Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:
Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.
Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.
Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.
You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.
What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).
Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.
Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.
Some stuff to study:
Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:
-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.
–Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.
Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:
– Any other books by Alexander Skutch.
– Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.
-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.
– Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.
eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.
Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:
– A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.
– How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.