Why I Bird Alone

Recently I had the special opportunity to bird on Shuar territory in the Cordillera del Condor. The Shuar are one of several communities indigenous to the Amazon basin in Ecuador, and while the community itself is divided on just how much it wants to open up the land to outsiders, it is possible to take a guided trip to several sites in the area for a small fee. Aimee and I made a day long excursion up the Rio Nangaritza to a small cave that during the day harbors Oilbirds, the only nocturnal fructavore bird species in the world. Along the way, I was hoping to acquaint myself better with the birds of the eastern lowlands, as well to see the site specialty, the Orange-Throated Tanager.

I made sure that both the Shuar guide and our guide from Cabanas Yankuam, where we stayed, were well aware of my hopes, but I quickly grew dismayed when I realized that neither of them knew much about birding. While the Shuar guide professed to familiarity with the Orange-Throated Tanager, little of what he said about the bird gelled with the information presented in the field guide. I grew even more despondent when he pointed out a red leaf high in the canopy and asked me if it wasn't the bird for which I was looking.

I don't mean to be too critical of the guides, for they were truly being helpful and trying to find the bird; in fact, the Shuar guide might have successfully found two Orange-Throated Tanagers, although they flew away before I could line them up in my binoculars. Both men were quite knowledgeable about birds as well and knew the calls and local names of many high-profile species; they were also sure about which ones they enjoyed eating, including the Oilbird, whose numbers in the cave we visited had been severely reduced to the single digits thanks to the delicious fatty flesh of the nestlings.

Sometimes birding alone, that is, without a guide, just isn't possible or practical. Birding guides can even be good company, as Leonidas from the Jorupe reserve demonstrated several weeks before this trip. But birding with a guide makes me feel juvenile; it makes me realize just how immature it is to want to see a bird for yourself. To evidence, a guide hears a bird and points it out: if you see it, you must show happiness or awe; if you miss it, you exhibit disappointment or frustration. This puerile interaction occurs in the adult sphere, however, thanks to the considerable sums of money involved on any birding trip. Even more embarrassing, then, is when a birder pouts in front of his guide because he didn’t see the bird; he feels he's not getting his money's worth, either.

Birding alone stimulates the senses and challenges the intellect: your awareness of your environment alerts you to the presence of a bird; your powers of observation collect a wide range of information about the bird in a few seconds; your analytical faculties organize that information and compare it with your previous knowledge about birds. You might consult the field guide on occasion, but birding alone is primarily an autonomous and autodidactic activity. Making sense of the world through your senses, it's thrilling.

August 7, 2008

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