Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of a northern waterthrush © Karen Ecklund

Northern waterthrush bobbing its tail.
© Karen Ecklund

February 2012

"Our" birds

Making a Costa Rican connection.

Karen Ecklund

What began as a spring 2011 trip to Costa Rica with my son, turned into a mission.

Five years ago, on my first trip to Costa Rica, I visited the cloud forest near Montverde and the lowland jungle on the Caribbean coast. This time I wanted to spend time on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast.

According to the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, osa means "bear" in Spanish and the peninsula hosts some of the richest biodiversity in all of Central America, plus the last remaining old growth rain forest on the western flank of Central America. My son was game; this would be his first trip to this part of the world.

My colleagues at the magazine office suggested I try to spot Wisconsin birds in the Osa. The foundation reports that the Osa Peninsula provides wintering habitat for 55 species of Wisconsin birds – at last count – 20 percent of our state's breeding birds, including 19 considered conservation priorities. I became determined to see a few. Wouldn't it be great to snap a photo of a Wisconsin bird posing in a palm tree?

My interest in birds began as a child in north central Wisconsin. Neighbor boy Tommy sent away for special items from the Audubon Society and we became charter members of the Medford Junior Audubon Club. Of course, Tommy was President, but he declared me VP.

I remember having only one formal meeting at the picnic table but together in the field we spotted chipping sparrows, wrens, flickers, red-headed woodpeckers, rose-breasted grosbeaks and cedar waxwings, still some of my favorite birds. Today, the spring call of the eastern meadowlark is a nostalgic reminder of the grassy fields that seemed to go on forever behind my childhood home on the edge of town.

As part of my trip planning, I met with Charlie Luthin of the Natural Resources Foundation. He filled me in on how the foundation is working to preserve valuable migratory bird habitat on the Osa Peninsula. According to Luthin, "The importance of the Osa Peninsula for both Wisconsin birds and indigenous flora and fauna cannot be overestimated. With the massive loss of forest cover in Central America in recent years, refuges like what is found on the Osa Peninsula play a critical role in harboring our wintering avifauna. The need to conserve intact habitat in Costa Rica and neighboring countries is imperative if we hope to preserve our summer songbird populations in Wisconsin."

Luthin also suggested I contact Craig Thompson, a DNR district land program manager in La Crosse and a keen birder. I'm glad I did. Thompson sent me a list of the 55 species of Wisconsin birds I might see on my trip to the Osa and a bit of advice, "Be prepared to be overwhelmed. The Osa is brimming with birds and other wildlife. You're about to immerse yourselves in one of the world's most magnificent rain forests," Thompson told me.

I was committed to the mission.

Upon arriving in Costa Rica and after spending the night at an airport hotel, we took a 45-minute domestic flight to the Osa. Aerial views transformed from San Jose cityscape to small towns to mountains with thick jungle and finally the aquamarine ocean as we arrived in Puerto Jimenez on the Gulf of Dulce. We then "puddle jumped" to the Drake Bay airstrip, on the northern Pacific side of the peninsula. From here we rode in a fourwheel drive vehicle for half an hour on dirt roads, crossing streams along the way to the coast where we boarded a small boat and motored for 20 minutes down the west side of the peninsula. After a wet landing and a 15-minute hike, we arrived at the eco-lodge where we had five nights reserved.

The lodge arranged interesting adventures for us including a local festival, canoeing to and swimming beneath waterfalls, and a medicinal plant tour. I tested my endurance on a strenuous hike through a local jungle preserve. A slick, red clay trail led steeply down to the river and just as steeply back up through dense rain forest. Our guide was mostly "into plants," but he did identify some calling birds, along with strangler figs and spider monkeys. My son was impressed when our guide used his machete to slice open a passion fruit we found on the forest floor near a waterfall. Other edible plants we sampled that day were sugar cane, cashew fruit and ice cream beans.

Lesson learned: Do not sit in grassy or sandy areas. Chiggers live there and will remind you of your hike for days afterward.

Photo of orange-billed sparrow © Patty McGann
Orange-billed sparrow
© Patty McGann

Back at the lodge, I wandered the grounds observing birds in the manicured bushes and trees. A pair of great kiskadees mobbed a chestnut-mandibled toucan as it eyed their bower-like nest on the lodge roof. Numerous Cherrie's tanagers flew about and a stunning golden- hooded tanager caught my eye. I even spotted a colorful orange-billed sparrow. Scarlet macaws flew overhead every day. Still no Wisconsin birds...

The lodge staff was interested in my list of 55 Wisconsin birds that also call the Osa home. However, they had no suggestions on where to find them. Looking back, if I had hired a professional bird guide I perhaps would have had more success.

Tiny lizards scurried around on the patio where we took our meals with other lodge guests. My eye caught movement along the patio border. I saw a small brown bird moving in short bursts, bobbing its tail and making a chipping sound. I followed it with my binoculars as it hurried in and out of the sunny spots mottling the patio. I snapped a series of blurry photos and later identified the bird as a northern waterthrush.

I'll also need a better camera if I plan to take more photos of birds.

On bird tours in Wisconsin when I've encountered the northern waterthrush I've been in rather deep woods near running water, patiently searching for the well-camouflaged bird as it scurried among the rocks and water plants.

A species of wood warbler, according to my Peterson field guide, Eastern Birds, the northern waterthrush often walks along the water's edge and teeters in the manner of a spotted sandpiper. Brown-backed, with a creamy, pale yellow, or buff eyebrow stripe; underparts striped, often yellowish. Its note is a sharp chip. Its song a vigorous, rapid twit twit twit sweet sweet sweet chew chew chew (chew's drop in pitch). My Costa Rican field guide, The Birds of Costa Rica, describes its note as a metallic tsink. No waterthrushes were singing in Costa Rica. Was this bird on vacation hanging out on the patio?

When I told the lodge manager about my discovery he responded, "Oh those? We see them all the time." I thought to myself, "Hmmm, I bet they don't see them in the summer."

According to Andy Paulios, DNR wildlife biologist and coordinator of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, we just borrow these birds. "Neo-tropical migrants really belong in the tropics. They migrate north to have families and spend time with the kids," Paulios says. The quality of their habitat in Central America is just as important as the habitat where they breed, if we want to continue thinking of them as "Wisconsin birds."

I loved the time we spent in Costa Rica on the Osa Peninsula and I want to return to the jungle some day. But I also look forward to welcoming our migrants back to Wisconsin in the spring. "Our birds," local and migratory, are worth watching all year round.

Karen Ecklund is Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine's business and circulation manager.

The Natural Resources Foundation's Bird Protection Fund is supporting protection of important wintering habitat on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Enormous trees, some more than 1,000 years old, provide critical habitat for hundreds of bird species. Troops of monkeys share the leafy canopy with their feathered neighbors, while jaguars prowl the dimly lit forest floor. The Osa is still a wild place, but due to population growth, clear cutting, agriculture expansion, and biofuel production, the future of valuable bird habitat is threatened. Visit Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin to find out more about special projects.

Adapted from an article in the NRF's "Bridges" newsletter.