for birding in South and Central
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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)
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.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
Books, CD's and
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
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
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.
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
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
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