The great-tailed grackle is a drab, all black bird – but for the group of experts who helped revise the newly released “Official List of the Birds of Costa Rica,” it is a bright red flag.
This noisy, gregarious bird seeks out recently cleared areas, like many of the quickly developing areas of the northwestern province of Guanacaste and the Central Valley around San José, where houses are sprouting faster than trees.
Little more than a decade ago, seeing a grackle anywhere but the Pacific coast was rare.
Today, they’re everywhere – thriving in areas like farms and urban developments now cleared of forest.
The grackle is one of the 862 different species of birds in Costa Rica, according to the updated “Official List of the Birds of Costa Rica,” released last month by the Costa Rican Ornithological Association (AOCR).
For those keeping count, the number has grown by 12 since 2002, when the first list was released – but the news isn’t all good.
“Just because the numbers are going up doesn’t mean we’re making good conservation decisions,” explains ornithologist Gerardo Obando, who coordinated the committee that updated the list.
“Most new species are those that adapt easily to altered habitats… if you cut a forest, these are the birds that are most likely to appear,” he said.
The grackle is just one example. Obando cautions that quickly changing habitats in Costa Rica – a result of urbanization, deforestation, climate change and development – could be driving the conspicuous increase.
Identifying birds or habitats in trouble is only one part of what makes the list important to Costa Rica, said Roy May, a wiry, white-haired U.S. citizen who speaks fluent Spanish, teaches theology in San José and serves as president of the association.
“This list now gives us a baseline to work with, to measure the country’s biodiversity in terms of birds,” he said.
Make it Official
In the past, Obando said, there were dozens of unofficial lists floating around the country – at hotels, in the tattered bird identification books of the best known bird guides, and crumpled up in the back pockets of avid birders.
“What birds existed in Costa Rica all depended on what list you had. Someone in Nicoya might have a list with 500 birds on it, while someone just north at a hotel in Guanacaste might show 1,000. We needed a benchmark,” Obando said.
With a heavy, yellow cover, script-like black letters and categorized lists of the scientific names of each bird found in the country, the new list certainly looks legitimate.
But Obando and May said they wanted something more, something “official.”
So began a yearlong process that involved circulating the old list among a group of 25 or so expert birders – a group that included enthusiasts, ornithologists, biologists and guides.
“We had to design a process that would scientifically validate observations of people who spend a lot of time in the forests, but who weren’t trained ornithologists,” he said, sighting the importance of input from the country’s well-known birding guides, who spend hundreds of days a year in the field.
“We would hear that someone had seen a certain, unusual species, then track that person down and ask them to provide evidence,” he said.
The ornithological association committee established a form, now available online at www.avesdecostarica.org, which is required of anyone submitting a new species for the list. It will be updated annually.
Photographic evidence, an actual specimen, or a recording of song is the best proof, Obando said.
“We encourage people to go out and find evidence for birds not on our list, or those without vouchers,” May agreed, who added that all such materials will now be stored officially at the NationalMuseum in San José.
A perfect example of how the process should work, Obando said, came last year, when a resident of Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast, strolling the wild, darksand beach happened upon an injured shorebird.
He didn’t realize it at the time – but he’d rescued a species never before seen in Costa Rica – the Cory’s Shearwater.
At a nearby research station, biologists took pictures, measurements, and just like that, a new species was added to the list.
Obando expects to see more birds like this one showing up on the list, thanks to the new verifications and increasing interest in bird watching in the country, and the world.
“In the past, this kind of information, these discoveries, were lost, because there was no official list. Now they can become part of the record,” he said.
May and Obando and others are pushing to see the list printed in La Gaceta, the official government newspaper, so it can someday be used by conservation groups and lawyers to defend important bird habitats.
“If there is an environmental case in the courts where a developer wants to tear down an important bird habitat, now we have a document that can help those defending it,” May said.
And the Verdict is. . .
Most ornithologists agree that the number is secondary – but few can resist the question: How does Costa Rica size up? Neighboring Panama, according to Roy May, the president of the Costa Rican Ornithological Association (AOCR), has around 900 species; Ecuador, 1,800; and Bolivia, a relatively small, landlocked country graced by a variety of habitats thanks to the towering Andes mountains, has 1,500.
Costa Rica’s 862 pale in comparison. But the country shines, says May, in species density – among the world’s leaders in that field, according to recent studies released by INBio, a research center in the Central Valley town of Heredia (TT, June 1).
According to Richard Garrigues, who recently co-authored “Birds of Costa Rica,” and has been guiding birdwatchers in the country for decades, above all else, it’s a tool for conservation.
“It’s a first step for protecting habitats, and a way to help stem development in important bird areas,” he said, emphasizing the importance of its “official” nature.
With two ocean coastlines, mountain peaks reaching 12,000 feet and expansive lowland jungles and rainforest, Costa Rica packs a huge amount of birds into a tiny area – a biodiversity well worth protecting, Garrigues said.
For those intent on counting, both May and ornithologist Gerardo Obando advise experts and amateurs alike to stay tuned.
“There are no static lists in the world of flora and fauna. We expect it to change every year,” Obando said.