Costa Rica – Tarcoles

With our bodies running six hours ahead of our surroundings, we were up well before dawn on our first day in Costa Rica, waiting at the window for the sun to rise and shine on the inaugural bird of our trip. We prayed for anything but a Feral Pigeon, and those prayers were answered by a Great-tailed Grackle – the first of many. Rufous-collared Sparrow soon followed, chirping in the hotel car park, but flyover Great Blue Heron and Ringed Kingfisher were an unexpected surprise. It seemed like no time at all before we were in a shuttle bus en route to our first destination – Tarcoles village, gateway to Carara National Park.

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Tarcoles

Our accommodation, Hotel Carara, came with an ensuite room, a ceiling fan and a fantastic view of the Pacific Ocean. From our seats on the balcony we watched gangs of Black Vulture squabble over discarded fish, whilst Brown Pelican bobbed on the sea and Magnificent Frigatebird soared high in the bright blue sky.

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Our view

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Magnificent Frigatebird

A pair of Rufous-naped Wren, nesting nearby, made regular trips to the hotel roof, and occasionally a Laughing Gull or Royal Tern would cruise along the shoreline, scanning the water for fish. But the real selling point for the hotel was the regular appearance of several Scarlet Macaw, crashing and squawking through the beachside trees.

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Black Vultures

The beach itself wasn’t great for sunbathing, with the black sand littered with rubbish from the estuary, but it was great for shorebirds. Many were familiar from the UK, like Sanderling, Grey Plover and Whimbrel – all birds I have now seen on three continents! But there were also waders I had never seen before: Semi-palmated, Wilson’s and Collared Plover, Willet and the adorably minuscule Least Sandpiper.

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Tarcoles Beach

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Collared Plover

But the trek across the hot sand to the famous Tarcoles river mouth was as gruelling as it was unrewarding – just a handful of pelicans, egrets, herons and cormorants rested on the sandbar, no sign of the promised tern flock! Fortunately the mangroves in the area were more productive, eventually revealing all three sought after specialists – Mangrove Hummingbird, Mangrove Vireo and Mangrove Yellow Warbler.

Not wanting to repeat our sun-scorched pilgrimage, we decided to follow the road back to the hotel, taking advantage of the tree cover. This turned out to be a brilliant idea, as we found some great birds on the way.

A lucky glance skyward revealed a circling White Hawk – a beautiful raptor with an almost dove-like elegance. Amazingly, a Broad-winged Hawk then soared into view beside it, the two competing for our attention for a few moments before disappearing over the forest. We’d barely had time to miss them when I spotted a juvenile Mangrove Black Hawk perched up on a fence, just feet from the road. It obligingly posed for a few photos before we left it to its business. This bird of prey buffet was rounded off with a distant Grey Hawk, watching us from a lonely tree in the centre of a cattle field.

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Mangrove Black Hawk

North of the road, just west of the Crocodile Tour dock, we found a flooded field, with Wood Stork and White Ibis stalking the shallows. There were no waders there, but the muddy margins of the water looked promising – we would definitely be back!

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Wood Stork

 

 

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Mist Opportunities

One of the things I miss most about island life is the seawatching. I’d wake up early every morning, often rising before the sun, and try to stare out to sea for at least an hour before work. It was the element of mystery that had me hooked. It felt like anything could fly by, and there was no shortage of surprises – I’d seen everything from Storm Petrels to Snow Buntings flitting above the waves.

There’s not much scope for seawatching in Nottinghamshire, so when we decided to take a holiday to Cornwall, I was determined to make the most of it. In fact, gazing out to sea was the main reason we chose the sunny southwest. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas.

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Our first day it seemed the entire county was wrapped in a sea fret. Dense fog shrouded the cliffs, trailing out across the ocean and making our mission all but impossible – it’s hard to seawatch when you can’t even see the sea! Still, we tried. An hour of mist-watching produced nothing more exciting than a few Manx Shearwater. Fortunately, conditions were better for migrant passerines, with a Firecrest and three Tree Pipit amongst the various chats, finches and warblers at Porthgwarra.

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It took a couple of days for the fret to thin, and even longer to lift entirely. But perseverance paid off, hundreds of Manxies streaming past in the clear spells. Scattered amongst them were dozens of Sooty and Balearic Shearwaters, the former sleek and graceful, the latter brown and pot-bellied. Add in the occasional skua and things were looking pretty good!

But we never got our real target birds – Cory’s or Great Shearwater. We were a couple of weeks too late for the main rush of large shearwaters; only a few were spotted during our time down there, and we always seemed to be in the wrong place! We did, however, see our first ever Ocean Sunfish, waving its enormous fin at us from the softly rolling sea.

Most importantly, I got to indulge one of my favourite hobbies for the first time since leaving the Farnes. I can’t think of a more peaceful experience than sitting on a clifftop, eye to a ‘scope, watching the sleek silhouettes of shearwaters carving graceful arcs above the rolling waves as the sun sinks slowly towards the horizon.

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The Slow Journey South

The list of birds I’ve seen in Britain is fairly modest, by birder standards. Many hardcore listers manage more species in a year than I’ve seen in a lifetime, but I’m slowly closing the gaps. One glaring omission was the Cirl Bunting, the Yellowhammer’s black-bearded cousin.

Restricted to coastal hegderows in the southwest, the Cirl Bunting was one of the few resident birds I’d yet to track down. The time had come to change that! What better way to break up a long drive down to west Cornwall than with a stop in Devon, to seek out this beautiful bunting.

So, after five hours in the car, a big chunk of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix audiobook, and a stop at the poshest service station I’ve ever seen (Gloucestershire, where in place of McDonald’s or Burger King they had a farm shop!), we pulled into the carpark at Labrador Bay.

Signs were promising; I’d barely opened the car door when I heard a sharp “zitt” and saw a trio of bunting-shaped silhouettes darting from the closest hedge. Unfortunately, they didn’t stick around, flying off far into the distance. As I stared after them, the distinct “gronk” of a Raven drew my attention skyward, where a great black diamond-tailed shadow was soaring above the clifftop.

But, impressive as these cronking corvids are, we were on a mission. We marched along the hedgerow, inspecting every movement in the dense tangle of branches. There were a lot of birds moving around in there, but almost every one seemed to be a Dunnock – living up to their pseudonym of Hedge Sparrow, they were popping up every few yards!

Frustrations were building. Would that fleeting glimpse of suspicious silhouettes be our only sighting? Would we leave Devon having failed to add the stunning Cirl Bunting to our life list? Not if I could help it! I raised my bins and started scanning, checking the bushes in the far distance. A flicker of movement caught my eye, a chunky bird hunkering down in the hedgerow. Definitely a bunting. Rushing to set up the ‘scope, I honed in on the target and… yes! A juvenile Cirl Bunting!

Pretty soon another had emerged beside it. We stared at the pair of juveniles for a while, but in truth were a little underwhelmed. Endearing as they were, these dusky youngsters weren’t what we’d travelled cross-country to see! Tearing ourselves away from our first lifer of the trip, we continued along the path and were quickly rewarded with incredible views of a male Cirl Bunting. Now this was the bird we were looking for!

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On the brink of moulting, he still sported more than enough of his summer finery to stop us in our tracks. This fine specimen of a bird was every bit as handsome as the pictures suggest. After a few emphatic calls, he flew off into the distance and was promptly replaced by a female, a beak-full of grubs indicating she had a nest nearby. Our appetite for buntings sated, we set off for the carpark to address our suddenly insistent appetite for dinner.

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Scale-winged Saturday

Maybe it’s the slight midsummer lull in birding opportunities, or maybe I’m finally maturing as a naturalist, but I’m finding myself spending more and more time staring at invertebrates lately. And so it was that I found myself at Chambers Farm Wood last Saturday, looking for creatures with scaled rather than feathered wings.

The weather looked perfect; we pulled up in the carpark about 09:00 and the day was already warming up nicely, strong sunlight filtering through the trees. I’d only taken a few steps when I had my first insect encounter, albeit an unwanted one – a sharp pain drew my attention to a horse fly burying its face in my calf!

We headed southeast, following the White Trail, and soon found our first butterflies. Small clouds of Ringlets were beginning to drift out of the undergrowth, already too energised to settle for long. Despite them being abundant, I never managed a decent photo!

 

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Ringlet

 

Just before we turned onto the White Trail proper, we picked up our first Small Skipper, basking unobtrusively in a small patch of sunlight. But then the forest grew thicker, the shadows deeper and the butterflies fewer. We walked for ten minutes with no sign of a fluttering wing, but something else caught our collective eye. Something had been very busily at work on the hazel leaves, leaving a ragged patchwork of holes in dozens of them. A quick inspection revealed the culprit to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Hazel-leaf Roller Weevil.

 

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Hazel-leaf Roller Beetle

 

After admiring this handsome weevil for a while, we moved on and found an opening in the canopy. Bright sunlight poured onto the path, bathing a single bush in golden light and illuminating, with an air of biblical revelation, my first ever White Admiral!

 

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White Admiral

 

White Admiral had been our target for the day, but I’d never expected to see them so well, or indeed to see so many of them. The first was a rather underwhelming specimen, ragged of wing and more than a little faded – but it was my first, and it was magnificent! However, shallow as I clearly am, I soon lost interest in it when a more pristine specimen fluttered by.

 

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White Admiral

 

But it wasn’t just White Admirals taking advantage of this literal hot spot. There were a few Commas, Red Admirals and a selection of Whites all busily flitting between flowers. Eventually, several hundred photos later, we dragged ourselves away and continued along the trail. White Admirals continued to appear, with easily a dozen seen along the trail. As the woodland thinned Meadow Browns became more abundant, and we found our first Large Skipper of the day gazing out over a forest of ferns.

 

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Meadow Brown

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Large Skipper

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Comma

 

Soon we’d finished the loop of the White Trail, arriving at the Butterfly Garden. Given our success in the woodland, we had high hopes for this patch of cultivated wildness, specifically tailored to attract moths and butterflies. Surely it had to be the Lepidopteran promised land, with brightly coloured butterflies on every bush and Hummingbird Hawk-moths buzzing around the flowers.

 

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Butterfly Garden

 

It was not. Sure, there were butterflies, with Small Tortoiseshell and Gatekeeper new for the day, and plenty of Red Admirals busily investigating the garden, but it wasn’t as active as I’d expected. In fairness, it was still early in the day, and had we stuck around longer I’m sure more would have appeared. And, in even more fairness, I’d opened the garden gate with a ridiculous level of expectation. Mostly I was annoyed there was no hawk-moth.

 

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Red Admiral

 

But the day wasn’t over! It was only a short drive to Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s Red Hill Nature Reserve, a meadow just brimming with butterflies. We hadn’t even left the car before we spotted our target, a stunning Marbled White. There were dozens of these black-and-white beauties! Playing second fiddle were good numbers of Meadow Brown, Ringlet, skippers and Six-spot Burnet Moths.

 

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Marbled White

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Six-spot Burnet Moth