Many a Larophile has visited Costa Rica but not for the love of gulls. Yes, we have gulls and we have terns and a skimmer visiting these here double oceanic shores but Larophiles in Costa Rica trade in the gull watching for trogons, manakins, macaws and all the rest. They come here knowing that although the official bird list for Costa Rica is replete with everything from Bonaparte’s Gull to Gray-hooded Gull and Least Tern, if they do any amount of gull watching, they’ll be lucky if they see anything more than Laughing Gulls. Come at the right time and yes, you might see some flocks of blush-colored Franklin’s and there will be terns but what there won’t be are the stuff that Larophiles truly dig; massive groups of gulls in all ages and sizes, beach scavengers that have wandered far and wide to challenge your identification skills and prompt heated discussions on choice forums.

Our tropical shores just don’t get the numbers of gulls seen in other, more northerly places. However, that doesn’t mean that local birders don’t like gulls too. Oh we have more than enough local birders that will run to see a gull, twitch it so to say, even if it is just one bird. But isn’t just one bird enough, especially when it’s a lifer? That’s why, as of late, the most heavily visited birding hotspot in Costa Rica has been the busy port town of Puntarenas. Choice gulls have come to town and local birders have responded in kind.

Our own version of Gullmania began with the first documented sighting of a Heerman’s Gull. Oh yes, straight from California and very much twitchable, a first year Heerman’s was found in early March hanging out at the cruise ship dock. It’s a bird species I have expected for some time, an overdue bird if you will. In subsequent weeks and days, this local mega was seen by many a local birder, many of whom hired local boats to take them out to the tip of the dock and nearby buoys frequented by the Heerman’s (once more, birding gives a boost to the local economy). During those forays, as often happens when birders congregate, more birds of note have also been seen.

These bonus sightings have included a Masked Booby perched on a fishing boat and a few Sabine’s Gulls seen flying past as well as more consistent views of two other gulls commonly seen up north but rarely viewed in Costa Rica; one each of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls! Both were adventuring first year birds that have stayed just as long as the Heerman’s, and have often been seen perched on the same dock.

Marilen and I have made a couple trips to see the birds. Since the Heerman’s stays pretty far out there, our views have been limited to a distant but distinctive chocolate brown gull. Rare chocolat is always a treat and I’ll take it! We have had better looks at the Herring but somehow, the Ring-billed has evaded our optics. I suspect that, in keeping with the ways of its classic, parking lot scavenging brethren, the bird spends a fair amount of time getting easy eats at inaccessible fish factories.

Oh and there’s always Laughing Gulls to look at, a few Franklin’s too, and fair numbers of terns. No, not the numbers of large gulls seen in the Great Lakes or at choice landfills but certainly enough for some enjoyable birding. In addition, Puntarenas always offers chances at odd birds flying into view and at any time. One of the best during these days of gull watching has been a Pacific Golden-Plover!

First found by local guide Beto Guido a couple weeks ago, the bird has been wonderfully tame and likewise seen by a good number of local birders. Is it the same individual as the one I found the previous year? It could be; it is standing around and picking stuff from the sand in the same spot as 2022. I wonder where it spent the winter and how many other Pac. G. Plovers visit our shores?

Maybe more will be found while gull watching, hopefully when someone finds a twitcheable Inca Tern. I could go for one of those on my Costa Rica list, that and while we’re talking about Humboldt Current birds, a Belcher’s Gull too. I’ll be looking for them, transporting myself via telescope way out over the waves of the gulf.

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.