I recently received a great email from a fellow birder by the name of Dorvat (if you are reading this, please email me again because I seem to have lost the last message!). He has been studying the field guides to prepare for his first trip to Costa Rica and after feeling a bit overwhelmed by long-winded names of unfamiliar birds, he suggested that I write a topic on using codes or shorter names for the Costa Rican avifauna. I’m not going to come up with a list of codes but I will share some of the things I do to spend more time birding than note-taking or paging through the field guide. So, some of the ways in which I optimize my birding time are:
- Only looking at the field guide during lunch: I take the book with me but usually leave it in the car while birding. This may sound counterproductive but your chances of overlooking birds increases every time you focus on the book instead of your surroundings. There are a heck of a lot of species out there in those tropical forests but most are naturally rare and many have ninja-like capabilities that allow them to stay hidden or disappear in a flash. While you were looking at the book, you may have missed your one shot at rare species like bright-colored canopy ninjas like the Lovely Cotinga or Red-fronted Parrotlet (and believe me when I say that those species are avian ninjas of the highest order). So, I focus on my surroundings while birding and only check out the book while relaxing with a coffee or “arroz con pollo” (sounds fancy but means “rice with chicken”).
The Black-crowned Antpitta is another Costa Rica ninja bird.
- Studying the book at home: Of course you can’t expect to know what you are looking at without some sort of reference but you will still be better off by studying the book before you go birding. That goes for birding anywhere in the world but especially in the tropics where you will be confronted with more brief looks at a variety of species than a mad dash through the San Diego zoo. During a three week trip to Costa Rica, you can look at as many TKs and Clay-coloreds as you want but your chances at watching the antics of an Ocellated Antbird, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, or Striped Cuckoo will probably occur just once or twice. The same goes for a horde of other species that love to ambush birders in mixed flock form (make sure you ambush them first!). Try to memorize those field marks before birding if you can!
If you don’t study that book enough, how would you recognize this bird as a Bright-rumped Atilla?
- Taking notes: When I need to take notes, I prefer a hand-held recorder over a notebook. That way, I can record my observations in real time without even taking my eyes off the bird. If you would rather make sketches or just love to scribble, then bring a small notebook but jot down your impressions after the mixed flock moves through. While you write, it’s also worth it to keep looking around for your adversary..er, I mean birds.
- Customizing bird names: Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner. Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. Do birds really need such complicated names? The name of the pygmy-tyrant in particular is longer than the bird itself. While such names do help make sense out of the bewildering array of avian diversity in Costa Rica, they tend to also cause confusion. I learned those crazy names from the start but if it helps, while studying the field guide, it won’t hurt to take the “foliage” out of “foliage-gleaner” and the “pygmy” out of “pygmy-tyrant”. Make whatever changes are necessary to help you remember the birds, just don’t make so many changes that your notes become impossible to understand. I tend to make notes like, “S C creeper” or “spec gleaner” for “Spot-crowned Woodcreeper” and “Spectacled Foliage-Gleaner” respectively.
The bird with a name longer than its body.
- Plan your itinerary and routes well in advance: Most birders do this whether watching for warblers in New England, cruising for quetzals in Costa Rica, or twitching hundreds of species in Ecuador. In Costa Rica, the most important things to keep in mind when planning routes, birding times, and other important logistics (like when and where to get that morning coffee), are (1) the state of the roads and (2) traffic in and around San Jose. Try to get an idea of what the roads will be like if you can and stick to principle routes. As for traffic, know that traffic will be horrible in many parts of the Central Valley between the hours of 6:30 AM-8:30 AM, and 4:00 PM-6:00 PM. The upside to that is virtually no traffic when you want to be traveling to a birding site (anytime before 6 in the morning).
- Hire a good guide and/or ground agent: It’s easy for me to say this because it’s part of what I do for a living but this will help you maximize birding time and get you more species no matter where you go for a birding vacation. Given the high diversity of birds in Costa Rica, it’s especially helpful in this country if you have no experience with neotropical birding. A guide also comes in handy if you don’t have the time to memorize the field guide, study their images online, or learn their vocalizations.