I went to Tortuguero National Park last weekend. Shortly after arrival, I saw a bird that had me yelling for Robert to come down from his room in the Casa Marbella and look in the scope. Knowing that I wouldn’t yell for him to come quick if we were seeing regular species like the endangered Great Green Macaw, toucans, or even a Bare-crowned Antbird, Robert wasted no time in racing down the stairs. Although the bird in question wasn’t the major, mega target known as a Crested Eagle, Robert Dean, the illustrator and co-author of “The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide” still shared my jubilation at seeing none other than a Ring-billed Gull.

Must have taken a wrong turn at the nearest parking lot. That or Albuquerque…

Yeah, we were pretty happy to see a bird often referred to as a “rat with wings” (by non-birders of course) because it doesn’t usually vacation in Costa Rica. It seems that this and most other gull species of the north aren’t really into the warm climes and would rather stretch their wings elsewhere. The Ring-billed only makes it here by rare chance, neither of us had seen one in Costa Rica before, and neither have many other people. I’m not sure but I suspect that there are less than ten records of the good old “seagull” (sorry for the bad language) in the land of the Flame-throated Warbler, quetzal, and “gallo pinto” (aka rice and beans).

The high mountains of Costa Rica and Panama are the realm of this royal bird.

It was an odd occasion for high-fives and satisfaction at upping the country list by one more bird. That said, if we could have, we would have traded the sighting for that of a Crested Eagle without a second thought because you are still more likely to see a Ring-billed Gull than the rare, resident pseudo-Harpy. Maybe not by much but yeah, I warrant that the eagle is tougher to come by (both Robert and I still need it for Costa Rica). But you can’t make trades with the birds. They don’t collude to reward or deny us with their presence. Once you connect with a nemesis bird, although it sure seems like they lift the species ban and let us see more of them after that first sighting, subsequent views and ticks still come down to the same set of factors that are always in play. These are:

Being in the right place at the right time. eBird helps with this.

Knowing how to look for the bird in question. This comes from experience but a good guide also helps.

Knowing what you are seeing. Once again, experience, and too much time staring at photos and field guides.

Having said your prayers to the birding deities. These vary and depend on your imagination but might take the form of “The Feathered Serpent”, “King Goshawk”, or perhaps “Lord Gullicus”.

Always looking. This might be the most important factor to connect with rare birds. Let your birding guard down and some super lost wagtail might take advantage of that critical window and fly on past when you were obsessed with a Pokemon search. Stop the vigilance and the nemesis bird flies (and laughs) behind your back. Cease to watch with an open mind and the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is just a funny looking Pec. We miss the unexpected because we fall into the trap of only seeing what we are looking for. Therefore, no matter what you are doing, or what your excuse, never let the birding guard down!

The Least Bittern loves to slip by when you let the guard down.

A Crested Eagle is out there somewhere in Costa Rica. The good thing is that as long as the population of the target bird in question doesn’t decline, the more you look in the right places, probability dictates that the more likely it is that you will find that bird. At least, I think it works that way. Maybe that’s why three nemesis birds show after a prolonged absence? Whatever the case, you won’t see any rarities if you don’t get out there and look. With that in mind, I better go, I need to stare into the sky from my bedroom window to see if an errant Black Swift is up there in the clouds. After nightfall, I need to listen to the sky, see if I can get lucky with calling cuckoos as they migrate high overhead. I need to put in the time if I am going to connect with a Crested Eagle in Costa Rica…

Not a Crested Eagle but still a great bird for Costa Rica!

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.