Book Review: The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, 2nd edition

While preparing for a trip to Costa Rica back in 2005, the only field guide available was A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch (“Stiles & Skutch”). It was a nice field guide but a bit unwieldy, to put it nicely. It was too big and heavy to carry in anything but a bag or backpack. And the format, with the 51 plates bunched together in the middle of the book, is not conducive to use in the field. So I did what plenty of others have done – cut out the plates and used them separately. (In my case, I laminated and bound them together using metal rings.) It was great for studying and field use, but doing such damage to a book went against every fiber of my being. Now, however, birders visiting this wonderful country no longer need to contemplate book mauling as there is a legitimate field guide – The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide.

This new guide, from Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, is much more manageable. It covers all 903 species known to have occurred in Costa Rica at the time of its preparation, including the Cocos Islands. Even so, it’s much smaller than Stiles & Skutch, able to fit in a (larger) pocket. It also follows the now-common convention of having the text and range maps on the facing page from each plate, making it much more convenient.

Costa Rica field guide comparison

Top: My ‘adaptation’ of the Stiles & Skutch guide. Bottom: Garrigues and Dean. It’s obvious which one you’d rather have with you.

All that is great, but it doesn’t matter if the guide can’t help you to identify the birds you see! Fortunately, this guide should prove excellent in that regard. Robert Dean’s artwork is very nice. The illustrations are labelled with the bird’s name (and not numbered, thankfully!), along with identifiers such as male/female and adult/juv, as appropriate. The plates are uncrowded, with at most six species, allowing the illustrations room to breathe. This is in sharp contrast to Stiles & Skutch, which has as many as 27 species crowded on a plate!

The text starts with the bird’s size (length in both inches and centimeters), then proceeds to describe field marks, abundance, migratory status, distribution, habitat, behavior, and voice. Basically, it constrains itself to whatever you need to know to identify the bird, such as the most pertinent field marks and habits. The bird’s preferred elevation range is given (in both feet and meters), which is very important to know in the neotropics. For migrants, it tells the approximate time frame that the bird is present. Regional endemics (for instance, limited to Costa Rica and western Panama) are noted with bold text following the account.

The range maps are fairly large, and indicate whether the bird is resident, migrant (breeding, nonbreeding, and passage migrants), casual, or of unknown status. It’s easy to take range maps for granted nowadays, but since Stiles & Skutch didn’t have any these are an especially welcome sight.

Toucans from Birds of Costa Rica

A rarities section in the back of the guide includes 56 birds that have either been recorded less than three times or haven’t been reported in over 20 years, along with the more uncommon pelagics. A small illustration is included for most species, but not all, especially the pelagic birds.

The Birds of Costa Rica has a standard field guide introduction that explains the species accounts and range maps, along with a glossary and one of the most extensive topographical/anatomy sections that I’ve seen. There’s also a five-page section on climate and topography and detailed map of the country that are very welcome inclusions.

The taxonomy the authors use is based on the eBird/Clements list, but the family order has been slightly modified. They don’t fully follow the order suggested by Howell, et al. (and used in The Crossley ID Guide, for example), but they do place similar groups together, such as keeping the falcons with the hawks and moving the vireos next to the warblers and swallows with the swifts. It’s really not that much of a difference, so I don’t anticipate this being an issue for even the most experienced (or entrenched) birders, at least not for very long.

This is the second edition of The Birds of Costa Rica, and it is an improvement over the first, published in 2007. It has 360 new illustrations, 64 of which are newly illustrated species. These are birds new to the country’s list, pelagic species, and Cocos Island birds. With these additions, it’s not surprising that the guide has grown by 35 pages. But somehow it is no thicker, and only about two ounces heavier. The new birds are an obvious improvement, but the other changes are more subtle. Only by doing a side-by-side comparison will you notice that some illustrations have been redone, and for the better. The color reproduction also seems more accurate. My copy of the first edition is a little light and “washed out”. The second is much richer. The range maps previously used just one color, so you couldn’t distinguish between permanent and migratory ranges. And there is a new quick-find index on the inside-back cover.


Simply put, you want The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide if you’re birding in Costa Rica. It’s the best field guide available. However, I echo the authors’ recommendation to also have a copy of Stiles & Skutch nearby, if possible. It never hurts to have multiple references and it has much more in-depth information.

A tougher question is whether you should upgrade if you already have the first edition. If you live in Costa Rica, or are planning to visit the Cocos Islands, you should absolutely upgrade. And if you have a trip planned in the immediate future, I’d say it’s worth getting this new guide. Otherwise, just hang on to the old one for now.


The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide (Second Edition)
by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean
Paperback; 440 pages
Comstock Publishing Associates (imprint of Cornell University Press); December 4, 2014
ISBN: 978-0801479885
Buy from Buteo Books

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