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Birds of Costa Rica. 2023 by Dale Dyer and Steve Howell. Princeton Field Guides. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. Flexicover: 456 pages. ISBN: 9780691203355. 13.4 x 20 cm. Also available as eBook.

Review by Frank Lambert
(photos by Nigel Voaden)

Birds of Costa Rica is a very welcome addition to the growing number of field guides to Central American countries. Following on the footsteps of Birds of Belize, by the same authors, it uses some of the same plates and illustrations, as well as large parts of the text that appear in the latter guide. Furthermore, many of the paintings by Dale Dyer are the same or very similar to his illustrations in Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Vallely & Dyer, 2018, Princeton).

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Pale-billed Woodpecker, one of many wonderful Central American endemics that can be seen in Costa Rica 

Owners of that guide may therefore be wondering what the advantage is of buying an additional guide. Paintings of course do not lose their value if they are already accurate, so the advantage of having this book lies more in the text, and taxonomic insights that it might provide: this guide is written by a legendary birder who has spent decades in the field studying birds in Central America, and with a track record of producing excellent field guides. The other advantage of course is that if you are visiting a single country, a guide that deals only with the birds in that country can be less confusing to use, since it doesn’t contain extralimital species.

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White-throated Magpie-Jay, another Central American endemic occurring in Costa Rica


Birds of Costa Rica covers all 836 breeding and regularly occurring species that are found on the mainland, smaller offshore islands, and inshore waters. Additionally, there is an Appendix that lists 103 species of ‘Offshore Visitors, Rare Migrants, and Vagrants’. A separate, fully illustrated Appendix covers the four landbirds (three of which are endemic) and seven breeding seabirds of Cocos Island, which is an oceanic, uninhabited island claimed by Costa Rica.

The book has a flexi cover with front and back flaps. The front flaps are helpful, containing a Key to Species Range Maps, and Pictorial Contents (an illustrated index to assist in finding the correct page quickly), which extends from the flap onto to the next couple of pages. As with most modern field guides, the maps are embedded with the text, opposite the plates.


The 23-page Introduction includes the expected section on How to Use This Book, including a simple map showing main population centres and the location of (unnamed) volcanoes and peaks. There is also a thorough description of how to use the Range Map, and how they were created, including an explicit warning to passionate users of eBird that 10-20% of records therein that are documented by photos or sounds have been misidentified for numerous species that occur in Costa Rica and Middle America. 

The Introduction also includes a list of abbreviations used in the guide, and explains some of the terms used, especially those that describe habitats. The section on Biogeography includes a topographic map and names the volcanoes and peaks in the country. It also pinpoints the variously named parts of the country that are used in the text. Climate and Habitats are also described briefly, with 20 colour photos depicting a selection of the habitats. This is probably superfluous to needs, but helpful in getting a feel for the country before a birding trip there. A page of text then describes the taxonomic approach taken by the authors.

Northern Collared Trogon (in Mexico), one of the splits adopted by Birds of Costa Rica  

Howell has based the taxonomy of Birds of Costa Rica on the freely available IOC World List (2021) which is now used by millions of birders. However, a quick perusal of the species in the book shows that Howell has inserted his own opinions on taxonomy throughout the guide, with explanatory Taxonomic Notes at the back of the book in an Appendix. This may cause some consternation for users, but it is worth noting that over time, many of the proposed splits that have occurred in other forward-thinking field guides, such as Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago (Eaton et al., 2021, Lynx) and Birds of South Asia (Rasmussen & Anderton, 2012, Lynx) are now widely accepted, so there is no reason to believe that this will not be the same in the case of Birds of Costa Rica, especially given that Steve Howell is truly an expert on the birds of this region.

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For many of the splits or proposed splits in this guide, changes in English names provided are not so dramatic, and parenthesis are used to denote which taxa a particular species is split from. Hence, species headings are user-friendly in that it is easy to figure out what the split relates to, with species heading such as ‘Costa Rican [Black-banded] Woodcreeper’, Northern Collared Trogon’, ‘Tropical Ringed Kingfisher’, ‘Middle American [Tropical] Kingbird’ and ‘Costa Rican [Black-backed] Wren’. Experienced Neotropical birders will likely already be aware that the taxonomy for many of these species is in flux. One of the name changes that stands out as being a bit unnecessary, however, is ‘Smithsonian Gull’, used here instead of ‘American Herring Gull’, even though the latter name is already widely used.

The 'Taxonomic Note' for Boat-billed Heron suggests that Middle American birds (pictured here) should be split as Northern Boat-billed Heron.

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An illustration of how Birds of Costa Rica presents species that the authors believe should be split - Here, it is clear in the species account, that Costa Rican Woodcreeper is a split from Black-banded Woodcreeper.  


Each section within the Species Accounts for families, species groups, or in some cases even genera, begins with a succinct paragraph relating to the overall identification features to look out for, preferred habitat types and, often, helpful facts about nests or age and sex differentiation. Species Accounts in bird field guides tend to start with detailed information on identification, yet most users will have already figured out the most likely possibilities for the bird they are interested in from the plates. In this guide, individual species accounts mostly start with a very brief statement about the species, such as ‘Small, accipiter-like..’, ‘Rather large nightjar..’, or ‘Rather slender, long-tailed small flycatcher..’ before providing concise but pertinent information on habitat and behaviour. Details of important plumage and behavioural identification features then follow, with ‘cf.’ to draw attention to similar-looking species.

Townsend's Warbler is one of many North American migrants that can be seen in Costa Rica in the winter, or on passage.


This presentation of the species accounts is very readable, and, I believe, easier to use and less confusing than that found in guides where one is overwhelmed with voluminous details about the identification of each species. In Birds of Costa Rica, the species identification text is sufficiently detailed but not overly long, being followed by a brief description of Sounds (more detailed than in many guides) and a short sentence on Status, including details of global distribution, such as ‘Mexico to nw. Colombia’. Some field guides fail to include global distribution for each species, something I always find frustrating, so it was good to see that included here.

The species account for Ornate Hawk-Eagle begins with “Spectacular, fairly large eagle of humid forest and edge, plantations; more tolerant of cut-over and second-growth forest than other hawk-eagles, and usually the most frequently encountered hawk-eagle. Soars often in mid-late morning, when usually detected by far-carrying whistles….”

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Species’ distribution maps are simple in that no topographical features are included, but the location of the capital, San José, is shown, whilst gridlines help locate the area since these are also shown on the more detailed topographic map in the Introduction. The maps appear reasonably precise.

Dale Dyer has done an excellent job with the paintings. The attention to detail is obvious, and the artwork is lifelike, since varied and appropriate postures have been used throughout. His style is very soft, and easy on the eye. Whilst the species, ages etc. are clearly labelled on the plate, the are no arrows to draw attention to key identification marks. Admittedly, most field guides don’t use these, but I have always found them useful, and often add my own.

The hummingbird plates by Dale Dyer are particularly pleasing

 Costa Rica has long been a popular birding destination, and over time access to sites and our knowledge of the birds there has increased significantly. The authors have used all of that knowledge to produce an excellent, lightweight guide that will undoubtedly become the go-to guide for visitors to this wonderful country.

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