We assume that you are here to know about birding in the Neotropics –the richest area in terms of species diversity in the World!
What is the Neotropical Region?
The Neotropical Region is one of the 8 ecozones that exist in the Planet. It extends from Mexico to the southernmost tip of South America (map below). It is the ecozone with the highest area covered by tropical rainforests, including the Pacific Chocó Forest, the vast Amazon rainforest, and the endangered Atlantic Forest. These rainforests are the most important reserves of biodiversity on Earth.
Birding in the Neotropics
“The Neotropical region has more species of birds than any other region on Earth,” said Brian Smith in his paper about how did this extraordinary bird diversity originate.
Yes, the numbers are staggering, overwhelming, and quite unbelievable, but flipping through the literature can be quite confusing.
Birding in the neotropics makes you find species so incredibly colorful, rare, and even mythical, you wouldn’t dare to dream of spotting them. Others so confusingly similar to each other that you might think distinguishing them to be impossible.
All of this only to remember that you still have to consider the genus and family levels as well!
Of course there are a lot of different strategies to achieve such tasks and just about as many different ways to practice your birding in the neotropics.
If you are looking for a place to begin, we are keen to share some of our personal experiences with you so that you can better orient yourself in this complex but rich world of Avifaunas.
How do I Prepare for Birdwatching in the Neotropics?
Planning and Preparation
Any successful trip starts with thorough planning and preparation. Unless you are short on time, a well-seasoned Neotropic birder, a pure lister, or someone who is searching for missing target-species, there is absolutely no need for hurry!
Planning tightly scheduled trips through many different biomes and regions will likely leave you with missed species and unsatisfactory views of the species you do catch. When birding in the neotropics all-day bird scouting through the largest of mixed flocks is the exception, not the rule! This is luck and dependent on the season.
More realistically, you’ll spend a considerable amount of time walking through some of the most biodiverse habitats only to see or hear a few species. This is especially true for forest birding and less so for open or aquatic habitats. Moreover, you’re likely to lose time travelling large distances between sites on bad or blocked (or both!) roads.
Schedule and choose a trip that is well balanced and with low stress. You will certainly see and enjoy more than if you were to rush from one site to another.
Consider the Season!
As mentioned above, when birding in the neotropics, consider the season. The two seasons in the Neotropics are defined by rainfall patterns –a Rainy season and a Dry season. Both seasons have their pros and cons that impact local bird communities.
You might not want to visit the wettest parts of the amazon in the peak rainy season while you may want to schedule your trip to the Pantanal during dry season. In addition, there are different migration patterns to consider. Between August-April, you will find boreal birds while you will find austral migrants between May-August.
On the topic of weather and climate, birders must be aware of issues surrounding climate change and conservation that are occurring on a global scale. Unfortunately, these changes are disturbing and changing many of the normal patterns amongst species.
Learn about the Region you will visit
Finally, before traveling you should always be informed on the current political situation in respective countries/regions and consult the tropical healthcare institute a couple of months ahead of your trip! Spanish for most parts, aside from Portuguese in Brazil and various indigenous languages, is the official language used. Having basic knowledge of these languages and other considerations will improve your trip to Latin America.
How to Identify Birds in the Neotropics?
Learning to identify birds in the neotropics requires careful and concentrated observations and examinations in the field, but in order to do these thing successfully, you must understand distribution patterns, ecology and behavior, be aware of the various songs and calls, and have experience studying guides and other literature (we’ll fill you in on a separate blog).
Study the Bird Families Before Arriving
Try to get a grip on the many new families and genus before moving on to the species-level, especially when dealing with large and confusing families (i.e. Tyrannidae).
Correctly identifying the species within certain families requires knowledge beyond what an average field guide provides and thus can be acquired through experience gained in the field.
Excellent resources – other than books – i.e. on the internet are www.hbw.com (payable), www.hbw.com/ibc, www.ebird.org/home, www.neotropicalbirdclub.org, www.wikiaves.com.br, www.orniverse.com, www.fatbirder.com to name a few.
Train your Hearing
Try to train your hearing as much as possible, as many birds are detected and identified by their voice. In general, birds are more often heard than seen, especially in forest habitats! Excellent resources for bird vocalization are www.xeno-canto.org and www.birds.cornell.edu.
Study Birds Behaviour and Ecology
As mentioned above, for birding in the Neotropics you will not only need knowledge of field marks, but behavior and ecology. Many of the new species and families you’re likely to encounter not only look different but behave differently than what you’re used to observing at home.
Many species in the neotropics are sedentary, not migratory. They defend and occupy territory year-round and are often found exploiting certain niches. Hence, they are extremely well adapted to their natural environments. This leads to interspecies behavior differences.
Many birds travel in flocks to gather food (insectivorous & and frugivorous, alike), as they are chasing fast and in frantic movements through the strata of the forest and other biomes! Others form army, ant-like swarms (some are totally dependent on them) while others fly solo and thus are rarely spotted unless you know exactly how and where to look/listen for them!
We do warmly recommend that you read Steve Hilty’s Birds of Tropical America: A Watcher’s Introduction to Behavior, Breeding and Diversity. Although published some time ago, this book is still very relevant by getting at the heart of what you need to do. In addition, it is written in a very passionate and enjoyable manner and remains as the most acknowledged authority on the subject!
This book also points out the extremely complex (especially in the Neotropics) interaction between birds (and that goes for all other organisms) and their natural surroundings. Having an idea about these interactions will help you improve and understand the pivotal points about birding in the Neotropics.
For this purpose, we highly recommend you read The New Neotropical Companion by John Kricher. This new edition about tropical ecology is enhanced by its abundant and superb photographs. Many chapters (i.e. evolutionary processes) are explained with examples of birds! So, as a birder, reading this book (or parts of it) makes a lot of sense. Additionally, there’s a chapter on the potential dangers of birding in tropical areas.
How to behave in the field?
Once in the field, you’ll find out quickly that early starts are mandatory, as there is a lot more activity in the morning. If you can be patient and quiet, which means birding alone or with a small group, you will improve your chances of observing birds and other wildlife considerably.
In walking through hot, muddy, and steamy rainforest or trekking through cold, windswept paramos, you will realize that many of the birds illustrated in the field guilds look completely different! This might be due to unideal observation conditions (bad light, distance), or it could be that the illustration you are using is incorrect.
Take pictures and videos along with sound recordings of the birds so that you can go back and compare and discuss with like-minded birders on the above-mentioned platforms/databases. No, you don’t need professional equipment. There are many good and handy (and cheaper) options out there nowadays. More blogs about this and other topics are in currently in production, so stay tuned…
Trying do unriddle and solve those mysteries, however, is one biggest and arguably most enjoyable parts about birding in the Neotropics. It’s when all your preparation starts to pay off.
Knowledge about birds in the Neotropics is still very much incomplete and thus each birder is able to contribute to unraveling this mystery by simple observation.
Birding with Sula
If your time is limited or you simply don’t want to put the effort in for your pre-trip preparation, a good option for you might be a tour led by professional guides who can explain the wildlife to you.
There are many excellent companies, like Sula, and on these types of tours, you don’t have to worry about being left on your own nor not knowing a foreign language. Everything will be taken care of for you: when to have your meals, how long you’ll be on an excursion, what to bring, and above all, what to expect.
At the end of your exciting day, you’ll summarize your observations in a bird log and be briefed about the next day’s activities. This is a great way to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time!
We hope these tips gave you some insight on how to prepare for your Neotropical birding quest and that you’ll enjoy birdwatching in this region as much as we do! See you soon.
About the authors
Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. He has been focused in bird identification. He also travelled many countries, starting in Switzerland and then exploring south America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.
Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.