“I’m not LIKE that!” insists the Rufous-breasted Spinetail from its hiding place in the tangles of Crooked Tree. (Click the link to select one to hear on Xeno-Cano.) “I’m not LIKE that! I’m not LIKE that!”
A different bird lands directly above me, under the canopy, in the thick stuff, and I’m the only one in the group who can see it.
“I’m looking at a small bird. Short tail. Yellow vent and lower belly. Whitish or grayish-white upper chest and throat. Bill broad at the base, tapered to a point. Oops, it’s gone.”
No one else saw it. Reaching for the Howell and Webb plates, already sweat-stained and bedraggled. Reaching for a name. . .
“I’m not LIKE that! I’m not LIKE that!”
. . .and I let one go. Again.
Setting the stage:
Before my recent Belize trip, I’d wanted to make excuses for what I was doing, or rather not doing. I listened in admiration for months as my friends described their studying for our trip, developed extensive vocalization playlists from Xeno-Canto and other sources, linked vocalizations to images on iPhones, created target species lists, spoke knowledgeably on i.d. and distribution points.
And excuses I had – the usual insanely busy work schedule, then starting a new job I was very excited and very serious about. Pending knee surgery. A Chesapeake Bay Retriever pup at a critical stage who needed lots of attention.
But the truth is, I did it on purpose. I WENT ON A SERIOUS BIRDING TRIP TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY (BELIZE) WITHOUT EVEN CRACKING A FIELD GUIDE UNTIL I GOT ON THE PLANE.
Why? Because I wanted to see what I would learn.
So as not to deceive anyone, understand that on this trip I had a huge advantage in that among our group of friends (almost all from Cape May) were Michael O’Brien and Louise Zemaitis, who lead for VENT, to Belize and elsewhere. Michael told me he’s done something like 15 tours to Belize over the years. And I’ll say unequivocally that if you want a stellar, and fun, tour to Belize, you could not do better than going with Michael and Louise.
But this wasn’t a tour, we were just going birding. It was a vacation – and that was another reason I didn’t study. I lead a fair number of birding tours myself, studying and planning my brains out before and during each, as tour leaders do. I just wanted to be in Belize, see what was there, learn the country, and learn the birds (not just identify them). To be a bit of a child about it, in all the good senses of that word.
Another thing that should be understood is that, though I’d never been to Belize, I have lightly birded Mexico, Costa Rica and Peru. Enough that there would be no unfamiliar bird families in Belize, but plenty of new birds.
[By the way, this blog post isn't meant to be an accounting of the whole trip, but we were pretty diligent in compiling location checklists, and Michael entered them all into eBird (thanks Michael!), so our trip data is there for interested parties to mine. I also have been posting about the trip periodically on The Freiday Bird Blog, if anyone wants to see more pics or hear more stories.]
So What Did I Learn?
Belize lesson #1: Some looks don’t give you enough to identify a bird.
Extreme example: We’re driving down a jungle road in the rain, I’m laying on my back across one of the seats of the van, looking up. We drive under something big and dark, and I blurt, “We just went under a turkey or a guan or something!” Of course even a Belize virgin could tell a Crested Guan from an Ocellated Turkey, but not with that view!
It’s not news that we’re supposed to make sure we’re seeing a bird well enough to identify it. However, it was revealing just how often I wasn’t getting enough on birds to find them in the field guide afterwards, even though I was studying the birds very carefully, and even though in theory, as Michael graciously put my experiment, I was bringing expert-level skills to a merely unfamiliar location.
The encounter described at the start of this post is a case in point. Straight up view, kind of dark, pretty brief. I now think I was looking at a Northern Bentbill, after seeing several later, and if you put me back in that situation I might even call out Northern Bentbill. But there’s a niggling itch here. If I observed it carefully and couldn’t i.d. it the first time, how could I claim a positive i.d. with the same view later, just because I’d seen it before? Another question: how often do you let birds in your local patch go unidentified when the view is poor? Speaking for myself, I almost never do. Am I fooling myself? Answer: sometimes, yes.
Even on lengthy observations, I often had the experience of going back to the field guide and being forced to admit I didn’t have all the field marks I needed. It sure was a cool bird, whatever it was. . .
The upshot: when it comes to slapping names on every bird, listen to the spinetail: “I’m not LIKE that!”
Belize Lesson #2: If you don’t know everything else it could be, you can’t ever be sure what it is.
This tawny brown, longish-necked waterbird was flying towards us at great distance. In Florida, or Texas, or even New Jersey I would have been calling out Fulvous Whistling-duck, distant or not. But were there any other similar tawny brown water-thingies I needed to rule out in Belize? I couldn’t see the tail pattern or wing color, so I called the bird like a real pro: “There’s a brown waterbird flying towards us!”
With every bird I tentatively identified in Belize, I had to ask, “What else could it be?” Luckily I could cheat and ask Michael or Louise, because the field guides are not always so great about making that information easy to find. Every entry in every field guide ought to have a section, “Rule out the following:…”
This is nothing different than what we should do identifying birds at home – but are we careful enough?
Belize lesson #3: Knowing the families in advance really, really helps.
Seen one puffbird, you haven’t seen ‘em all, but you know what they look like. So you can intelligently say, “Hey, there’s a puffbird!” when one lands next to the bar, and worry about which one (here, White-whiskered) later. The upshot is that recognizing the families of birds in Belize was advance knowledge I was grateful to have. I well remember my first trip to East Africa, facing something like 50 families that were new to me, and how daunting (and wonderful) that made the trip.
So, if you’re going to study in advance, try to learn all the families. And do something I did not: put colored index tabs in your field guide to mark each family, so you can open to the right page quickly, something I’ve been in the habit of doing on all out-of-country trips, but not this one.
Belize Lesson #4: It will never be on the first page you open your field guide to.
“I’ve got this one!” I thought. Out by myself, this woodcreeper-looking thing gave me long, stellar views, and even enough time for a picture. So I turn to the Howell and Webb woodcreeper plate. . . and it ain’t there. That was the exact moment I most empathized with beginners. I’d gotten every field mark on the bird, thought I knew where it’d be in the field guide, and none of the ones on the plate had that obvious white mustache. . . of course, it hadn’t technically been creeping on a tree (swinging from a vine instead), the bill was odd for a woodcreeper. . . and the next plate revealed Plain Xenops, a really good match!
Belize Lesson #5: when it comes to sound mnemonics, forget the gobbly gook, and use real words.
Vocalizations were a bit of a disaster for me on this trip, because I had no way to know what bird the sounds were coming from without asking Michael or Tom or one of the other folks who had studied on this trip (still a very good option), or tracking birds down, often impossible in the jungle. But I learned a few, and importantly I learned the most common ones. To rapidly park this information in my brain, I used memorable words, preferably involving food, sex or something else attention grabbing. You want to remember a bird sound? Which is easier to remember, “wack wack wack oh,” or “I’m not LIKE that!” (Thanks go to BJ Pinnock for this great Rufous-breasted Spinetail mnemonic!)
Actually, although real words are best for memory clues, carefully thought out and correctly spelled representations are still important if you are trying describe sounds to someone else.
Belize Lesson #6: What’s the best way to learn a new country’s birds? Just go there!
Beyond experiencing Belize birds as a beginner, I really wanted this trip to be a jump-start on learning the birds of Belize. Without subjecting readers to a bunch of learning theory mumbo jumbo, let it be said that many authorities believe that the best way for students to learn quickly and well is to give them direct experience in a subject right away, putting textbooks and lectures aside until the students have some real world context. As expected, I am finding it much easier to study the Belize field guides and song recordings back at home, now that I have been to the country and experienced the birds. The learning portals are wide open, and I can’t wait for the next trip!