How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

2018-09-GREAT GREEN MACAW Mario Córdoba

Great Green Macaw, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

Published September 23, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

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.


Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

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.

2018-09-RESPLENDENT QUETZAL (2) Mario Córdoba

Resplendent Quetzal, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

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.


Fiery-throated Hummingbird, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

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, 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.


Red-legged Honeycreeper, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

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….”

2018-09-SCARLET MACAW Mario Córdoba

Scarlet Macaws, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

Bird quiz

Wood Duck

Do you know where the Wood Duck nests? Photo by Pete Arnold.

Published April 12, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Are you a bird expert?”

By Barb Gorges

Raise your hand if you’ve been reading my bird column for the 16 years I’ve been writing it for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Good for you!

And even if you haven’t been reading it that long, here’s a quiz to see what you’ve learned so far. All the birds mentioned are listed on the Cheyenne Bird Checklist posted at the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society website,


  1. What “sign of spring” shows up most often on Cheyenne Christmas Bird Counts?
    1. Western Meadowlark
    2. Red-winged Blackbird
    3. Mountain Bluebird
    4. American Robin

Answer: (d) The robin has been seen on almost every Cheyenne CBC since our first, 60 years ago, and the red-winged blackbird about half as often. Meadowlarks have been seen six times, and bluebirds never.

  1. Which large white birds visit Cheyenne in small flocks each spring to go fishing?
    1. Snow Goose
    2. American White Pelican
    3. Tundra Swan
    4. Great Egret

Answer: (b) While lone great egrets are seen occasionally, flocks of pelicans show up regularly. Snow geese and swans don’t eat fish.

  1. Which is the only blue bird that would have been seen here in pioneer times?
    1. Mountain Bluebird
    2. Blue Jay
    3. Blue Grosbeak
    4. Indigo Bunting

Answer: (a) Pioneers would have seen mountain bluebirds. Farmers planting windbreaks made our high plains friendly to blue jays, noticeable by 1939. Indigo buntings were recorded by the 1950s and blue grosbeaks by the 1960s.

  1. Which black-colored bird seen around Cheyenne never raises its own offspring?
    1. Common Grackle
    2. Red-winged Blackbird
    3. Yellow-headed Blackbird
    4. Brown-headed Cowbird

Answer: (d) Brown-headed cowbirds always leave their eggs in nests of other birds. Historically, they needed to be off right away to follow the buffalo.

  1. Which woodpecker is more often seen pecking Cheyenne lawns instead of trees?
    1. Downy Woodpecker
    2. Hairy Woodpecker
    3. Northern Flicker
    4. Red-headed Woodpecker

Answer: (c) I get more calls about strange, polka-dotted birds digging for grubs in people’s front lawns, but yes, the flicker is a woodpecker. Just ask anyone whose wood siding has been pecked.

  1. Which bird only nests on the ground?
    1. Western Meadowlark
    2. Wood Duck
    3. Black-crowned Night-Heron
    4. Great Blue Heron

Answer: (a) Wood ducks nest in tree cavities or nest boxes. Great blue herons and black-crowned night-herons almost always nest in colonies in trees. But the meadowlark, like many grassland birds, always nests on the ground. Don’t mow your prairie until July, after nesting season.

  1. Several species can be seen in both southeastern Wyoming and the Middle East. Which one didn’t require human help to get here?
    1. Caspian Tern
    2. Rock Pigeon
    3. Ring-necked Pheasant
    4. Eurasian Collared-Dove

Answer: (a) The Caspian tern, a rare visitor here, occurs naturally on all continents except Antarctica. Pigeons, pheasants and collared-doves started out as Eurasian (including the Middle East) species.

  1. Which big hawk likes the Magic City so well it flies from Argentina to nest in our neighborhoods?
    1. Red-tailed Hawk
    2. American Kestrel
    3. Swainson’s Hawk
    4. Northern Harrier

Answer: (c) The Swainson’s hawk winters in Argentina. The other three may get as far south as Panama.

  1. Besides Wyoming, what other states claim the Western Meadowlark as their state bird?
    1. Kansas
    2. Nebraska
    3. Montana
    4. North Dakota
    5. Oregon

Answer: (a, b, c, d and e) All claim the western meadowlark.

  1. How many warbler species have been observed since 1993 on the Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count, at the height of spring migration?
    1. 23
    2. 27
    3. 31
    4. 35

Answer: (c or d) There have been 31 warbler species on our Big Days, by my count. However there are 35 listed on the Cheyenne checklist. Take credit for either answer.

  1. What sandpiper likes nesting on our prairie, and even on football fields?
    1. Killdeer
    2. Greater Yellowlegs
    3. Lesser Yellowlegs
    4. Wilson’s Snipe

Answer: (a) Killdeer. Both yellowlegs pass through on their way to nest in Canada. Snipe nest here, but only on the edge of water.

  1. Three of these species spend only the winter in Cheyenne. Which one leaves?
    1. American Tree Sparrow
    2. Dark-eyed Junco
    3. Rough-legged Hawk
    4. Lark Bunting

Answer: (d) Lark buntings leave Wyoming to winter in the southwest and Mexico. The others arrive: juncos after nesting in the mountains, tree sparrows from Alaska and Canada, and rough-leggeds from the Arctic.

How did you do?

Whatever your score, by taking part in the quiz, you show you are part of the community of inquisitive birdwatchers.

Remember, whatever local wisdom about birds is cited here, your careful observation could turn it on its head. Birds never stop teaching us new things.