For the past 20 years, I’ve travelled the world. But most of the trips I’ve taken have had a dual purpose: to see other countries and explore their bird life. It’s my passion, and I feel lucky that I can combine it with my travels. You may travel to eat new foods or find the perfect beach — I travel to see the world and its birds.
I became a travelling birder a bit accidentally. Many years ago, needing a cheap winter getaway, I hopped a flight for Miami. I brought a tent so I could camp in the Everglades, and since I knew that was a hot spot for birds, I added binoculars and a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds. Once there, I found myself stunned by the riot of bird life.
I remember slamming on the brakes to stare in wonder at a whole tree full of snowy egrets. It was a birder’s paradise — they even gave early-morning bird walks at the campground, pointing out rarities like purple gallinules, painted buntings (like the one at the top of this post) and beautiful swallow-tailed kites.
I studied my Peterson’s, and once I managed to pick out a reddish egret doing its eccentric little dance in the surf 100 yards away, I was hooked. On the way back to camp, I joined an army of photographers lined up beside a small pond so full of water birds that even I, with my primitive equipment, could get a good shot of a green-backed heron. And here it is — all these years later, I still like it.
Sooner or later, I got some better photo equipment. And from then on every trip involved lugging a lens the size of a small Volkswagen, which provided hours of fun talking to airport security guards. And I took trips specifically to see and shoot the birds of different regions. I spent a week driving Arizona from stem to stern, haunting national parks and botanical gardens to get shots of Gambel’s quails and cactus wrens.
And I took longer, more ambitious trips, like the Costa Rica adventure where I stayed at a beautiful birding lodge called Selva Verde (Spanish for Green Forest). Set in its own patch of woods, it had beautiful cabin blocks where you could sit on the front porch and watch toucans fly by, their dark bodies seemingly towed through the air by those outlandishly big beaks.
Oropendolas visited the dining hall, parrots flew overhead, and tiny green honeycreepers, with their almost-fluorescent plumage, patrolled the flower garden. And exploring one of the nearby country roads, I got my first — and only — shot of a chestnut-mandibled toucan (below).
Next stop was La Fortuna, a town near the Arenal Volcano and another birding mecca, filled with exotic species like trogons, chachalacas, aracaris, bananaquits and guans.
I enjoy birding by myself, but where I see two birds, an expert sees 10. So these days, I hire bird guides whenever I go to a promising destination. Finding them is surprisingly easy: a quick Google search very often turns up a local guide, or a tour company that does birding trips. If that fails, I ask around. Amazingly, I get results almost every time.
Walking into a little tour office in the town of Copan Ruinas, Honduras, I asked if they knew someone. Immediately I had the number of an American expat who knew the local birds by heart. And arriving in the Cuban town of Vinales, I asked the friendly folk at my casa particular (Cuba’s version of a B&B) if they knew anyone. Five minutes later their next-door neighbour was booked for an early-morning ramble that produced shots like this one, of a stripe-headed tanager.
I’ve also had great experiences in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, which despite its reputation as a beach resort, has a wealth of bird life. There I use Ecotours Vallarta for both birding and whale watching, with great success.
And now and then being a travelling birder produces magical moments. There was the early morning in Ecuador when I rode up the mountain in the back of a truck to a forest trail to crouch in a small hide and view of one of birding’s strangest sights: the Andean cock-of-the-rock.
As the dawn began to break, a dozen crazy-looking birds, wearing blood-red hoods with a little crest that made them look like space creatures, appeared in their chosen leks, or display grounds. For the next half-hour, as their numbers grew, they engaged in the most outlandish displays I’ve ever seen, hanging upside down, jumping around and filling the air with their screeching cries. The light was too dim for photography with the camera I had back then, so I came away without a photo — just a memory I’ll never forget.
But a few years later I did come back with more than a memory. For years, I’d been trying to get a look at one of the holy grails of birding: the resplendent quetzal. A male quetzal is easily one of the world’s most beautiful birds, with a bright red breast, emerald green back, and an incredibly long, iridescent tail that flows out behind him when he flies.
I’d been to Monteverde, Costa Rica, one of the prime spots for quetzal-spotting. No luck. I’d been to a lodge in the mountains of Nicaragua, where I missed seeing one by a day. “Flew right across the road here yesterday,” said my host. Then, in the mountain town of Boquete, Panama, I booked a local guide to take me to another spot where he swore there were quetzals.
For a half-hour we walked down the forest trail in the early morning light. And not only weren’t we seeing quetzals, we weren’t seeing many birds at all. I was just beginning to get annoyed when we heard two soft, flutelike calls. “Quetzal!” said the guide.
We ran toward the sound, peeked carefully through the trees — and there it was, a male quetzal, sitting with its back to us on a low branch. It flew, flashing red and green. And we followed, to find it sitting out in the open, preening its brilliant feathers as if posing for a portrait. I fired some shots, and in a few minutes, it was gone. Finally, I had my quetzal, and the photo you see above.
Another special moment, and another special trip.