Review of Birds of Central America

On this review of Birds of Central America, we go over the different sections of the book and compare it to other publications that treat with bird identification on the region.

Birds of Central America Cover
Birds of Central America Cover

The Authors

This is an impressive book by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer, and the first field guide to encompass the entire Central American region, comprising seven countries: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Both authors have traveled and have extensive experience in Central America. Dyer has published numerous illustrations in Neotropical bird guides, such as ‘Birds of Peru’ and ‘Bird Guide of Trinidad and Tobago’. Additionally, both authors work for the Department of Ornithology of the American Museum of Natural History. This has facilitated their prolonged access to a large collection of specimens and has facilitated contact with many other collections.

The authors’ experiences have served this book well. Within its main section, ‘Birds of Central America’ covers 1,194 bird species in great detail through concise texts on identification and behavior, distribution maps and illustrations. It also includes 67 additional species, of which there are only some citations, in an annex.

Other field guides for the region

The fact that this book covers an area as large and diverse as Central America is both a strength and a weakness. While there are three other books that have covered parts of this region: ‘A Guide to the Birds of Panama, with Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras’ (Ridgely and Gwinne, 1989), ‘A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America’ (Howell and Webb, 1995) and, more recently, ‘Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Northern Central America’ (Fagan and Comar, 2016), there is currently no other book out there that includes all of the species distributed throughout the width and length of the region. This makes the ‘Birds of Central America’ a unique find.

However, it probably isn’t very often that anyone would need one guide that brings all these countries together for a single trip. In fact, the book is quite bulky for a field guide. It weighs 1.4kg and measures 22.86 x 15.24cm; a size and weight to consider if we want to have the book tucked in our backpack when we climb a muddy hill during a tropical downpour. As for other physical characteristics of the book, the quality of the paper and the flexible cover certainly suggests a resistant, highly durable product.

Review of Birds of Central America: size comparison of some Central America bird books
Size comparison of some Central America bird books. Birds of Central America is the one at the bottom, and its the largest of them all

Introductory section

The book begins with an introduction to Central America and a detailed description of how the book is organized, including the different sections included for each of the treated species. Of particular interest is the section that describes the different biogeographic zones of the region.

The main part of the book, as you would expect from a bird identification guide, includes information related to each species: a small distribution map to the left of the text accompanied by a short description, and further details on its identification, habitat, behavior and vocalizations. The plates with illustrations corresponding to each species can be found on the opposing page. In some cases, notes on the taxonomy are added, particularly if there have been recent changes, as well as geographical variations.

The texts are precise and concise, especially when describing the identifying characteristics of each species. At times, one would hope for a greater abundance of details, and more comparisons with similar species. In this regard, other guides in the region contain more detailed texts, like the aforementioned Howell & Webb.

The order of the species follows the list of Birds of North America published by the American Ornithology Union in 2017, with some variations that facilitate the comparison of similar birds that, otherwise, may be confusing. A handy feature is the index of the different bird groups listed on the inside flaps of the book. This is of great help when it comes to quickly finding the species that one is looking for.

The illustrations

A highlight of this work is the high quality of the illustrations. These are, for the most part, excellent. They show the birds in their typical postures, with a high degree of fidelity to the expression of the bird as well as meticulous detail of the plumage and bare parts. There are some exceptions however: Illustrations of some groups of birds, such as raptors, shorebirds, and gulls, are not of the same high quality. At other times, it appears that the magnificent illustrator, Dale Dyer, may have been painting from museum specimens and not from observations made of live birds. In some illustrations the birds appear somewhat rigid and unnatural. However, the majority of the illustrations are superb. This is especially meritorious, considering that all them have been made by a single artist, an unusual feat in a guide of this scope.

While the plates are beautifully rendered, at first glance, they appear a bit washed out, making the illustrations look too pale. Other readers have commented on this as well, ruling out the possibility that it could be just our copy. It is possible, however, that this is an effect sought by the authors. And, the truth is, after spending a while contemplating the illustrations in this book, the impresson that there is a lack of contrast disappears and, by comparison, the rest of the guides suddenly seem to have an exaggerated contrast, with excessively dark contours and colors that are way too saturated.

In general, the illustrations are generously sized, occupying as much of each page as possible. In the upper right margin of each page, the authors have indicated the proportion of the illustrations with respect to the actual size of the bird – all the species on the same page are in the same proportion. Generally the distribution of illustrations is clear and does not give rise to confusion, although sometimes a clearer separation would be desirable, as we are used to seeing in guides such as ‘The Sibley Guide to Birds’ by David Sibley, and ’Birds of Europe and North Africa’ by Svensson, Mullarney and Zetterström.

The age classes, as well as the different sexes in those species that present sexual dimorphism, are mostly reflected in the illustrations. Also, as mentioned, illustrations of many of the subspecies and geographic variants are frequently shown. This is remarkable since this is the first time many of these variants are represented in an identification guide. This feature allows us to appreciate at a glance the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences between individuals from different populations

Another added value is the inclusion of some relatively recent ‘splits’. For example, the wrens of the genus Cantorchilus (Cabanis’s, Canebrake and Isthmian Wren), formerly included in another genus as Plain Wren, each receive their corresponding illustration which reflects the differences between them, helping us to better appreciate the variations among these species. Likewise, the maps show how they are distributed with little overlap throughout the region. Another good example is that of Lesson’s Motmot and Whooping Motmot. Until recently, they were considered the same species, but in this book, each one has its corresponding illustration, showing the small differences that will allow us to distinguish between these parapatric species. These and other taxonomic novelties (31) are collected in the Taxonomic Notes, in the final part of the book.

If something is missing from the illustrations, it is the lack of depictions of birds in flight. This is the case for many of the pigeons and thrushes, and some raptor species, which is a pity since, in the field, birds of prey are most often observed in flight. However, this seems to be a detail missing from most field guides, which lack an illustration that shows the top of the bird in flight. Another aspect that would enrich the book further would be the use of arrows, as in the Peterson Identification System (as in the aforementioned Birds of Europe guide), to point out the most relevant identification features that separate similar species, age classes or sex.

Maps and final sections

The distribution maps are fully updated with the available information. They are detailed and include isolated observations of interest, as well as small populations. However, there does appear to be one error. It appears that the maps of Blue-throated Motmot and Turquoise-browed Motmot have been interspersed.

Following the main part of the book comes the section corresponding to those species that have been cited on few occasions in the region or about which it has not been possible to confirm their presence. This section consists of a two-page list of species with a brief description of the records. Below this, are the Taxonomic Notes of those species on which recent changes have been made. It is followed by a brief glossary of terms used during the text and, finally, the extensive bibliography (677 references) and the index.

Conclusion

As mentioned at the beginning, one of the greatest virtues of this guide is also its biggest problem. Covering a region as wide and rich in species as Central America affects the size and weight of the volume. This makes it, perhaps, uninteresting as a guide to take into the field, thus relegating it, in most cases, to a reference book once we are back home.

It is important to keep in mind that most trips made by amateur or professional birders usually take place in a single country at a time, so it may be more convenient to have field books specific to that country. There are several high quality works to choose from including Richard Garrigues’ ‘The Birds of Costa Rica’ (2007) and George R. Angehr’s ‘Birds of Panama’ (2010).

Though it isn’t conveniently taken into the field, so many other aspects of this work make ‘Birds of Central America’ indispensable for anyone with a minimum interest in the birds of the region. The updated taxonomy and maps, the inclusion of illustrations of geographical variants, different age and sex classes, as well as the high quality of the plates, make this guide the prime bibliographic reference on Central American birds. And that’s not a small thing!

The new Madagascar Trip Report is online

What? The new Madagascar Trip Report is out??? – Malagasy Scops-Owl at Andasibe-Mantadia NP

In November, Whitehawk completed its first tour to Madagascar. Covering the southern and eastern parts of the country, tour participants were treated to an amazing mix of habitats – from the unique spiny forests of Ifaty, to the incredible rock formations of Isalo, to the expansive rainforests of Ranomafana National Park. As you can imagine, such a diversity of habitats often equals a comparable diversity of wildlife – and Madagascar does not disappoint, specially when you consider that over 90% of its flora and fauna are endemic!  You can read our Madagascar Trip Report here

We got to see many species on this trip: eighteen different lemur species including the largest living lemur, the Indri, in Perinet and one of the smallest – the Gray-Brown Mouse Lemur in Berenty Reserve. We also saw 6 species of chameleons – mostly on our night walks!

White-footed Sportive Lemur at Berenty Reserve

But, of course, this was a birding tour and so our focus  was on the unique and beautiful species of the island. We saw close to 160 species on our two week trip, with some of the highlights being the Helmet Vanga, all five species of ground-rollers, the Sickle-billed Vanga and the Madagascar Cuckoo-hawk.

The Amazingly-looking Sickle-billed Vanga

If you are interested in Madagascar and want to explore the possibilities of doing a trip with us, contact us and we will either arrange a private tour or inform you of an open space in one of our future trips.

Costa Rica Birding Challenge and some Owls

Costa Rica Birding Challenge: Crested Owl near Guapiles, Costa Rica
Crested Owl near Guapiles, Costa Rica

The Costa Rica Birding Challenge finished last week with an amazing number of birds seen or heard collectively: more than 550 species in over a week’s time. The Tico Tickers, Yeray’s team, came in first place with 488 species!

We want to congratulate all the participants and organizers for an amazing event, which we are sure will be repeated in the future.

Here  is a selection of the owls seen during the competition, which shows the great potential of the country when it comes to Owling!

Costa Rica Birding Challenge: Bare-shanked Screech Owl at Monteverde, Costa Rica
Bare-shanked Screech Owl at Monteverde, Costa Rica
Tropical Screech Owl seen during the Costa Rica Birding Challenge
Tropical Screech Owl seen during the Costa Rica Bird Challenge
the Pacific Screech Owl seen during the Costa Rica Birding Challenge
You couldn’t get any farther from this Pacific Screech Owl, it was in a very low branch!
Young Spectacled Owl seen during the Costa Rica Birding Challenge
Extremely cute young Spectacled Owl

Zapata Wren during our last tour in Cuba

Zapata Wren
Zapata Wren

The Zapata Wren is the most restricted endemic in Cuba, only present in the Zapata Peninsula and certainly a must-see when you go to Cuba. It is also the only member of its genus: ferminia! We got to see it this well during our last tour, allowing everyone in the group to have good looks and even take some pictures with the sunrise light!

If you want to know more about our next tour to Cuba, follow this link.

Snow Leopard Tour – New Trip Report

Snow Leopard in Ladakh
Snow Leopard in Ladakh

The trip report from our last Snow Leopard Tour is now online! Written by Marta Curti, it contains a detailed itinerary description with all wildlife findings and beautiful pictures taken during this trip to the Ladakh region in India. Also, there’s additional information about the successful Tiger extension trip!

To know more, just follow this link to the trip report.

Kenya Custom Trip 2013, Part III – Maasai Mara

Cheetah and Storm
A Cheetah watches the storm pouring over the plains of the Maasai Mara

The week we spent in the Mara was just perfect: enough time to see absolutely everything we could want; a small crossing, the Big 5, raptors and vultures and more.

Our lodge was very comfortable and in a great location: just minutes away from the park gate and set along the Talek River. It also had great food, and more importantly, cold beers after a long day out!

Each day was split in two: a morning drive between 6.30 to 10, and an afternoon drive between 3.30 and 7. This gave us some time to catch up on sleep or do a little birdwatching in the camp during the hottest hours of the day, whilst everything interesting would be under a tree or bush, sleeping as well. This worked especially well. Each drive we came across at least two species of big cat, and plenty of other photographic opportunities: vultures at a fresh carcass, sunrises and sunsets, a Lioness with young cubs, a Cheetah on a fresh kill, a Leopard trying to hunt (twice) but failing, a Martial Eagle in the early morning light and a mother Serval Cat teaching her youngster how to hunt mice in the long grass.

Lion Yawn
Lioness yawn at sunrise
Serval 1
A Serval Cat is always a good one to see. We got an adult with one young!
Gabar Goshawk
Gabar Goshawk
Lappet Faced Vulture Nesting Material
Lappet-faced Vulture carrying nesting material

The highlight of the trip for all of us, however, had to be our encounter with a group of Cheetahs one evening. We came across Malaika, as she is known throughout the Mara, and her two grown cubs as we were heading back to our camp. With just a few cars around them, we decided to stop and see what would happen: she is famous for using cars as vantage points to look for prey. The looked like they were resting after a long day and a big meal, so we were about to leave…but then the cubs started playing around. You can only appreciate how fast these cats are when they run around your car at top speed, inches away from your astonished face! After a few minutes of this, things got out of control. A cub took a liking to one of the covers of our spare wheel and yanked it off. Before it could do any damage, I was tasked with retrieving said cover, which was punctured in many places, but salvageable. More damage was done to our wheel mount (made of steel, showing this guy’s single-minded determination), which snapped! Iker and I managed to keep calm throughout this spectacle and we both took some fantastic photos.

Yes, we saw them pretty close – Cheetah Portrait

Still, we all felt there was something missing: some nagging doubts in the back of our heads that we hadn’t seen the one thing that would complete this trip; the Holy Grail. It was only on our last drive, in the last 30 minutes before we were due to leave the Mara that we found what we were searching for: not one, but two Rhinos!

Black Rhinos
Adult Black Rhino and calf

An adult Black Rhino and a young calf were spotted deep in a riverside thicket and hard to see. They obliged us by coming out for a couple of minutes, and we managed to take a few photos, and them they disappeared again. It was brief, but it was enough and a great ending to round off a very successful trip!

Kenya Custom Trip 2013, Part II – Soysambu

Black Chested Snake Eagle Flight
The beautiful Black-chested Snake Eagle (Circaetus pectoralis)

Soysambu was going to be a true introduction to the real Kenya. For four nights in Naivasha, Iker and Iratxe were treated to a comfortable bed in a sturdy cottage, and great food at a local restaurant. In Soysambu, they would be camping in a tent, in the middle of nowhere at Simon Thomsett’s (our friendly raptor rehabber) campsite. Leopards have been known to walk through the campsite, which is also home to a herd of 70 buffalos!

Buffalo and Oxpeckers
African Buffalo with yellow-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus)

The purpose of going to Soysambu was to get some hands-on raptor experience by  trapping and banding a few of them. First up was a sub-adult Augur Buzzard; trapped neatly, seconds after we lay down the trap. This was a young bird, moulting into its first adult plumage. Iratxe was given the honour of releasing the bird, which flew off before Iratxe was ready, but in fine feather nevertheless, and with a gleaming new band from which we can identify it when we see it again.

Augur Buzzard Feet The next bird was special: a Black Chested Snake Eagle. This took some waiting. This species is used to eating snakes whole, so our mice posed little interest, and he took some time coming down to the trap. It was worth it though, as up close one gets a true sense of this bird’s beauty – big, bright yellow eyes, and spotlessly clean feathers. I pointed out the difference between this guy’s feet and those of the Augur Buzzard. The Buzzard feeds on rodents, so has relatively weak feet with long talons. The Snake Eagle’s feet, however, have thick toes and strong talons, and are covered with thick scales to protect it from any snake it catches that might try to retaliate.

Yellow Throated Longclaw
Yellow-throated Longclaw (Macronyx croceus), one of the specialists in the dry savannah

The next morning we ran into some technical troubles along the road – just part and parcel of a driving safari around Kenya. Not too long afterwards, the problem was solved and we were on our way back to Naivasha, and then on to our next stop… the Maasai Mara.

The Sleeping Warrior
The Sleeping Warrior, a beautiful and famous volcano in Soysambu

Kenya Custom Trip 2013, Part I – Naivasha

Shiv just sent us the trip report from our recent trip to Kenya. This was a custom tour designed to introduce the clients to  Africa’s wildlife and to help them get as many photographic opportunities as possible, and Shiv delivered very successfully!

Naivasha

Hippo

The trip started reasonably well, considering that just a few days before Iker and Iratxe were set to travel, our airport’s arrivals terminal had burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Yet after a good night’s rest in Nairobi, and a scenic drive to Naivasha coming down the eastern side of the Rift Valley, spirits were high; its nice to travel with a couple who were so excited to be here. This was their first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, and they were suitably enthused.

Naivasha Boat Trip

Lake Naivasha is a special place. It is only one of two freshwater lakes in the East African Rift Valley, and boasts an impressive list of 450 bird species, but the main photographic target here was the African Fish Eagle, easily Africa’s most recognized bird.

AFE 1

We started off well: each day the clouds moved at just the right moment to afford the best light whilst shooting. Iker managed to get some wonderful shots, and Iratxe was enveloped in her own personal birdwatching heaven; there weren’t only Fish Eagles to be seen, the lake was stuffed with waders, herons and egrets, gulls and terns, and 4 species of Kingfisher.

Pied Kingfisher

Grey Headed Gull

A brief afternoon’s trip to Hell’s Gate National Park was productive but the weather was dreadful. Time to put down the cameras and concentrate on birds, which here meant cliff-nesting raptors. Hell’s gate is the best place in Kenya to watch nesting Ruppell’s Vultures, soaring Verreaux’s Eagles and Lanner Falcons. The Verreaux’s Eagles proved elusive, but we did get to see a big female Lanner hunting within a large flock of Mottled Swifts at dusk to finish off the trip.

Exploring data on eBird

One of the sections of eBird that is most useful and appreciated by the majority of its users is “View and explore data.”

general

Main menu under “View and explore data”

Here, we can make use of eBird’s huge database, which features millions of bird sightings worldwide. It is an invaluable tool for both scientists and amateur ornithologists and can be used to calculate parameters such as the abundance of a species in a given region, extract the list of species in a locality, study the phenology of different species, and the list goes on and on.

But the most used application and that which is attracting a greater number of users is undoubtedly “Distribution maps”. Its usefulness lies in the fact that we can look at the sightings of all the other eBird users on an interactive map, which is of great help when planning a trip to the field.

Upon entering “Distribution Maps” you will find a search engine where you can type the name of the species for which you would like more information. You may search for a species either by its common name or its scientific name.

Then you will find a temporary filter, through which you can select the dates for which you want to get species information. This is useful if you want to learn more about the presence of a species in a particular season or if the species might be observed during the date of your visit.

This section also has a historical filter, through which one can access sightings that are several decades old.

And finally, we can use this tool to determine the presence of species of interest in the areas that we will visit.

focha

Relief map with Eurasion Coot (Fulica atra) sightings in Spain. Sightings are indicated by squares whose color varies according to frequency.

 On the right side of the map you will see a menu that lets you select different types of maps (Relief, Road, Satellite or Hybrid).

This allows you to see user observations in the form of dots or squares. Normally the use of exact points is more useful for estimating the location of sightings.

rayador

Hybrid Map with sightings of Black Skimmer (Rymchops niger) on the east coast of the United States. The records appear as exact points. The volume of citations is crucial to the eBird project.

Points on the map are orange if the sighting was made less than a month ago, or blue if the sighting is older. This makes it easier for us when selecting records closer to the date of our visit.

A very important aspect of this project is the volume of citations, since the greater the number of citations, the more reliable and more complete the information we have about the birds in our region, which will greatly facilitate the planning of birding trips.

eBird is becoming the largest scientific tool in the world of ornithology and we can help with this effort. So, we at Whitehawk would like to encourage all birders to share their sightings through eBird and thus promote our knowledge of birds worldwide.

Collaborating with eBird

Since early 2013 Whitehawk has actively collaborated with eBird, a project developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. eBird is a simple tool you can use to track the birds you have seen anywhere in the world, and store and retrieve your observations at anytime.

The eBird database can be used by:

  • You – for keeping track of your personal observations and maintaining lists of all the birds you have seen. You can view your sightings at specific locations or for specific periods of time, you can consult lists of birds recorded by other users from different locations and dates.
  • Other birders and amateur naturalists – who may be a good source of information about the birds in the region where you live.
  • Scientists – to discover distribution patterns and movements of birds, including migratory routes, and wintering and breeding grounds, phenology and changes in the distribution areas of the species.
  • Conservationists – to identify previously unknown areas or important bird sites, monitor population trends to help design management or recovery plans for threatened or endangered species.
  • Environmental educators – they can use the eBird database to teach students about birds in general or about the work scientists are carrying out, including the collection, analysis and interpretation of results.
A map showing observations of Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin in Spain and North Africa
An eBird map showing observations of Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin in Spain and North Africa

Over time, this data will be the basis for a better understanding of the distribution of birds in the world. So while you register your personal observations, you will also be contributing to a revolutionary project and collaborating within the community of birders and ornithology.

If you want to know more about eBird, you can learn more about it by visiting our blog  and eBird’s official website. What are you waiting for? Come be a part of this great global project!