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Guided Birding or Birding Costa Rica on Your Own- What’s the Difference?

There are a lot of birds in Costa Rica. More than you think. Some information says 800 plus species and that’s a heck of a lot but the real total is more like 930. Yes! Around 930 species have been identified in a place the size of West Virginia. Those crazy numbers translate to a lot of birds waiting to be seen, always more birds to look for, even after several visits.

Red-headed Barbet male
The Red-headed Barbet is one of those birds.

I’m often asked how many bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or which birds I’m missing. Other than some pelagic species, not much although I have seen a bunch of birds on the Costa Rica list elsewhere. That is, I still need various species for my country list, birds like Black-throated Blue-Warbler and Botteri’s Sparrow for example.

This makes my lifer possibilities pretty slim but I’m still excited every time I go birding in Costa Rica and how not- there’s always lots to see; dozens of birds to listen to while walking beneath huge rainforest trees draped with epiphytes, interesting seabirds to scan for from rough beaches on the Caribbean and the scenic tropical bays of the Pacific. There’s also high mountain birding punctuated by dawn quetzals and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers undulating through October airs.

It’s always good!

On my first trip, even though I had studied the field guide for months in advance, the biodiversity still blew me away. I suppose it still does, the more you get into it, the more you discover. When I visited Costa Rica in 1992, I didn’t hire a guide but if I could go back in time, I probably would. Even so, it’s worth asking if you need a guide when birding in Costa Rica. It’s worth considering birding on your own. Trip funds play a basic role but answers about guiding also depend on additional factors:

How You Prefer to Experience Birds

If you don’t mind birding in a group, or even prefer that birding dynamic, a guided tour is a must. With dozens of companies to choose from, it can be hard to know which tour is best. Before signing up, think of your needs, what birds you would like to see, how you want to experience them, and go from there.

For example, if birding for you means some relaxed birding in the morning and taking it easy the rest of the day, you might want to avoid tours with descriptions like “constant birding”, “non-stop birding”, or “we don’t stop until we see the bird”. Such tours might still be able to accommodate a more relaxed birding style but you’re better off delving into the itinerary and speaking with a company well before sending a deposit.

If the group thing is not your slice of birding pie, touring with other birders isn’t going to work. You can still hire a guide though and you’ll have them all to yourself. That can be a very good thing, you’ll get personalized attention and see more birds, especially shy ones. However, without any shring of cost, you of course pay more for the personalized experience.

streak-chested antpitta Caribbean subspecies
Having the guide to yourself may give better chances at seeing shy birds like the Streak-chested Antpitta.

If cost is a factor, one solution is doing a few day tours during the trip instead of having a guide the entire time. Of course, the other main option is doing birding on your own. If you do go your own way, though, do it knowing that you’ll likely miss some species as well as possibly missing out one some little known hotspots. Contraringly, birding on your own does open the door to exploration. Get off the beaten track and you might find your own birding hotspots, might find a rare bird or two.

How Much You Want to See

This is probably the biggest difference between guided birding and birding on your own. Studying before a trip will help in finding more birds and also enhances the experience but no amount of studying can compare to being guided by a highly knowledgeable, local birding guide. The best guides don’t just know principal vocalizations for their local complement of species, they also know many lesser known calls and songs, behaviors, habitats, and sites. These factors along with knowing the lay of the land adds up to more bird species including better chances at rare and little known birds.

With all of that in mind, if you want to see as much as possible, and/or see certain rare species, hiring the right guide is an essential part of the trip. Sure you could still chance it and might do alright but a top local guide will boost your birding opportunities.

How Much Time You Have

This third factor is just as important and is tied into the number of birds you want to see. If you have all the time in the world, you have plenty of time to find and identify a good number of birds in Costa Rica. If you only have a day or a week of birding at different sites, a good guide makes a huge difference. That doesn’t just go for Costa Rica either but anywhere in the world.

Unfamiliar Birds

white-whiskered puffbird

This is another main factor that comes into play when birding with or without a guide, especially on a first birding trip to the Neotropical Region. Most of the birds will be more than species you have never seen. They will be completely different and nothing like the birds from home (unless your local park has trogons, puffbirds, and antthrushes). Most birds won’t be remotely familiar and this will be fun but if you go birding on your own, it can also be confusing. You might find yourself wondering where certain birds are and how to see them.

Peace of Mind

Another advantage of birding with a local guide is simply peace of mind. Bird with a guide and common worries associated with language, cultural differences, where to eat, stay, and visit are neatly wooshed away. The same goes for worrying about bird identification, finding certain species, and so on.

Should you hire a birding guide in Costa Rica? Although what I have written above seems to make a case for that, I’m just being honest about the benefits of hiring a guide. You can still bird without a guide and see a lot of birds but whether birding in Costa Rica or elsewhere, birding with a good, local guide does make the trip easier.

If visiting Costa Rica for birding, whether taking a tour to Costa Rica or birding on your own in Costa Rica, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” will enhance your trip. Get it to see identification tips, where to go birding, prepare for your trip, and to support this blog. As always, I hope to see you here in Birdlandia!

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