“Costa Rica borders two oceans. The country has a healthy list of pelagic species. There are no pelagic trips”.

That ironic pseudo-haiku almost sums up pelagic birding in Costa Rica. Yes, you can strike a deal with fishing boats to take you out into deep water but there isn’t anything like the regularly scheduled trips that we get sick on in other parts of the world. Since “mal de mer” is a living nightmare, maybe that’s a good thing unless you happen to be one of the lucky birders who can take a thousand merry rides on swells and still crack a smile.

I wish I was one of those fortunate folks but as luck would have it, the main semi-pelagic trip that does happen in Costa Rica is also one of the easiest boat rides you will ever take.Don Gringo

I would much rather do the ferry than take a ride on the “Don Gringo”.

Officially known as the “Puntarenas-Paquera ferry“, I prefer to refer to it as the “Puntarenas Magic Mini-Pelagic” ( or PMMP). It’s definitely a mini because the boat ride only lasts for an hour. However, since you might see shearwaters, storm-petrels, a jaeger, Sulids, and who knows what else, it does have birding mojo. AND, best of all, this magic trip is almost always a calm, easy-going ride!pmmp

The PMMP awaits.

Although this ferry has potential at any time of the year, Sunday’s trip was inspired by sightings of an Inca Tern in the area. Not a bird that one would normally visit Costa Rica to see, we nevertheless were very anxious to lay eyes on this Humboldt Current species. No mere pipit, this buy breaks with tern tradition by sporting a crazy red bill and a long, white moustache. It’s like something from your avian psychadelic dreams, and since it is also a rare vagrant to Costa Rica, we had to give it a shot. Normally hanging out in Peruvian waters, a few have shown up in Costa Rica for the past couple of years, probably because of El Nino effects on the home range. We knew that the tern would be a long shot but prior experience with the PMMP also told us that we would probably see something cool no matter what happened.

Arrival in the coastal city of Puntarenas was announced with a sub-adult Parasitic Jeager perched way out on the dock. This unexpected, fine year bird was followed up with dolphins, Black Terns, Brown Boobies, and a surprise Galapagos Shearwater scoped from shore! Things were looking good and we hadn’t even seen the boat.

After parking the cars at Frank’s Cabinas (he charges $8 a day), we bought our wonderfully cheap $1.75 tickets, and got on the boat. On the top deck, we wasted no time in scanning the Gulf of Nicoya as we waited for the ferry to leave the dock.

booby raft

Not much to be seen although this raft of juvenile Brown Boobies was cool.

With the boat underway, we kept scanning the water, and even had the luxury of checking out driftwood with our scopes. Flocks of Black Terns dotted the gray waters of the gulf and Sulids flew by.

Brown Booby flight

Some came really close, like this Brown Booby that stayed with us for most of the trip.

Blue-footed BoobyWe also saw a Blue-footed Booby, Red-footed Booby is also regular.

The ferry probably reaches the deepest part of its voyage about half an hour from Puntarenas. This area is where I have seen storm-petrels and Sooty Shearwater in the past, and is where we watched a small group of Galapagos Shearwaters fly in front of the boat on Sunday.

Galapagos Shearwaters

Galapagos Shearwaters.

The rest of the short trip was accompanied by Black Terns until finally, a larger, browner bird appeared in my bins. Yee-haw! A Brown Noddy and it flew close enough to appreciate everything from its funny-shaped tail to the pale front and crown. Sorry, no picture for that one but I was too busy gazing through my binoculars at this long awaited lifer to grab the camera.

After docking at Paquera, we got off the boat, bought tickets, walked back on, and got underway in about thirty minutes. This was the eleven a.m. boat and as one might imagine, it was sunny, hot, and kind of bird-less. While checking the driftwood, we found Black Terns resting on just about every piece in the gulf. It was pretty quiet otherwise.

Black Tern

Black Tern drifting at sea.


We also saw these guys, told the crew of the ferry, and the coast guard zoomed out to rescue them.

We made it back to shore a little after noon but opted for a short morning of birding rather than another trip back across the gulf. Next time, I hope to take the first ferry across at 5 a.m. to catch the early bird action. Who knows, maybe a Swallow-tailed Gull will appear? If you decide to fit in this mini-pelagic trip during time in Costa Rica, go to the end of Puntarenas (you will see what I mean), drive east just pass the ferry, and look for “Frank’s”. Park the vehicle in his small lot (if you don’t want to pay around $50 to take it back and forth on the boat), and buy ferry tickets next to the Musmanni bakery. Get on the boat as soon as you can to grab a front row seat on the top deck, and keep scanning the gulf. Although you won’t be chumming or chasing the birds, there’s a pretty good chance that you will see something good!

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.