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Bird Watching

"The area around Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is one of the most underrated birding destinations in Costa Rica, because of the ease with which you can see a great variety of species. Unlike many regions in Costa Rica, large cattle pastures are a rarity in this area as are large mono culture farms. Much of the land is covered with large second growth forest and seeing significant stands of primary forest on adjacent hillsides is the norm rather than the exception. Colorful parrots, toucans, trogons, and tanagers abound in the area, while a variety of antbirds and woodcreepers are present to challenge your skills" -- A Travel and Site Guide to Birds of Costa Rica by Aaron D. Seberek


The following is an excerpt out of the "Wildlife Activist", a publication (#66) produced by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, in Pennsylvania and is written by their Director, Dan Kunkle who visited La Joya.


In early March, (2010), LGNC Treasurer Bob Hoopes and I visited La Joya Retreat, a private lodge in Cocles, a town on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We were there at the invitation of the retreat's owner, Madeline Jacobs. She wanted us to evaluate the retreat's potential as an ecotourism destination and possibly to designate LGNC as the heir to the retreat someday in the future.

La Joya means "the Jewel" and to Madeline, it is a jewel that she has created. The land (about 9 acres) was mostly a cattle pasture when she purchased it more than 20 years ago, and she has transformed it into a garden and forest. The lodge itself sits atop a ridge with the land sloping quickly downhill on three sides. When you look out of the lodge, you are seeing the middle levels of the surrounding trees, giving you the feeling of being in a tree house. The lack of walls in the building contributes to that feeling and makes the lodge airy and bright.

Getting to La Joya is a bit of a challenge. After a flight to San Jose in the central valley of Costa Rica, you must travel by bus or car over the mountains to the Caribbean coast at Limon, then head south along a coastal road that is populated with potholes. After a 4+ hour ride, we arrived in Puerto Viejo where Madeline met us and escorted us through Cocles to La Joya.

The next morning Bob and I forgot about the long drive over the mountains in the rain and we started trying to identify the many colorful birds flitting around the grounds of the lodge. It took us two hours just to get out off the driveway. We birded our way to town and back on the road we traveled in darkness the night before, logging more then 50 species. After lunch, we walked to Cocles again and this time saw streams of raptors migrating north along the coast from the soccer field of the local elementary school. We soon found ourselves surrounded by curious students who were amazed to look through our binoculars and page through our bird books.

On the second day, we visited Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve with our excellent guide Mauricio where we hiked up the mountain to the hawk watch platform. Mauricio shared his extensive knowledge of the forest and its inhabitants with us, and on the platform, we saw more Swallow-tailed Kites in one flock than I had seen in my entire life. Kekoldi is one of three locations in the world that have counted over one million migrating raptors in a season.

On day three, we birded our way by car and on foot along the road beyond the lodge to the towns of Margarita and Bri-Bri. We saw 90 species on this day, and the on and off rain didn't dampen our enthusiasm. Species sighted included Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Northern Jacana, Golden-hooded Tanager and Violaceous Trogon. The best stop was a farm/orchard just a couple of miles from la Joya. We were certainly convinced that the area had great potential as a birding destination, especially with Kekoldi nearby. There are several other parks and natural areas nearby, including Manzanillo, near the Panamanian border.

If you are the adventurous type who loves natural history and birding, contact us about a visit to La Joya Retreat. DAN KUNKLE, Director, LGNC


Lajoya is nearby the area this article mentions, and our season coincides with the annual hawk / raptor migration.

An Overnight Success
(After Twenty Years)


Partnerships Speed Costa Rica Hawkwatch From Zero to One Million

by Charles D. Duncan and Keith L. Bildstein Talamanca, Costa Rica, October 21, 2000


We look out from the handmade deck that serves as the hawkwatch platform. Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and a few Mississippi Kites stream by. Two teenaged Costa Rican boys and a tall, blonde Minnesotan woman are clicking away at their counters, tabulating the migrants. They are busy; the flight is strong today. Conversation switches easily from Spanish to English and back again. Behind us, we hear BriBri, the language of the Kéköldi, the indigenous people on whose land we stand; they have built the deck for the counters. The hawkwatch is on a low hill, a few hundred feet above the blue Caribbean Sea, in view well off to our right. The narrow coastal plain in front of us, beneath this stream of raptors, is a complex mosaic: the small town of Hone Creek, the wooded hillsides of the Kéköldi Indigenous Reserve, a distant banana plantation.

By day’s end, over 50,000 raptors have been counted — as many as a full season’s count at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (HMS), Pennsylvania, or Cape May, New Jersey. Today’s count brings the autumn total for Talamanca to a half-million, a milestone most watch sites take decades to reach. Here it has taken just seven sunburned, bleary-eyed weeks. By December, the total will stand at 1.3 million raptors counted, making this site — in its first year — one of only three places in the world to break the million-raptor mark (Veracruz, Mexico, and Eilat, Israel, are the other two.) The authors have each been here previously, but on this day, we marvel at the speed with which the Talamanca hawkwatch — the first one south of Veracruz, Mexico, to collect a full season’s data — has gone from inception to success. Bildstein visited Talamanca in the spring of 1999 in search of watch sites to study raptor migration in the tropics. At the time, he was unaware of an ongoing collaboration between Asociación ANAI, a Costa Rican environmental and development organization, and the Wings of the Americas program of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), made possible by Canon USA, Inc. With funding assistance from the Wallace Research Foundation, the TNC/ANAI project aimed to use ecotourism and local pride as incentives for maintaining the forests and traditional organic cacao farms here in the southeasternmost part of Costa Rica.

Only six months after Bildstein’s visit, the idea of a season-long count first came to life. TNC’s Duncan had assisted Pablo Porras, ANAI’s conservation ornithologist, in teaching a bird observation course to local guides-in-training. During that class, Duncan, Porras, and their students visited the Kéköldi Indigenous Reserve on October 22, 1999, where they encountered a jaw-dropper of a raptor migration, unquestionably of hemispheric significance. Hawks and vultures passed through in dizzying streams. The migrating Barn Swallows and Chimney Swifts that formed the background were, literally, innumerable. Over the next few days, as Duncan and Porras reflected on what they were seeing, a conservation strategy emerged.

The objective of the TNC/ANAI partnership had always been “community-based conservation”: developing economic and other incentives for the people of the region to conserve the forest, while raising their standard of living. In fact, ANAI has been working for environmental protection through sustainable development in Talamanca for some twenty years. Through their partnership with TNC, ANAI’s preliminary ideas about birds and the economic potential of birding tourism found the resources and support to advance. And now, given the newly discovered immensity of the raptor migration, it couldn’t have been plainer: Talamanca would become a “must-see” for any raptorphile. Moreover, there were other birds to be seen. For example, Duncan and Porras found seven species of hummingbirds — before breakfast one morning, none of them at a feeder. With careful hard work and luck, the sort of nature-based tourism that truly benefits local communities seemed within reach. There were already elements of a tourism infrastructure in place: pleasant small hotels and lodges, a variety of places to eat, and reasonable roads from San José, the Costa Rican capital. Nonetheless, many other factors were necessary to mold these basic elements so rapidly into a successful hawkwatch with so much conservation promise. The key elements have been a relatively small group of committed and hardworking individuals; a strong and focused local organization with a relationship of trust and many years of experience in the community; the collaboration of international conservation and research groups; the generosity of donor foundations; and even the power of the Internet to facilitate communication among people of shared goals and interests, regardless of their locations. Absent any of these, progress would have been much slower.


Dedication and Cooperation

Shortly after first witnessing the migration spectacle in Talamanca, ANAI’s Pablo Porras changed his plans for attending graduate school in Costa Rica. Duncan spoke with Bildstein, who found a slot for Porras in Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Spring 2000 class of international interns. (Initiated in the mid-1970s, the intern program annually trains eight to ten of the world’s best and brightest young raptor conservationists in the whys and wherefores of raptor conservation.) Here, Porras learned techniques for monitoring raptors along migration flyways such as the Mesoamerican Land Corridor that stretches from southern Texas to northwestern Colombia. While at HMS, Porras met HMS Education Specialist Jennifer McNicoll, herself a former intern, and invited her to lead the field crew for the hawkwatch he envisioned. Her willingness to leave a secure job for the pitiful pay, long hours, and uncertain future that the project offered matched Porras’s own dedication and vision. The nucleus of the hawkwatch was created.

ANAI’s years of experience and solid relations with the communities of Talamanca created an environment that welcomed the new watch site. Many key individuals living in this part of Costa Rica had worked with ANAI, and several, including the president of the Kéköldi Wak ka Koneke Indigenous Association, had taken the Bird Observation Course, developing enormous enthusiasm and real skills in birding as well as an understanding of conservation needs. The Kéköldi people expressed an interest in consolidating and strengthening their decade-long relationship with ANAI, with birds (especially raptors), research, and tourism being the new spark. Their land offered the best place to observe, and protect, the raptor flight, since this was the land the birds were flying over and depending on. With the ANAI/Kéköldi partnership, Piece Number Two was in place.


Know-how and Funding

Once these basic elements were secured, a wide range of other partnerships provided knowledge, equipment, and funding for the nascent Talamanca hawkwatch project. The collaborations of The Nature Conservancy and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary with ANAI are typical of the two organizations’ international efforts. Outside the United States, both rely more on strong partnerships with in-country organizations and less on direct land acquisition. TNC offered ANAI its expertise in developing ecotourism and other sustainable, environmentally friendly economic alternatives, its knowledge of ornithology and birding, and access to United States-based donor foundations. HMS offered its expertise in watch site management and connections with likeminded conservationists elsewhere in the corridor.

The Wallace Research Foundation has been a generous supporter of TNC’s bird conservation activities in Talamanca, including sponsoring several bird identification and observation courses for local people. (Indeed, foundation officer Linda Wallace-Gray and her husband, John Gray, were present for that exciting day in October 2000 when the Talamanca watch hit the half-million mark.) Birders’ Exchange, a cooperative program of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and ABA, responded to ANAI’s request (brokered through TNC) for binoculars and scopes for the Bird Observation Courses, and some of this equipment was pressed into service for the hawkwatch. Dimeiston Peńaranda took the course and became a key part of the hawkwatch using Birders’ Exchange binoculars. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of that course and those binoculars to Dimeiston: they have literally changed his life. From the small BriBri community of Yorkín, he is now, at age 16, a birder, in the same sense of the word as any reader of this newsletter.

The James Lynch Conservation Biology Fund, from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, provided key funds for the hawkwatch as a result of a proposal from Porras. This is exactly the sort of project that the late conservation biologist James Lynch wished to support: using biology as the basis for conservation decisions and actions, encouraging a particularly skilled native researcher in his career, and enabling the protection of one of the planet’s most impressive migrations.


International Cooperation And the Internet

One does not just wake up one day with the skills to establish a hawkwatch and count a million or so raptors in a season. Fortunately, the team at the Veracruz, Mexico, “River of Raptors” (VRR) project (itself comprising several former HMS interns) was willing to share their decade of experience. (See Clay Sutton’s article on Veracruz in the June 1999 Birding). Porras and McNicoll each visited Veracruz for discussions and training. The warmth and hospitality they enjoyed there encouraged them, and the relationship has continued through electronic mail, even to the point of sending nearly real-time updates from Veracruz on numbers of birds counted at that site as the birds headed south toward Talamanca. A decade ago, pre-Internet, such collaboration among groups in distinct Latin American countries simply would not have happened.

What’s next? The community of Carbón Dos, comprising mostly first and second-generation campesino colonists from elsewhere in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, is building a small lodge for birders. The view of the Talamanca Corridor from the porch is glorious, especially when tens of thousands of hawks are streaming by. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Holbrook Travel have each committed to bringing birding tourist groups to Talamanca. The Nature Conservancy’s Costa Rica Program is turning its attention slightly farther inland, toward Upper Talamanca and La Amistad National Park, to ensure the protection of the high-elevation species that live there and maintain the watershed that feeds the areas where the hawks roost in Talamanca. Spanning the border of Costa Rica and Panama, these highlands protect perhaps the largest and most diverse stand of virgin forest and highland watersheds in Central America, providing habitat for species such as Crested Eagle, Resplendent Quetzal, and Volcano Hummingbird.

Asociación ANAI and the VRR are collaborating to create the Mesoamerican Raptor Migration Corridor, a coalition of local and regional groups interested in hawk migration in Mexico and Central America, to share methodologies, successes, and conservation strategies. In short, the “overnight” success of the Talamanca hawkwatch, built on twenty years of preparation, points ahead to a most promising future.

Charles D. Duncan
The Nature Conservancy,
Wings of the Americas,
638 Congress Street,
305, Portland, ME 04101-3354.
Keith Bildstein
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary,
1700 Hawk Mountain Road,
Kempton, PA 19529-9449


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