“Us e r -friendly” doesn’t begin to adequately describe the muchanticipated, invaluable aid to local birdwatching titled “The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide.” Coauthors Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean set out to create a “book by birders for birders.”
They have succeeded beyond the hopes of local birders, both expert and amateur, who for years have labored under the weight of the “bible” of birding here, F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch’s comprehensive “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica.”
Like an old family bible, though, Stiles & Skutch weighs in at a hefty two pounds and is far too big to fit in anyone’s pocket. Some serious birders bought special waterproof bags to tote that tome around, but most local birders and guides cut out the book’s gorgeous color plates – a sacrilege! – and bound the illustrated plates in a smaller, portable volume to take into the field. The problem was, as Garrigues points out in his introduction to the new field guide, “You end up leaving behind a valuable part of that wonderful guide, the text.” That detailed text held most of the information you needed to pin down a bird’s identity.
The new field guide is a slimmed-down, portable five by seven-and-three-quarter inches. Along with its physical compactness, what makes this a bona fide field guide is the eminently sensible page layout: in two facing pages, Garrigues and Dean give amateur birders all the key details they need to zero in on the identity of that partially obscured, brown-and-yellow bird they just spotted flitting around in that far-off tree.
On every left-hand page you’ll find Garrigues’ succinct, easy-to-understand notes on habitat, behavior, key identifying marks and calls. On the opposite, right-hand pages sit Dean’s finely detailed illustrations of the birds, no more than six per page.
Garrigues, who has made his life here in Costa Rica for more than 20 years, studying birds and guiding birding groups, cuts to the chase in his text, bold-facing the most obvious “diagnostic” features of each bird.
When a bird is easily confused with a similar one, he helpfully points out the salient differences to look for. If a bird is associated with a particular plant, Garrigues makes the connection.
For local birders, he tells us which birds are year-round residents, winter residents or breeding residents, and which are migrants passing through, as well as the months we can expect to see them. Having this information in the field narrows the range of possible
suspects considerably. For visiting birdwatchers keen to see birds endemic to the area, Garrigues adds a bold-faced note in the text for every bird found only in the southern half of Central America.
One of the most valuable aids to identification, completely lacking in Stiles & Skutch, is the new thumbprint range maps to the left of every block of text. As Garrigues notes in his introduction, “Location is everything in birding.” At a glance, these maps help you see whether the bird you think you are seeing is even a possibility, given where you are standing at that moment.
The most valuable aids to identification in the field, of course, are the illustrations. Dean, a former professional musician from England, has spent almost a decade studying and painting Costa Rican birds and wildlife, as well as guiding. The level of detail in his work is astonishing. Instead of solid blocks of color, he deftly paints each feather and every gradation of color shading, using delicate watercolors.
After a decade of tracking these birds down in the field, Dean knows whereof he paints and how to pose his birds naturally.
Almost all the birds face right, gazing off the page. But there’s nothing static about them. They look as though they have alighted for just a moment and are getting ready to fly off the page.
Dean also manages to imbue his birds with expression. The three pages of owls, for example, display a range of owlish looks way beyond the stereotypically stern, wise or startled, to include bored, alert, haughty, even demure. The hummingbird paintings are also a revelation, showing a lot of what can only be described as character.
The new illustrations are also drawn to emphasize the distinguishing features of each species. In the case of hummingbirds, instead of mostly bellies or backs, as in Stiles & Skutch, we finally get to see the most distinctive colors and features of these tiny birds from the best angles. And with only six birds per page, we get them big enough to see details.
Another triumph of illustration in this field guide is the raptor section. Not only does Dean give us three or four views of each bird, but we also get skyward views of every raptor in flight, which is how most birders see them, from the bottom up. A bonus is a two-page spread of adult raptors and vultures in flight, all lined up in neat rows, making it easier to spot the differences among the soaring birds.
As well as the specific species accounts and illustrations, Garrigues and Dean provide a 15-page, concise introduction to birdwatching in Costa Rica, including how to use the book (I highly recommend reading this section as soon as you get your hands on the book) and, most helpfully, a fully illustrated section on the anatomical features of birds.
The only quibble I have is that, because of the smaller page size, some of the text is set in tiny type, which might be hard to read for some people. But this is a small price to pay for the guide’s compactness.
Another valuable resource in this field guide is the “Taxonomic Notes,” a list of pertinent name changes and new species that have occurred since Stiles & Skutch was published in 1989. There are 13 new species and, as any birder who has had to learn new names for familiar birds will tell you, dozens of new names. This list also helps you to cross-reference the new names with older lists.
If you are a fan of seabirds, you may be disappointed that some of the rarest pelagic birds, only spotted way out to sea, have been omitted. If you want to learn about them, you will have to refer to Stiles & Skutch. And that is exactly what the authors of this field guide want you to do. Their idea is not to supplant Stiles & Skutch, but to provide an alternative for identifying birds in the field.
For accidental tourists who may visit Costa Rica only once to add new birds to their life lists, this is the perfect, portable, precise field guide with lifelike illustrations to take home as a souvenir. And for local birders, Garrigues & Dean is destined to become the field-guide “bible” for identifying birds in Costa Rica.
Dorothy MacKinnon is an avid amateur birdwatcher and a board member of the Birding Club of Costa Rica.
About the Field Guide
“The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide” by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean is a Zona Tropical publication from Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press in Ithaca, New York. The 387-page book retails for $29.95 and is available at Seventh Street Books in downtown San José, Librería Internacional and Librería Lehmann stores, www.amazon.com and bookstores throughout North America.