Rare Migrant #Birds, Super Birders, and Sweet Spots of Security

IMB - Oct. for Latin America

International Migratory Bird Day for Latin America takes place during October.

Of the 660 bird species that breed in the US and Canada, 350 migrate south of the US border for the winter. “Laws in both the United States and Costa Rica are in place to provide protection for migratory birds. In the United States it is illegal to posses any part of a migratory bird, unless it is for educational purposes. There are protected areas set aside in the United States for birds to rest and prepared for their yearly migrations. Until recently, Swallow-tailed Kites were not known to fly as south as they do from North America. By tracking individuals, it is revealed this species travels some 8,000 kilometers. For those birds that may be hunted (waterfowl and shorebirds) there are hunting seasons and bag limits that have to be observed. [1]

Chestnut-sided Warblers are the number one neo-migrant bird species wintering in the southern coastal region of Costa Rica, where I reside as an American, ex-pat. This species remains solitary while on their wintering grounds. See below a video taken while on their breeding grounds in North America along with a migratory map.

Chestnut-sided Warbler Migratory Map

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Fall dressed Chestnut-sided Warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica), teenage female.

How Big Year Really Started

During the 60s, #Rich #Stallcup of Northern California and #Guy #McCaskie of Southern California, the not yet West Coast’s premier rare bird field ornithologists, sat down together and began to map out what they considered vagrant bird traps[2] for bird migrants moving up and down the western flyway twice a year.

Rich had been shepherding #Audubon Society sponsored bird guiding trips since he was nine years old. The son of a naturalist, Rich grew-up trekking the trails of the high Sierras and traveling by fishing boat – puking over the gunwale all the way out and back – to get to the Farallones Islands off the Golden Gate to see migrating birds. At the time, few knew Guy’s actual story or history. Guy was introverted, cranky, and about as friendly as a disturbed rattler in the 100-degree dry inferno of Death Valley.

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Seen above: Fearless with feathers and scales, Rich Stallcup (in 2006), one of the founders of PRBO.org. California’s premier naturalist and the champion of Pt. Reyes. http://www.pointblue.org/our-science-and-services/conservation-science/conservation-training/remembering-rich-stallcup/ My original bird master who taught me (and thousands of others) how glorious is nature if we begin to commune with the wonders.

What these two SUPER avid birders discovered was to become the original basis for extreme birding – big years, big days, big sits, bird nerding, etc. An official number of undreamed of record sightings along with an unbelievable body of scientific monitoring for studies by those with sheepskins and university publish or perish directives should say a hearty thank you to Richie and Guy. These two carried permits and arms with custom shot to shoot vagrant records to be placed into skin collections at #UC #Berkeley, and other protected archives – in case you doubt their authenticity. One birder would become known as the godfather of California birding, the other the champion of Pt. Reyes and a world class teacher/naturalist/author who inspired thousands.

Guy and Richie burnt up a lot of gasoline (vehicle and vessel) but it was far cheaper in the 60s. They committed themselves like no other field ornithologists in the history of American birding. Richie covered the north with Guy covering the south of California, but if a rarity was found each would barrel down on it any time of night or day. Working at adrenal levels, full steam ahead, they would motor to some of the utmost pristine and wild places (on land or sea) in the West states of America when migrants were on the move and vagrants[3] suspected.

(note: next two paragraphs are a sidebar)


Richie was a charming compelling story-telling bohemian by the time he was 14 years old. His persona was an expansive heart made of ancient amber, Ponderosa Pine shavings, and Yosemite moon shadows. He helped establish the first bird observatory to band birds, monitor birds, and research specific species of birds near Pt Reyes, north of San Francisco. One could find him on top of the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory’s chicken coop (morphed into a funky research station) fixing the roof or standing at a banding mist net gently removing a migrating warbler at 4 AM in the dark, dank, and misty fall mornings of Bolinas heights. Richie never graduated high school but went on to be a fantastic field biologist, to write and co-author several books and launch and own Wings, the world’s premium bird touring company. Yet, he is remembered as the number one recognized charismatic defender and teacher about the wilds of Pt. Reyes[4], and beyond.

Guy[5] was politely aloof, wry, not obviously spiritually circumspect, yet geared-up like a professional from his pressed dress shirts to style of entourage to his rumored neat freak lifestyle. Richie was jugs of cheapo Chianti or Muscatel. He existed on bologna and iceberg lettuce sandwiches slammed between slices of white bread dripping with catsup along with Lucky Strikes and doobie butts in the ashtray. His mode of transportation was someone else’s aging sedan eventually beat to shit by back roads or slamming its heavy metal into guardrails because a rare bird flew over.

Yet, both men were born with a call to service, a vision. They honed a spectacularly keen awareness about nature that even meditative guru Buddha never developed. Richie and Guy both innately possessed the magical keys to the conundrum of great “#BirdKarma.”

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Somewhere along the development of interspecies communication, birdwatcher legends Richie and Guy received hefty memory banks able at any second to recite the pertinent history of any bird including those never seen before in the West. Richie also could do the same for nearly every living habitat, critter (on sea or land), wildflower, plant or bug residing in America. They each could spot a bird and name it within seconds or stand quietly while a handful of selected diehard birders stood in awe within one of their divine bird traps hoping for the latest state record for their life lists. I was honored to stand next to Roger Tory Peterson, and other greats, even though it was usually only two women present – me, and Marianne Shepherd[6].

I learned to bird and became an avid birder because I met (in synchronicity) Richie, bird shaman and pied piper of wild creatures and wild places, and the others. An odd juncture took place during a Friday night university fraternity party. While the awful one-song garage band incessantly played Louie Louie, handsome, owl-eyed Richie cajoled me into showing a friend he had in the trunk of a battered sedan. The wheels were owned by his best birder buddy, Dave DeSante[7]. Rich’s slithering friend (not Dave) was a gorgeous multi-colored San Francisco endemic Garter Snake.

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See above: Dr. David DeSante, dear friend, bird mentor, and founder of Institute of Bird Populations (birdpop.org), holding a friend, a Yellow Wagtail. http://www.birdpop.org/pages/aboutIBP.php

Birding enchants one’s whole person, if you release human arrogance, get in the groove, and let go of our inhuman inbred need to live in a 19th century attitude to conquer the world – because we think we are the superior species on planet Earth. Birds are not what they appear to be; they are messengers, healers, riddles, and 100% honest.

(second side bar)


Most folks know about coffee birds, but how many know how important chocolate (cacao) and birds are in Costa Rica?

Chocolate and Birds in CR


Richie’s lessons via email, in person, or written for the public[8] were fun, challenging, and a total trippy event. I am forever grateful. We were loving friends and close until his death three days before his birthday in 2012, from leukemia. His reasoning for what made some birds vagrant gives credit to Dr. Dave Desante’s theory of genetic “mirror-image-mis-orientation.”[9] I hold to my theory birds fly between geo-magnetic centers using a specialized chemical sensor within their cranium coupled to a built-in ability to see aerial magnetic waves. Those that go off-course and become infamous rare birds (vagrants) are suffering from something amuck in their physicality or were injured by unknown forces.

When my husband and I pulled the switch on living in Murica[10] (2007), we had spent a few years surveying possibilities around the planet. We ended up buying wild property in tiny unknown Alfombra, in the southern coastal region of Costa Rica. It had forests, remoteness, birds, wild mammals, waterfalls, incredible views of mts., jungles and the Pacific – and much needed peace. I never let the grass grow under by flip flops or designer heels, yet, finally, I sit in serenity undisturbed on the veranda at Finca Vigia. Since 2007, I count migrating birds flying south for the winter, or north to breed. I report to three different scientific monitoring organizations.

Birding in North America during the 2015 migration is not like it was during the exciting late 60s of the San Francisco love generation period. Yet, Richie, Marianne, Guy, Dr. Dave, and many others inspired and conspired to conserve wilderness and wild things. Without them neo-migrants I count would be even less in number. The destruction of habitat, the over populating of humanity, and a general corporate state disregard for life in general radically reduces the numbers and species. As evident in 2015, we entered the 6th planetary mass extinction[11]. It is a sobering reality we are responsible. The folks noted above are human heroes and role models for safeguarding nature. They kept and are keeping parts of this beautiful incredible world secure for countless wild things, including you and me.

Costa Rica, the monkey’s bridge, is a vibrant living Noah’s Ark. It is the most recent landmass to rise above sea level as the planet has evolved over the last 4.643 billion years. CR’s biodiversity is mind-boggling and soul rousing, yet, do not assume we do not need to passionately protect these wonders and their required habitats. The wild ones MUST have their secure nesting and home patches, stopover resting spots (and vagrant bird traps) along with hidden places to exist and thrive as tropical residents or over-wintering neo-migrants and pass through flyers.

A mysterious captivating patch, Finca Vigia, Alfombra Bird Observatory, is a one-woman (me) operation where I welcome and protect traveling or local feathered creatures. We planted as many species of wild food sources as I am aware of to help nurture and safeguard birds, butterflies, bats, reptiles, and mammals. Yet, Alfombra is its own naturally unique and mind-blowing superior bird trap with its primal forest, top of the watershed locale, and twenty-two waterfalls.

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Seen above: Ocellated Antbird (Phaenostictus mcleannani) – a species never to be expected in Alfombra, yet, seen at Finca Vigia, a bird trap for migrants and residents with 343 avian species. Photo: spadebill.blogspot.com, Tico birder.

There are terrific guides to take you birding and nature watching in Costa Rica, but please hire a local. I know it is tempting to go on a fancy Gringo tour and pay thousands of dollars to merrily traipse through the jungle to add to your life list. Do not get hung-up on action-packed adventures with foreign guides. You will learn far more about the wholistic sensibility of a place if you go along with a gifted local guide who makes his or her home in fascinating Costa Rica. Moreover, you will pay a lot less in fees, stress, and transportation. There are no substitutes for native intelligence[12] and local knowledge.

Nevertheless, folks from around the world arrive to see and photograph the astonishing natural beauties of CR. I am not just talking about pretty Ticas in string bikinis swinging their cheeks along pristine beaches. Everyday one more unique and staggering wild critter surprise comes into my rainforest base. It is likely I will never see the same again. I refer to these gifts as the ‘one-offs’. They are recorded and documented as part of the living natural history of Finca Vigia.

Richie was a one-off, Marianne, Dr. Dave, Guy, as was my husband, as is my brother, and maybe you. We prefer such rarity and caliber in discourse, birds, art, literature, and exceptional human beings. They inspire and amaze. As well as, I have a thing for those who write in their ‘voice’. Ya know, those who spin a disarming yarn about how to catch Snook, or rattle about dark energy cosmic ramifications, or reveal with ‘make do’ wit daily details of provincial living along the Maine coast, or share what it is to get real with birds in the jungles of Central America.

May you rest in power, dear ones, from those with ragged dark blue colored sweatshirts, to cool retro Hawaiian shirts, to upside down primary wing feathers or scissortail swishing feathers. Each of you rivets us to oneness and enthrones the spirit by quiet guile and beguiling qualities. May the phenomenon of birds connect to your sweet spot of consciousness, too.


Cerulean Warbler Map

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Seen above: Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea) in fall outfit. A species seen in Alfombra as a stopover migrant in small flocks unless an invasion year and then seen in a multitude of flocks usually in the fall on their way to their wintering grounds in Columbia, and beyond.

Look up today, the passage of the real snow-birds is underway in Costa Rica. Better yet, do a big sit day, where you comfortably take a seat in one place and watch (with optics) the sensational miracle of bird migration. I do a mini-sit every morning from pre-dawn until the shiny heat of the day begins and birds take cooler refuge deeper in the jungle.

Safe trails, from the hut.

[1] http://jrscience.wcp.muohio.edu/FieldCourses00/PapersCostaRicaArticles/ConservationofMigratoryBi.html

[2] http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/CAwhoRS.html

[3] In Ornithology – Vagrant – A bird that has strayed or been blown from its usual range or migratory route: most birders are hoping to find the wind-blown vagrants of migration also called accidental.

[4] http://www.pointblue.org/our-science-and-services/conservation-science/conservation-training/remembering-rich-stallcup/

[5] http://www.socalbirding.com/leaders/guymccaskie.html

[6] http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/pressdemocrat/obituary.aspx?n=marianne-shepard&pid=147096100

[7] http://www.birdpop.org/docs/misc/CV-Dave-DeSante.pdf

[8] http://www.pointblue.org/our-science-and-services/conservation-science/conservation-training/focus/

[9] http://www.pointblue.org/uploads/assets/observer/focus58migrantsastray2001.pdf

[10] America

[11] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150623-sixth-extinction-kolbert-animals-conservation-science-world/

[12] A Thomas D. Field favored quote. Tom was a splendid mentor about common sense living.


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