General hints for birding in South and Central America            

John van der Woude  -  www.jvanderw.nl  

Er is ook een Nederlandse versie (in Word).
See also my collection of links for world birding logistics.
Several of these observations also apply for birding in other tropical/subtropical areas.

Over the years, several people asked me questions after reading trip reports on this web site. Most questions were about  the general logistics of the birding. Below I have put together a lot of these hints. All are based on our personal experiences, and naturally I am not taking any responsibility for them. I did not do any special research for writing this chapter, and in fact this text should be regarded as supplementary to especially Nigel Wheatley - Where to watch birds in South America, and to the travel guides like from Lonely Planet and Footprint.

Why birding in South (and Central) America?
One third of all bird species of the world occurs in South America, and this is related to an enormous general biodiversity. The life zones are different both from N to S, from W to E and from low to high elevation. E.g. there are about seven clearly different life zones in the Andes, whereas the Alps have only three or so. Moreover, there is a lot, really a lot of nature left in South America.
The uniformity of the language is another advantage: once you have picked up some Spanish you can go on for several more trips, except to Brazil of course where Portuguese is spoken. But the Brazilians (at least where we have been, in the Southeast) are very kind and will try to help you anyway.
For European birders, the Americas have the added advantage that getting up early (for the best birding - although birding can go on the whole day in many areas) is easy because of the shift in time zones - their internal clock will easily wake them at 4 or 5 a.m.

On your own or on an organized tour?
We (Nollie and me) still always like to bird on our own. For us holiday means freedom of action, and we also think that the birds make a deeper impression when you find and identify them yourself. Of course you will miss some of the birds that are pointed out to you by the guide when you join a tour. But there are so many species to be seen in these countries, and with all the reports and bird sounds available (see sources below) you will be able to find most of the specialties as well, although it may take some more time. All this is a personal matter, see also the relevant part of a
discussion which I had on BirdChat. Of course there is also a difference in cost: maybe you can do two independent trips for the price of one organized tour with the international tour companies.
However, occasionally you will have to hire a local guide for a day or so, and his can be great fun of course, like with Chino and Pedro on Cuba, or with the jolly guide who took us into the Cuyabeno reserve in Ecuador.
Some local-based tour companies can offer cheap complete tours, but try to find out if they are reliable.  Some logistics (even local bird guides) can be arranged by a travel bureau or by a local bird club etc. 

Which countries (first)?
Most birders will not go only once to South or Central America, so it is wise to adopt a strategy. The main points when choosing a country should be a. if there is a field guide available, b. if the cost of living meets your standard (especially when renting a car - the rates can differ very much) and c. if the socio-political situation is not out of control. We found another factor also important: we liked to gradually build up our knowledge of this immense avifauna, so in the course of the years we went down from the South rim of the USA, along Central America, to Northern South America and further down (although with some movements up and down). 
Mexico and Costa Rica are good birding countries with good field guides, and with a not too overwhelming avifauna. Should you have set your mind to go to South America without doing Central America first, then Venezuela is a good country. Ecuador is very popular also, and recently has a good field guide as well (Ridgely & Greenfield). We equally liked all the other countries we birded so don't regard the shortlist above as imperative. Peru, Bolivia and SE Brazil are all very good also, but may be less suitable to start with. You could also start from the South: Argentina or Chile. Another option is to start on a Caribbean island, like Cuba.
Often I think that for birders from Europe who have never been birding in the USA, the best introduction to birding in C+S America (the neotropics) is just Texas and Arizona. 

When to go
In most parts of S+C America there is a marked dry season, and most birders prefer to go in this season. We prefer the same, although we tend to choose rather the start of the transition from the dry to the rainy season. Birds become a bit more active then. From the Tropic of Capricorn southward, there is also a sort of spring, so the northern autumn (Sep - Nov) may be the best time there. In general, the Northeast of South America tends to be better from December to April, and the West side of South America is better from August to November, but these are only very general rules. Read trip reports and decide for yourself. Should you choose for a country with many unpaved roads, like Bolivia and Peru, then consider that roads can become very bad in the rainy season, and will remain so in the beginning of the dry season.
For birders from North America and Europe, it is only convenient that the probably least suitable birding month for S+C America is the month which is best in their own countries: May.

Safety
We think that the personal safety in South and Central America is generally good, with the exception of the biggest cities, and we also don't always trust coastal towns. So we mostly stay away from these both, or at least don't wander around in nature sites at the border of these places. In big cities, behave 'streetwise' (as if you live there) and not like a typical tourist glancing around and loaded with cameras. Also, leave expensive watches etc. at home. Well, this is general stuff from the travel guides like Lonely Planet, so look there. But don't think that you cannot go to these countries because of the safety. A good evidence of how safe most of these countries are, is a check on the governmental websites with travel warnings, of the UK, USA, and others. For many countries there is no warning at all. However, behave wise, and don't underestimate those travel warnings, which can be very precise (like for certain parts or even roads of a country). 
We always keep our binoculars with us (should they be stolen from your room then the trip is over), and try to avoid being out in the dark.
In case you think that we are young and adventurous: we are neither, and still we have managed to do all these trips on our own, and nothing has ever happened to us so far. In case we would ever be victim of a robbery we would not resist at all.
The biggest safety problem in these countries may be the road traffic. Be careful when driving (and during roadside birding), especially at sharp bends in the road. Cars may overtake each other with more risk than you are used to in your own country.
In tropical rainforest you can easily get lost when you leave the trail too far. 'Too far' often starts already at 15 meters from the trail: you won't see the trail anymore and if you are not absolutely sure from which direction you came, be very careful not to get lost. Walk short stretches in different directions until you see the trail again, while the other person(s) stay at the spot where you started these attempts. We both carry a small whistle too. When leaving a track or trail, you can mark your way by breaking small twigs every few meters in the direction you are walking (the Indians always do). Brightly-colored (surveyor's) tape is another possibility but be sure to remove it all when you retrace your steps. Better still, don't leave the trail at all in dense forest - most birds will remain invisible, and there is always the danger of snakes and insects. We think that this danger of getting lost in the forest is the second most threatening thing of all in these countries (after the road traffic). Luckily, Nollie has a better sense of direction than I do. Do bring a compass anyhow.
For insects, snakes etc., see the sections about health and clothing.

Money
It is increasingly easier to get money from ATM's - money machines outside a bank office. They may not yet be widespread, so we start with a good amount of cash at the airport of arrival. In most countries cash US-dollars can be useful, so we bring these too, and these can even be obtained at some ATM's as well. Some ATM's not only operate with credit cards (mostly Visa) but even with your local bank card if it has the Cirrus sign. On the other hand, there are also ATM's which can only be used with local bank cards. Many hotels accept credit cards, especially Visa. 
In some countries credit cards are much more used than in others. This is typically something to read about in reports, travel books, and (hotel) web sites.
We always also bring the traveler's checks we still have from long ago. Changing traveler's checks can be a very time-consuming business, but it may be wise to bring them besides credit card(s) and cash money.

Transport
Public transport or a rental car - that's often the question. The main functional difference is of course that you can stop with your car wherever you like, and you can't when traveling in public transport. The golden mean sometimes is a taxi for half a day or so. Taxis are also good if you only have to go to a certain spot not too far away, walk there for several hours, and be picked up again by your taxi driver (this always worked for us).
Car rental can be expensive, and the care for the parked car while you are away in the forest is not pleasant sometimes either. Roads can be very bad, especially in the Andes in or directly after the rainy season.
Much birding in South America is roadside birding, and then a rental car is often convenient of course. But this can also be done by taxi.
To be fully dependent on buses (and not also taking taxis) may mean that you will miss some important birding hours in the morning. Many buses leave an hour or so after sunrise, and then you will arrive a bit late on your desired birding site.
Always mind your luggage at bus stations in larger cities (like probably in your home country).
We tend to have a rental car in countries where the roads are not too bad, the distances not too big, and the rate not too expensive.
Speaking about distances: you will inevitably underestimate the driving times (we still do). Avoid driving at night, because of the road condition, the unlit parked  trucks, and the odd careless pedestrian.

Accommodation and food
In these big countries with their long travel distances there are many hotels and restaurants, in several classes. Mid range hotels are nearly always good, and not expensive. There is not always a restaurant in the hotel, but then there is invariably one in the neighborhood. In a bigger city you will prefer to take a taxi (or your rental car) from the hotel to the restaurant, to avoid walking in dark streets.
We mostly skip the hotel breakfast, in order to be early out in the field. We buy some sweet rolls or other bread the night before, together with bananas and fruit juice (food shops tend to be open late), or bring a box breakfast from the hotel. We always bring bottled water, which is for sale everywhere.
Restaurants mostly are cheap (also the better ones), and all serve beer. In all the countries we've been we could find good beer.
The picture of accommodation and food (and transport) is quite different when you stay in a lodge of course. A lodge mostly is an assortment of sleeping cabins with a central dining room, and situated amidst nature, where trails or tracks are laid out for you. So here you will often have a rhythm of some pre-breakfast birding, have breakfast, do a longer trail in the morning, have your lunch at the lodge, take some rest, and do some afternoon trails again, before night falls and you have your supper in the sparsely lit dining room (fuel, for the electricity generator, is expensive especially when it has to be brought from far by boat).

What to wear
In hot climate zones, we use the fast drying tropical clothes of these days, for sale in outdoor sports shops and now even in normal department stores. But normal T-shirts and light cotton trousers work well too. We don't like jeans in the tropics: too warm, and slowly drying after rain or a wash.
Long sleeves and long trousers are a good protection against the sun, bruises and insects. We prefer to wear our high rubber boots (wellingtons) wherever there is some water or high grass. This is not only to avoid getting wet feet but also as protection against snakes. Wellingtons can be rolled up compactly so luggage space need not be a hindrance. In mountainous areas we use our leather ankle-high walking boots as well.
I always wear a cotton cap as well, not only for protection against the sun but also to have some shade above the binoculars.
For mountainous areas we bring coats and sweaters, and in the rain we use long and wide capes (for sale in outdoor sports shops).

Health
This is not the place to be fully informed about medical things so we refer to your doctor etc. We always check at one of the tropical health information centers (by phone and internet) about what vaccinations and pills etc. we should have. See e.g.
www.tripprep.com for more information. Luckily, these days many vaccinations last long so mostly we still have them from a former trip. 
What you should never underestimate, is malaria. To the range of simple pills like paludrine (to be taken daily) and heavier ones like lariam (to be taken weekly) there has been added now malarone (possibly as an alternative for lariam). The tripprep-site mentioned above gives a nice advice about what to use when. Protection against being bitten by mosquitoes is a good thing as well, especially in the evenings when the malaria bearing mosquitoes become active. Also during the day you need good insect protection - the dengue-bearing mosquitoes are day-active.
We always use two sorts of repellants, a stick for our face and hands and a spray for our ankles and shoulders (these buggers can bite through your shirt). Spraying your ankles (also on your socks) is meant to avoid getting chiggers, those nasty little insects whose bites will keep you awake. It may also help against ticks.
Use plenty sun cream unless you walk inside a rain forest all day. Put it esp. on your neck as the strap of the binoculars will be felt on a sunburn there.
Snakes are rarely encountered, let alone the dangerous ones. But it happens, and in fact you should always look at the trail or track in front of you to see if there is not one dozing. This is hard to combine with looking upward in the trees, for the birds! Leaving the trail and just run into the undergrowth (to see that damned bird) can be hazardous, because of snakes as well as insects, especially ticks and wasps/bees. Regularly check your body for ticks, and remove them with a special tick tweezers (don't squeeze, only turn anti-clockwise while gently pulling).
Ants can be dangerous as well, especially the ones that care for a tree, which you can recognize because all the debris around the tree has been removed. Don't touch these trees as the tiny ants will quickly spread on your body and then bite all at the same time. In general don't touch anything in the woods for no reason, like we often do in the temperate zones. Look where you put your hands if you need a hold.
To avoid stomach troubles, don't eat raw vegetables and unpeeled fruits and only drink bottled water. However, in SE Brazil we ate nearly all salads and got nothing from it.

Language
Learning some Spanish before you go (or Portuguese for Brazil) is a wise thing, even if it's only some words and phrases from a travel booklet. Apart from the usual words like hello and thank you etc., prepare on words like bird, forest, road, etc. A good booklet is the Latin-American Spanish Phrase Book, from Eyewitness Travel Guides.

Books, CD's and reports
Nigel Wheatley - Where to watch birds in South America (Helm, 1994) is recommended, even if  for some countries it is just a summary of other books (like Brazil). Wheatley still is the only source to get a good overview of the whole of South America, good for making choices about where to go, and when.
The best web site for finding trip reports of Central and South America is
www.birdingtheamericas.com where Blake Maybank has meticulously gathered numerous reports from many sources (also text-only versions of my reports). E-mailing with visitors who have been recently in the planned areas is another possibility. For this, e-mail groups on the internet (like BirdChat) can be a start, with an RFI (request for information).
Sounds can be very useful to bring in the field (see below), and recently several cassettes, CD's and CD-ROM's have been published. My source for this invariably is
www.birdsongs.com .
Field guides can be found on the web stores of amazon.com, nhbs.co.uk and others like Audubon and in your natural history bookshops. Well known field guides are now (December 2001) those for Mexico (Howell and Webb), Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia (useful for neighboring areas as well), Ecuador, and Argentina. Others are more regional: the Collins for the South Cone of S America, and the Birds of the High Andes, a good choice if you are going to several Andean countries. For Brazil, see the
Introduction and summary to my SE Brazil trip report.
For the other bird books, Ridgely & Tudor's Birds of South America is your best choice. But of course there are many more books, like bird family monographs, that are worthwhile. The Handbook of the Birds of the World has covered by now (2001) several bird families relevant for this region, like the hummingbirds.
For ecological background reading, I can recommend S. Hilty (1994) Birds of Tropical America (Chapters Publ.) and J. Kricher (1997) A Neotropical Companion (Princeton). The introductory chapters in the better field guides are also useful for this.
As 'the best bird of the day sometimes is a mammal', we also bring Emmons - Neotropical Rainforest Mammals (Chicago Press), although it does not cover the highland mammals.
And of course there are the usual travel guides of Lonely Planet, Footprint, Rough Guide, etc. Footprint may have a higher frequency of updates than the others. Before buying a guide well in advance, check if there will not be a new edition soon.
Increasingly, info about accommodation (also lodges) can be found on the internet. 

Optics
Short focus is sometimes necessary, when a small bird is crawling in the bushes at only 4 meters distance or so. The more recent binoculars often have a shorter focus possibility. I have a 12x50 and Nollie a 8x32 (both Leica), and we can swap if needed for magnification or short focus.
A telescope is useful in open country and at forest edges (the trees are so high here). Carrying a scope in the tropics is not always fun, but we found a nice strap that makes you wear the scope like a rucksack. This is produced by DOF, the Danish Ornithological Society. We use a light scope and light tripod here, which makes it bearable.

Sound equipment
I use as well a minidisc player as a small tape recorder. The former especially for playing a prerecorded reference collection assembled from several CD's etc., and the latter to record songs for quick playback (to get the birds into view) and to bring home for further identification (if we have also seen the bird). My microphone is the small Sennheiser MKE 300.
See also a more elaborate
text about this combination of minidisc and cassette.

GPS
I hope that more and more birders will be using a GPS device for marking the precise location where they found an interesting bird, or the location of an important fork in the road, etcetera. GPS is for Global Positioning System, a system of satellites with which you can make contact with a device of maybe only 120 US-dollars now, giving you the coordinates of your location with a precision sufficient for birders (10 meters or so) and far better than the usual descriptions like "about 300 m after the second main fork". In my recent reports I give lists of these GPS-locations I have measured ("waypoints"). See e.g. at
Waypoints SE Brasil 2001 how you can upload these into your own GPS device.


John van der Woude, The Netherlands.   www.jvanderw.nl