A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica/Naturalists Guide to Costa Rica
A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica
by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, illustrated by Dana Gardner (Comstock Publishing Associates, a Divison of Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York: 1989)
A Naturalist in Costa Rica
By Alexander F. Skutch (University Press of Florida, 1992; First edition: 1971)
As a professional geographer I have an almost natural urge to be in tune with and to take cues from my environment. Weather and climate, natural vegetation, human intervention in the natural landscape, cities, roads, farms and fields are the source of these cues. I’ve never cued in much on wildlife or birds. Nor had I really ever been a "birder." Not, at any rate, until I went to Costa Rica in the spring of 1993 to develop our first bicycle tour there.
What I found on that first trip in March of ’93 were birds and butterflies. The beach came at the end of that ride and hence, the name of our Costa Rica bicycle tours: Butterflies, Bicycle and Beaches (you have to read between the lines for the birds!) This trip turned me into an amateur birdwatcher and since then, on my travels, I always have a bird book with me. In Costa Rica that book is Stiles and Skutch’s Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica.
There are few places I’ve been where you might be awakened at dawn by the chatter of parakeets flying out to feast on fresh coffee beans ripening in a coffee plantation. And there is nothing so exciting for an amateur birder than to see his or her first "keel-billed Toucan" or "Chestnut-mandibled Toucan" (see photo). I was in Baltimore once twenty-five years ago but had to go to Costa Rica to see a Baltimore Oriole (they call it the Northern Oriole).
I can’t recommend this book to you more highly if you are going to Costa Rica for a vacation of any kind, whether you’ll be sitting on the beach or engaging in active adventure travel with ExperiencePlus! or someone else. The first fifty pages are an introduction to geography, climate, habitat and general comments about Costa Rican birds. What follows, though, are four hundred fifty pages of text and fifty pages of color plates by Dana Gardner that will entertain and delight you the whole time. Oh yes, take a good pair of binoculars with you when you go!
Once you’ve become a bird watcher, or even if you don’t, but you become curious about who would write a book as I’ve described above, you might enjoy Alexander Skutch’s collection of essays on "A Naturalist in Costa Rica." Skutch received his doctorate in botany at Johns Hopkins University in 1930 and headed off to study tropical botany in Panama. He eventually found that North American and European museums of natural history or herbariums would pay for Central American plant specimens to add to their collections. Thus began a lifelong career of collecting, observing and describing the natural history of Costa Rica.
Skutch settled into a cabin in south central Costa Rica after the local mayor offered him free rent on a shack he owned. The year was 1935. Writes Skutch, "my companion reined his horse before a low wooden farmhouse with a tiled roof and announced, in the courteous manner of countries where Spanish is spoken: ‘Here is your home, senor.’" Six years later Skutch bought a property nearby, built a house and at the time of this writing, as far as I know, still lives on this "naturalist’s homestead" as he calls this section of his book. Skutch is ninety-seven as I write this.
Skutch’s book is no Walden Pond, nor is Skutch a Thoreau or a Darwin. But he is one of the most important North American naturalists of the 20th century and his essays are a fascinating glimpse into the life and times in the tropics from 1935 until about 1970. More than anything, this book gives you a feel for what it is like to live and work in tropical Costa Rica and an understanding for this fascinating and mysterious natural habitat.