El Plástico – More Than A Typical Christmas Bird Count

One hundred and forty one (141). That was our count. Well ok I spotted four and the rest was Noel’s. But I relied on Noel to ID my four.

What is El Plástico?

It was mid December, 2018 and Noel was asked to lead the El Plástico Christmas Bird Count team. OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) at La Selva in Costa Rica had 26 teams and had contributed to Audubon’s CBC since 1985. Bryan and I made up the rest of Noel’s team.

CBC La Selva Map – Selva Tica and Rara Avis at southern end of CBC area

El Plástico is the common local name for La Selvatica a research station and preserve. Originally a prison in the early 60’s. The nickname was due to the initial use of plastic sheets for roofing material and El Plástico stuck though the roofs were eventually replaced with tin.

The previous year we were part of a bigger OTS CBC team with Noel as lead, three others, Bryan and myself. We had the easiest route which started just outside our cabin. It had paved paths and was a stone’s throw from the cafeteria with its bottomless coffee pots and juice jugs. This year we were a smaller team and assigned the more challenging El Plástico route.

Signs of Being Different

Along with the usual scopes, binoculars and rain gear the organizers highly recommended rubber boots. The route included a hike in and out. The distance depended on how far the 4×4 could take us. The 24 hour count was from midnight to midnight so we had to be taken in a day before and out the day after. Food and accommodations were taken care of thus leaving us to pack in our personal and birding gear. Wearing the rubber boots was easier than carrying them. Thankfully no camping gear required.

What Did I Get Myself Into?

Upon arriving at La Selva and after preliminaries we loaded into the 4×4 with the Rara Avis team. A La Selva guide and two avid birders made up this team of young Ticos (Costa Ricans). We wanted to get to our locations before the heat of midday or worse, the afternoon tropical rains. Rara Avis was an additional three km beyond El Plástico.

We left La Selva, drove 16 km SE by highway then turned right onto a dirt road. After 11 km of a filling rattling spine jarring ride, the driver stopped. That was it, we were on our own. The sun was high and getting hot. We had blue skies … for the time being … wet road, red mud with foot deep ruts. We started walking not knowing how much farther. A beautiful day with lots of shade from over hanging brush, a very slight ascent, though I must admit I slowed us down. The Rara Avis team was soon out of sight but we kept on. Not bad since I’m likely the age of their grandmothers.

Noel and Bryan on “road” between El Plástico and Rara Avis

After an hour we caught up with the young guys just before El Plástico. At the lodge we freshened up with cooling drinks and snacks before the kids left on their final leg.

Remote and Wild

At El Plástico Juan Pineda greeted us. He was the caretaker, our wonderful host, cook, trail builder and font of local knowledge. The lodge, once the prison commander’s building is a two storey bare wood structure. Rustic, solid, clean, comfortable with dormitory style rooms and bunk beds. The broken generator meant cold showers and evening meals by candle light.

Our plans to be up and owl-ing by 4am were thwarted by rain and cozy beds. Luckily dawn gave us drier skies.

Juan guided us through the trails in the first part of the morning. The area is primary forests with thick, rough and dense undergrowth riddled with streams. Visitors are rare allowing the trails to become over grown and disappear quickly. Even though Juan had cleared them a couple of days earlier his guidance was needed to find and follow them. His work also meant that we did not have to blaze the trail which would have slowed us down and startled the birds. I considered Juan a valuable member of our team.

Noel, Bryan and Juan hunting feathered fugitives

The birds were all around, majority of the ID’ing was by songs and calls. More feathered fugitives than friends as we had to hunt them down. They made us work for each and every 141 of them.

Night Shift

After lunch we birded more trails and saved the easier to follow road for the dimming late afternoon. By dusk we were birding by call and flashlight. One of the nocturnal species counted was the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis). He calmly sat on the road as we painted him with light and took photos. Once he had enough he took to the air flying past us into the darkness. The night also rewarded us with frogs and snakes including a fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) which Noel saved me from stepping on. Thanks Noel!

Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)

Returning to the lodge well after dark we had nippy refreshing showers while Juan reheated our dinner. Exhausted and excited we dragged our weary selves to bed.

Leaving Paradise

Next morning, even though the count window was closed, we were eager to explore more. The sunrise had us in a meadow southeast of the lodge overlooking the valley with Turrialba Volcano in the distance. The serenity was a treasure.

Bryan and Noel at sunrise in meadow by lodge

The Rara Avis team joined us after breakfast. With much thanks and farewells to Juan for his hospitality and help we departed. Trekking out was easier than in because we hiked downhill and travelled during the earlier and cooler part of the morning. The guys on the other team pestered Noel for information and were eager to share their findings. Though crazy about Costa Rica’s birds and wildlife they have not yet been to the Pacific slopes so Noel invited them to visit and stay with his family. It is encouraging to see this next generation of keen and knowledgeable birders.

Our hike out was about a kilometre longer. I think the driver’s choice of pickup point was influenced by the availability of shade rather than road conditions as he had to wait for us. We happily piled in, bumped back to the highway and to La Selva to shower, turn in our results and have a coffee.

Yes I Would Do It Again!

The experience was unique, the unspoiled beauty of countryside and rainforest took my breath away as did the closeness to the wildlife. The remoteness gave a sense of serenity unparalleled. Though the trails were rougher, accommodations more rustic, site harder to get to and fewer birds counted I’d take this route over the previous year’s. But I’d be thrilled to participate in the OTS La Selva Christmas Bird Count on any route.

Carey Lee, Cat herder

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