
return to camp and prepare dinner on our little one burner propane stove.
By 6pm it is dark, Ferruginous Pygmy Owls. Pacific Screech Owls and Common
Pauraques serenade us as we do a little reading and prepare for the next
We’re up at 4:30 am; if we don’t hear the
alarm clock the Howler Monkeys will wake us up with their pre-dawn loud
‘woof-woof-woofing’. It’s still very much nighttime and the stars are
still out. Every night they are visible as there a
very few clouds in Guanacaste in the dry season November through April. We
see the North Star, very low at about 10 degrees about the horizon,
reminding us how far south we are. By 5:20 am we’ve had coffee and cereal
and are heading out with backpacks on loaded with bird banding equipment,
water, and snacks for the day. The sky is showing enough gray in the east
so we can see where we are going but we have headlamps handy to illuminate
our way through grassy areas where Rattlesnakes or Vipers may still be out
Depending on the tides, the mangroves may
be dry enough for tennis shoes or wet up to our knees, usually somewhere
in between. When there’s lots of water we are always on the lookout for
crocodiles, though we see few and those we do encounter are generally shy
While opening nets we make our first
observations of birds for the day, we always keep a daily list. Herons,
Ibises, and Egrets squawk their displeasure at our intrusion into their
domain. We split up to open nets and rendezvous after half an hour at our
banding site not far from net 8: we open 16 nets each day. It is fully
light by 6 am and at this time the many parrots that roost in the
mangroves are dispersing to feed in the nearby dry forest. There are many
Yellow-naped Parrots, often traveling in pairs, greeting us with their
cheerful ‘move it, move it’ calls. The White-fronted Parrots have more
raucous voices and there are also small flocks of Orange-fronted
The doves start calling at this time too.
We hear the low hoot of the White-tipped Doves and the more elaborate
calls of White-winged Doves that seem to be saying ‘take of your shoes’,
which is good advice if the tide is high. Great Kiskadees and
Brown-crested Flycatchers are the first songbirds we hear, as well as the
cheeky White-throated Magpie Jays that often follow us around squawking
alarms at our presence.
At 6:30 am we check our nets for the first
We split up for this task also, each of us
taking care of 8 nets. This is always the busiest time of day with more
birds captured than at any other time. This first net run usually yields 5
or more Prothonotary Warblers, the most abundant
songbirds in the mangroves at this time of year, as well as lesser numbers
of Northern Waterthrush, Tennessee Warblers and Yellow Warblers.
We often catch bats at this time too, the
largest of which has a 30 cm wingspan and a set of teeth to match and thus
needs to be handled with care.
All the birds we capture are placed in
cloth bags and returned to our ‘banding station’, a plank in the shade
beneath a large mangrove tree at the edge of the swamp.
Here we identify, band, measure, age, sex,
and weigh all birds before they are released.
By the time all birds have been processed
and released it is time to check nets again. Checking the nets is
physically demanding, they are spread out over a 1 km trail through the
mangroves and we are either wading through water or trudging through mud.
We estimate that we walk 10 km through the mangroves each day.
It is exciting though, with the expectation
of surprise captures at each net. We capture a lot of birds that we do not
band because they are not migratory. These are resident ‘Costa Rican’
birds that we document the same as the birds we band. We capture quite a
lot of hummingbirds, Cinnamon Hummingbird and Steely-vented Hummingbird
being the most abundant.
It’s always a treat to find such colorful
birds as Black-headed Trogons or Long-tailed Manakins in our nets.
And so goes our day, check nets, process
birds, then do it again until the day is over. Our day’s work is often
terminated by noon when the wind begins to blow making mist-netting
impossible. These winds are typical of the Guanacaste dry season and often
continue to blow until well into the night. They often come in strong
gusts that sound like freight trains as they come roaring through the dry
forest. Our last task of the day is to furl up our nets so that birds will
net get caught again until we re-open them the next day. On average we
process 30 to 40 birds each day (as few as 5 and as many as 98) of 5 to 10
species. Our list of observations for each day typically includes 30 to 50
species. We do three days of mist-netting and then take down our nets for
use at our next stop. The following day Eladio picks us up and takes us
back to our car. Then we’re off to Liberia to overnight and re-supply in
preparation for a visit to next of our study sites.
We do love our work despite the feeling of
being homeless for the four months we are in Costa Rica, moving once a
week, setting up and taking down camp and nets, and packing everything
into our little car. We meet tourists from all over the world who show
great interest in our work and we have made many friends among the people
of Costa Rica.
It is a great treat to have our friends
from Canada come down to visit us. There are many exciting encounters with
wildlife, other than birds, such as the 3.5 m Boa Constrictor that ate a 1
m long Iguana at the campsite at Playa Naranjo last week. Capuchin
Monkeys, Raccoons, Agoutis, Anteaters, and Coatis are animals we
frequently encounter while camping or working.”
April through October John and
Maureen run the Thunder Cape Bird Observatory (http://www.tbfn.net/tcbotbfn.htm)
on Lake Superior near Thunder Bay. For the remainder of the year they
volunteer their time in Costa Rica surviving on small grants from the
Canadian Wildlife Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service that cover
the basic expenses of transportation and food. They solicit your help to
continue with this important conservation effort.