Friday, October 29, 2010

Hawkwatching at its Best

What could be more fun than floating on your back in warm waters of the Caribbean and watching thousands of raptors swirl overhead above you? This was just one of the many highlights from HMANA’s recent birding and hawkwatching tour to Costa Rica last week.

Where to even begin?! We journeyed through the country exploring the Central foothills and highlands, Caribbean lowlands and the Pacific slope. Overall our group saw or heard an amazing 393 species of birds. Among those were 31 species of raptors, 26 hummingbirds, 21 antbirds, 35 flycatchers, 29 warblers and 30 tanager species. It was 10 glorious days of colorful birds, beautiful rainforest and coastal landscapes, good coffee and lots of fruit.

But the grand focus of this tour was spending 2 days at the Kèköldi Hawkwatch inside the Kèköldi Indigenous Reserve on the Caribbean slope. This has always been a very special place to me. From my first season spent counting there in 2001, and then again when I returned to do peregrine falcon research in 2005, I have been itching to get back. And as always, it was just as magical as ever and did not let us down.

The hike up to the watchsite involved a lot of mud, sweat and thorns. What would be the fun of seeing all those migrants if you didn’t have to work for it, right? We wove our way up the mountain through an abandoned cacao plantation, stopping of course to sample the sweet and tangy fruit along the way. Black and green poison dart frogs hopped across the trail and laughing falcons called from the canopy. I could spend all day on this 2km long trail, studying leaf cutter ants, the towering strangler fig trees and the huge diversity of understory species like antbirds, tinamous and hermits (hummingbirds). Looking up at any one time, we saw glimpses of swirling kettles through the canopy, reminding us of what was in store and to pick up the pace.

As soon as we reached the top of the hawkwatch tower and were catching our breath, the counters handed me a clicker and said, “You’re in charge of peregrines!” Just like old times. For the next few hours, I counted over 100 peregrines passing overhead. Some scattered over the ocean, others kettling up over the mountains in groups of 5-10.
Turkey vultures were the dominant migrant during our visit but mixed in were thousands of broad-wings and Swainsons hawks with the occasional Mississippi Kite, osprey or merlin. At times, the skies would be full of solely broad-wings or Swainson’s as if they were very courteously taking turns using the sky.

The phrase, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” was a common one, as tour participants shifted from kettle to kettle, trying to take in the sheer magnitude of the movement. Aside from raptors, chimney swifts and various swallow species swept past in the millions. By the end of the day, 70,000 raptors had been tallied.

To anyone who visits, it’s easy to see that Kèköldi is a truly remarkable place. As with many hawkwatch sites, Kèköldi is struggling to stay afloat and is in need of more financial and volunteer support. The two to three volunteer counters this season are overworked and overwhelmed by the volume of birds coming through. This site requires a team of at least 4-6 counters to effectively cover the skies.

Several brainstorming sessions took place amongst tour participants and Daniel, the project coordinator (& our local guide) on how to help this project succeed long-term. It was great to see people eager to share their thoughts and ideas on how to build upon this important project with outreach and fundraising strategies. HMANA is currently working with Kèköldi to find ways to offer support. Hopefully one way we can continue to offer support is through more tours like this one!

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