For the Birds Radio Program: Costa Rica Planning

Original Air Date: Nov. 15, 2000

Laura is headed to Costa Rica in January. How is she studying up?

Duration: 4′12″


On January 1, 2001, I’m headed to Costa Rica for three and a half weeks of birding. Costa Rica is a small country, smaller than West Virginia, yet it has about 850 species of birds—fully one tenth of all the birds on earth. I’m going to be spending two weeks on an organized birding tour, but I’ll be on my own for my first twi days and will spend the last week and a half with my daughter Katie.

Normal people planning such a trip would focus a lot of attention on basic logistics, but so far all I can think about are those birds. I obviously won’t be seeing all 850 of them, but on a short trip covering a reasonable amount of territory, I do hope to see between 300 and 400 species. A lot of them will be north country birds that have wended their way south for the winter, but I will probably be adding something like 200 brand new species to my lifelist, which requires a lot of study beforehand. I’ve developed a couple of strategies that I hope will help.

First, I cut out the bird illustration section from my Costa Rica field guide, and brought it over to my friendly neighborhood print shop, where they spiral-bound it and put on a laminated cover. This is helpful now because as I read through the text, I can refer to the drawings without flipping back and forth. And it will be enormously helpful when I’m traveling, because I won’t have to lug around the 511-page tome wherever I go when I just need the 50 pages of drawings.

But where the heck to you start when you need to learn so many new species? I figured actually seeing birds moving about in their habitat would be helpful, so I looked for some videos specifically about birding in Costa Rica. I didn’t find any, but did discover a little half-hour videotape about Costa Rica wildlife in general, and one interviewing my favorite ornithologist on the planet, Alexander Skutch, who lives there. I froze the tape for each new bird and looked for it in the field guide—that was a fun exercise. I’ve also been reading a lot of books about the tropics, and trying to find each species I read about in the field guide. I’ll hardly have every species memorized by my trip, but this is making me very familiar with the guide, increasing my chances of finding birds more quickly when they’re zipping by in real life. Costa Rica has a whole group of birds that follow army ants about. They don’t eat the ants, but do eat the insects and small vertebrates stirred up by the ants. These birds are in mixed flocks that are apparently very frustrating for beginners—they appear suddenly as the ants come in, and there are many species to figure out in the short time before they just as suddenly disappear. Tanagers and other fruit-eaters fly about in mixed flocks, too. If I want to see as many species as possible, I’ll need to be familiar with the possibilities, and what to look for in a short time, before my trip.

My trip leader sent all the participants a list of the first hundred birds he added to his lifelist in Costa Rica—I’m focusing on learning them thoroughly. And I’m also spending a lot of time on the most beautiful species—the motmots, trogons, tanagers, and hummingbirds. They’re so beautiful in the book—I can’t even imagine how breathtaking they’ll be in the flesh. Although my trip is going to last for 27 days, I’m getting an enormous amount of satisfaction right now just learning about and imagining the possibilities. Once the trip is over, I’ll get months of fun playing with my bird lists and re-reading about the things I saw. That’s the way a good vacation should be—filled with fun and joy before, during, and after.