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Ninety Leagues Over the Sea: A Birdwatching Cruise to Cocos Island…

Endemic is a heavy and valuable word when it comes to birdwatching. Like saying an old car is actually a classic car or a cheap meal is actually a home-made meal. It changes the way you see it and it even changes the way you taste it. Same thing occurs with endemic birds (in a birdwatching context), even if the birds look exactly the same as the one you have at home is never going to be the same as soon as you realized this particular one is an endemic! Translated in other words an endemic bird is something you will never find anywhere else, only there, so it is UNIQUE. Now, everybody likes unique things and even more if that unique thing is right on a paradisiac island in middle of nowhere.

Cocos Island is a relatively small island of 2300 hectares of land and 97235 hectares of marine habitat, located at about 300 miles off the pacific coast of Costa Rica, it represents an enigma and a dream for most bird and nature lovers from all over the world. And of course I am not excluded of this desperate group of people wanting to go there no matter what.

Fortunately for me (and for my 2017 big year in progress) four keen, generous and absolutely nice birders from USA, John and Karen Shrader and Macklin and Lynette Smith decided to sign in on this adventure operated by Lifer Nature Tours including me as companion and making possible my first visit to the island in one of the best seasons of the year, the end of the dry season (mid April). So we have the chance to get some migratory species at the Island.

The A Team from left to right: Macklin, Juan Diego, Lynette (sitting), John and Karen

Few months later and after some easy paper work we were on a private shuttle from San Jose toward Puntarenas to get on board of the Aggressor II and start a 300 miles (about 90 nautical leagues as you can see in the title) ride toward the mysterious and unique island of Cocos.

For me 50% of the excitement of this trip comes from what the sailors called the “crossing” or the period of constant navigation from mainland Costa Rica to Cocos Island because the chances to find pelagic birds with no preview record in the country are quite high.

As soon as we departure the dock of Puntarenas we started seeing good birds, easy and common but birds at the end. Magnificent Frigatebird, Royal Tern, Laughing Gull, White Ibis and as we were getting far from shore small groups of Black Terns were visible. Also an always nice sighting of Common Bottled-nosed Dolphin jumping out of the water, a Humpback Whale and a good number of Spotted Dolphin were playing with the waves our boat was creating while navigating.

Quickly we run out of light and I have to give It my first chance to the “owl of the oceans”, the strong but gracious Swallow-tailed Gull, one of the few nocturnal Gulls in the world and maybe one of the most beautiful of all too. So I decided to sleep right in the open deck in the front of the boat to be checking for it regularly. I check at 11pm, 2am, 3am, 4am and nothing was there. Quite disappointed but with the hopes of having a better try the next day as we continue or way toward Cocos.

With the first light of the day all of us were sitting in front of the boat waiting for the minimum movement of a black spot on the ocean flying like a bat to yield “Storm Petrel” and immediately point our optics in that direction. Despite the big efforts the number of birds was quite low but we got some quality sightings including Brown, Red-footed, Masked and Nazca Booby (photo below), Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Least Storm Petrel and a quick but beautiful close up of the Red-billed Tropicbird showing the comet-like fly by of its full grow tail.

out of focus Nazca Booby

Afternoon came in and so the rough seas, at least two big storms created some lighting around the boat at the point one lighting stroke the communication antenna freaking us out a little and it made me reconsider my idea of sleep every night in the front deck of the boat.

The second night was basically my last night for what for me is one of the coolest looking gulls of the oceans, the Swallow-tailed Gull. And as any intense target birder will do it I went to bed with my alarm set for 1am, then to 2am and then to 3am to look for the Gull at different hours of the night. Wake up the first time and went up the stairs and first thing I got is this heavy strong and deep flight of a nice individual of Swallow-tailed Gull flying right next to our boat at eye level maybe 4 to 6 meters, the bird was always staying at a constant speed over the waves created by our boat and occasionally stops suddenly to go straight down and pick up what it seems to be a squid that thanks to the waves created by our boat were easier to catch (see sequence of photos below).

Next morning, we were already in the iconic Chatam Bay, the scenery is just impressive and there is no wonder why they use some images of this island in the movie Jurassic Park as all you see in this place remind you a prehistoric scene of a lost world with incredibly dense foliage on the trees and big volcanic rocks emerging from the sea. Brown and Red-footed Boobies and Brown Noody were all flying around the bay and Great and Magnificent Frigatebirds were also patrolling the skies.

Cocos Island in the morning light

After breakfast we went to our first scouting with the expectations of finding at least one of the three endemic birds that inhabit this island. In this first scouting we had as objective to get (at least) the Cocos Finch, but our first landing site seemed to us too small and short for hiking in search of what we thought will be our most difficult endemic, the Cocos Cuckoo.

The "A" team toward their first expedition in Chatam Bay

But as it occurs in other islands the dynamics of bird populations and densities is way different than what you can get on mainland even with species in the same family and even same genus. So before we arrive Karen had already spotted the target, Cocos Finch! It seems like if it was just greeting us at the small abandoned park ranger station in the shore line. As soon as we got our feet on ground we saw that there were more than one and that they were not afraid of us at all (see photo below of John and the Finch in their first encounter... "love at first sight").

John's first encounter with the Cocos Finch (last of all Darwin's finches for Karen and John)

By the time we arrived a moderate rain began and we have to get some shelter on the abandoned house before staring the hike. Lesser Yellowlegs, Wandering Tattler and Solitary Sandpiper were on the rocky beach and John and I were trying to scan the beach for more shorebirds while Karen, Lynette and Macklin were watching toward the forest, five minutes later Karen spotted a Cuckoo flying by and we all forgot about the shorebirds. Two minutes later we located the Cuckoo again and it was all joy and happiness to rid away of the second endemic. We were all still talking about the cuckoo and checking our pictures when a small bird with long tail and long bill called my attention up in the top of a Cecropia tree. Put my binoculars on it and indeed it was, Cocos Flycatcher! So we got all the three endemic birds of the island in the first 30 minutes of exploring!

After that we hike up a trail a little bit to find also the “Galapagos” Yellow Warbler (bad views that we greatly improved in the following days), a resident form of the Yellow Warbler that in color seems very much like the Yellow Warbler found only in the Galapagos Islands but it differs a lot from the resident form of the Mangroves of mainland Costa Rica. Showing how different is the avifauna of Cocos Island when compared to mainland Costa Rica and how closely related is from the Galapagos-Malpelo group of Islands.

"Cocos" Yellow Warbler

Over the following days we also explored other bays of the Island (Wafer, Chatam and Yglesias) and every afternoon we took a small boat to explore the surroundings islets to take close up views of all residents species nesting or resting on the rocks; Brown Noody, Red-footed, Brown (most were Brewsters subspecies) and a colony of Masked Boobies were regular sightings. The Masked Boobies colony is apparently the only one located in the Island and is only in a small rock called Dos Amigos Grande.

Masked Booby at Dos Amigos Grande rock

By the last days of this trip I decided to do something memorable and convinced one of the Park Rangers (gracias amigo Guillermo Blanco!) to go up to Yglesias hill, the highest point of the island and explore a little more than usual. This is the only place in Costa Rica in where at 400 meters above sea level you get cloud forest (normally you need to hike to 1500 meters above sea level to get cloud forest in mainland Costa Rica). But the constant ocean breeze and the high elevation makes rain and fog a permanent condition as soon as you hike up the first 4 miles.

Pirates Bay in the way to Yglesias Hill, the highest point in the island

The vegetation up there is compound mostly by tree ferns and other tall trees covered with a extreme amount of moss as you can see in the photo below. I have never seen so much moss on any forest anywhere in the world. Is also fun to notice that the Cocos Finches and Cocos Flycatchers up in the higher part of the island were behaving differently, they were calling much more and also foraging at higher layers of the forest, staying always in the higher part of the canopy and sub canopy of the trees.

Further research might show something interesting as the famous Darwin's finches found in Galapagos (14 sp) and Cocos (only 1 sp) are highly versatile to adapt to new environment situations, not a surprise why they were the inspiration of the whole "evolutionary theory" as the finches are highly adaptable to any condition as showed in Galapagos Island archipelago with high number of different species adapted to different niches.

By the last few days in the Island the endemics were so common that you quickly get bored of watching them but the good number of other "wandering" mainland species makes the stay in the Island always unpredictable and always fun. Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Tricolored Heron, Osprey, Semipalmated Plover, Baird's Sandpiper, Wandering Tattler, Spotted Sandpiper, Dickcissel, Yellow-crowned Night Heron among many others were always fun to watch as on some of those you can clearly see their frustration by been trap in the island. Their behavior was very different as what you are use to see in mainland.

The way back form the Island was nice and pleasant and full of pelagic birds, specially in the first hours after departure the island. Some (for me) of best birds of the trip were seen in this way among them were a quite distant but still absolutely stunning to see, Tahiti Petrel (series of photos below).

Notice in the picture below, dark head, large bill, dark underwing with no evident pattern, long thin tail (light does not help at all on this pic for underwing actually)

a horribly cropped back view of the Tahiti Petrel. But you can see the back view and long straight wings...

Tahiti Petrel

I attached some additional photos below because maybe some of you are as incredulous as me and might think the same I will think if someone told me he saw a distant Tahiti Petrel on a trip...soooo what about Phoenix Petrel?... did you make sure it wasn't that? as this bird was just added to the AOU list (central and north america list) a few years ago. This was because some of the old records of Tahiti Petrel were never accepted as they lack evidence that can safely separate the species from the somehow similar Phoenix Petrel.

In the photo below you can see my Photoshop master piece... crop and zoom only on rump and change contrast... clearly some whitish... the white in the rump is diagnostic

In both pictures you can see some white on rump, one of the few diagnostic field marks of this species.

A very cooperative Pink-footed Shearwater that keep chasing the boat was a great sighting too, unfortunately the light was not very good at this moment (old bird-photographers excuse when the photos are not well focus...)

And what could be the best bird of the trip for me? (this next one was seen in the way in actually but I leave the photos for last given the expectations). I had Markham's Storm Petrel (also Band-rumped and Wilson's Stormies) in the "most wanted target species" to get . Is a bird normally being found in waters off of south america but only one previous recent record in Costa Rican waters. Although similar to other Storm Petrels with no white rump this bird is tell apart form the others by the amount and extension of white on wings and the flight style and gizz. Some notes were done in the following photos to help other to see this subtle field marks.

Here is a comparison of two photos, the first is the picture of the bird we saw:

This second picture is taken by Hadoram Shirihai of a Markhams Storm Petrel showing the same field marks on both birds.

Markham's Storm Petrel, photo for reference

The lists of all the birds and other creature we were able to identify are down below as well as most photos of other species seen.

Laughing Gull

Franklin's Gull

Royal Tern - near coast

Elegant Tern - near coast

White Ibis - near coast

Wedge-tailed Shearwater - very few in the crossing.

Galapagos Shearwater - one in open ocean and a second flying close form the ship while we were on Wafer Bay

Tahiti Petrel - one seen from far in the crossing toward mainland

Pink-footed Shearwater - Possibly two and one was following the boat for a few minutes

Markham's Storm Petrel - description above

Least Storm Petrel - a few the day we departure

Leach's Storm Petrel - a few on the crossing specially near mainland

Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel - Many flying lonely or in small groups

Pomarine Jaeger - a few in the crossings

Great Frigatebird - Common once in the island (please notice there were also Magnificent Frigatebird)

Magnificent Frigatebird -

Red-billed Tropicbird

Masked Booby

Nazca Booby

Brown Booby

Red-footed Booby

Swallow-tailed Gull - one following the boat the night before we arrived to Cocos

Cattle Egret Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Great Blue Heron

Snowy Egret

Tricolored Heron


Semipalmated Plover

Spotted Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Wandering Tattler


Lesser Yellowlegs

Brown Noddy

White Tern

Cocos Cuckoo

Cocos Flycatcher

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Northern Waterthrush

Bay-breasted Warbler - one at Wafer Bay

"Galapagos" Yellow Warbler

Cocos Finch

Indigo Bunting

Dickcissel - one in the grass in front of the park rangers kitchen

Baltimore Oriole

We would also add the following list of other creatures: MAMMALS

Common Bottlenose Dolphin - 42 Spotted Dolphin - 10 White-tailed Deer - 5 Feral pig - 15 Rat species - 4 REPTILES

Cocos Island Anole - 48 Pacific Least Gecko - 1 Gecko species (introduced) - 1 (not yet identified)

Cocos Island Anole, endemic

So in general, a wonderful and memorable experience indeed for all of us and for some reason, in birding, is always wonderful to get species very few people record every year or high-restricted endemics... is just like an old car that eventually becomes a classic car or a cheap meal is actually a home-made meal once you know the context behind the subject. Same happened with the birds of the island, once you know the context they all are greatly appreciated.

Sunset over the famous diving site "Dirty Rock"

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