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Last week, I was honored to represent the American Birding Association (ABA) at the 2010 Global Bird Watcher’s Conference (GBWC) in Jamnagar, a major port city in the Indian state of Gujarat. Alongside such organizations as the Bombay Natural History Society, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the British Trust for Ornithology, the ABA was a “Knowledge Partner” for the GBWC.

Knowledge. Partner.

Those two words get at the essence of what the GBWC was all about, namely, to bring together birders and field ornithologists for the purpose of examining who we are, how we got to where we are, what we’re all about right now, and where we’re headed.

(And let’s be honest. Our marvelous hosts in Gujarat had an additional motivation for the GBWC, namely, to showcase the fantastic birding in and around India’s Gulf of Kutch. More on that in a bit.)

GBWC 01 Gujarat was the ideal venue for the GBWC. Yes, the birding was wonderful, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Rather, Gujarat was ideal in a socio-cultural sense. The people of the state of Gujarat are fantastically diverse. The myriad languages, religions, and ethnicities of Gujarat stretch back through the millennia. Think of somewhere like Brooklyn or Los Angeles—and then add to the mix several thousand years of cultural diversification. That’s Gujarat. That’s Jamnagar.

And so it was with the 500 some delegates, reporters, and dignitaries who convened last week in Jamnagar. I met new friends from Palestine and Georgia, from Britain (of course) and Bahrain (who knew?), from Ukraine to the Philippines and beyond. So many different languages and customs! Differing perspectives were well represented at the GBWC, needless to say, and divergent points of view were clearly on display.

Yet all those differences, I have to say, were utterly insignificant. That’s because all of us at Jamnagar were united by a bond far stronger than our linguistic, political, sartorial, and gustatory divisions. All of us shared a common fascination with and concern for the birds of the world.

Early one evening, while birding the endless marshes of Khijadia Bird Sanctuary, I found myself in the company of a man from Poland and a woman from South Africa. Within moments, we had struck up a conversation about taxonomy of the heron genus Egretta. It was as if the three of us had been lifelong birding pals. And y’know what?—We might as well have been. That’s how it is with birders.

GBWC 02 On another occasion, I was birding the surreal coral beds of Jamnagar Marine National Park. My companion was an excellent teen birder from Bangalore. He and I marveled together at a flock of bizarre and wondrous Crab Plovers. We discussed methods for identifying shorebirds. We hatched a plan to get together in North America, and y’know what?—It may well come to pass. Friendships among birders are forged fast, and they last long.

Perhaps my favorite personal anecdote from my visit to India came at a roadside rest stop near the little town of Vankiya. The GBWC was over, and I was travelling by bus back to the airport at Ahmedabad. The GBWC was over, as I said, but there was still some birding to be done. I got out of the bus and surveyed my surroundings. The place was grim, like something out of a Gujarati version of Deliverance. Use your imagination. No matter, the bus driver had given us five minutes, and I was determined to make good use of the time. A man approached from behind. “You’re a birder?” he asked. “Do you need Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark?” In an instant, the mysterious stranger had gotten me on the bird, a lifer. We got back on the bus and talked shop: his work with the Bombay Natural History Society, mine with the ABA, and so forth. At our next rest stop, the guy got me Lesser Whistling-Duck, another lifer. I never caught the man’s name, but y’know what?—We were like brothers. I’ll probably remember him for the rest of my life: the dude from Mumbai who lent a helping hand to a birding brother from America.

Birding is “just” a hobby, I realize. It’s mere sport, some would say, or avocation. Yes, but it’s also a lifestyle, a way of life. Birding brings out the best in us. Imagine if there were far more birders in the Koreas than is currently the case. Imagine if birding were to catch on in a huge way in, say, Israel and Palestine. And how about this?—Imagine if everyone in Washington and Tehran were birders. No harm could come of that. In all likelihood, it would do a world of good.

Which brings me around to one of the major themes that came out of the 2010 Global Bird Watchers’ Conference. Birders everywhere have to do a better job—a much better job—of spreading the gospel of birding.

08-6-09-F05 [Birders] In this regard, we at the ABA are well poised to assume an urgently needed leadership role in the campaign to market birding to the masses. Indeed, our mission—“to inspire all persons to enjoy and protect wild birds”—demands that we embark on such a course. Accordingly, the board and staff at the ABA are seriously examining those very questions put forth by the organizers of the GBWC: Who are we, what are we all about, and where are we headed? And that means we’re in the process of an honest re-examination of certain core assumptions about the ABA: about listing; about conservation; about the perception that we are sometimes elitist; and, on a positive and proactive note, about what it means to be a birder in the 21st century.

This isn’t some academic exercise. The stakes are high. The birding community is evolving, rapidly so, and we at the ABA know it. We’re committed to making a difference—by adapting to the changing landscape of modern birding while preserving our essential commitment to spreading the gospel of birding.

 

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