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A bird in the hand: The experience of Bird Banding in Costa Rica

By: Wendy JamesBird bander from Wales, UK.


Having a permit to band birds is a massive privilege.  Studying a bird in the hand allows detail to be seen not usually visible in the field.

Rough-legged Tyrannulet

The leg detail of a Rough-legged Tyrannulet is not often seen so close!

For the third year, I have recently spent several weeks in Costa Rica working for Costa Rica Bird Observatories. Daily work includes bird banding, counting of diurnal migrants and area searches of species present but not caught. Work takes place at three stations; Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast where banding has been carried out since 1994, Madre Selva in the Highlands and INBioparque in the rural suburbs of the Central Valley. Data collected is used for bird population studies that contribute to national and regional decision making and environmental policy.

Moult is also recorded to add knowledge about moult strategies in the resident species. This is the wing of a Ruddy Treerunner in primary moult.

MARRUB C302778 primary moult 21092015

In three visits I have banded 145 species at these three locations. Each visit produces unexpected species with birds unusual for that particular site. 

Highlights at Madre Selva this year included a Peg-billed Finch, a Barred Forest Falcon and this very young Scaled Antpitta.

scaled antpitta

Not many Dusky Nightjars are banded so it is always interesting to study the plumage in this species that is so often heard but rarely seen in detail.

dusky nightjar

At Tortugero, a Sora was a surprise…


As we walked along the main street at 5am on route to Parque Nacional Tortuguero, our banding site for the morning, something on the path caught our eye. A slight movement, the flicker of an eyelid and we quickly picked it up. By now the penny had dropped – an exhausted Sora! The bird was put into a bird bag to rest and hopefully revive.  Later, with the banding site opened, a check to see if our rail was in a better condition.  We were amazed to find the Sora was full of life. It weighed 65 g and seemed in good shape with wings moving well. A few photos then the rail flew off strongly and ran into the wet forest site.

Migrants were moving through Tortuguero during my visit in early October.  A good variety of Warblers including Worm-eating, Mourning, Kentucky and Prothonatory added colour to our most frequently banded fall species, Swainson’s Thrush. 

At our third site, INBioparque, two uncommon species this year have been a Black-billed Cuckoo and White-eared Ground Sparrow.

ground sparrow

For more information about bird banding internships in Costa Rica see Costa Rica Bird Observatories website