Tips for a birding trip

Although we have been birders for a long time, we had never gone on a trip with a group specifically to see birds.  Here you’ll find some suggestions that I thought of during our birding trip to Costa Rica in Feb., 2011.  Not all will be relevant to everyone.  In fact, some may be painfully obvious to folks who’ve been on organized birding trips before.  But if you haven’t been on a birding trip in the tropics before, you might find some food for thought here.  If you can think of others to include, by all means—leave a comment!

Before the beginning

Test out your skill with your binoculars before you leave home.  My binocular skills are always at their sharpest in mid-summer.  Our trip was in the depths of winter.  I knew that, by Feb., I was going to be rusty at getting my binos on a bird quickly and accurately.  So I practiced a bit every now and then.  Keep your eyes on the bird; then move your binos to your eyes, not your eyes to your binos.  That way, you’ll spend less time re-searching that area to find the bird you already spotted.  (You’d be surprised how hard that can be when you’ve developed sloppy habits.)  Birds are also much easier to see when trees have no leaves (which was the case for our area in mid-winter).  So try finding some birds in evergreen trees, if you don’t have leafed-out deciduous trees for practice.

Learn some things about the local trees.  A vast majority of the birds you’ll see will fly into trees, be already perched in trees, or be flying out of trees.  Your guide will know all of the tree species that you’ll be looking at.  Let’s say your guide shouts, “Look at the cecropia—on the left side just above the middle!”  That does you very little good if you have no clue what a cecropia looks like—or even that it’s a tree.  Below are just a few of the trees that we encountered pretty regularly.  I really know very little about trees, but I’ve included some photos of these trees, to at least give you a hint.  But I think it is a good idea to ask your guide—at the very beginning—to give you an overview of the general shapes, leaves, and flowers (depending on what season you’re there) of the most common trees that he or she might be using as guide points.  (Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the free-use photos.)

Cecropia (right)

Guanacaste (left)

Oak (below)

Ceiba pentandra (left, pronounced “Say-ba”)—a.k.a. kapok.

Laurel (right, Cordia alliodora)  Note that we were in Costa Rica during the dry season, so many of the trees we saw had dropped their leaves but were also flowering.  (A very strange concept for us Norteamericanos.)  If you’ll be going during a different season, the trees you see may look different.

Two other tree “characteristics” that we found useful were termite nests and squirrel nests.  They can serve as easy markers for birds in among the leaves:  “Look at 5:00 about 1/2 a glass from the termite nest in the cecropia.”  Voilà—there’s your bird.  Below is a photo of a termite nest.  A squirrel nest looks like a ball-like jumble of sticks and leaves in the limbs of a tree—easiest to see when the leaves are off the trees.

Be familiar with various bird species names, even if you can’t recall what the birds look like.  If you have limited time (or patience) for studying your field guides before you leave, at least become familiar with the species names so that you have a chance of recognizing the name if you hear some version of it in the field.  Your guide may have an accent that could make figuring out a species name from scratch a bit of a challenge.  With our guide—whose English was terrific but his accent came through at times—bird names such as Xenops, Saltator, and Double Thick-knee sounded pretty odd to my ear when he said them.  If I hadn’t been vaguely familiar with these species names, I’d have had to ask him several times what bird that was—or perhaps even to find it in the book or spell it for me.  (Which some of our group actually did. I began to jump in with the more challenging names that I recognized, so we didn’t have to waste the guide’s time.) Not a good use of anyone’s time, that’s for sure.

Be familiar with the songs of a few of the more common species. I do a lot of birding by ear in the US and it’s something I truly enjoy.  (Plus, I don’t have to struggle so hard with finding the dang bird if I can identify it by song.)  I had originally decided that I’d make an Excel spreadsheet of all of the birds we were most likely to see in the various habitats, based on a few good birding checklists I found.   I then found a recording of a song for each of those birds on the marvelous Web site xeno-canto and put the URL on the spreadsheet too.  (Since I had no way of knowing what clips were most representative of the species, I just tried to pick ones that were from Costa Rica or a nearby country, audible, and not too long.)  Somehow, I thought I’d then have time to learn all of those songs.  Wow—what a dreamer I was!  (I ended up with more than 360 species on that spreadsheet.)  I did at least complete the spreadsheet—but by then, I had completely run out of time to do any studying.  Besides, I realized that I was never going to learn all of those songs in that short a period.  If you’d like to download this insane Excel spreadsheet (.xlsx), click here.  This file also has sheets that I copied from Lawson, A bird-finding guide to Costa Rica, where common, expected, and specially targeted birds are listed for the 8 areas we visited.  (Since I literally typed these lists pretty much verbatim, those sheets should only be used for personal purposes.)

So, here’s my suggestion.  Learn just a handful of songs of those birds that are the most common in the places that you’ll be going.  That way, if you want to ask about an interesting song you’re hearing, you’ll have eliminated a few of the more common songsters from the list of possibilities.  If I were doing this trip again, I’d focus on the following songs, included here in no particular order.  (I’ve included links to samples on too.)

During the trip—getting the most out of your experience and your guide

Move slowly and quietly.  Groups will develop their own conventions around this.  But in my experience both in the wild and in wildlife rehab, quick movements spook a bird more so than does talking in a normal but quiet voice.  However, your guide will probably be listening very hard to hear birds, so your talking may make that task harder.

Move past the guide when the group stops.  If you’re at the front of the group, move just a bit beyond the guide when he or she stops to check out a bird.  That way, others in the group can move in close too.  Don’t go too far beyond the guide, because you could chase away birds that he or she might be able to identify for the entire group.  But moving just a bit to the other side of the guide can be very helpful for the rest of the group.

If you can’t spot the bird from the guide’s directions, move directly behind him or her.  Move quickly but quietly.  The angles can often be different and you have the best chance of following the guide’s directions to the bird if you’re pretty much standing where the guide is.  Look at where his or her binos are pointing.  Try to line your binos up with that angle.

Spend time looking at the bird—not the field guide.  Once you have a bird in your binoculars, spend time with it there.  Don’t immediately grab for your field guide to confirm what you’re seeing.  Your field guide will be there later.  The bird most likely will not.  This may be your only chance to see this bird.  Drink it in.

Don’t fret about the precise name of the species while you’re looking at it.  Again, the name will be there when the bird is gone.

Don’t bogart that guide.  Sure, ask him questions as they come up.  Share amusing stories with her when clearly no birds are to be found.  But the guide’s special skills and experience are for the enjoyment of the entire group, not just you.  If the guide has explained something that you didn’t quite understand, perhaps someone else in the group can quietly and quickly repeat it for you rather than making the guide say it all again.  The guide could be moving on to other birds in the area rather than repeating him- or herself for you.  Also, if you can’t find a bird despite several attempts by the guide to direct you to it, perhaps you could ask a group member who is seeing the bird to help you out.  (My poor husband might disagree with this one.  Innumerable times, he’d quickly get on the bird and I’d be like a little kid, tugging at his sleeve, begging for him to help me see it.  But at least I didn’t make the guide give directions over and over again just for me.)

Take advantage of scope views.  Once the guide has a bird in the scope, move to the scope quickly.  Don’t be rude or knock anyone else down to get there.  But don’t dawdle if you really want to see the bird.  Take a good, quick look and then step aside.  If the bird sticks around after everyone has had a good look, by all means—go for a second, more leisurely look.  But don’t hog the scope until everyone who wants to has had a first chance to see the bird.  Don’t touch the guide’s scope unless he or she gives you permission.  Even if you know you’re good with a scope, that scope is a vital piece of equipment for that guide’s profession—and good ones are expensive.  He/she has every right to be protective and possessive of it.

Digiscoping 101.  High-quality digiscoping requires a good camera, a good scope, and a great adapter to fit the two together.  But if you have a point-and-shoot camera with a small enough lens, you may be able to get quite decent photos through the scope anyway.  Most guides are very good at helping you do that.  (My husband, who has been taking great photos for decades, in fact learned this skill from our guide.)  Once everyone has had a chance to see the bird through the scope, you can then broach the topic of trying to get a photo of it.  A guide may want to do it for you or he/she may let you try for yourself.  It’s not your scope, so do as the guide requests.  Also, be sure you know how to turn your camera’s flash off before you try this.  (If it’s on an automatic setting, the camera will want to flash, because the view through the scope looks dark to it.  But you REALLY don’t want that thing to flash!)  You might want to try the macro setting as well as the regular setting, to see which comes out clearer.  It varied for us, depending on the bird, the light, and many other things I have no idea about.

Know when to stop bugging people to help you see a birdSure, ask for help.  Several times, if you must.  But you just might not get to see every bird.  No reason to spoil everyone else’s good times.  Learn the fine art of shrugging and moving on to the next bird.

Miscellaneous hints

Field guides.  I bought both Garrigues & Dean (G&D; photo on left), The birds of Costa Rica:  A field guide, and the massive Stiles & Skutch (S&S; photo on right), A guide to the birds of Costa Rica.  (Click on either of the photos for a link to read more about each book on  At 5” x 8” and a mere 416 pages, G&D is much, much easier to carry in the field—or even in your suitcase, for that matter—than the tome-like 50%-thicker S&S (6” x 9”, 656 pages).  The style of G&D also worked better for me, with pictures of the birds on one page and brief text and range maps on the facing page.  (S&S has the plates located in the center of the book and much more extensive text.)  Most of the folks in our group used G&D, although one very avid birder carried S&S everywhere.  G&D was perfectly fine for my purposes and skill level.  But know that some colors (e.g., the Spot-breasted and Streak-breasted Orioles) can be quite off in G&D.  And some of the range maps were wrong as well.  We knew because we were looking at a bird that the G&D map said shouldn’t be there.  Believe your eyes and your guide’s ID.  Don’t fret it your lived experience doesn’t fit the range map.  These errors are well known by the guides.

Quick index.  G&D has a quick index available on the Internet that you can paste in the back of your book.  I used clear plastic laminate sheets to paste one column on the penultimate page and one column on the very last blank page in the book.  This index can be useful for species that are members of smaller groups, such as Wood-Rail or Elaenia.  However, for groups that have lots of species (e.g., tanagers, hummingbirds, flycatchers), the quick index isn’t really all that much help.  Save the seconds and go right to the detailed Index in the book.

Checklists.   A number of good checklists can be found on the Internet.  Here are some that I found for the areas we were visiting:  Tarcol/Carara NP, La Selva, Savegre Mountain Lodge, another option for Savegre Mountain Lodge.  I can’t find a URL for the checklist I have for Caño Negro, but you can also download it as a .pdf through my Web site here.  If you’re interested in a country-wide list, you can download a Excel file here.  (Although the Web site is in Spanish, the checklist is in English.)  This list is a nice one because it is updated annually; the checklists for the regions are likely a bit out of date.

Fogging.  To avoid having your various optics (binos, cameras, scopes, etc.) fog up in the humidity, don’t keep them in air-conditioned lodge rooms.  Instead, put them in the bathroom and close the door.  This will help to avoid the condensation that can happen when cold lenses meet warm, humid air.  We did this faithfully and had absolutely no problems.

Binoculars.  Binos with a wider field of vision might be better than high-magnification binos.  The light-gathering characteristics of the binos will be really important in the often-dark areas with lots of light-blocking leaves.  (Lower-magnification binos often have greater light-gathering properties than do higher-magnification binos.)  Not a reason to go out and buy new binos (unless you’re actually looking for a reason).  But if you have a couple of different pairs, you might do better with those 7x or 8x glasses than those cherished 10xs.  Just something to keep in mind.


5 Responses to Tips for a birding trip

  1. Kathy Thompson says:

    You are a rare species.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you so very much for the links and all the info. So very helpful on so many levels. Phyllis Schwartz

  3. JoAnn Raine says:

    You are so right with your advice. I am an experienced birder and all your tips are useful. May I add “when your guide is looking-don’t talk-she is also listening for the coveted bird. JoAnn Raine

  4. Geoff Lister says:

    Planning a trip and this is the most useful information I’ve found. Thanks so much for sharing!

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