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Costa Rica is an easy place to visit and see a large number of bird species, many of which are spectacular. With airline tickets still pretty cheap from North America (especially from New York), there’s almost no excuse not to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Ever since my first trip here in 1992, I have always told people what I discovered- that Costa Rica is much easier to visit than you think and that you should go! From North America, it’s pretty close, infastructure is better than a lot of places in the region, the country is small enough to conceivably bird in a wide variety of habitats, and although prices have gone up, it can still be done in an affordable manner. The birding is challenging but always exciting and you can start getting prepared by studying either or both of the bird books for Costa Rica. Whether you take a tour or do it on your own, studying the birds beforehand will seriously enhance your trip and leave more time for birding instead of pouring through the book during your time in Costa Rica.

The two bird books for Costa Rica are, “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch, and “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Garrigues and Dean. Whether you get the classic, “old school” Stiles and Skutch, or the updated, modernized Garrigues and Dean, I don’t think you can really go wrong with either one.

Here are some ups and downs about each:

While Stiles and Skutch has more information overall and makes for a great reference book, this also makes it rather large in size for the field. The size of the book is also just big enough to take up a fair amount of packing space. Because of its size, for me, it’s more of a book to keep back at the hotel or at home rather than one for the field. Although some of the illustrations could be improved, overall they are pretty good, are for the most part useful for identification, and the text always makes for good reading. Being several years old, it also needs to be updated. This is especially true for the sort of dynamic factors that every field guide needs to keep up on such as bird distribution and occurrence, classification, and advances in our knowledge of identification.

Garrigues and Dean attempted to correct these disadvantages with their book and I think it has worked out nicely. It is the perfect size for the field without having to seriously reduce the size of the illustrations. They were able to accomplish this by leaving out several of the seabirds that most birders visiting Costa Rica aren’t likely to encounter and in reducing the text to the bare minimum needed for identification (pointing out important field marks with notes on habitat, behavior, and abundance). Instead of having plates with the name of the bird on the opposite page and then a reference to the page with the appropriate text, Garrigues and Dean put all of this right with the bird and include maps! Even though Costa Rica is a pretty small country with fairly well defined life zones, distribution maps still come in handy. I also like the illustrations better in Garrigues and Dean. They are more accurate because of their detail, do not overcrowd the pages, and are just simply nice to look at. To point out one or two things that could be improved, regarding identification of Black and white Hawk-Eagle, the white leading edge to the wing is not mentioned as a field mark (and is an excellent one), nor is anything said about Ocellated Poorwhill possibly being Choco Poorwhill (the vocalization of which differs from that of Ocellated Poorwhil- the only one described in the book). Overall though, the book is great and better for field identification.

That said, although I think you should bring at least one of these books with you to Costa Rica, you don’t really have to bring it into the field (nor should you in my opinion). What? Not bring a book into the steaming jungle or misty cloud forest? Yes, exactly. Leave that book back at the hotel and figure out what you saw during or after dinner. Otherwise, you will miss birds during the time it takes to get the book out of your pack and leafing through the pages until you find the possible contenders. It’s quicker to do this with Garrigues and Dean but I think you will still see more if you take notes on field marks or try to remember what you saw and don’t even think about taking that book out during the hectic frenzy of a mixed flock!

The thing to keep in mind with tropical birding is that there are lots of species that are possible but most of them are naturally rare. Forest species in particular seem to have large territories and might be encountered just once or twice during your trip. Many are also much shyer than temperate zone species, are masters at camouflage and staying hidden to avoid the myriad of predators they face, and often specialize on certain fruits or microhabitats. This all basically means that in the field, you have to be ready and quick at all times with your binoculars because for many species, you might just have one or two chances to see it and when you do, the looks might not be all that long. Studying the field marks from your bird book will aid you in knowing what to look for, especially with the looks one gets while watching a mixed flock.

If you aren’t familiar with what a mixed flock is, imagine wondering where all the birds have been for the past two hours while you have been carefully walking through primary rain forest when all of a sudden, the vegetation all around you seems to be twitching and shaking with birds but most of them still seem to be hidden! As various chirps and chip notes give away their location and others tantalize you with their songs, you manage to get onto a woodcreeper but can’t see its head (which is what you need to see to identify it), aren’t quick enough to focus on some small flycatcher in the canopy, but then get great looks at one, two, no, four different tanagers! Just as you are getting better looks at more of the birds in the flock, they seem to have moved too far into the forest to watch. Left feeling exhilirated and a bit frustrated, at least studying the books paid off in identifying some of the birds and you would have missed a lot if you had tried to look up birds in the book during all of that excitement.

Even with dozens of evenings spent with your Costa Rican bird book before the trip, it will never make up for learning in a field setting because birds just love to show themselves so differently from the way they are illustrated. Here are some examples of the usual looks we get:

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Spectacled Foliage-gleaner

Believe it or not, a Northern Scrub Flycatcher!

A Bright-rumped Atilla (why oh why did it have to turn its head away)

See if you can find the Olive Tanager!

Or how about this Emerald Tanager!

This is where a qualified, knowledgable guide comes in handy although no matter how well a guide can identify birds by sight, he or she still won’t up to par unless they can also identify birds by their vocalizations. Yet another way to prepare for a birding trip to Costa Rica instead of say working or doing the dishes, becoming familiar with bird vocalizations will also enhance your trip. There are a few cds available but I don’t believe that there is a comprehensive country wide dvd or set of cds as of yet. David Ross offers a few cds that cover most areas of the country, and vocalizations can also be listened to at Xeno Canto. Dan Mennil has a website with some dry forest birds, and Doug Von Gausig also has a nice selection of bird species to listen to. I hope to post songs on this blog eventually although it might be a few months before that happens. Keep posted though for that and other surprises that will help you have a better birding trip to Costa Rica.

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3 Responses to “What to study for a birding trip to Costa Rica”

  1. Excelent reviews!
    I dont have either one, and did not bought the Styles book cos the drawings are kinda lame.

    Recently bought Warblers of N.A.(Peterson) and ill soon be buying birds of panama by Ridgely, it works better for Honduras if you use Howell & Webb´s mexico and northern central america, Ridgely´s Panama and NATGEO´s north american birds

    Hey…nice photo of the Foliage Gleaner, thatll be a lifer for me eventually

  2. Hopefully we will see a book for Honduras from you some day!

    Thanks- the Foliage-gleaner was really tough for me to photograph- the pic there is about the best I could get! It’s actually pretty uncommon in Costa Rica, much more common in northern South America.

  3. jaja yeah I hope so too
    My wife and I are working as we speak on a field guide for the Tela Bay area (swamps, mangrove, lagoons, mature rain forest, plantations) it will include some 300 species descriptions and plates…That will be the 3rd field guide on Honduras the other 2 being Rob Gallardo´s Lake Yojoa birds and Celaque national park birds (Pine oak and cloud forest)

    the Honduras book will be a reality eventually..

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