Have you ever heard of bird watching, bird lists, big years and binoculars, and felt out of place but somewhat intrigued? Birding certainly can elicit a wide range of images. Perhaps it’s your neighbor’s laid-back weekend hobby; or your co-worker’s focus every time she goes on vacation; or even your uncle’s everyday obsession. But what exactly is birding, or bird watching?
Observing birds in the contexts of aesthetics, bird protection, and natural history (rather than interacting with birds for food/feathers) became more prevalent in the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s in places like Britain and the United States. Today, many enjoy it as a hobby, and for some, it’s a hardcore lifestyle.
The Americas has the most bird diversity of any continent. This makes it the best place to do birding. One of the features of birds in the Americas is the high amount of endemism here. An endemic species means it is not found anywhere else outside of the specific location it which it lives. This means that in any region in the Americas, you’re sure to encounter some visually and audibly colorful, majestic endemic birds!
Costa Rica is quite possibly the best representation of birding in the Americas because it contains such a high level of diversity packed into a small geographical area. Here in Costa Rica, you can enjoy birding in the mountains, foothills, and rivers near Turrialba; bird on both Atlantic and Pacific slopes of the Continental Divide in Monteverde; find richness on the shores of Lake Arenal; and savor the bird diversity of the rainforest and wetlands of Tortuguero.
Birders generally use binoculars, a spotting scope (telescope), tripod, field guides (books), and even smartphone applications. Other things you might find on a bird watcher might be voice/sound recorders, notebooks, and pencils.
Today’s bird watchers have the advantage of being able to access quality equipment at all price ranges. There are superior brands for those who can pay, but you can do excellent birdwatching without busting your wallet. For binoculars, start with an 8×32 as a minimum. A good base to start for a telescope is a 15×45.
Birding generally runs with an honor system. For example, if you hear but don’t see the bird, you should have two other people with you who also heard it as well. This way you can “officially” count the bird on your bird list. These and other unwritten guidelines are subjective, of course. For example, if you’re visiting a bird paradise like Costa Rica from Australia, you probably will want to see, not just hear a bird! But a local birder might hear a bird frequently and not get to see it each time. In birding, the skill of being able to recognize bird calls is often more important than anything else.
So, should you go with a guide when birding? The short answer is yes, it’s preferable. But not indispensable. If you’re willing to do your homework ahead of time about a region’s seasons, migratory patterns, weather, locations, bird calls, trail systems, local customs, and more, then you can go without a guide. Most travelers would probably agree, however, that having a guide will maximize a bird watching experience.
In conjunction with various birding specialists throughout the country, Costa Rica Escapes offers a “Beginning Birding” tours throughout the country. A great place to start this hobby is in Monteverde, Costa Rica, home to 250 species of birds. It’s a perfect way to get a better idea of what this hobby entails. The tour starts with a brief explanation of birdwatching basics; you’ll learn how to train yourself in colors, foods, behavior, sizes, rareness, and sounds. You’ll also learn the dynamics of the forests of the Monteverde area, how to properly use binoculars and telescope, how birders’ minds work, how to start a bird list and observe whatever birds we can find in the forest that day. We especially look for bellbirds, quetzals, orange-bellied trogons, and hummingbirds. Binoculars, transport, entrances fees to the trail, a spotting scope, and field guides are provided on the tour.
Costa Rica Escapes provides customized itineraries for those who are looking to go exclusively birding. These are typically fully guided tours and visit 2-4 distinct areas of the country for anywhere from 7-15 days. If you prefer to include a “beginner birding” tour or two along the way, and not focus solely on birding, this is easy to coordinate, too. See you in Nature!
John Rabenau has been working in the eco-tourism & adventure travel industry in Costa Rica since 2002. He has worked in a variety of capacities from Outdoor Educator & Principle Guide to Itinerary Design Manager & Business Owner for numerous organizations. He has grown Costa Rica Escapes into one of the most reputable Costa Rica travel agencies since its creation in 2006, hosting more than 5,000 people with custom vacation itineraries.