With the dry and high season for tourism and birding in Costa Rica rapidly approaching (or already here with the incredibly beautiful weather we are having these days), I figured that a post on “preparing for your trip” was in order. Another deciding factor for doing this post as opposed to uploading images of and writing about drool-provoking Costa Rican target birds is that I went out birding yesterday around Poas but very windy weather foiled any and all attempts at getting pictures (or watching birds in general for that matter!) .
Despite the lack of avian eye candy, information in posts like this one are helpful in any case, especially if you have never travelled to or been birding in Costa Rica. So, off the top of my head, here are a few things I think you should know and/or bring if this is your first birding trip to Costa Rica (or reminders of what to bring for birders who have already made the voyage to the land of quetzals, Gallo Pinto, and Fiery-billed Aracaris):
1. Bring WATERPROOF binoculars. With the wonderful advent of a variety of quality, mid-priced binocs, most birders coming to Costa Rica have optics that are waterproof and therefore will not fog up in humid conditions. If you do not have a pair of binos like this, you should seriously consider buying a pair before your trip to Costa Rica to avoid the extreme frustration of watching silhouettes through an unfortunate haze of fog that commonly takes up residence in non-sealed binoculars in the humid habitats of Costa Rica.
2. Dont forget your field guide. Garrigues and Dean is perfectly sized for travel and is an excellent field guide for Costa Rica. The classic Stiles and Skutch tome is also a great guide and is chock full of information but its size is somewhat prohibitive for travel.
3. Zip lock bags. No, you will not be freezing any freshly prepared pesto sauce or chicken a la whatever but you will be keeping your stuff dry. Although your backpack might be stamped or labelled with something like “water repellent” or “rainguard!” this means nothing when caught in heavy tropical downpours or penetrating montane mist. Use those ziplock bags as an extra measure of security for the stuff we would rather keep dry such as cameras, ipods, digital recorders, batteries, medicine, socks, and other articles of clothing.
4. Hat. A fedora would be too hot but just about any other head gear with a brim is nearly essential. Baseball caps work as do the polemic wide-brimmed hats. Forget about any silly complaints you may have read regarding wide brimmed hats- they provide much needed shade under the blazing tropical sun, can be used to swat away mosquitoes along with undescribed hefty horseflies, and can be soaked with water and put right back on the noggin to cool you off when birding the hot and humid lowlands.
5. A small umbrella and or light poncho. You will see rain in Costa Rica, even during the dry season. I personally like to crry around a compact umbrella because I find ponchos to be hot and clumsy. Forget about heavy raincoats or waterproof clothing designed for hiking in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula or trudging through the wet gorse of Scottish glens. Only wear such heavy duty raingear in Costa Rica if you are really into sweat lodges or saunas because that is exactly how you will feel when looking for manakins, quail-doves, and antpittas.
6. Granola and/or energy bars. If you can fit them into the luggage, bring em. These emergency foods will keep you in the field longer and could be a welcome respite from rice and beans. I do not think they should be substituted for all of your meals but keep them on hand for lunchtime emergencies such as waiting for an umbrellabird, attempting to locate a calling bellbird, or hoping for better shots of Great Green Macaws. Energy bars are sold in some Costa Rican supermarkets but who wants to listen to Tico muzak while browsing the food aisles when dozens of lifers await personal discovery in nearby tropical forests.
7. Clothing for hot and cool temperatures. Most of Costa Rica is tropically hot (highest temperatures could reach mid 90s on the Pacific Coast) while the highlands are pleasantly cool. The coldest it will get would be 40-50 degrees at the highest points on Cerro de la Muerte ad Irazu. Those lightweight zip-off pants or trousers adored by so many travelers are perfect- keep the leg things on inside the forest and zip them off for lunch or when taking a break from birding. Most folks opt for long pants in the forest because although the bugs arent all that bad, there are enough to warrant protecting of the legs. Some even go for long sleeve shirts in the jungle but I think that short sleeved shirts combined with insect repellent are fine.
8. Proper footwear. By “proper footwear” I mean anything that is lightweight, comfortable, and does not have open toes. It might be tempting to wear flip-flops or Tevas when walking in tropical forests but they will not protect you from spiny vegetation nor from the bites and stings of ants, bugs, and other creatures that live in the leaf litter.
9. Sun block and insect repellent. Dont forget the sun block! You could spend most of the day protected by the shade of rainforest giants and still get fried after walking for only twenty minutes beneath the blazing tropical sun if you do not slather on some strong UV blocking suff. Biting insects arent all that bad BUT there are enough to warrant the application of repellent to keep the mosquitoes away (the more you get bit the more likely you will host botfly larvae), the black flies from biting (common and nasty at middle elevations), and the chiggers off of your body. Chiggers are a special case because their minute size makes them tough to see, they crawl onto you from the grass, and their bites are absolutely infuriating and can last for weeks! Not walking through grassy areas and applying sulfur powder to socks works best but I think that DEET sprayed onto socks and shoes will also work to keep these miniature monsters away.
10. A “Zen birding” attitude. You will see more with a guide but you will never see everything during a short trip to Costa Rica. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that you will see more birds and other denizens of rainforest by birding with a relaxed and focused attitude accompanied by huge anounts of patience. When inside the forest, take your time- you may be surprised at what shows up when investigating quiet chip notes from the understory, looking for movement in the canopy, or carfull scanning a forested hillside.