Great Green Macaw, courtesy Mario Córdoba.
How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures
By Barb Gorges
The back-to-school sales reminded me that I have some studying to do. In a few months, Mark and I are going to Costa Rica on our first international birding trip. We are going with Bird Watcher’s Digest with whom we’ve birded before in Florida and Texas.
Our friend Chuck Seniawski has been to Costa Rica five times and recommended, as did BWD, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. It shows 903 species in a country 20 percent the size of Wyoming, which has only 445 species. About 200 I’ve seen before because they migrate up here for the summer or their year round range includes parts of both North and Central America.
I asked local birder Greg Johnson, veteran of many international birding trips, how he learns the birds before heading to a new destination.
Greg said he starts with the country’s field guide, “I start reviewing it almost daily beginning several weeks or even months before the trip. For most trips, the tour company should be able to provide you trip reports from previous trips with the same itinerary. The trip reports should have a list of all birds they saw or heard. I then check those birds with a pencil mark in the book to focus only on those I am likely to see and ignore the rest. For example, if your trip to Costa Rica only includes the highlands and Caribbean slope, you can ignore those birds which only occur on the Pacific slope.”
Mario Córdoba of Crescentia Expeditions, trip leader, has provided a list of target bird species based on our travel route including several ecolodges we’ll stay at near national parks. No Pacific slope.
Greg’s email continued, “If you spend enough time studying the birds you are most likely to see, you’ll surprise yourself at how easy it is to ID birds you have never seen before at first sight. There are always some groups that are still hard to ID without help from a guide [bird expert] because differences between species are very subtle. In Costa Rica these would include woodcreepers, some of the antbirds, elanias, tyrannulets, other flycatchers, etc.”
There are recognizable genera in Costa Rica: hummingbird, woodpecker, wren, warbler. But then the others seem straight from Alice in Wonderland: potoo, motmot, puffbird.
Mark and I also went to eBird and looked at the bird lists for the hotspots we will be visiting and filtered them for the month we are there. Of 421 species we found, 338 will be unfamiliar birds.
There is an alternative to thumbing through the field guide to study the birds. Our daughter-in-law, Jessie Gorges, with a degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaii, got a job one summer surveying birds across the Great Plains. She had a couple months to learn to recognize a few hundred birds by sight and sound.
Her solution is a free program called ANKI, https://apps.ankiweb.net. She created her own deck of digital flashcards with photos and birdsong recordings. It’s like a game and Jessie is the queen of complicated board and card games. The program prepares a daily quiz based on how much review and repetition it thinks you need.
But of course, even to make bird flashcards like I did 20 years ago for kids for Audubon Wyoming, printable from a CD, I need to find photographs. Finding them online or scanning pages of the field guide can help me study.
I take for granted the decades of familiarity I have with bird species in the U.S. There are groups in which I still can’t distinguish individual species well, for instance, flycatchers. But at least I know they are flycatchers. On this trip I’ll be leaving behind most of the birds I know.
But Greg assured me, “Once you go on an international birding trip, you’ll likely get hooked and won’t be able to stop. There are so many great birds that don’t occur in the U.S. I’ll never forget seeing my first keel-billed toucans in Belize or African penguins in South Africa.”
Preparing for this trip will make me appreciate the birds I do know when I meet their tropical cousins. I never thought about our northern rough-winged swallow having a counterpart, the southern rough-winged swallow. We could see both in Costa Rica.
Meanwhile, excuse me while I begin studying in ornithological order: “Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Black Guan, Crested Guan, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Least Grebe, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Green Ibis, Southern Lapwing, Northern Jacana, White-throated Crake, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, King Vulture, Gray-headed Kite, Tiny Hawk….”