.A the plane begins its descent into the Kong-like fog over Costa Rica, my heart beats with excitement as I wait with anticipation to get my first glimpse of what will be my home for the next three weeks. As an amateur bird enthusiast and proud owner of a quirky Zebra Finch ( Taeniopygia guttata [formerly Poephila guttata]) named Dwaine, I did not understand nor could I simply imagine just how much of an avian paradise the canopies of Costa Rica could be! As an undergraduate student attending the University of Georgia, I found the opportunity to study Avian Biology in Costa Rica through the Department of Poultry Science, which offers the program as a capstone for their Avian Biology majors. Despite some previous experience in other Avian Biology courses, I was not prepared for the overwhelming benefits of studying avian species in the field.
Costa Rica is a country located in Central America that is similar in size to West Virginia. Its culture is rich with indigenous history. The Ticos' particular appreciation for the natural beauty of their country reveals itself through the unimposing construction of their towns and cities as well as through their reverence for both the rich, fertile land of Costa Rica and the native animals that inhabit it. During our three-week journey exploring the country, we discovered not only the amazing range oflandscapes, animals, and people, but also with it, a wide variety of avian species. As home to over eight hundred bird species, every day in this beautiful country exposed us to unimaginable glimpses of a wide variety of birds. During our stay, we were fortunate enough to see well over two hundred and fifi:y bird species! Having the opportunity to study and observe these creatures in their natural habitats made me appreciate their majestic beauty and peaceful nature even more.
Our program started off in the eerie and fog-covered peaks of Monteverde, a cloud forest filled with hemi-epiphytes, creeping figs, and ferns, the size of which reminded one of Jurassic Park. In the week we spent there, we observed adult and juvenile Resplendent Quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno). The unmistakable iridescent colors and dressed tail feathers of the male quetzal made it a treat to watch as he fed on avocados in the cloud forest. During our hikes in the cloud-enshrouded forest reserve, we grew accustomed to the mysteriously hinged call of the Blackfaced Solitaire (Myadestes melanops) and the unique vocalizations of the Emerald Toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus). It was also at this location that we found a nesting pair of Orange-bellied Trogons (Trogon aurantiiventris) and the threatened Three-wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus), a truly unique experience. I looked forward to ending each day in the local Jardin de Colibris (Hummingbird Garden) at the reserve. The garden is the feeding center for over twenty different hummingbird species, from Violet Sabrewings (Campylopterus hemileucurus) to Green Hermits (Phaethomis guy). Enjoying the erratic flights and unmistakable chattering calls of these creatures was an unforgettable experience.
In addition to giving us the opportunity to see an amazing array of avian species, the trip allowed us to learn the basics of field ornithology. When asked how to identify birds in the wild, all students responded by saying "color!" However, we learned that in actuality, the worst way to differentiate between avian species is by this characteristic. Contrary to popular beliefs and practices, spotting birds based on size, wing span, beak shape, and flight pattern actually prove more helpful than ttying to identify them by their color first. So in addition to learning how to use the high definition video cameras, spotting scopes, and digital SLRs provided to us by the University, Monteverde also introduced us to this new and more effective manner of bird watching.