Birders Library: The Colombian Birding Field Guides Books

This is the first of a two-part blog-series about Colombian & other useful Neotropical field guides and literature. Yes, this addresses to the bibliophilic birder, to build the best Neotropical birders’ library, as nowadays there are many other means of information sources and identification aides.

If you, like me, still like to read and carry along good old paper format field guides, you’ll find them presented and reviewed here. It might facilitate to choose the one(s) that appeals most to you, to take along in the field. The first series, emphasizes on field- and site guides dedicated to Colombia’s avifauna.

The second series will suggest & review literature covering a broader Neotropical area, but encompassing Colombia as well, so highly useful and complementary to the books discussed here.

A preliminary note:

Colombia and all other countries in South America lying within equatorial regions are hosting a disproportionate amount of earth’s bird (bio)-diversity, and diversity is for sure higher than what current field guides of the region reflect!

It is therefore almost impossible to produce any complete field guide without making any compromises in order to shape and trim a book into field guide format. As well, some mistakes will inevitably creep into all works of this magnitude.

Any author and illustrator have to be acknowledged greatly for their efforts and contributions to Neotropical avifauna!

Colombian Field Guides

Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia by Miles McMullan (2nd edition, 2018, ISBN: 978-958896962)

Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia by Miles Mc Mullan (2nd edition, 2018, ISBN: 978-958896962)
Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia by Miles Mc Mullan (2nd edition, 2018, ISBN: 978-958896962)

The second edition of this widely acclaimed Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia is probably the most used Field Guide about birds in Colombia. It states that there are 1909 species recorded in Colombia according to the classification of the Birds of Colombia published in the journal Ornitología Colombiana.

It covers them all and implements taxonomic modifications proposed by the South American Classification Committee (SACC). Since the first publication 2014, 24 species have been added to the Colombian List. A wealth of new information about Colombian birds has been gathered and been included in a compact field Guide written and illustrated by a single author – Miles McMullanWOW!

The book’s setup is introduced with conservation status, both at national and international level (this following the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species) and notes on how to interpret/use voice transcription, maps, illustrations, and abundance.

Topography & climate, account for such rich avian diversity. To show that, vivid maps like political areas, vegetation zones, rainfall pattern, endemic bird areas & protected areas in Colombia are depicted.

The heart of the book is the plate/identification section. There is brief written introduction (variable information) of every family & genus (genus, if represented by 2+ species, but often repetitious with family section) and how many species they comprise. Families are divided in color sections on the page fronts of the book. Hardly anybody will use them and they fade quick.

The plates are arranged to show the names of the species, illustrations, maps (incl. elevation & sub-species information), texts, field notes and notes on status & voice, in a single informative cell. This helps tremendously to navigate through a guide with such large avifauna. 3-6 species are covered per page. The text is short but precise.

Rufous – throated Tanager – Ixothraupis rufigula. Illustration by Milles McMullan

To judge quality of illustrations is always highly subjective. The drawings have been made in aquarell (more than 5000 illustrations) by a single artist and are of various quality varying from good – less so. Some species are anyway only identified with additional knowledge. If there is significant sexual dimorphism in species, both sexes are depicted.

In families, where there are species with many different plumage-types (e.g. Gulls and New World Warbler) several plumages are shown. The song and calls are transcribed following widely-used conventions for voice transcription.

There is little blank space, indicating that the layout of the guide has been well executed. This pays off in the format of the book – it has just over 400 pages and weighs 600 grams – and its general appeal.At the end comes a section of 3 plates with escaped birds. It could probably be expanded randomly, therefore not very representative.

Followed by charts of endemics & near endemics, respectively threatened bird in Colombia. Finally, there is the index with all English and generic Latin names.

Guía Ilustrada de la Avifauna Colombiana by Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones (2018, ISBN: 978-958-5461-10-9)

Guía ilustrada de la avifauna colombiana, 1st edition, English version, ed. WCS Colombia, Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones.

Shortly after the publication of the above introduced book, a new field guide about Colombia’s avifauna appeared. It is about the same weight as the previous one, and just a bit smaller. After the prologue the Orders, each represented with color bars and depicted with a representative example are introduced, an index and how many species they encompass. A chart on how the plates are structured and abbreviations are explained.

The color plates facing species names (English & scientific) and distribution maps with color subspecies and elevational info. There are blank lines between the bird names & distribution maps. They have been inserted for that Spanish speaking ornithologists can pencil in local names.

The guide lacks any identification text (apart from very short family and generic descriptions) and voice transcriptions! This compromises it a bit to use as a classic field guide. It is more a (very well & thoroughly) illustrated checklist. Up to 10 species with 26 illustrations are found on a plate. Sometimes, these are a little crowded, but that’s the exception.

Up to 4 plumage types are depicted in some New World Wood Warblers and some Gulls. Male and female are illustrated where needed and for waders there’s winter plumage and juvenile depictions. There are 52(!) hypothetical species lacking documented records in Colombia included on the main plates, probably to raise observer awareness.

Guía ilustrada de la avifauna colombiana, 1st edition in Spanish by Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones

The illustrations are highly accurate (in my opinion the best of any Colombian field guide) and you find many relevant details to identify difficult species.

The guide closes with an appendix of scientific order-, family- and generic names, a list for the endemic & hypothetical and threatened species in Colombia, and non-pelagic species on the Isla de Gorgona (a far-flung destination), a topographical map and one with the national parks in Colombia.

All in all, a very appealing book and a must to take in the field for every visiting birder.

Guía Ilustrada de la Avifauna Colombiana by Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones (2nd edition, 2019)

Guía ilustrada de la avifauna colombiana, second edition in Spanish by Fernando Ayerbe Quiñones

In November of this year, the author has just published a second edition with the following changes:

  • Change of cover.
  • Change in Paper type.
  • Adjustments in the color of the illustrations (lighting).
  • The shadow of each illustration was removed.
  • The illustrations now have a greenish background that helps highlight the colors of the birds.
  • Page of maps and texts in white background and more contrasting letters to facilitate reading.
  • Nomenclature and phylogenetic order (at the family level) updated according to SACC.
    1941 species.
  • Species and genera grouped by similarity within each family (more comparative).
  • The item “Almost Endemic” is included.
  • Includes check box for the species already seen.
  • Includes measurements in inches.
  • Includes names in French and German.

Let’s see how it works at field and we will tell you!

A Guide to the Birds of Colombia by Steven L. Hilty and William L. Brown

Illustrated by Guy Tudor, John Gwynne, H. Wayne Trimm, Michel Kleinbaum & others (1986, ISBN: 978-0691083728)

A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, by Steven L. Hilty and William L. Brown

This book has long been the standard reference not only for Colombia, but areas adjacent to it (especially Amazonia). Since its publication there has been tremendous changes in bird systematics, knowledge about birds in Colombia increased, resulting in many new species been discovered within its political boundary (and some to science).

It’s size and weight are compromising its use as field guide. It has 836 pages and weighs over 2 kg. This is said keeping in mind, that now there are more compact options (see below). Imagine what people would have sacrificed to take such a book in the field, at the times, no such publications were available! Nevertheless, the book deserves a place in the hall of fame of neotropical bird books, or the shelve of any bibliophile ornithologist!

Introductory chapters and photographs highlight Colombia’s geography, climate, and vegetation, and discuss migration and conservation questions, and the history of Colombian ornithology. As usual at that time, the illustrations plates are bundled together at the middle section of the book.

Colombia’s magnificent avifauna is illustrated on 56 color plates, drawn mainly by Guy Tudor, John Gwynne, H. Wayne Trimm, Michael Kleinbaum and others. Especially Guy Tudor’s paintings are of high artistic quality, timeless and true in detail. They’re still considered to be among the best neotropical bird drawings! The other illustrations are a mixed bag of quality, some drawings are not true to life and detail at all, and are obviously done from museum skins.

Further, there are 13 half-tone plates and 99 line drawings (both not very useful) inserted in the text section. Not every bird species known to occur in Columbia at that time is depicted. Many are summarized and mentioned as similar species to the ones depicted, together with other brief information on facing plates. There are 1475 range maps.

The text section is written by one of the foremost authorities about Colombian Birds, Steve Hilty (and William Brown as co-author). It is highly captive and focuses on bird identification. It covers song/call transcriptions, behavior, habitat, status as well as some breeding data and notes about taxonomy and hypothetical species.

Appendices contain bibliography and section on birding locations.

Birdwatching in Colombia by Jurgen Beckers & Pablo Florez (2013, ISBN: 978-9090277851)

Birdwatching in Colombia by Jurgen Beckers & Pablo Flores

If you plan a trip to Colombia, whether on an individual or guided basis, this site guide will be indispensable. Not only for thorough preparation but travelling as well. It is written by two very active and experienced birders in the Colombia.

Jurgen Beckers has extensively travelled Colombia and now runs one of the best and nicest reserves (at the time of the book published not yet established therefore not covered) in Putumayo: La Isla Escondida! Pablo Flores has visited nearly every corner in Colombia for over 20 years and runs a well-established bird tour company in Colombia, Multicolored Birding.

The guide is divided in 12 chapters, each one representing a distinctive eco-zone, the guide describes 127 birding destination in Colombia (and oh, there are so many more).

The book’s introduction focuses on how to use it and deals with taxonomic issues made up until the book’s publication. It explains the icons inserted in the introductory section of each site, what to bring, safety issues, climate, and there are maps showing travel distance & time between major areas/cities in Colombia.

Each chapter begins with a short summary of the associated endemic birds & specialties and shows a map of the area. Sometimes there are notes on local cultural heritage. The sites are being described on 1-3 pages, accompanied by 1 -4 color photographs of birds and habitat.

It has detailed information of what species to expect, how to get there, where to stay & eat and many other logistical information, provided by the graphical icons mentioned above. All this information is to be used in conjunction with well-designed maps for most birding locations!

If you read this book, it will make you immediately want to go birding and explore Colombia!

As the book has been published in 2013 some of the information is outdated. Colombia’s tourism industry has changed fundamentally in past years. Many new sites have become available to birders, infrastructure and access has improved considerably. Some of the described sites are not operating the same way anymore as in 2013, phone numbers and contacts have changed.

Find out more about Colombian field guides in our recommended literature section.


For people with particularly deep interest in Colombian ornithology, there is a magazine published, briefly mentioned above:

The Revista Ornitología Colombiana, some issues also available online in pdf. It deals about new species, discovered in Colombia, aspects on biology about Colombian birds and conservation issues. Have a look at

At the current time of writing this blog, all books discussed here are available. Check for instance,,,,, and of course your local book-store!

Find the second part of this blog here!

About the authors

Jérôme Fischer

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.

Sara Colmenares

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.

The Science behind Bird Names: Taxonomy & Nomenclature

If you as a birdwatcher flip through many of the excellent, indispensable- but older- field guides and compare bird species names with newer, Neotropical avifauna, inevitably you will stumble across several unfamiliar names! This is beacuse Taxonomy and Nomenclature. 

You must also consider that the sequence of orders and families – and within families, the genera – have changes, in some cases quite drastically. In comparing these references, you will see that many concepts have simply been given a new name.

To complicate matters, formerly single species are now believed to consist of two distinct species or vice versa (follow this link for an example).

Taxonomy, Nomenclature & the Species Concepts

Birdwatchers and species names: Confusion at all levels! However, this is not because there have been major problems since the first guides were printed, nor because the authors assigned bird names at random.

Authors from any time period face the same difficulties in choosing these names, but there is a science behind it. A Science that is in constant state of change known as Taxonomy & Nomenclature.

First of all, you need to know there is adifference between Taxonomy and Nomenclature. Taxonomy is an artificial agreement to classify biological diversity. On the othe hand, nomenclature is an artificial agreement to name biological diversity. 

The Swedish botanist Carl von Linné is considered the founder of the current system of classification of biological diversity (i.e. taxonomy), since he developed a classification system known as Linné’s taxonomy to categorize organisms, and the binomial nomenclature to name the organisms.

Carl von Linné

Systema Naturae by Carl von Linné

Let’s go back to mid-18th century when Swedish biologist Carl von Linné introduced the binary nomenclature system for taxa (life forms and organisms) to science.

His general belief was that all life forms on this planet were unchangeable and created by God. Linné was convinced that God’s presence materializes through natural diversity.

In order to prove God’s existence or at least get closer to him, Linné started to collect as many different life forms as he could gather and with these, he developed a classification system.

The Classification System

Linné standardized the description processes and categorized the life forms in hierarchical orders: family, genera, and species (taxonomy).

Additionally, he gave all species a Latin generic and species name and stored those specimens in large collections- which nowadays is undertaken by museums (nomenclature).

With this system, the basis for modern zoological and botanical taxonomy and nomenclature was created.

The nomenclatural system and process to describe new species remains very much the same as back in the days of early scientists!

Carl von Linné

The Origin of Species

In subsequent years, scientists & naturalist continued collecting, describing and discovering data that led them to begin doubting Linnés’ and others’ views regarding the origins of species.

This doubt peaked with Charles Darwin’s (and Alfred R. Wallace’s among others) discoveries and publication of the Evolutionary Theory in 1859.

The publication by Darwin bares the Victorian title: On the origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation, of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Many of the observations for these publications were made in the Neotropics!

Darwin’s work had tremendous impact on society far beyond natural history and science. Moreover, Darwin’s theory is still the backbone of modern evolutionary biology.

The Discovery of DNA

The discovery of DNA in mid-20th century  opened new possibilities to science, revealing some big surprises in taxonomy and systematics at all levels.

The fact that all modern genetic analyses and recent findings support Darwin’s theory is even more remarkable, as DNA and genetics were totally unknown to him!

DNA analyses are mostly used to define independent evolutionary lineages. 

For various reasons, birds remain the most studied animal organism, especially for evolutionary biology and taxonomy.

Bird Taxonomy

In bird taxonomy, there are two leading methodologies: the traditional Biological Species Concept (BSC) and the Phylogenetic Species Concept (PSC).

To make it easy to understand, I will give you a extremely simplified versions of the species concepts: biological and phylogenetic.

The Species Concept

Firstly, the Biological Species Concept considers groups of interbreeding populations that are reproductively isolated from other groups.

On the other hand, the Phylogenetic Species Concept considers species as diagnosable and divergent evolutionary lineages which share a parental pattern of ancestry and descent.

Scientists expect more changes in taxonomy and nomenclature because of the increasing knowledge given by different species concepts and DNA discoveries. 

Bird Nomenclature

At Sula we decided to follow nomenclature of the South American Classification Committee (SACC). This was a decision based on convenience! Most contemporary field guides about Neotropical avifauna are using this nomenclature.

The SACC is one of two Comities (the other is the North American Classification Committee, NACC) of the American Ornithologist Union (AOU), which deals with all taxonomic issues based on the Universal Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World.

This universal checklist follows regional authorities and is usually updated annually by the AOU in August, see here!

If you are starting or already keep a bird list, you might very well use other authorities than the above-mentioned, as for example:

  1. International Ornithological Committee (IOC) Bird checklist  or
  2. Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the birds of the World, 4th edition or
  3. HBW Alive/Birdlife International.

You can find a detailed comparison of all the major checklists on Avibase website.

Conclusion on Bird Names

  • With whatever book you consult or whatever list you follow, all species concepts and taxonomic traits are man-made constructs and decisions.
  • They differ in various degree in their primary goals, philosophy, and attempts to investigate complex and overlapping fields.
  • Scientists are constantly publishing new results in highly technical articles.
  • It is in the nature of the matter that there is going to be disagreement and inconsistency on this subject now and in the future.
  • Therefore, as this understandably causes some annoyance to the average birdwatchers and bird species names, it is at the same time nothing more than progress in Ornithology and Biology!
  • You just might be able to contribute to that by simply observing and enjoying birds.
  • Also by identifying them carefully & correctly, recording vocalizations, noting hybrids and variations in species/populations, mating pairs, and documenting extra limital records well! Is that not what birding is all about?

Aboout the authors

Jérôme Fischer

Professional bird guide, swiss native, with more than 32 years of experience guiding hardcore birders and birdwatching tours. Jérôme has been focused in bird identification. He also travelled many countries,  starting in Switzerland. Then he traveled exploring south America, the most biodiverse continent in the world, becoming specialized in Neotropical birds.

Note by the author: I would like to thank my friend, Dr. Manuel Schweizer, Curator of Ornithology at the Natural History Museum Bern in Switzerland for many long discussions about these topics, decades of birding (we’re getting old buddy…come visit), and giving some input for this  Blog-entry!

Sara Colmenares

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.