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Tips for Birding Costa Rica and Other Tropical Places: the Mixed Flock

The number of bird species tend to increase as one heads into the tropics. In some places, literally hundreds of birds are possible, especially in areas with mature rainforest and old growth cloud forest. Birding in tropical places won’t be like birding at home and not just because parrots, toucans, and trogons are part of the regular birding scene. The high diversity and various birds being specialized for several microhabitats and food sources lend a complex touch to birding in Costa Rica and other tropical places. These factors always make the birding exciting, they also make the birding challenging, but as long as birders are patient, they will be rewarded each and every day.

The mixed flock is one of several situations typical of tropical forest birding. These are some tips to help you see more birds when encountering a fantastic, mind-blowing mixed flock:

Learn calls of flock leaders before your trip

Whether birding in Belize, Costa Rica, or elsewhere, most mixed flocks have one or a few birds that typically occur in the mixed flock format. Often, there is a central, “nucleus” species that seems to lead the other birds. Since such birds tend to also be a bit more conspicuous and give frequent calls, it’s worth learning how to identify them by sound perhaps even more than by sight. Hear one of those flock leader birds and a lot of other birds will probably be with it. In Costa Rica, the biggest flock leader is the White-throated Shrike-Tanager,

some other species that can also signal the presence of a flock include:

Russet Antshrike

Striped Woodhaunter, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and Black-faced Grosbeak,

Anticipate where the flock will go

Flocks can include frugivores, insectivores, or both types of birds. No matter which type of flock is present, it’s going to be moving and it’s not uncommon for a huge group of birds to zip through your field of view in less than a minute. To see more birds, upon hearing a flock leader or other typical flock species, try to figure out where the flock is going so you can “head it off at the pass”. Try to pick a spot with good lighting and good visibility. The best situation is one where you can look into the treetops and watch most of the birds pass right in front of you at or near eye level. It also pays to locate and keep an eye on fruiting trees as some birds will visit those resources.

Focus on the moment

When the bird wave hits, try to stay in Zen mode and watch one bird after another. Yes, it’s easy to lose your birding stuff and want to jump up and down as dozens of potential lifers shake the foliage, flit overhead, perch nearby, call, and creep up mossy trunks but the calmer you can stay, the more birds you will see. It’s a challenge indeed but try not to feel overwhelmed, try not to watch one individual bird too much, try to remember field marks, and move on to the next one. Oh, and don’t look at the field guide either! If you do, you will undoubtedly miss birds that appear  and leave from one moment to the next.

Let the guide lead

If you happen to be with a guide, mixed flock time is when you should really let the them take charge. Just go with the flow and let the guide show you the birds because they know which birds to look at NOW because you probably won’t see them again. They know which birds to spend less time on because they happen to be common species that will be encountered again. They know which birds you have already seen, which ones you haven’t, and which ones might only be seen in that flock, at that moment. The flock can be quick, let the guide do their stuff. Granted, that only works for highly experienced birding guides who know all of the vocalizations, possibilities, and subtle ways to identify species in a flock.

Try to stick with the flock

Since flocks can and often do move quickly through a given area, the more you can keep up with a flock, the more you will see. Sometimes, a wave of birds zips through to stop in a fruiting tree just up the trail or linger 300 meters ahead. Stay with the flock as long as you can to increase your chances of seeing more of the birds that were hidden, new ones that join the flock, and maybe even a raptor attracted to the activity. Follow the flock but don’t leave the trail and watch that you don’t step on any snakes!

You won’t see all of the birds

Resign yourself to the fact that you won’t see all of the birds in the flock. Even if you have an excellent vantage point and watch a big flock for thirty minutes, some birds will still sneak through, just be hidden by vegetation, or won’t show enough to be identified. That’s alright! This just gives more reasons to spend more time birding in the same area of rich tropical forest.

Study for mixed flock action before your trip with the Costa Rica Birds field guide app. Headed to Belize? Panama? We also have birding field guide apps for those fantastic birding destinations! Have a great birding day!

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