Thursday, November 18, 2010

Birder Profile: Pat ODonnell

Pat ODonnell
Santa Barbara de Heredia, Costa Rica

How did you get into birding? Did you or do you have a birding mentor and can you tell us about that person? Did you have a “spark bird”?

I got into birding after seeing books about birds in the children’s section of the Niagara Falls Public Library. I was fascinated by and intrigued that such beautiful things as the Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, American Goldfinch, Indigo Bunting, and others occurred in western New York (at least according to their range maps). I didn’t really have a birding mentor when I started out but one of my uncles was very much into the outdoors and my parents were very supportive. I will always be grateful to my father who took the time to bring me on field trips. I didn’t really have a “spark bird” but recall wanting to especially see one of those electric blue Indigo Buntings!

How long have you been birding?

32 years (since I was 7).

How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

I try to get out birding once a week but when guiding, I sometimes end up birding for most of the week. The places I visit the most when birding on my own are coffee plantations near our house in Santa Barbara de Heredia, Costa Rica, and the foothill, primary rainforests at the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station in Braulio Carrilo National Park, Costa Rica. When guiding birders, I most often end up at Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Where is your favorite place to bird in your state/province? In the U.S.? in the world?

My favorite place to bird in Costa Rica is the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station in Braulio Carrillo National Park. The dense vegetation and tall canopy of those wet forests make birding a challenge but the high diversity and complexities of that site always make for an exciting time! My favorite spot in the USA is fall at Cape May, New Jersey because I love the combination of birders and amazing migration just about everywhere one looks. It’s tough to pick a favorite birding site for the world but mine is probably Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador because it’s some of the most exciting Andean birding I have ever had.

Do you have any local birding hotspots that may be yet unknown to other birders that you would be willing to share with us?

Sure, here in Costa Rica, spend an entire day in the rainforest at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park. Careful, quiet birding invariably reveals rare species, plus, I frequently see monkeys and cool herps there too. Another little visited but excellent site is along the road that connects San Ramon to La Tigra. There is a fantastic hummingbird garden and middle elevation forests with amazing mixed flocks that harbor quite a number of rare bird species.

Where in Costa Rica would you say is the most under-birded place that may have great untapped potential?

Manzanillo immediately comes to mind.  Few birders make it to this out of the way village in the southeastern part of the country despite the excellent lowland forest birding right around town and in the nearby Gandoca-Manzanillo Reserve. It is close to being on par with La Selva in my opinion. Hitoy Cerere Reserve also comes to mind- a little visited site with excellent lowland forest that supports healthy populations of species that have disappeared from many other areas of Costa Rica (such as Black-eared Wood-Quail, Violaceous Quail-Dove, Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, and Purple-throated Fruitcrow).

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, all of the above, or something else?

I suppose I am a “watcher” more than anything else. I keep lists but they aren’t as important to me as watching birds for fun and scientific purposes. I don’t really chase things.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I use Swarovski ELs, a Swarovski 65mm scope, a handheld Sony Cybershot for digiscoping, and an Olympus LS-10 with Sennheiser microphone for recording vocalizations.

How do you keep track of your bird observations? And why?

I make a list of bird species and numbers observed in Excel after each outing with occasional notes on behavior. I should be putting stuff in eBird and maybe will but that has taken more time to do than I can afford. I suppose I keep track of bird observations to have a record of species found in a certain area at a certain time of year. Maybe some day the information will be of use to future birders (yes, all the more reason to put such information into eBird- I hope to find time to do that in the future).

What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

Good question! So hard to pick a favorite among favorites. One among many was seeing my first Crested Eagle. Myself and a friend were monitoring a clay lick near Posada Amazonas in Tambopata, Peru when a huge, pale phase Crested Eagle emerged from the jungle on the other side of the river and flew towards us. As it flapped across the Tambopata River, a pair of Red and Green Macaws flew above it, screaming their heads off the whole time. It was a particularly memorable morning because I also espied my first and only (so far) Ocelot.

Which birding publications and websites do you read and recommend?

I read just about any bird publication I can get my hands on but as far as websites go, I especially like 10,000 Birds and Bird Forum. 10,000 Birds is frequently updated with informative and fun to read birding related posts while Bird Forum is good for discussing all sorts of birding-related topics with birders across the globe. I like that international aspect of it.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

Although I dont live in Europe, my favorite field guide is “Birds of Europe” by Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterstrom, and Grant. It’s just so well done with lifelike, beautiful illustrations and abundant, field-garnered identification tips

Which three books from your personal birding library would you recommend?

1. Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty and Mimi H. Wolf- answers all sorts of questions about the ecology and behavior of neotropical birds and is the perfect read for any birder headed to the neotropical region.

2. The Race to Save the Lord God Bird By Phillip Hoose- every birder interested in the North American avifauna and/or conservation should read this one to hear about how we lost such an amazing bird and important aspect of American natural heritage to greed.

3. Wild America: The Record of a 30,000 Mile Journey Around the Continent by a Distinguished Naturalist and His British Colleague by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson- as exciting as the title sounds!

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

Yes, I have a biology degree from State College University at Buffalo, NY and during work on a masters thesis in biology at Illinois State University (which I didn’t finish), taught ornithology labs. I have also worked on a number of field studies and bird surveys in Washington, Colorado, Ecuador and Peru.

If a fellow birder had a question about a bird, do you consider yourself an expert (or at least proficient) on any specific family of birds?

I don’t think any family in particular although I love talking about systematics, ecology, and suboscines!

What future birding plans do you have?

I sure hope I can bird Africa, Australia, and Brazil some day, and become more involved with birding education in Costa Rica.

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

I am the editor of the newletter for the Birding Club of Costa Rica, and am a member of the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica. I also need to update my membership with the ABA.

What is your nemesis bird?

Masked Duck. I can’t believe that I still need this skulking duck!

Anything about your family you’d like to share with us?

I am married to a Costa Rican woman and we have a 2 year old daughter (who I hope becomes a birder although I realize it will have to be her choice).

Any funny birding experiences you could tell us?

On a pelagic trip off the coast of Oregon, I almost vomited on my lifer Laysan Albatross.

If you were a bird, which species would you be and why?

Peregrine Falcon because they fly fast and go wherever they please.

Anything else that you would like to humbly brag about?

I once had a Buff-tailed Coronet briefly land on my head when I was working at Bellavista Lodge in the Tandayapa Valley of western Ecuador.

Total life list?

2,531 for the world and 553 for the ABA area.

Most exotic place you’ve gone birding?

Thailand has an exotic ring to it but gets trumped by the Yungas region of Bolivia. To get to a private reserve called “Apa Apa”, I took a bus, sitting next to an elderly barefoot woman who spat green coca leaf juice on the floor of the vehicle for much of the ride, some of which was on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. We descended through coca plantations and fantastic Andean scenery until finally reaching our destination near Chulumani. It felt like going back in time.

Your mission in life as birder?

See as any species as possible (especially a Wallace’s Standardwing) and get as many people interested in birds as possible

You can continue to follow Pat ODonnell at his website

Birder Profile is a weekly blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you would be interested in sharing a little about yourself and your birding experiences, please send me an email.  Is there a birder you'd like to see featured?  Please nominate that person by sending me an e-mail too.  Enthusiasm for birding is the only prerequisite!


  1. Hi,
    Nice to discover a bit about birdlife of other people! Great post!

  2. Another Great interview..enjoying these!
    Pleasure to meet Pat