Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Review: The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

Costa Rica is an extremely popular destination for birders in the tropics, so it's surprising that the only good field guide that's been available was published in 1989. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch is a classic, but unfortunately a lot has changed in Costa Rican birding in the last 18 years. There have been splits, range expansions, and name changes galore making Stiles and Skutch (S&S) difficult to use without a bunch of handwritten notes.

Finally, a new field guide dedicated to Costa Rica was published in May - The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. Garrigues and Dean (G&D) are two of Costa Rica's top birders and they've really come through with a book "for birders, by birders."

The first thing I noticed about the book was its size and portability. It's compact and about the size of the National Geographic North America guide. This is a big change from S&S which is a very large book due to its inclusion of natural history information (habits and nesting) for each bird. On my two trips to Costa Rica, the size of S&S was always a pain because it was usually packed away in someone's backpack. On the flip side, G&D is extremely portable, but lacks the natural history information on each bird so you may want to keep your S&S around.

The book is organized like most traditional field guides. There is a brief introduction on how to use the book and then it jumps right into the birds. Each section starts with a short paragraph describing the family. Each bird is illustrated in fantastic detail in all of its adult plumages. Each entry is accompanied by a description of the bird with key field marks in bold. Range information, a description of the vocalizations, and a notation if the bird is endemic are also included. The biggest leap from S&S is the inclusion of a range map next to each entry. These can be compared to a detailed map of Costa Rica in the front cover.

One thing that confused me at first was the scale of the drawings on each page. Each drawing is to scale with the other drawings on the page, but some pages include one or more drawings that are of a different scale. These drawings are separated from the others by a black line. This took some getting used to. Also, you have to keep this scale in mind because one page of Empidonax flycatchers may have 6 large drawings and the next will have 12 small drawings even though the birds are the same size in life.

The back of the book includes a helpful glossary of terms, an extremely informative summary of taxonomic changes from S&S, a complete list of Costa Rican birds including a few not illustrated in the book, an index, and 2 plates of raptor flight illustrations. The list of Costa Rican birds could have been left out and saved 7-8 pages or it could have been used as a checklist instead. Also, I don't know why the raptor flight plates were included here and not in the raptor section. I guess it makes a nice quick reference, but it just seemed strange.

Overall, this book easily replaces Stiles and Skutch in the field. If you already own S&S, you will want to use this as a reference for natural history information, but you can leave it home when venturing out into the rainforest. I salute Garrigues and Dean for their hard work on what is surely a labor of love. I'm excited to go back to Costa Rica someday to really use the book in the field.

1 comment:

slybird said...

Great review! I was thinking of writing a review of this book myself, after my imminent trip down there. Now I don't have to - I can just link yours! :)

~ Nick