A Lazy Novice’s Guide To Birding In Central America

From colourful flashes within the canopies to melodic morning songs, birds will be a lasting memory of my time in Central America.

As a child I sat silently in hides for what seemed like months with my dad, just to get a glimpse of relatively common migratory seabirds.

As the years went on I carried this notion with me: To bird-spot we must dedicate days to waiting, be completely silent and invest in expensive binoculars just in case they’re still miles away. Once spotted, we frantically flick through pages of a book to deduce what we saw, before the whole process becomes redundant.

Great Frigate Bird - Panama City
A Great Frigate Bird flies over the bay of Panama City

However, in 2018 in Central America, birding (I can only assume the terms ‘twitching’ and ‘spotting’ got replaced as it became more trendy!) has changed. The ease of viewing species in this biodiverse region means that I can watch male tanagers showing off their tail feathers from the comfort of a hammock. Checking what I’ve seen is also much easier, with apps that can tell species from recorded calls and websites searchable by region.

So, now that birding is officially cool, here is some guidance for the casual birder:

You don’t really need expensive gear

I spent $20 on a pair of binoculars from Decathlon and they work brilliantly. They’re small enough to fit in a side pocket of a day pack, they weigh nothing and I’m also not worried about them getting stolen/lost/damaged. An additional bonus in this part of the world is that you can also use them to spot iguanas, snakes, monkeys and sloths.

Long-billed Curlew - Costa Rica
A Long-billed Curlew makes the most of a quiet moment in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
Squirrel Cuckoo - SJDS, Nicaragua
This illusive Squirrel Cuckoo was making a nest near my hostel balcony in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua

Quiet hikes reap the best rewards

National parks in this part of the world can get quite busy, so if you want to spot birds when they’re most active, early morning or late afternoon hikes are a better bet. Alternatively you can ask around the locals for the quieter trails. I hiked the Pipeline Trail in Boquete, Panama and only saw two other humans in four hours, but loads of birds!

Rufous-collared Sparrow - Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
A Rufous-tailed Sparrow at Lake Atitlan (yes, even sparrows are fancy in Central America!)
Emerald Toucanette - Poptun, Guatemala
I couldn’t believe how comfortable this Emerald Toucanet was with the camera! It was quite the photoshoot in Poptun, Guatemala

Combine birding with other activities

There are lots of lakes, caves and volcanos throughout Central America and even more companies that offer trips on, in or up them respectively. As the ultimate casual spotter, I usually just expect to see birds on these trips and prepare my camera just in case. The other benefit of birding this way is that even if you don’t see anything spectacular, you still get a wonderful day trip out of it.

Belted Kingfisher - Granada, Nicaragua
This Belted Kingfisher was about to get breakfast in Las Isletas on Nicaragua’s largest lake
Masked Tityra - Tikal, Guatemala
While I was exploring Tikal ruins, I also found this Masked Tityra next to the central plaza!

Keep an eye out for the protagonists

When I arrived in Costa Rica and realised just how many beautiful birds there were, I decided to make a list of some key species that I wanted to spot. This will be different for all of us but my ‘hotlist’ includes hummingbirds, aracaris and the famous Resplendent Quetzal. Not only has it given me great satisfaction when I finally spot these characters, it also inspires hikes into areas that I wouldn’t have visited otherwise.

Sapphire-throated Hummingbird - Panama
This Sapphire-throated Hummingbird was protecting her nest on a walkway through Panama’s Metropolitan Park
A Bare-throated Tiger Heron – quite the sight from a small boat in Las Isletas, Nicaragua!

A digital camera with a good zoom is really useful

My Canon 600D and its telephoto zoom lens acts as an extra pair of binoculars and also means I can get snaps of the birds I spot. I’ve found it very useful for identifying species too, as I can sit for hours after my hikes and match my images to those on the internet or bird charts on the walls of hostels. Keeping it switched on during a hike will avoid scaring off birds with beeps and noisy shutter adjustments.

Great Blue Heron - Rio Dulce, Guatemala
A Great Blue Heron unexpectedly takes off as I pass by on a boat in Rio Dulce
Lessons Mot-Mot - Poptun, Guatemala
A unique wildlife experience – this Lessons Mot Mot had just finished an almighty battle with a whole snake when I took this photo in Guatemala (you can still see the tail poking out of its mouth!)

The days of leafing through books are gone!

As a novice birder, I rarely have any idea what I’ve just seen or heard. Luckily, there are now apps for that! Googling basic colours and region often works really well, as does the website eBird where I can search by the region I’m in and the type of bird I’ve seen. There are also some apps now that allow you to submit a recording of a call to identify birds that haven’t even been spotted…although I’m yet to explore this properly.

Yellow-winged Tanager - Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
As normal, I spied this Yellow-winged Tanager as soon as I stepped out of my hostel doorway! (Lake Atitlan)
Hooded Warbler - Poptun, Guatemala
This Hooded Warbler was small and quick – giving me quite the chase through a farm near Poptun, Guatemala

Expect to spot them exactly where you don’t expect to spot them!

As a general rule throughout Central America, birds are everywhere. Sadly, as humans encroach on their habitats so they come naturally closer to us. Some of my best spots have been from bar terraces or while walking to the supermarket. Great Kiskadees for example, hang out on telegraph poles and Rufus Tailed Hummingbirds happily frequent planted garden flowers in full view of lounging backpackers.

My top tip? Always be prepared to glimpse the most colourful bird you’ve ever seen when you’ve made the least effort to find it!

Rufus Tailed Hummingbird - Poptun, Guatemala
I only had to wait a few minutes for this Rufous-tailed Hummingbird to collect nectar from a flower on his regular route (Guatemala)
Cara Cara - Coiba, Panama
A CaraCara sits in wait on Coiba Island off the coast of Panama – this photo was actually taken on a snorkelling trip! 

Have you ever combined birding with travel? What are your favourites?

4 thoughts on “A Lazy Novice’s Guide To Birding In Central America

  1. I find it very difficult to get good bird photos. You’ve done very well. I have mentioned to Mr ET on more than one occasion it would be handy to have a website or app that you could put in your location and a bird description and it might tell you what type of bird it is. I’ll look up that website next time. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so very much for sharing this post with your readers 🙂 I’ve just shared your blog on my facebook page and told my friends to check it out for all things Latin American!

      I’ve recently started a new day job so haven’t had much time for reading, but I’m hoping to catch up on my precious blogging time this weekend!


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