Birds…Birds…Birds… there were hundreds, maybe thousands of them! I was sunbathing on a bright October afternoon, when I looked up to see a multitude of birds, soaring together in a group. They were coming from the north, back in the mountains off the coast. The group formed a long, meandering line, that from a distance, looked like a stream of teeming bees. They moved toward me. Above my head, they began to swirl and fall into a huge, rotating cylinder of air. Their gliding circles formed a giant tower, which they entered at the top, spiraling downward. I gazed, spellbound, as they cruised ‘round and ‘round with elegant ease and grace. Transfixed, I felt my heart ascend, as I imagined their feeling of freedom in flight. They swooped and tumbled, cascading to the bottom of the avian tower and then, exiting southward, the soaring swarm continued along the coastline, out of sight.
It seemed to go on for hours, as more birds emerged from the north and entered the cylinder while others exited at the bottom and formed a line, to the south. Who were these birds and what were they doing? Later I would learn, they were raptors in migration, coming from North America. Their sustained, airborne revolution was simply an intermission. They were resting on the magnificent currents of air which create a vortex, just right for a raptor’s respite.
These sweeping whirlwinds occur frequently along the Caribbean coast, which is fortunate for the millions – yes millions – of migrating birds of prey. During peak raptor migration, daily counts have ranged from 5,000 to 200,000 birds – mostly Turkey Vultures, Swainson’s Hawks and Broad Tailed Hawks; but also many other kinds of Hawks, Kites and Falcons. And because of this, my cherished Caribbean paradise possesses a revered status in the bird world. Right here, in the Talamanca Mountains, is one of only three “mega-hawkwatch” sites worldwide, where it is possible to observe raptor numbers of this magnitude. Veracruz, Mexico ranks first; Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, second; and Eilat, Israel follows.
I’ve always had a fascination for raptors – regal, majestic and powerful. While focused on their flight, I detect a sense of somatic lightness as my imagination is drawn upward: soaring to impossible heights, diving into canyons of clouds and then streaming across the clear blue forever. As a teenager in Pennsylvania, I hiked with my friends to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. We’d perch high on the rocks, get stoned, and watch the hawks for hours. I was delighted, when I learned that the raptor watch station, in the mountains near my house in Costa Rica, is a project developed by local Bri Bri Indians – the Kéköldi Wak Ka Koneke Indigenous Association and by the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary – the very same one I used to visit, ages ago and thousands of miles away. Led by synchronicity, my life brings interesting events and, like the swirling hawks, comes full circle!
The way I found the tower, is another interesting story. It‘s been three years since I first saw those circling birds and subsequently heard of an observation tower nearby. At the time, I made some inquiries but was not able to locate it. Recently I was reminded that it was migration time. “I’ll have to check into it,” I thought – and immediately forgot about it. Then on the beach the other day, I noticed two older women, both slender, with short, white hair. They looked European. I was drawn to speak with them, as I noticed their backpacks, alone and vulnerable on the beach while the two of them strolled in the surf. I normally mind my own business but something told me I had to stop and talk to them. They appreciated my warning and we talked further. One of them was from London and the other from Massachusetts, here on a trip with a group of ornithologists. They couldn’t tell me exactly where the tower was but they gave me the vicinity and that was enough. It was up on Kéköldi Indigenous reserve. I knew I’d be able to find it. I was so excited – here comes another adventure!
I called my friend, Kendrick (see video below). He’s a local Rasta, who teaches surfing and he loves to go exploring with me. He carries my backpack, watches out for snakes and of course, he speaks Spanish and English, too. He’s handy to have around. He was up for it so off we went.
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Now, I never leave my car unattended and in this case, the road to the place I was looking for was right near my mechanic’s shop. He was happy to watch the car for me. And another stroke of luck, his helper, Michael, knew where the tower was and told us how to get there. Well… he told us but we missed the second turn. There are a million paths through the Kéköldi reserve.
After five precious, little stream crossings; a stop to see the White-faced Monkeys, way up high; and a muddy, slippery steep climb; we were thrown off private property and forced to retreat back down the mountain. But we didn’t give up. Back to the mechanic we went.
Michael walked with us, back up the grassy road into the jungle. He left Kendrick and I at the first left turn and went on up the road. Ten minutes later he returned with the cute, young Bri Bri girl Kendrick had his eye on, as we passed her earlier that morning. She was Michael’s wife, Yesenia. She and her little brother, Diego, who’d spent their childhood romping through this jungle, would be happy to show us the way.
As we walked through the old growth, secondary forest we sucked on the sweet seeds of the cacao, scattered in the trees all around us. The jungle is abundant with nourishment. The Jackfruit, (photo below) is a popular local staple. We would have eaten some on the spot but they were not yet ripe.
As we approached the top of the mountain, a pulsating electronic sound filled the jungle. It had a primitive beat, a native natural sounding rhythm – yet it was electronic. Boom Ba Da Boom Ba Da Boom BA DA BOOM… It got louder as we ascended the hill. Then we saw the source. The music was bellowing out from some giant speakers in this octagon shaped wooden house, with a Bri Bri kid so immersed, he hardly noticed us go by. An hour later on our way down, the music was still going and the kid still entranced.
From the top of the creaky, wooden, ten meter tall observation tower, the view was a treat. We could see the ocean horizon, to the east, and the layers of mountain range to the north and west. What a marvelous afternoon! And again, true to the form of our serendipitous day, we encountered another welcome circumstance. The bird counters were there. After attending University, Mark from Illinois, took the three month job of counting passing raptors, here at the observation tower. He is trying to decide if he wants to specialize in this field of study. He was a wealth of information and didn’t mind answering all my questions and letting us look through his binoculars and telescope. He is the one who told me about the connections between this place and my girlhood retreat, Hawk Mountain. Mark’s assistant is a local young man, an indigenous Bri Bri. I was quite impressed at how proficient he was at identifying specific birds at a distance. His eagle eye spotting of a Peregrine Falcon led to an interesting discussion on falconry, a sport Kendrick had never heard of.
Raptors, with their powerful hooked beaks, mighty talons and keen eye sight, symbolize power, skill and noble grace. Even more important, however, is the significance of these birds of prey to the well being of the natural ecosystem. On the farm they are an ally in keeping rodents at bay. In the wild, they help to maintain balance between prey populations and food supply. And most of all, raptors are an important link in the food chain and sensitive indicators of changes in the ecosystems. It was the decreasing population of our national symbol, the Bald Eagle that led to the banning of the pesticide DDT.
But even as we humans exalt these revered creatures, we are responsible for their decline. Clear cutting for agriculture and acquisition of wetlands and grasslands for use in development has resulted in a huge loss of habitat. Hawks and owls are blamed for livestock loss and shot, trapped or poisoned. They are even killed simply for sport. Counting the number of migrating birds provides information to biologists and conservationists regarding the rise or decline in species numbers. It’s a useful tool to help formulate ideas and programs for protection and preservation.
Diego and Yesenia, our amiable guides, are local indigenous Bri Bri, as is Mark’s assistant pictured here (left). They are not professional guides, just two nice kids who showed us the way. And actually, Yesenia is a busy mom. She and Michael, my mechanic’s helper, have two little toddlers. This observation tower is built on their reserve, and since the beginning of the project in the fall of 2000, there has been a strong involvement and participation of members of the indigenous community. “For the Bri Bri, raptor migration is part of their mythology; the migrating raptors are dancing gods, the carriers of the seeds of the forest trees.” (Quote from Kekoldi Hawkwatch.) Both Diego and Yesenia were sweet and a bit shy but very accommodating, like other Bri Bris I’ve met. Many are quiet, unassuming people with a love and deep understanding of the natural world. This brother and sister lived for a time with their family in the city – San Jose, so in addition to their native Bri Bri language, they are fluent in Spanish. Yesenia hopes her kids will be trilingual, speaking English, too. I appreciate the opportunity to hike in such an enchanted forest and plan to use Diego as a guide again, in order to give back, through payment, for his help. This will be a wonderful place to share with my guide service clients.
During our visit, there were lots of birds to be seen, but they were too far for detailed photos. At times, Mark said, the birds fly in close, but that can’t be predicted. It’s best to bring binoculars. I could have stayed up there for hours, but my companions were tired from the hike and the hot sun. We concluded our visit and scampered back down the mountain. I look forward to returning soon, to share this delightful jungle adventure with my friends.
Information Resources for this Article:
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
Conservation of Migratory Birds of Costa Rica and North America – Patrick Dwyer