Find the video transcript, full credits, and extra resources for helping you identify and protect migratory birds in your community.
Gabriel Vargas (Costa Rica), Kat Peters (Indiana), Katrina Martich (Texas), and David Norman (Costa Rica) talk about migratory birds in the video premiered on Facebook May 8, World Migratory Bird Day.
Kat: Thank you for joining us, and welcome to a celebration of World Migratory Bird Day: Notice, Connect, Find Joy: Costa Rica-US Migratory Birds. I’m Kat Peters, and for my blog, New Backwater, I have been teaming up with Katrina Martich to bring my subscribers her thoughtful practices on noticing and connecting with nature around you. We send out a PDF file once a month, and our first ones have been on “Air” and “Water.”
As we were talking about the intersection of our work, we fell upon World Migratory Bird Day (called a World Big Day by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) as a great chance to celebrate our relationship with nature, as well as our relationship with people and nature in other parts of the world.
So Katrina and I called up a few friends from Costa Rica, David Norman and Gabriel Vargas, to talk about migratory birds, and to share the joys and pitfalls of learning about birds with other people. We’re all educators, but come from different academic backgrounds. Katrina is an environmental engineer that now works with faith communities to care for creation. David has a background in wildlife management, and has published field guides with his own art about reptiles and amphibians in several Latin American counties. and Gabo studied sociology, and also has provided the original guitar music for this video. I have master’s degrees in Education and Rural Development. But we all have a love of birds, and have found that seeing birds in the wild, and with our friends, has given us a lot of joy.
One topic we didn't have time to share about in the video was the importance of a good field guide. David Norman has two field guides that he published: one to the reptiles and amphibians of Santa Rosa and Palo Verde National Parks, and one to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Paraguayan Chaco.
I’m going to let you eavesdrop a little on our conversations from these past few months. We want you to be able to go out this spring (in North America) and identify 5 migratory bird species that we’ll show you. We think that if you are able to identify migratory birds in your community, you’ll start to notice other things around you, connect with other parts of the world, and find joy in discovering something beautiful.
Noticing birds around us
Gabriel: But just like being here in my house in the middle of the city. Now every morning I wake up and I’m hearing the birds, and I’m noticing them. I’m like, ok, that’s a rufous-collared sparrow. And you know this is the time of the year, or pretty soon here is the time when the thrushes, the yigüirros, the national bird here in Costa Rica, they’re going to start singing during their mating season. And it’s beautiful, and at the same time it’s very annoying because they start at like 4 in the morning.
Yiguirro, national bird of Costa Rica
But at least I know what’s happening, and that gives it a completely different meaning. It’s not just the annoyance of being awakened, or the beauty of hearing the song, but it’s a combination of a lot of things of just knowing what is happening. And that in of itself is just very pretty.
Katrina: I loved something you said, and it was with regards to hearing the birds singing. And you said, “I started noticing.”
Katrina: And that’s just so exciting to hear, when people say they start noticing the place where they live. That’s the start of a whole new level of relationship with a place.
What are migratory birds?
Kat: As stated on the website of World Migratory Bird Day, “migratory birds fly hundreds and thousands of miles to find the best ecological conditions and habitats for feeding, breeding and raising their young. When conditions at breeding sites become unfavorable, it is time to fly to regions where conditions are better.”
I really started being interested in migratory birds when I realized that a rose-breasted grosbeak that I had seen in South Dakota, where I’m from, might have also been the one I saw in Costa Rica when I lived there.
Rose-breasted grosbeak, or picogrueso pechirrosado in Spanish.
Kat: The combo of the rose breast patch, the deep black on the head and back, the heavy finch style beak and the size (between a sparrow and a robin) will I.D. the male. As for the brownish, somewhat streaked female, look for the very conspicuous White stripes on the head combined with the heavy bill. It is larger than nearly all similar sparrows and its bill is thicker/heavier. Although this species goes into gardens and pretty altered hábitats, it seems to like more the forest edges and secondary forests. (at both ends of its range). Interesting tidbits: its song is like a robin’s, only in Roger Tory Peterson’s words “given with more feeling.” The bird’s nice music has unfortunately resulted in it getting trapped in many countries where it goes during the northern Winter to be sold for the cage bird trade, which is still going strong in Central America today.
Whose birds are they?
David: It’s always funny living down here, you know, because I mean you’re up in the States and everybody says, “yeah, our birds that live half their life you know down in Nicaragua.” And then the Nicaraguans would say “Oh yeah our birds, our Nicaraguan birds, that then live six months up in, you know, Indiana or United States. So I guess it’s a national perspective on that.
I really wished we had, you know, the standardized names for our songbirds, thinking about it objectively, they could be much better names.
Gabriel: But some of those can be confusing, because the first time I saw a rose throated beccard, the Costa Rican population doesn’t have any rose on their throats, but apparently the northern ones do have that, and that’s why they’re named like that.
Yellow warbler, or reinita amarilla in Spanish…
Kat:– … is distinct from other species because it is pretty much all yellow, its a tad smaller than a canary or small sparrow, and if you get a good look you see the cinnamon streaks on the breast. Here is a fun fact: for urban Central Americans this the warbler that they see the most. It lives in disturbed hábitats both in its breeding áreas up north and its “Winter” áreas further south; places like backyards and partially deforested áreas, as long as there are some trees. In Central America there are subpopulations of this species that live almost exclusively in the mangroves, and have different plumage As a bird extremely dependent on insects it is being affected by the world collapse in insect populations, due to human population, consumption habits, pesticides, artificial lightening, etc.
Here is the US you can look for yellow warblers in brush and trees near water. To find them, look for a lemon flitting through the branches.
Birds connect us to other parts of the world
Katrina: Because birds do connect us. And we are not just connected by the bird, but we are connected to the land and the people as well. We just don’t know it. You know, the person who is watching the rose-breasted grosbeak, doesn’t necessarily understand that the coffee she’s buying may affect the birds she loves seeing at her feeder.
David: We take our students and we see that there’s quite a big difference – I mean it sort of hits you in the face – the difference between the lack of native trees and the lack of an understory in the coffee that’s right next to my house where I live. At best you could call it partial shade. But it is a very different habitat for wildlife and migratory birds than some of these shade coffee farms in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Baltimore oriole, or the cacique veranero in Costa Rica…
Kat: …lives in disturbed habitats with trees in them in both the north and the south.
The combination of the orange body and black head separates the male from any other bird. For the female the combo of yellow-orange body and distinct White wing bars does the trick.
In Costa Rica young male orioles arrive mid-September to feed on the bananas at feeders in yards, and from October to March the black feathers sprout on the head to the degree that when they leave in mid April their heads are totally black. Also, the males only emit their breeding songs a couple of weeks or so before heading north, and the songs are not complete but it seems that maybe they are beginning to practice for what they will do in the upper Mississippi valley up north. A last note, this is definitely a species that will have much less winter habitat if the owners of coffee farms make the switch to sun-loving caturra coffee, as opposed to the shade tree coffee groves of the past.
Thank you for participating on social media!
We asked people to share some bird stories or questions with us on social media as we were preparing this project. People shared stories of confusion about identifying birds, or difficulty (and injury!) when out looking for birds, and connecting with other people while seeing birds. In fact, nearly 75% of respondents told us that they love birds because someone in their family (like a parent or grandparent), taught them or shared their enthusiasm for birds. We hope our enthusiasm is contagious for you, too! Thank you to everyone who participated by interacting with our questions and posts about birds!
Catherine: “Sitting on my Grandparents’ patio, watching the hummingbirds zip around.”
Patty: “My parents had a bird feeder in the backyard.”
Carrie: “When I was little my mom would help me look for cardinals.”
Malini: “My daughter and I watch the birds from the kitchen window.”
Dorothy: “When I was 10 my parents gave me a bird book for my birthday.”
Blue-wing teal or cerceta aliazul in Spanish.
Kat: To I.D. this migratory waterfowl know that: it is smaller than other ducks, and the male has a white crescent on the head. It shows the sky blue feathers at front part of wings when flying. It flies in tight, compact flocks. Tidbits: of all North American ducks this species goes further south (Peru, Ecuador) during the northern Winter, and is far and away the most common species of migratory duck in the wetlands of the southern half of Central America. Like other North American duck species, the group of people who have done the most to protect its ever shrinking nesting hábitat (prairie potholes and other wetland) have been the duck hunters through the purchase of their duck stamps. (The duck stamp money goes to purchasing or leasing critical wetland hábitats). And lastly, Central American rice consumers should purposely buy wet paddy rice instead of dry land rice because it can provide important hábitat for these teal. Conservation tip: save wetlands, save wetlands, save wetlands.
Can bird watching help human society?
Katrina: And that’s the whole gist behind my Living Connected project, is helping people to understand that their daily actions connect them to others. Nature is not just out there. It’s what you’re using out there right now in your daily life.
And I work primarily with faith communities. And so I really do the “love our neighbor, who is our neighbor?” Including, all the creatures who are our neighbors, not just homo sapiens.
Katrina: You know, it’s a really broad definition of neighbor. Because we’re only as healthy as our neighbor is. We’re seeing that in the pandemic right now.
Gabriel: Even though I’m not personally a very religious person, this is how I would agree with what you were saying about knowing your neighbor, loving thy neighbor. Starting to listen, know, trying to understand what is happening in the lives of other people. And of course, this goes back to the social issue, in my perspective, which is, well, we have just completely accepted the idea that the best lifestyle that we can have is the most comfortable lifestyle that the TV can sell to us. Right? So how do we change that perspective in which we start creating other values, that are not necessarily based on what we can accumulate…?
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, or colibri garganta de rubí in Spanish.
Kat: If you see a hummingbird east of the Great Plains in the U.S., this is it. Can you believe that this little bird migrates south across the Gulf of Mexico, during hurricane season??!! Cool fact: wings flutter in a figure 8 pattern, not flap up and down. It allows them to hover. If you have a hummingbird feeder in your yard, it must be cleaned regularly, as often as daily on hot days and in the south, where sugar water ferments quickly. This bird is a rarity in another way: It’s one of the few whose population has actually increased since the 1960s.
David: And to add a little to that story, here where I live and where Gabo lives we have a rufus-tailed amazelia, which is a very territorial hummingbird. So in our backyard, our rufus tailed hummingbird, amazelia, thinks he’s just the owner of all the flowers. So this poor little ruby throat, just like he had to do what the volcano hummingbirds that occasionally sneak in to get a little from these flowers; he got chased off when the big “owner” of the flowers came. So that’s another part of this story, you’re going into these new territories where there’s a full 12-month-a-year resident, who thinks he’s the “big bad owner” of the flowers. You’ve got to sneak in when he’s not there, when he’s off at the very fringe of his territory, you sneak in and get the nectar until the “big bad owner” comes back.
Gabriel: And that emotional response, you have an emotional response to seeing a bird, even if you don’t identify it. But if you see something that calls your attention, that really makes you interested, there is some intrinsic gratification to it.
I have had many of those experiences. One of the best ones actually happened last year during my last field program before the pandemic. And I was in Cerro de la Muerte, a mountainous area here, which is one of the few places where we can see the quetzals.
You know, you have to get students to get up at 5:30 AM to go birdwatch for 2.5 hours, in the coldest place in the country, without breakfast. So, how do you motivate them, right?
So I tell them that there is a good chance we could see a quetzal. We always hear them, but not all the time do we see them.
And I think it was the second year in a row in which we had that beautiful moment, in which not only did we see them – I mean because sometimes we would see the silhouette flying, the long tail, or they perch for a couple of seconds and then they leave. But we had the privilege of sitting down and watching them for like 10 minutes. They just wouldn’t go. There were like four or five individuals flying back and forth to a tree, making their calls, and of course especially when you see the male and it starts flying and you see the tail, it’s really something amazing, an impressive thing to watch. Seeing these students, seeing the most real smile you can ever see in a person. At that moment they were like little children.
But just to see the joy in other people at that moment to me was like, ok, this was just a completely beautiful, human with nature moment. It was just the reaction looking at some birds doing their thing. They just posed there for 10 minutes and it just was a completely magical moment.
Full credits (video and the above photos):
Katrina Martich, Texas, USA, Environmental Engineer
David Norman, Costa Rica, Ecology and Wildlife Management
Kat Peters, Indiana, USA, Education and Rural Development
Gabriel Vargas, Costa Rica, Sociology
Original guitar music by Gabriel Vargas, Curridabat, Costa Rica, 2021.
Range maps and abundance animations used with permission by Birds of the World: www.birdsoftheworld.com
Yigüirro (clay colored thrush) song from https://biosonidos.uned.ac.cr/
"Coffee farm in Colombia" by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region is marked with CC PDM 1.0.jpg
"File-Traditional shade coffee plantation Chikmagalur 1.jpg" by Anand Osuri is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.jpeg
"File-Coffee shadow trees costa rica.jpg" by The original uploader was DirkvdM at English Wikipedia. is licensed under CC BY 1.0.jpeg
Rose breasted grosbeak video from camera/garden of Patty Peters, Sioux Falls, SD
Photos of quetzals from the Facebook page of the Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica. Photographers are credited in each photo on this video.
“Rufous-collared sparrow.” by Gregory 'Slobirdr' Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Clay-colored thrush 1” by Becky Matsubara is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Clay colored thrush 2” by Martha de Jong-Lantink is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND
"Blue-winged teal in flight Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge" by USFWS Headquarters is licensed under CC BY 2.0
"Juvenile male Red-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)" by warriorwoman531 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
World Migratory Bird Day is an effort by Environment for the Americas. More information can be found here: https://www.migratorybirdday.org/history/
For more information on how to identify birds in your community, you can check out some of these Youtube videos from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
Info on bird friendly coffee: