Costa Rica is known for its quetzales, many hummingbirds, beautiful tanagers, and a host of other tropical birdies not found back at the home patch. That’s of course why most birders visit Costa Rica and rightly so. However, for a local birder who can’t help but take part in a permanent hustle to boost the year list, you gotta look for more than the resident eye candy species. You also need to spend time scanning swallows, not give in to the temptation to ignore swift silhouettes, and get strategic.

I’m trying to keep that in mind when I plan my birding forays and is why I drove a few hours to a windy reservoir two weeks ago instead of creeping around some cloud forest. I need lots of cloud forest birds for the year and love hanging out in that oxygen-rich habitat but I also need ducks and in Costa Rica, most of those old web-footed ones are local, rare, and only possible a few months out of the year. January is a good time for them, and since I had a day to spare, I decided to go for broke and hit the Canas reservoir as a day trip. From where I live, this involves driving down to the coastal plains and heading north on a road typically beleagured by slow-poke trucks. It doesn’t matter that the route in question is part of the Pan-American highway, it’s still painfully slow in some sections, especially the one between here and Canas. The up-side to that is a new, four lane stretch of quick road for at least some kilometers along with a chance at rare ducks.

The other up-side is the possibility of making a quick detour to one of Costa Rica’s best (and only) shorebird spots, the salt ponds at Punta Morales. If the tide is high, this spot is always worth checking, especially for local birders in need of year birds and rarities. Two weeks ago, I made it there just in time to tick off Black Skimmer, Long-billed Curlew, and a bunch of other terns and shorebirds before they flew back out to the more natural mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. This site can also be good for uncommon and rare swallow species, and on that day, scanning them paid off with a Tree Swallow– a rare species for Costa Rica. No ducks, nor Cave Swallows but the other additions were very welcome.

We might not have wildlife refuges but we do have the Cocorocas salt ponds!

After the stop at Morales, it was onward to Canas on my quest for ducks. Upon eventual arrival, much to my relief, a hefty raft of teal were present.

Thousands of Blue-winged Teal can show up this reservoir. What on Earth do they eat? How do so many survive?

Akin to looking through clouds of gulls in Niagara, you have to keep scanning and re-scanning the ducks until something different floats into view. On Tuesday, a few “something differents” eventually showed with the Blue-winged Teals and small numbers of Lesser Scaup. The first were a couple of American Wigeon, an excellent addition to my Costa Rica year list! As un-exciting as this species may sound to birders up north, seeing one here is kind of like finding a Eurasian Wigeon or maybe a Pine Grosbeak.

The next different duck was a hybrid Cinnamon Teal. As with any hybrid, it was a bittersweet if interesting sighting because although it looked cool and very cinnamonish, there isn’t any room for .5 species on my year list. All species have to be 100% so this also left off the next cool sighting at the reservoir.

A cool looking uncountable duck.

When I saw this stand-out duck, my heart jumped as I see-sawed between it being a hybrid and maybe a Chiloe Wigeon. I couldn’t exactly recall what a Chiloe Wigeon looked like but I sure hoped it resembled the thing I was seeing! If so, it would probably still be excluded because of the dreaded captive possibility clause but a full species would be more exciting than a hybrid. Like a natural born leader among teals, it was larger than the birds that surrounded it, and shared some of their colors and face pattern but was more splendid in appearance. Ah, if only we could include hybrids and call that bird a “King Teal”, what a wonderful addition to the year list that would be!

All hail the King!

I didn’t see any other ducks on my mini quest at the reservoir but I might have to go back, and soon. Another birder found Northern Pintail, and other needed year ducks could also show up. The weird King Teal turned out not to be a Chiloe Wigeon after all and I don’t know what it was but it was still fun to behold and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

Written by Patrick O'Donnell
Patrick O'Donnell became a birder at the age of 7 after seeing books about birds in the Niagara Falls, New York public library. Although watching thousands of gulls in the Niagara Gorge was sublime, more bird species (and warmer weather) eventually brought him to Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and other very birdy tropical places. A biologist by training, he has worked on bird-related projects in Colorado, Washington, Peru, and other locales, and has guided birders in Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. These days, he lives in Costa Rica where he juggles guiding, freelance writing, developing bird apps for Costa Rica and Panama, posting on his Costa Rica birding blog, and discussing dinosaurs with his young daughter.