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Around the World in 80+ movies--A Birder's Guide to Everything in Costa Rica

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

Sometimes we fallible humans just don’t want to accept the truth about ourselves. Make that most of the time. And so I’ve spent years in denial. Not about my clumsiness. Not about my wine habits. Not about my slothful admiration for procrastination. Not about tendencies towards antsy impatience. No, even as I paid off a second trip dedicated to exploring avian diversity in Costa Rica, I denied any label involving birding.

This despite a yard full of feeders and nearby binoculars; despite my habit of repeatedly aiming a long-lensed camera at visitors in trees and posting results on the Birding Nevada Facebook page; despite getting excited when I hear the “hoo-hoo” of a great horned owl that occasionally visits a pine out back; despite my name: ROBIN HolaBIRD.

I suppose a moniker like that predestined me towards involvement in the bird world. I take no credit for Holabird since it belongs to my husband Fred’s family and none of them know much about it other than it shows up as a fort in Maryland, a nearby sporting goods store, and on a few key Chicago buildings. I took the surname because my own sounded like “Pee-Hard” and no kid grows up liking that.

But I never minded Robin and always accepted my mother’s story about its genesis. As my parents’ first born, I taught them a lesson about how we all need contingency plans. Without any gender reveal options, they focused on the name Mark and stuck with it till I arrived. What to do? wondered my mother as she stared out her hospital room window and smiled at the red-breasted American robin hopping on the grass.

Voila! I had a name. My addition to the tale is that I’m happy she didn’t see a titmouse. Or booby.

But back to my resistance about embracing birds as a hobby. I love rising to the top of any game but cede all best birder labels to people who hear a chirp and know who sang it. Or those who distinguish one warbler from another. I lack both skills. Plus, I regard warblers (and flycatchers) as a variation of that long-running Dr. Who series where so many performers have played the title character that I confuse one Who with another--who's Who?

Another aspect of my reticence comes from simple poetry since the word bird rhymes with nerd. This image dominates movies like A Birders Guide to Everything or the guys in A Big Year, where characters go out on a limb (or fence or roof) to check another box on obsessively maintained “life lists.” Effectively capturing some of those nerdy qualities with warmth and appreciation, A Birders Guide to Everything provides good insight from the 15-year-old played by Kodi Smit McPhee (nearly a decade before earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Power of the Dog). The movie includes terms like Twitcher or Lifer or Lister along with other distinctions.

“I thought we agreed,” Dad says to his son who just took a big fall. “No birdwatching on the roof.”

“You mean birding,” replies the kid in a variation of what happened to fans of the Star Trek sci-fi series who squashed the term Trekkie and replaced it with Trekker. In the world of avian viewers, Birder connotes more respectability than Birdwatcher or yet another piece of jargon, “Dude.” Like the Jeff Bridges-Big Lebowski character Dude, this laid back type looks at any bird that shows up, putting little effort into the process. Whatever the difference, I now willingly acknowledge my status as someone who not only enjoys—but goes out of my way—to observe birds. That makes me a Holabirder.

I meant to accept the birderly label my first morning during a Costa Rica visit because despite jetlag, I ventured out at dawn to see what flew around the Hotel Bougainvillea’s lovely grounds near San Jose. Bleary eyed in my shorts, maroon t-shirt and sandals, I believed the way-too-early hour gave me creds, especially since I brought along my compact camera. Faster than a hummingbird’s wings, a small group eclipsed me, each person decked out in full camo regalia. Camo hats with that mottled leafy mix of olive green, tan, and shadowy gray. Same for shirts. Ditto pants. Shoes, too. And to top it off—foot long camera lenses permanently coated in camo shades.

If that look defines a real birder, I get sent to a time out corner full of bland lbj’s (little brown jobs) But then…

…I watched a comedic scene in an episode of Death in Paradise when a detective hears his island’s most recent murder victim died at a ranch where visitors flock to see a rare bird. Instead of his usual tropical shirt and sport coat, the detective thinks he blends in by wearing lightweight beige cargo pants, a muted long sleeve shirt, and multi-pocketed vest, binoculars strung around his neck. He looked like…I admit it…he dressed like me on a typical day.

Actually, I shuck the binoculars and vest when going on jogs, swims, and errands around town but otherwise gravitate to the comfortable, practical attire of a hiker—or birder. That same ensemble (especially if the pants unzip into shorts) gets listed in most Costa Rica guidebooks as the best to bring for any visit there. You want flexibility and quick drying fabrics for sudden weather changes that range from insta-rain to 90+ heat or bone chilling moist mountain cold. Overall, the hiker/birder attire proves helpful for all sorts of adventures in a country that promotes eco and activity based tourism like zip lining or walking on suspension bridges hundreds of feet above thickly vegetated “cloud forests.”

One of those Costa Rica suspension bridges provided me with a star sight for any birder, a resplendent quetzal pair, adorned with enough glittery, sparkling colors to give Elton John a rush. Since Aztecs used “quetzal” to mean “precious” or “beautiful,” the bird’s name sounds like repetitive hyperbole—until you see one.

Gasps of delight broke the jungle’s deep quiet when the group I joined saw our first fleeting flash of shimmering green feathers catching the sun’s rays for a dazzling shine as a pair crested the forest canopy. Our excitement made the hanging bridge rock and roll, swinging more than 500 feet above treetops, but none of us looked scared as we positioned binoculars for a better look.

We got guidance from “Birdman” Mario Córdoba and our driver/birder Rodrigo who heard the quetzals’ calls and knew where to look. As a result, we all saw what Online sites like National Geographic, “charismatic planet,” and “owlcation” rate as one world’s most beautiful birds. The word is “world,” not just Costa Rica or Central America.

Photos show a Kelly green back but fail to capture an iridescence that shimmers with hints of turquoise hues in bright sunlight. Still, professional pictures give more than a hint of the bird’s magnificence, showing a bit of punk “feather do” atop a rounded head graced by a small, yellow beak. Images from the front reveal a fire-engine red chest, contrasted by one set of sharp white and extended. dressy green tail-like feathers suited to David Bowie or some other glam entertainer. The look works as camouflage in tropical settings.

I saw the quetzal pair long enough to qualify as “glimps” in bird lingo. I wanted more. As a result, I scheduled a return to Costa Rica the following year, which may not qualify me as a twitcher or lister but certainly puts me in a league of those seeking the quick, vapid thrills gained by seeing something almost anyone can appreciate. I’m a sucker for birds that sport a mix of bright colors with creatively shaped feathers, ready to shove aside Costa Rica’s ubiquitous clay-colored thrush (formerly robin) in favor of rarified glory. Bad Robin! (cause y’ know, the thrush family includes robins).

It takes no effort to see a clay-colored/former robin, chosen as national bird not for looks but because of its melodious song. In contrast, the flashier quetzal requires concerted effort to spot. The birds react badly to captivity and unlike blockbuster movies and Broadway shows, you can’t buy tickets to see them. You need to visit cloud forests where the birds follow their own schedules and often ignore the memo sent by guides hoping to guarantee a sighting for clients.

While our guide Mario makes no promises, he and Rodrigo prefer a Savegre location laden with small, wild avocados that grow all year and attract quetzals on a regular basis. So step one, knowledge means realizing where the birds hang out. Step two involves suffering a bit, like driving down the steep, curving Calle de Muerte (Highway of Death) and finding local lodging the night before waking up in the dark and bunding in warm clothes suited to a cloud forest’s low morning temperatures.

Body temperatures rise with excitement when the birds show up, and two quetzals spiked mine in separate viewings as they landed on branches and sat calmly revealing all the sparkling glory of a rhinestone laden Liberace. My bragging rights as a quetzal viewer add to my stature as a Holabirder.

At the same time, it only seems reasonable to continue allowing room for other pleasures, whether looking out my living room window at chickadees and goldfinches or lifting binoculars in a distant forest. Backyard bunnies or slow-moving sloths; cup of hot Monteverde coffee or flowers glowing neon colors—all join birds and make my world a better place at home, in Costa Rica, or wherever they show up.

FILM FLIGHTS Since I explored the country’s key screen appearances on an earlier visit, this trip led me to different locations that examine birding habits.

The Big Year, 2011 with Steve Martin and Jack Black out to break bird count records across North America. Taking off from a bestselling book and feathered by a high-profile cast, the movie stayed grounded on release despite a budget that allowed for big name cameos and impressive location cinematography in Canada and other North American locations. Time worked some magic, and The Big Year now generates smiles among many birders who demonstrate appreciation for appreciation. The friendly screenplay laughs with rather than at its obsessive characters. Yes, Owen Wilson plays a jerky twitcher, out to retain his championship by topping everyone else’s single year North American birds count--but he stands apart. Unlike him, other competitors prove mutually supportive and friendly, promoting teamwork and showing sincere admiration for the feathered objects of their fascination. Working with a screenplay by Howard Franklin and author Mark Obmascik, director David Frankel lets his performers put a nice spin on people putting themselves in ridiculous situations. This generosity of spirit goes against edgy comedy, so critics dinged The Big Year for taking no risks. Neither Martin nor Black step outside their proven comic styles, and the plot proves predictable and non-threatening with no particular challenges. Put in bird terms, The Big Year resembles Costa Rica’s official national bird. The country could fly high by picking its resident resplendent quetzal but instead honors the clay colored thrush (formerly robin!), nothing out of the ordinary but appealing in its own pleasant manner.

The Bird Men, 2013 with Fred Willard failing to give Tom Cavanagh an ornithological dream job in Canada. Joining Michael Stasko with a screenwriting credit, director Ted Bezaire finds mild humor in the world of birding. The writers set Cavanagh on a path to sabotage the new head of ornithology at Ontario’s Point Pelee National Park, a popular birding location with some 150 species. Cavanagh’s frustrated ornithologist falls into a mold often shown in birding movies, playing a nerd who finds little pleasure outside the avian universe. Like characters in other birding movies, he gets some chuckles from attire, the usual muted hiker pants and vest topped by an unflattering hat, with props including the ubiquitous pair of binoculars. The plot includes a stoner dude who puts his own spin on the pursuit, noting “birds don’t smoke pot, but if they did owls would totally be the dealers.” Accurate? Perhaps. But then the movie also uses a peregrine to play a prairie falcon, figuring most viewers won’t know the difference. This begs the question: how many non-birders want to watch a movie about ornithologists? More accuracy might suit the target audience. Birder or not, the film passes time blandly without much depth or detail.

A Birder’s Guide to Everything, 2013 with Kodi Smit-McPhee hunting an extinct duck in Connecticut. Despite its title, birding fails to explain everything, but it provides insight and suggestions that improve life. These include finding purpose, demonstrating patience, and accepting surprises both welcome and unwelcome. A sweet coming-of-age story, the film features high schoolers who defy expectations by avoiding wild parties and crude behaviors. Instead, they stay alert, look at the world around them, and exhibit remarkable ingenuity. Participating in a bird watching club with four members, the students qualify as social outcasts, but their shared passion gives them a sense of belonging that helps mitigate the usual high school challenges of trying to figure out whether or not to grow up. Director Rob Meyer, co-writing with Luke Matheny, successfully blends the teenage and birder cultures, helped by a strong cast that includes Ben Kingsley of Gandhi fame. Serious birders with more experience than me might spot factual errors without resorting to online research, where I discovered an article from GrrlScientist in London’s Guardian newspaper. She says Kingsley has it wrong when he calls the Labrador duck first north American bird to go extinct. A further check shows the great auk disappeared in 1844, while the Labrador duck vanished around 1878.

Death in Paradise, "

The Early Bird”, Season 3, Episode 6, 2014 with Kris Marshall investigating the dark side of birding in the Caribbean. Whether in Costa Rica or fictional Saint Marie of the long-running Death in Paradise television series, tropical resorts provide the chance to see rare and beautiful birds for casual visitors and twitchers alike. Twitchers might want to add the show’s “Saint Marie Green Parrot” to their life lists, but since the location features nearly 100 murders during its more than a decade run, those who value safety will go someplace else. As for birds, Saint Marie’s parrot tour guide offers an amusing explanation for how so many people mark a rare name off their life lists. Meanwhile, critics who feel inclined to seriously evaluate the series and its many episodes rightfully note a propensity for formulaic “whodunnit” structure and improbable solutions. I join them, but immediately switch to the more favorable response from viewers who refuse to let Death die. The series suits my mood for relaxing before bedtime, offering pretty scenery and people while eschewing cliff hangers or deep thoughts to challenge my brain at night. Its appeal includes an engaging cast, even though members migrate frequently and never come back. Marshall, seen almost every Christmas by fans of Love Actually, uses his boyish features and gangly height to good effect as a bumbling but brilliant detective who leaves after three seasons. Happily, one of my favorite characters stayed around for many seasons. Harry the Lizard, a green anole like the kind found in Costa Rica, spent 10 seasons adding a giggle or two to the lighthearted show. Using brief (CGI) moments effectively, his gags include eyeing a tasty looking bug, bagged for evidence in yet another bizarre murder. “Don’t even think about it,” orders Marshall as Harry gazes longingly. Harry must have other fans besides me because you can buy a figurine of him on Amazon.

Twitchers: A Very British Obsession, 2010 with counters piling up bird numbers during fall migration in Great Britain. To me the word “twitching” sounds like an uncomfortable mix of twerking and spasming, but the movie’s title group embraces the label. Filming this documentary for BBC Four, director Lucy Leveugle follows a group of enthusiasts during fall migration when counts rise as birds drop to trees for rest. The project provides insight into thoughts and techniques as twitchers turn their pastime into a sport involving competition, stamina, and organization. Twitchers race to…lift binoculars. More action arises: they scan! For big energy they jump…into a car. Next comes driving hundreds of miles but not fast enough to generate delays caused by traffic tickets. Unlike soccer and games with balls, twitching offers limited visual thrills outside the occasional sighting of an impressive bird, so the documentary primarily serves as an eye-opener about the diversity of people and the unusual paths they choose to follow.

Travel Photography: Costa Rica, 2015 with Richard Harrington providing tips about taking pictures in the land of Pura Vida. A search through my county’s local online library offerings led me to this video from that provides useful information for both avid photographers and non-camera toting visitors. Even those who work only with a cell phone lens can enjoy the visuals and pretty pictures of landscapes, animals, birds, and flowers. Segments include packing tips plus overviews of popular sites like cloud forests. Harrington works with more elaborate gear than I ever carry, but some basics apply for anyone operating a camera, like reduce motion by pinioning your elbows to your torso. Achieving top-notch bird images requires more than a cell phone and involves technical terms like “wide aperture” (I open up to F 2.8 in dark forests) and “really long lens” (200-600). I also dinked around online and found a program from Richard de Gouveia dealing specifically with the brand I use (Sony RXIV). Working out of South Africa, where bird photography includes similar challenges to those found in Costa Rica, de Gouveia offers practical, helpful advice RX10 Bird Photography by Richard de Gouveia - Bing video.

Otherwise, just enjoy the sights and check the Merlin app for outstanding images and the chance to identify them by looks or sound.

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