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Making Friends and Breaking Ground

A review by Laura Kammermeier 

One More Warbler: A Life with Birds, by Victor Emanuel with S. Kirk Walsh

University of Texas Press, 2017

273 pages—hardcover 

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14740

The first time Victor Emanuel flew over unbroken tropical forest was in 1969, when he and John Rowlett took a flight from Tenosique to Yaxchilan, Mexico. Nearly ten years later, Emanuel would find himself in southwestern Peru, accompanied by the naturalist Ted Parker. “The view from the plane on the way to Puerto Maldonado was even more thrilling because we flew over an unspoiled forest—no roads, clearings, villages, or fields—for almost an hour.” The first bird they saw on landing was a Horned Screamer, a large cantankerous bird that blotted out the sky. They loaded into a dugout canoe for the three-hour ride from Tambopata to the famed Explorer’s Inn, then a relatively unknown ecolodge in the heart of the Amazon forest. 

“During that first hour of our boat excursion, we saw a few clearings and houses along the river, but soon there was only an unbroken forest of tall trees bordering the riverbanks.” Emanuel and Parker scanned the high branches of ceiba trees in hopes of a Harpy Eagle and watched Scarlet Macaws feeding on erythrina flowers. At Explorer’s Inn, they birded rugged trails to a chorus of White-throated Toucans, Spix’s Guans, and tinamous. They walked through a towering canopy of bamboo where Emanuel picked up the call of a bird that sounded like a Fasciated Antshrike, but not quite: It was later described as a new species, the Bamboo Antshrike.

This vignette, from Chapter 10 of Victor Emanuel’s memoir One More Warbler: A Life With Birds, does more than any other to capture his rich and adventurous life. It captures how passionately he has pursued birds to the ends of the Earth, often in the company of other birding greats, establishing new records and even, as in the case of the antshrike, discovering new species. A pioneer of birding ecotourism, Emanuel scouted untapped hotspots and opened them up to birding travelers. The book also captures how he has devoted his life to mentoring young birders, some of whom, like Ted Parker, would become legends of their own. 

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But most of all, One More Warbler captures the thrill of trekking through vast, untouched, unbroken habitats, scanning the forest for movement and tuning one’s ear to a sound, any sound, that reveals a bird is near.  

Victor Emanuel has lived a life that demands a memoir. He has observed more than 6,000 bird species on all seven continents. He is the founder of one of the largest and most admired birding tour companies in the world, VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours). He has received numerous accolades, including the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association and the Arthur A. Allen Award from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And he founded the nation’s first young birder’s camp, Camp Chiricahua. 

One More Warbler is full of such enviable adventures as the trip aboard a chartered Russian icebreaker to the Ross Sea, on the “other side” of Antarctica, to watch Emperor Penguins. After seeing two colonies, the members of the expedition boarded Zodiacs to travel up an ice canyon where they observed a third, recently discovered nesting site. “As they approached the shore, penguins would burst out of the water like missiles being shot from a submarine, arch over the shore, and land on the ice. They then tobogganed toward the colony, using their feet to push through the snow…. We sat in the small boat, observing these dazzling creatures with sun highlighting their beautiful colors of black, white, and gold.” As if that weren’t enough, the birders were then helicoptered to the top of an iceberg where they enjoyed a cocktail surrounded by snow-capped mountains and enormous icebergs—all in the sublime solitude of the Antarctic. 

One More Warbler is a book of firsts. It describes Emanuel’s first warbler fallout in Galveston Bay, which led to his warbler obsession; it recounts “the phone call that changed my life” in 1970, when a couple offered him $100 to guide them around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. It describes the first VENT tours to Texas, Arizona, and Mexico in 1976, and how, just a year later, VENT expanded to Kenya, Botswana, Peru, and Costa Rica. By 1978, at the urging of the distinguished ornithologist and conservationist Robert Ridgely, Emanuel had discovered the potential of Panama’s Pipeline Road and opened it to birding ecotourism. The book also explains how VENT’s chartering of trains and ships (including the Russian icebreaker and a luxury windjammer) expanded the reach and comfort of birding tours throughout the world. And it contains accounts of Emanuel’s pioneering efforts to establish the Freeport Christmas Bird Count. Among the most exciting stories here are those of the 1959 Galveston Eskimo Curlew (“the bird of my life”), Panama’s first-ever Spotted Rail, and a Baikal Teal on Attu.

One More Warbler is a virtual Who’s Who of the birding world. Emanuel’s mentors included such greats as Roger Tory Peterson and the Texas legend Edgar Kincaid, Jr. He developed lifelong friendships with Peterson, Peter Matthiessen, Ted Parker, and George Plimpton, as well as many of the best birding guides in the business today. He met Eleanor Roosevelt in Houston, and has led tours for Laura and George W. Bush.

Above all else, though, One More Warbler is a book of love. Love for birds, of course, among them the ‘“exquisitely beautiful” Light-mantled Albatross and the whole suite of warblers, which “helped me to understand the nature of obsession.” Love for his companions, who have shared birding experiences with him throughout his life. And love for young birders eagerly absorbing knowledge and carrying on the torch. This book does a fantastic job of demonstrating the fellowship of birding as it honors the people Emanuel has met along the way.

The pages of One More Warbler reveal one overarching sadness, that of habitat loss. Victor Emanuel represents a generation of birders who experienced some of the world’s greatest habitats before they were diminished or destroyed. Writing of his Peru trip with Parker, for example, he recalls that “Ted told me that someday there would be clearings with cattle grazing almost all the way to Explorer’s Inn…. At the time, I found this hard to believe. To be honest, I didn’t want to believe that something like that could ever happen to this rainforest. Unfortunately, he was right.” At the same time, though, close observation and monitoring by Emanuel and his contemporaries has led to the preservation of several prized biodiversity hotspots, a fact that demonstrates the potential power of watching, documenting, and mentoring.

This memoir will be enjoyed by its readers, especially the many who know Victor Emanuel and the other people and places in the book. While it shows how the author’s life experiences have informed his character, it is short on opinion and analysis, and not likely to give a reader much insight into how he thinks. That can make the stories feel a bit once-removed, probably a result of their having been told to Emanuel’s literary collaborator here, S. Kirk Walsh. 

But as its subtitle promises, One More Warbler: A Life With Birds does a great job of recounting the lifetime of experiences of a birding legend, a man who has garnered the respect and admiration of untold numbers of people, and who has lived an enviable life traveling the world from end to end.

Laura Kammermeier is the creator and managing editor of Nature Travel Network, a multi-author website that provides free information on global birding hotspots. She is a communications specialist, a website producer, and an enthusiastic birder who travels to watch birds every chance she gets.

Recommended citation:

Kammermeier, L. 2018. Making Friends and Breaking Ground [a review of One More Warbler: A Life with Birds, by Victor Emanuel with S. Kirk Walsh]. Birding 50 (3): 67-68.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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