Books, Handbooks and Guides for Neotropical Birding you Have to Know

Birding in the Neotropics can be difficult, due to the great diversity of birds and ecosystems. South America has more than 3400 bird species, which is more than 30% of the birds of the World. It is also the continent with the most number of birds in the World. As mentioned before in a previous entry, this is the second part of a blog series about field guides for neotropical birding and books.

In this post I will focus on other literature about South American birds and the neotropical birders’ library, to help you . This literature, however, is very useful in a Colombian context as well. Some of you might consider taking one of the books discussed below into the field with you, but most will find them to be too large, instead serving as references in preparation of your trip.

Neotropical birders’ library

Birds of Northern South America, 2006.

by Robin Restall, Clemencia Rodner & Miguel Lentino & Robert S. R. Williams. 2006.

Birds of Northern South America Set: 2 Volume
Birds of Northern South America Set: 2 Volume

This tremendous and complementary 2-volume set covers the entirety of Northern South America (Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Aruba, Curazao, Bonaire, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana). All species recorded in the continent up until 2006 are covered.

Volume 1. 

Birds of Northern South America: Identification guide, Vol. 1: Species account by Robin Restall, Clemencia Rodner & Miguel Lentino & Robert S. R. Williams (2006, ISBN: 978-0713672428).

Volume 1 harbors a brief introduction, followed by the written accounts for 2300+ species occurring in the region! The text is not as thorough as in other publications about the region but none the less treats the subspecies of respective areas very well. Remarks aiding bird identification are also providing, such as status, habitat and taxonomical issues. The voice is transcribed and further enhanced by the appendix, listing published recordings for each species.

Volume 2. 

Birds of Northern South America: Plates and Maps, Vol.2: An identification Guide by Robin Restall, Clemencia Rodner, Miguel Lentino & Robert S. R. Williams, illustrated by Robin Restall (2006, ISBN: 978-0713672435).

Volume 2 is the identification guide for neotropical birding, is smaller but still quite bulky for field use. Double-page spreads show illustrations of 4 – 14 species per plate so that similar species are readily comparable. All illustrations are made by Robin Restall. Distribution maps of all species are usually clustered together on the left page. As typical for many Bird Guides of the region, there is much blank, unused space.

Although one is able to identify many of the vast region’s bird species, you will struggle using this field guide volume on its own, as illustrations range from good to poor. Within Tyrannidae (and several other families…), you will encounter several mistakes and inaccuracies. In some cases, species are depicted with the totally wrong eye-color, wing pattern etc., and these errors make correctly identifying birds impossible without additional knowledge. Furthermore, the jizz of several other species are not that well captured and are sometimes at odd.

A lot of different plumages of one species and their sub-species are depicted. A huge bonus!

The Birds of South America by Robert S. Ridgely, illustrated by Guy Tudor, 1989.

The 2-volume set was for a long-time ahead of its time, but now is quite outdated. They are part of a 4-set volume plan that endeavoured to cover all the birds of South America. Thus far, only two volumes have been published: The Oscine Passerines, Vol. I. and the Suboscine Passerines, Vol. II. The other 2 volumes were to cover the non passerines (Land birds), Vol. III, and the non passerines (Water birds), Vol. IV, but they will never appear, as plans were buried for these volumes soon after the work’s initial publication.

Volume 1. The Birds of South America: The Oscine Passerines by Robert S. Ridgely, illustrated by Guy Tudor (1988, ISBN: 978-0292707566)

The Birds of South America- Volume 1- The Oscine Passerines

Volume 2. The Birds of South America: The Suboscine Passerines by Robert S. Ridgely, illustrated by Guy Tudor (1993, ISBN: 978-0292770638)

The Birds of South America, Vol. II, The Suboscine Passerines

The illustrations plates in both volumes are bundled together in the middle section of the books. Not every bird species of South America is illustrated, as many are summarized as similar species to the ones depicted.

Guy Tudor’s color plates still rank as probably the best, most accurate, and artistic paintings of Neotropical avifauna. They are truly timeless…

Ridgley’s text provides a lot of information about South American Avifauna and Latin American Ornithology at the beginning of the volumes. In each volume, the identification, status, and voice are described, and there are halftone range maps for every species.

It as inspirational as it is indispensable for any bibliophilic ornithologist.

Field Guide to the Birds of South America: Passerines, 2009.

by Robert S. Ridgely, illustrated by Guy Tudor (2009, ISBN: 978-1408113424)

Field Guide to the Birds of South America: Passerines by Robert S. Ridgely, illustrated by Guy Tudor

This is another birding guide for neotropical birding. It is a single-volume concise edition from the above described volumes. For this edition, the text has been condensed, and many of the missing species that were not illustrated before have now been painted. New maps have been compiled for every species covering all South America!

Birds of Peru, 2007.

by Thomas S. Schulenberg, Douglas F. Stotz, Daniel F. Lane, John P. O’Neill and Theodore A. Parker III, illustrated by 13 artists. (2007, ISBN: 978-0-7136-8673-9)

Birds of Peru by Thomas S. Schulenberg, Douglas F. Stotz, Daniel F. Lane, John P. O’Neill and Theodore A. Parker III, illustrated by 13 artists

Peru shares the vast Andean mountain range and large tracts of the Amazonian biome with Colombia. If you intend to visit the southern region of Colombia for birding (around Leticia), neighboring Peru shares most or all of its species with Colombia. There, this guide can prove useful. A large portion of widespread Andean birds can be found in both countries and are covered in this book.

It still ranks high as one of the best modern field guides in South America. Its’ origin dates back to John P. O’Neill’s and Ted Parker’s intense field work in the 80s and 90s. Ted Parker was among the individuals who revolutionized contemporary neotropical field ornithology. His contributions cannot be overemphasized, but both men mentioned above laid the foundation for this guide. Parker’s premature death halted the book’s plan. Luckily, they were picked up again by an illustrious team of authors and illustrators that finished this impressive book.

Its size -14,8 x 3,7 x 20,9 cm- makes it easy to take in the field. The introductory section is typical for a modern guide, and the taxonomy largely follows that of the South American Classification Committee (SACC). It devotes 2 plates to bird topography, normally omitted by many other regional field guides. It contains detailed explanations on how to use the guide and includes clear maps showing topography, major rivers, the location of protected areas, and political units.

The plate section shows each species portrayed opposite the text and maps. The text includes information on abundance, elevational, and distributional information; notes on different subspecies; a transcription of voice; and sometimes notes on distinctive habits that are helpful for field identification. Thirteen artists have illustrated the plates, so there are inevitably big differences in style and quality. But most of them are very good and accurate. At the end you will find vocal credits and references, artist credits, and an index.

The Handbook of the World Series (HBW), 1992–2013.

The Handbook of the World Series (HBW)

What is probably the most impressive, thorough, & beautiful work about birds currently available for the neotropical birders’ library, is the The Handbook of the World Series (HBW).  This work was compiled over 18 years and contains 16 volumes with the gargantuan task of treating all the living bird species of the world with text and illustrations!

I will give only a short, general summary about the series, as all the volumes share a common denominator throughout: Pure excellence! Further, I will list volumes of big interest from a Neotropical birder’s point of view.

Every single volume of this encyclopedic work is quite large, weighing 4.5 kg coming in at 24x31x5 in dimension. It will certainly test the stability of your bookshelf. Eleven of the volumes have an introductory foreword discussing various topics concerning ornithology, ranging from introducing the work itself, art & nature, and avian bioacoustics to ornithological nomenclature, climate change, and more!

Each family is covered and introduced separately by the foremost authorities on the subject who cover covering everything from general info to systematics, morphological aspects, and almost ALL biological aspects of the family. The chapters are accompanied by outstanding color photographs, many of which have never been published. All species known to exist up until publication of each respective volume are included and illustrated by various artists who are considered to be among the best in their fields.

Artistically, they are all of highest level, with minor errors. For each  species there is a thorough description; however, this description is not aimed to assist in identifying these birds. The accounts are aided by range maps. At the end you find a huge bibliographic index. For species discovered after a volume’s publication, this group has created a new Special Volume: New Species and Global Index.

Listed below there are volumes of particular interest to Neotropical ornithologists and birders:

Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds

Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 5: Barn-owls to Hummingbirds plate

Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 8: Broadbills to Tapaculos

Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume 8, Broadbills to Tapaculos plate

Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 9: Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails

Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 9, Cotingas to Pipits and Wagtails plate

Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 16: Tanagers to New World Blackbirds

Handbook of the Birds of the World – Volume 16 Tanagers to New World Blackbirds plate

Visit to learn more about the HWB-series, authors and artist credits. Every single volume is presented there.

Tip: The whole series is available online at The online version is updated frequently, and in addition, you can keep your lists there, using the sites excellent features. Birdlife/HBW has its own taxonomic system (more about that in this Blog) and is further linked to the Internet Bird Collection (IBC). Rumor has it that there will be a fusion between HBW and Cornell University in the nearer future!

Helm Identification Guide Series, 1980s – 2020 current

For the sake of completeness, I will list some excellent monographs of the famous Helm Identification Guide Series (available through the NHBS book-store, mentioned below) dealing exclusively with Neotropical/New World bird families. I did not include available monographs of families occurring in the neotropics, but I do cover the whole world (See HBW above). These monographs provide the most detailed information about any of these families, especially concerning species-level. They are not revised in detail. You’ll find very brief notes, instead.

  • Antpittas and Gnateaters, by Harold Greeny, illustrated by David Beadle (2018, ISBN: 978-1472919649)

Beautiful new book about some of the most highly-prized, elusive and least-known of all species in the Neotropics! Includes photos & excellent artwork

  • Cotingas and Manakins, by Guy M. Kirwan & Graeme Green, illustrated by Eustace Barnes (2012, ISBN: 978-0691153520)

Excellent and thorough from A-Z. Includes photos & excellent artwork

  • New World Blackbirds: The Icterids by Alvaro Jaramillo & Peter Burke, illustrated by Peter Burke (1998, ISBN: 978-0713643336)

Somewhat less appealing than the other above-mentioned ones, still very detailed. No photographs but nice artwork.

  • The Tanagers: Natural History, Distribution & Identification: Natural History, Distribution, and Identification by Morten S. Isler & Phyllis R. Isler, (1999, ISBN: 978-0874745535)

Not matching standards of the precedent books.  Its artwork is not as elaborated and accurate, either. No photos.


If you like to read magazines there are:


Cotinga is published once a year and you can subscribe at is the most important magazine for publications about birds in Latin American countries! It is peer-reviewed and published in Spanish, English and Portuguese.

Neotropical Birding

Neotropical birding is published twice a year and you can subscribe at birding is devoted to all topics concerning birdwatching in the Neotropics. Articles range from identification, bird watching areas/reserves presented, taxonomic issues, book-reviews & much more! It is richly accompanied by color photographs throughout. Of Cotinga, pdf versions are available online.


technological abilities have evolved dramatically over the last century. Nowadays you can find digital archives accessible to everybody containing the world’s largest collection of plants, animals, sounds and videos. We invite you to explore some of them which has been created for ornithology and birdwatching.

All Birds Colombia – A Sunbird Field Guide

There is also a (payable) bird app, “All birds Colombia”,  for Android and IOS from Sunbird based on this volume’s work! The app is not revised here, wait for future reviews on this and other birding apps.


Merlin is a platform and application launched in 2014 by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in the United States. Merlin is based on more than 800 million sightings submitted to eBird citizen-science project platform from birders around the world. It was designed to beginning and intermediate bird watchers. It is free and can be used in both Android and iOs operating systems.

Merlin asks you to describe the color, size, and behavior of the bird you saw. Then, Merlin shows you a shortlist of possible bird species based on descriptions from Cornell Lab experts and collaborators. More than 3 million descriptions help Merlin to match your input with the most likely birds. When you identify a species and click “This is My Bird,” Merlin also saves your record to help improve its future performance.

The downside of this application is that rare or unreported birds on the eBird platform do not appear in the records. Making it necessary to use books in the field. It also depends on an internet connection to be able to access the platform in real time, which is difficult in many places in the Neotropics.

One way to avoid having to connect to the internet is to download the bird packs by region to your device. However, these regionally-based bird packages take up a lot of memory and you may not have space to store them, or your device may be slowed down.

All About Birds

This is an online guide to birds and bird watching. It is a free resource available for everyone and funded by donors.

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

We hope peaked your interest with this selection of truly stunning literature. It is quite a challenge selecting which guide to take in the field, but in preparing for your trip and reading these guides, I hope you enjoy immersing yourself in the wonderful world of birds. And there are many more books available…

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.

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)

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.

How to Prepare for a Birding Tour in the Neotropics?

We assume that you are here to know about birding in the Neotropicsthe 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.

Biomes of the Neotropics (according to the World Wide Fund for Nature)

Birding in the Neotropics

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock – Rupicola rupicola, Mitú, Vaupés

“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?

Birdwatching at the Amazon Forest, Mitú, Vaupés, Colombia

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!

Green-and-black Fruiteater – Pipreola riefferii at Montezuma Hill. Risaralda, Colombia

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

Drone photo Anchicayá, Valle del Cauca

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?

Chamí Antpitta Grallaria alvarezi – Novataxa 2020 – Cuervo et al. Pictured from @amcuervo

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 (payable),,,,,, 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 and

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!

Recommended literature

We do warmly recommend that you read Steve Hilty’s Birds of Tropical America: A Watcher’s Introduction to Behavior, Breeding and DiversityAlthough 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 KricherThis 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

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.