Like wealthy retirees who can enjoy summer all year long, the Western Hemisphere’s migrant birds flock south each year as winter approaches, turning October in Costa Rica into high season for winged creatures.
As many as 5 billion migrant birds travel across Central America every year, according to Julio Sánchez, an ornithologist at the NationalMuseum. Many of them fly at night, invisible to humans and predators.
Among the more easily spotted birds are daytime hawks and vultures that make their way along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. This area boasts the second-best bird observation post in the world, behind Veracruz, Mexico, Sánchez told The Tico Times.
At this site, the Kéköldi Indigenous Reserve in Talamanca, near the popular Caribbean beach destination of Puerto Viejo, more than 200,000 birds can be spotted in a single day, he said.
“There is a special magic about them that has attracted humans since the earliest civilizations,” he said.
The Bribrí indigenous group that resides in this area believes the migrating birds have a spiritual significance, said Alex Baez, a member of the Kéköldi Wak Ka Koneke Association that oversees the reserve. The association runs a bird observation deck.
A National Geographic map of bird migration identifies Kéköldi as the principal Central American stopover for the peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest bird, which travels as far south as Argentina from northern Canada’s Baffin Island.
Ken McEnaney, a volunteer from Massachusetts who worked at Kéköldi in 2004, said he helped count more than 3,000 of these falcons in a few months. McEnaney claimed these numbers make Kéköldi even better than Veracruz for peregrine falcon observation.
Birds leave their northern homes in the United States, eastern Canada and as far north as the Arctic and head south in anticipation of winter. While many remain in Mexico and Central America for the length of their stay, some travel as far south as Patagonia, Sánchez explained.
Approximately 250 of Costa Rica’s 850 bird species are migratory (TT, April 2, 2004). Migratory birds fly south between August and November, arriving here by the thousands in late September and October.
They stay until approximately March or April, when they return north to reproduce, according to Sánchez.
The ornithology expert explained longer spring and summer days in the northern latitudes are marked by an abundance of resources that provide advantages for newborn birds.
In “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica,” Alexander Skutch and Gary Stiles explain that many long-distance migrants spend more than half the year in their southern homes. For this reason, they are “regarded not as northern birds that come south to escape winter’s dearth, but as tropical birds that go north to breed” (TT, Nov. 4, 2005).
Among the 12 species of raptors, or birds of prey, that can be seen on their travels each year, most are turkey vultures, broad-winged hawks and Swainson’s hawks, according to Sánchez.
Birding expert and naturalist guide Richard Garrigues, who said more than 80% of birds sighted belong to these three species, said most migrating birds tend to travel over Central America’s Atlantic coast because of its topography and the prevailing wind currents.
A few, however, funnel over to the Pacific side, and some can be spotted flying over San José.
Raptors do not eat during their travels, which can last up to two months. Once in the tropics, they conserve energy by rising with hot air that takes them up to soaring heights where they glide effortlessly and quickly.
Sánchez said most birds experience behavioral changes before they begin their migration.
In their northern homes they are territorial, a behavior induced by breeding, however they become gregarious before heading south among large groups of travel companions.
Sánchez and Garrigues said environmental deterioration is leading to gradually dwindling numbers of migrants. Studies suggest human impact, particularly habitat destruction and placing food in birdfeeders negatively affects migrating birds.
In Costa Rica, Sánchez said he considers land stripped for pineapple and banana production the greatest threat to migrant bird species.
During the height of the migration season, elder members of the Bribrí community still perform traditional rituals dedicated to migratory birds.
Baez said the Bribrí traditionally believe nature is spiritually significant and migratory birds are spiritual beings.
“Now, humanity views them as birds that travel from one point to another. But our ancestors believed those birds represented spiritual beings that traversed the world,” he told The Tico Times in a phone interview from Kéköldi.
He explained that early in the morning, Bribrí elders dedicate songs to the birds, chanting to ask them to deliver the seeds they need to feed their families and the community.
He said the Kéköldi association aims to help maintain these traditions. The Kéköldi project also involves bird conservation and research and hosts a volunteer program.
This year, Kéköldi hosted activities for National Migratory Bird Day, celebrated the second Saturday of April since 2004 to promote conservation and recognition of these birds.