Embarking on an exotic birding tour – a professional tour that will immerse you in new habitats in far off lands with the chance of ticking lifers by the hundreds – is one of the sweetest pleasures life can bring. As departure day draws closer, excitement about the birds that await builds, bubbles, then overflows at the surface. At some point, though, reality may set in and this excitement mixes with a tinge of anxiety.
While ‘normal’ people may fret over transportation and logistics, money or safety, or fear of forgetting something important, like underwear or toothpaste, I suspect that the prevailing anxiety among ABA members is the unwelcome fact that we’ll be unable to identify the hundreds of new bird species that will parade in front of us the next seven to fourteen days.
Few things get a birder’s goat more than being rendered impotent at bird identification.
We don’t want our guides to name every bird for us. And it’s frustrating to see a spectacular new species whilst out solo, yet only be able to write “Unknown” on our life list. Labels may not be PC in social circles, but they do mean a lot to birders.
So how does one prepare for such a trip? By prepare, I don’t mean how do we pack and what field guide we buy. I mean how does one prepare for the vast biodiversity we are about to encounter when faced with a possible 1,700 or more bird species, as is possible in the birding meccas of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, or even the smaller but no less overwhelming countries of Indonesia, Borneo, or Guyana?
Of course, the easiest thing to do is to let yourself sit back and enjoy your trip leader’s expertise. Let yourself be spoonfed for once. This is not a race to come home as informed as the locals.
Or, you can try to forget the whole “labeling” thing. Forget the checklist! Forget the urge to put a name to a bird!
I can already hear your collective thoughts on THAT idea: “Are you kidding me? That’s like flushing our sightings into the crapper!”
Well, yes, for some of us that’s true. And if you’re in that group, then by all means let’s study the birds. But short of spending 100 pre-trip hours that we don’t have researching the birds and ecoregions of a new country, how does a birder conduct enough research to have a modicum of identification success on the ground?
In this two-part post, I publish several ideas, some from my own bag of tricks and some from several prominent birders, guides, and bloggers with international travel experience (follow the link here and below to find their excellent and time-proven quotes).
Try a few and see what works for you. And when you’re done reading, tell us what works when YOU in the comments.
STUDY THE CHECKLIST(S)
- Most guiding companies will provide you with a bird checklist for the country you are visiting, or even a checklist specific to the route of your chosen tour. Consider it a goldmine if the checklist includes ‘frequency of occurrence’ and ‘seasonality’ for each species: this will allow you to focus your study on species you’re most likely to encounter.
- Focus on family groups–especially new-to-you families unique to each region. Drill down to genus and species if there’s time. I find that getting a verbal handle on bird names and family groups supports whatever I learn from visual study of birds.
- Determine your target species and those that you’d be prefer to identify by yourself.
STUDY THE FIELD GUIDE(S)
- Buy a field guide (maybe two if there’s a regional one available) for your destination.
- Study the plates as much as possible, but focus on the birds found along your tour route. If you don’t have a trip list in advance, use range maps published in the field guide.
- Study family groups, especially new-to-you families. Try the “squint test,” which might help you focus on size and shape while blocking out overwhelming detail. Once you can match size and shape to bird families, then try to absorb field marks to identify to genus or species.
- Trace bird plates. Tracing a bird’s form, followed by sketching and coloring field marks, helps cement a species in your brain. You might save this time-intensive practice for hard to ID specialty species. Take your sketches onto the plane with you.
STUDY TRIP REPORTS
- Trip reports are first-person accounts of someone else’s trip to that destination. These narratives provide vital “filler” details that can’t be picked up elsewhere, such as geographical or habitat information that helps set the expectations for the tour
- Ask your tour company for their official trip reports. Written by naturalist guides, these provide great bird and location information, but remember they are sanctioned/approved by the people selling you the tour. Hopefully, what they give you reflects last season’s trip or are no more than one or two years old.
- Search for independent ‘birding trip reports’ online, those written by people who birded that region before. A simple Google search will return many results. Also check out trip reports published on Surfbirds.com and Fatbirder.com. Don’t forget birding blogs, as many bloggers travel occasionally and write about it.
STUDY IMAGE COLLECTIONS SPECIFIC TO THAT COUNTRY
Browse photo-sharing sites such as Flickr, Picasa, or Photobucket in search of country- or species-specific image collections of birds. For best results, search on both the country name and “birding,” e.g., “Birding in Madagascar.”
WATCH VIDEOS OF BIRDS IN HABITAT
- Video is a fantastic vehicle for learning, whether you watch online or on TV or in the movie theater. Search sites such as YouTube and Vimeo for “Birding in …” videos and watch your target birds come to life.
- Check out online episodes of Nikon’s Birding Adventures TV – a travel TV show dedicated to birding travel — for great bird footage as well as destination specific information (full disclosure: I work behind the scenes for BATV).
- Some of your favorite bird organizations and some tour companies have growing video collections, such as Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s branded YouTube channel. Subscribe to channel updates to stay informed.
LISTEN TO BIRD SONGS
- Buy a CD collection specifically for your destination, or find one online, such as the Macauley Library of Natural Sounds or Xeno-Canto.org.
- Keep in mind that when you’re immersed in a birdy, tropical setting, overlapping birdsongs are both joyful and overwhelming. It will be impossible to absorb them all so focus your auditory efforts on target species.
CROWDSOURCE INFO FROM OTHER BIRDERS
- If you are connected to the growing number of birders connected on Facebook and Twitter, don’t be shy about asking people for advice and resource links about your destination. Consult birders on your local birding listserv, too. But be sure to do some of your own homework first so as not to ruffle any feathers.
TIPS FROM THE PROS
- Alvaro Jaramillo
- Susan Myers
- Mike Powers
- Bill Thompson, III
- James Currie
- Jeff Bouton
- Terry Fuller
- Iain Campbell
- Marcia Belastri
- Sonia Jupp
WHAT WORKS FOR YOU?
Try a few of these and see what fit your style. Keep in mind that we all learn differently; a combination of verbal, visual, and auditory cues are likely to work best if given adequate study time. But if under a time crunch, some of us might head straight for bird plates, others straight to trip reports, others to video or audio, and still others to discussion groups.
Pick what will ‘stick’ best with how you learn, focus intently for the time that you have, and be happy with whatever you accomplish, realizing that you’ll never come away feeling it’s enough.
Finally, let us know in the comments what works for you and what your favorite study resources are.
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