A Bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson

A Bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica. Barrett Lawson. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. 365 pages.

Costa Rica. When we encounter these words, we’re instantly transported to a land with a wealth of organisms and habitats, from beautiful sand beaches and Loggerhead Turtles, to cloud forests and Resplendent Quetzals. Birders have long been aware of the fantastic birding opportunities that await them in this small Central American country. It is one of the most-visited tropical birding destinations in the Americas, and is a great place for one to begin birding in the tropics.

It would seem necessary, then, to have an accurate birding guide, so one might be able to navigate the overwhelming amounts of possible species and sites and plan an effective trip. I’m happy to say that Barrett Lawson’s A Bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica does just that.

Introduction

We start off with the introduction, surprisingly one of the most helpful parts of this book. The intro contains information on the following, divided into short sections:

  • An Overview of Costa Rica’s Geology, Geography and Climate
  • Birding in the Neotropics
  • How this Book Works
  • Logistics
  • Related Books of Interest
  • Planning Your Trip
  • Sample Itineraries

I personally find the introduction to be absolutely fantastic. As well as being incredibly helpful (especially in the case of the Birding in the Neotropics, Logistics and Related Books of Interest sections), it provides terrific background on topics such as geology, geography and climate that might not have been needed to be included in a bird-finding guide. However, the author makes them very helpful and useful here and they add a nice bit of background to our knowledge of the country.

I’m especially fond of the Birding in the Neotropics section. It’s truly a terrific introduction to neotropical birding for the average European or North American birder and goes through the difference of temperate versus tropical birding, the distribution of birds in the neotropics as well as the habitats, microhabitats, and the niches species fill.

Also very helpful is the Related Books of Interest area, where the author not only recommends field guides and CDs on birds but also field guides to other wildlife, natural history books, and general travel guides. Instead of just being lists of titles, a little description of each work is provided, giving the reader a nice, general background on each item.

The Planning Your Trip section is nice and concise, and like the rest of the introduction, very helpful. It provides a number of sample itineraries to give the reader a general sense of how to put a trip together and which sites will work well together. While the sample itineraries are certainly an added bonus, I’d like to see a little more information regarding each, including regarding how exactly they were constructed. That way, the reader would know why exactly La Selva Biological Station was picked over Rara Avis, for example, and thus have more background on how to plan a trip.

The introduction area contains two main, two-page maps, in addition to the ones used to illustrate geography and climate. One of the maps is a ‘countrywide road map’ with approximate driving times, while the other is a map of the country with all of the sites labeled. While they are both very convenient, I often find myself flipping back and forth to see the distance between sites and the towns they’re near (since sites aren’t labeled on the road map and towns and approximate driving times are not labeled on the site map). Although it might be a little cluttered, I think one map would be more effective and would save all of the time spent flipping pages.

The Site Guides

The author then moves right into the site guides, divided into six regions (which can be thought of as chapters or parts), three of which are further divided into subregions. The nine regions and subregions are the following:

Region 1: The Caribbean Slope

Subregion 1A: The Caribbean Lowlands

Subregion 1B: The Caribbean Middle-Elevations

Region 2: The North Pacific Slope

Region 3: The South Pacific Slope

Subregion 3A: The South Pacific Lowlands

Subregion 3B: The South Pacific Middle-Elevations

Region 4: The Mountains

Subregion 4A: The Lower Mountains

Subregion 4B: The Upper Mountains

Region 5: The Coastline

Region 6: The Central Valley

Each region section contains a nice introduction to the regions’ avifauna, locations and habitats, as well as a map of all of the sites with towns and roads labeled. Adjacent sites from other regions are also labeled on the map, which is nice.

Also provided are two lists: one of the regional specialties and one of common birds to know. One really, really nice thing about all the lists in this book is the fact that after every species, the page and plate number where the species can be found in both The Birds of Costa Rica by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean and A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Gary F. Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch is given. Thus, if one is unfamiliar with a certain species on a list, wants to learn more about it, etc., they have the exact page number right there in front of them making trip planning and study even easier.

Most regions and subregions contain three to eight locations, each with their own site descriptions.

All site descriptions contain a nice introduction, a target bird list (with an asterisk next to endemics, as is the case with all lists in the book), notes on access, logistics (including accommodations and food) and finally a guide to birding the site.

In the case of the logistics section, the author not only provides the names of local accommodations, but also provides the contact information for both the accommodations and the location, including phone numbers, email and a link to the website (when available).

Great detail is given in the section on birding the location, including where to go on the property, what can be found there, and the habitats present. The description ends with a ‘species to expect’ list, which is explained in the ‘How to Use this Book’ section.

Many site descriptions also contain a map of the local area (sometimes with other adjacent sites; all labeled) as well as notes on nearby birding opportunities. This area is usually geared towards smaller locations that contain a specialty or two not likely to be seen elsewhere. It’s a very nice addition, and a very important part of this book.

The author also notes the birding time, elevation, trail difficulty, hours and whether there’s an entrance fee, if a four-wheel drive is necessary and if there are bird guides available. Also provided is a small, blank map of the country with the location labeled.

It should be noted that the ‘How to Use this Book’ section in the introduction explains the way the site descriptions are written and how the lists are prepared. This makes it very easy for the reader to understand and utilize the setup.

Overall, I find the site descriptions, the ‘meat’ of the book to be terrific. All of the information in the descriptions is incredibly helpful, and, as is seen throughout the book, the author goes above and beyond when providing it, exemplified by the listing of contact information as well as giving the page numbers for all lists.

There is one quirk about these sections that I really can’t ignore, however. In short, the addition of a sixth section, ‘The Coastline’ is completely unnecessary and is actually a little unhelpful at times. This section contains three sites, all located in the North Pacific region of the country. While all other sections are regional (and thus distinct), these coastal sites do not form a distinct region.

When one is planning a trip, it’s incredibly costly in time to keep having to flip back and forth between sections and compare basic lists. The case of Carara National Park and the Tárcoles River Mouth is especially extreme.

The Tárcoles River Mouth is actually PART of Carara National Park, and is thus always included in a birders’ itinerary at Carara. It’s ridiculous to have to continually be flipping back and forth to compare the two and try to plan a trip to the location. Also, because the author attempts to make them distinct by having the Tárcoles part mainly focus on aquatic species and the Carara part mainly focus on landbirds, there is a constant referencing to the other in both site descriptions.

Thus, I feel like the book would’ve benefited from having five regions, instead of six, and having the ‘Coastline’ sites merged with the North Pacific sites.

Appendix

The book concludes with an appendix, which contains the following sections:

Recent Name Changes – Includes splits and lumps; through 2008

Recent Invasive Species – Brief descriptions of species that have been expanding their range into Costa Rica with one introduced species (Tricolored Munia)

Where to Find the Endemics and Other Sought-After Species – Lists the sites where these birds can be found

Costa Rican Checklist with Select Site Lists – A complete Costa Rican checklist with eight sites, each representing their region or subregion; abundance ratings are given

Of these four sections, the one about where to find endemics and other sought-after species is obviously the most important, and is a critical part of any bird-finding guide. I’m honestly a tad disappointed with the section. While it does do exactly what its name implies (list the locations of where to find those species), it doesn’t go much beyond that. I would’ve preferred a little information on the species’ status as well as its habitat.

The checklist is helpful, as many of those eight sites are some of the best birding locations in the country (and thus the most-visited). However, because smaller sites, which might be the only place to find a certain specialty in the country are omitted, some species’ rows are left completely blank.

Instead of choosing a site to represent a given region or subregion, what about expanding to the entire region and including distribution codes (such as local, widespread) to go along with the abundance codes? That way, we could get a much better picture of the general ease of finding each species, as well as where to locate it.

Summary

In short, this book is fantastic. It’s a much-needed update and replacement for the horribly outdated A Travel and Site Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Aaron D. Sekerak (1996) and is just what the independent birder needs to plan their expedition to Costa Rica. I highly recommend this book for any birder interested in visiting Costa Rica, from those like me that enjoy planning and executing their own trips to those visiting on guided tours.

I’m excited to say that I am going to be returning to Costa Rica this November and am currently in the process of planning the trip. This guide has been and continues to be invaluable to me while I’ve been putting the trip together, and will surely be terrific to have handy during the trip as well.

Pura Vida!

-Alex

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