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7 Tips for Birdwatching in a Tropical Forest

August 22, 2016

When travelers step off the bus in Mindo, one of the first things they see is a bus station covered with posters like this one.

christmas bird count poster

Brightly colored birds peer down, next to the words “Mindo: Capital Mundial de las Aves.”  Mindo has earned its reputation as the “World Capital of Birds” thanks to stellar performances in the annual Christmas Bird Counts.  Last year, birders in the Mindo area recorded 465 species!  So it’s no wonder that visitors flock to Mindo  for the birds.

red-headed barbet 1crop

Who could resist the charming face of the red-headed barbet?

 

As we saw in our last blog post, many visitors to Las Tangaras are from temperate areas, mostly in North America and Europe. Many of these travelers expect to see toucans and parrots, but even the experienced birdwatchers among them may not realize that birding in the tropics may be very different from birding at home.

So here are a few tips to make your birding in the tropics easier and more successful. Our first piece of advice is one that all birders will recognize….

1. Get started early. Just as in the temperate zones, dawn in a tropical forest brings a flurry of avian activity.  Territorial birds sing and call to advertise their presence, as   hungry birds search for food.  The dramatic increase in sound and movement is worth waking up early for, especially in the tropics: some tropical species call only at dawn and are silent (or nearly so) for the rest of the day.  Other birds, like the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, give unique displays at dawn.  At the Las Tangaras lodge, the birds will wake you up at 6:00 or so.

This is what you’ll hear when you roll out of bed at 6:15.  And once you’re awake…

2. Take your time. In a tropical forest, you’ll quickly realize that most birds are very tough to spot in the sea of greenery.  Compared to a temperate forest, tropical forests are often denser, with larger leaves and a fuller understory.  Vines and bromeliads further obscure the view.  Finding birds in such a forest requires patience.  Walk slowly—very slowly.  Don’t be ashamed if a one-hour hike takes you two hours. Be ready to raise your binoculars at the slightest glimpse of motion or bright color.  You never know who might be hiding in the leaves…

FB ACOR leaf (2)

Oh hello there.

Brightly colored birds may be easy to spot in a dark forest, but you really should…

3. Realize that not all tropical birds are colorful. It turns out that every birdwatcher’s biggest annoyance, the “little brown birds,” are everywhere, even in the tropics. I spent my first weeks at Las Tangaras peering through the underbrush at small brown and gray birds.  When I’d open Fieldbook of the Birds of Ecuador, I’d find page after page of images like this…

antbirds

Which tiny,  indistinguishable brown bird did I see?

You can choose to ignore the dull birds in favor of the more colorful, but if you really want to boost your bird list, all is not lost.  Extremely similar-looking birds can often be distinguished if you…

4. Pay attention to a bird’s behavior. Every birder knows that a bird’s behavior can provide a clue to its identification.  This advice is even more useful in the tropics, where the incredible diversity of birds causes intense specialization of behavior.  Closely related birds living in the same habitat have to eat slightly different foods in order to co-exist.  So you may see one flycatcher species catch insects by flying out from a perch, while another flycatcher hops up from the ground to snatch a bug from under a leaf.  Pay attention to these behavioral differences to help you identify species.

broad-billed motmot

The broad-billed motmot rigidly swings its spectacular tail back and forth as it perches, looking much like a clock with a feathery pendulum.

But maybe you don’t care so much about identification; you just want to see birds!  In that case…

5. Hit the hotspots. Although a tropical forest’s sea of green may look uniform and unvaried, it is anything but.  Compared to temperate woods, tropical forests are patchier—in other words, resources are more widely scattered across the landscape.  For example, there might be large distances between individual flowering trees of the same species.  For this reason, birds are also patchily distributed, with some areas containing more birds than others on average.  So you’ll want to try and find these natural bird hotspots. The Las Tangaras managers may be able to point you toward good areas, which may be as simple as a single fruiting or flowering tree.

orange-bellied euphonias

These two male orange-bellied euphonias spent several minutes probing these bright orange flowers.

Habitat patchiness also contributes to a tropical bird behavior that you won’t want to miss…

6. Keep an eye out for mixed-species flocks. In tropical forests, there are birds who spend a great majority of their lives in a flock composed of many other species.  These mixed-species flocks travel together, moving between flowering plants and fruiting trees, frantically picking at insects as they go.  Imagine standing in a silent patch of woods, when suddenly, the trees fill with euphonias, woodcreepers, flycatchers, wrens, and barbets.    You’ll only have moments to get a few in your binocular sights before they all disappear! If you encounter a mixed-species flock, you may get to see multiple species of the group that gives our reserve its name: the tanagers.

rufous-throated tanager

Rufous-throated tanagers like this one are common members of mixed-species flocks at Las Tangaras.

But let’s say it’s the end of the day, and you haven’t yet had the pleasure of being surrounded by a mixed-species flock.  Here’s our advice:

7. Spend plenty of time here. If, at the end of your first day at Las Tangaras, you’ve seen fewer birds than you’d like, there’s a very good chance that you’ll encounter just as many entirely new species on your second or even third day.  Why?  Because the wonder of the tropics is in bird diversity, more than bird numbers.  One scientific study found that about as many individual birds can be found in a New Hampshire (USA) woods as a tropical rainforest in Peru, even though Peru has many more species.  This means that each species was present at a lower density in the tropical forest than in a temperate one.  The same may be true at Las Tangaras:  You probably won’t see many more individual birds here in a day than you would at home, but you should see more species, if you have enough time.

So stick around! Spend more than just one day at Las Tangaras.  You could visit our Cock-of-the-Rock lek on your first morning, spend the next dawn birding on our trails, and still have plenty of time to watch birds from the second story of our lodge.  I’ve seen some of my favorite birds without ever having to leave the lodge.

golden-headed quetzal

Thanks to our recent visitors, the Zimmer family, for this lovely shot of a golden-headed quetzal!

What do you think, fellow birdwatchers?  Have I completely missed a crucial tip for tropical birding?  Let me know in the comments!

To learn more about tropical birdwatching, I recommend Birds of Tropical America: A Watcher’s Introduction to Behavior, Breeding, and Diversity by Steven Hilty, which greatly inspired this post.  You can read it for yourself in the Las Tangaras library.

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