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What Travel Taught Me About Birding—and Vice Versa

By Mel White; Photograph by R. & N. Bowers/Vireo
birding and travel

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When I started writing travel stories for a living, I took things way too seriously. In those days, I treated an assignment less like a journey than an SAT test. I felt it was my duty to see everything: every museum, historic site, scenic overlook, ancient cathedral, and crumbling ruin. I spent the whole trip tense and anxious, checking my list, following a schedule, worried I was missing something. It was work.

Eventually, though, a revelation came to me—an epiphany, you might say, since it involved a heavenly light. It happened in Interlaken, Switzerland, where a rainy June day had given way to a fine, clear afternoon. Finished with my self-imposed task list for the day, I’d granted myself some time just for fun.

The indulgence was a walk to a nature reserve on the shore of Lake Thun, where I saw my first Red-crested Pochard and Eurasian Hobby (a nice reward for a day’s work). At dusk, well after 9:00 P.M., I was heading back to my hotel when I turned a corner and came face to face with the Jungfrau, the mountain that dominates the view to the south. Of course, I’d seen it every day since I’d stepped off the train, not to mention on scores of postcards in every shop along Interlaken’s Höheweg. Tonight, though, was different.

The sun had dropped below the horizon, but its last rays lit the snowy peak of the Jungfrau, turning it pink-gold against a deep-blue sky. This wasn’t just generic, lower-case alpenglow; it was Alpenglow on the Alps, and its simple beauty was more moving than anything I’d yet experienced— more evocative of this place and no other. I’d spent days hiking mountain trails in a part of the world so profligate with scenery that it’s almost numbing, yet here on a sidewalk in a busy tourist town, the unexpected sight stopped me as if I’d been slapped. This, I realized, is what I should be writing about.

Call it luck, or surprise, or serendipity, or revelation—collectively they compose what has become for me the major pleasure of travel. Not the world-renowned museum, but the narrow alley that leads to a night of conversation in a lively local pub. Not the Michelin-starred restaurant, but the roadside café, visited on a whim, with the world’s best pecan pie. Not the famous scenic overlook, but the fleeting moment when the properties of electromagnetic radiation make a glacier seem to be lit from within.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t plan for surprises; you can’t go for a walk expecting to find the unexpected. All you can do is put yourself, as often as possible, in places where luck will find you.

About the same time—was it convergent evolution?—I started thinking about birding the same way. I began to enjoy, and value, and remember the unanticipated more than the expected, more than the sought-for.

When you hike the Pinnacles Trail at Big Bend National Park with the singleminded goal of finding a Colima Warbler, you either see it or you don’t; the only surprise is a bad one. Same for Elegant Trogon at Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains. Succeeding at one of these dedicated quests is fun—I hope to someday head into the pine woods of Michigan in search of the Kirtland’s Warbler. But I no longer fret during trips about how many checkmarks I’m making on lists of most-wanted species, planning each day to maximize them. That’s too much like work.

Remembering that evening in the Swiss Alps leads inevitably to the subject of tinamous. (I’m pretty sure that sentence constitutes what’s called a hapax legomenon, but there’s a connection.)

Leaving out indigenous people and professional bird guides, how many of us see tinamous other than by luck? You hear their weird whistles at night, so you know they’re around. But there comes a moment when the trail turns and there’s this blobby thing in front of you, and it’s a surprise every time. You freeze and watch—sometimes for only a few seconds, sometimes longer—until it waddles off into the vegetation, and you turn to your companion and laugh. Wasn’t that great!

Remembering my first tinamou still provides a thrill, recalling not just the sight but the sounds and smells and even the damp feel of the air in the cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Still new to tropical birding, I was walking alone in a light drizzle very early in the morning, single-mindedly (yes) set on finding a Resplendent Quetzal. Ruddy Treerunner, Prong-billed Barbet—I’m afraid I looked and identified and kept moving, determined to find the quetzal despite the leaf drip spattering my eyeballs whenever I looked up. But when the feathered blob appeared on the trail, it captured my full attention. What wonders these forests hold! And, by the way, what is that thing?

After that first Highland Tinamou, others have materialized in the rainforest gloom here and there, collectively coming to symbolize the beautiful surprise, the birding equivalent of the great seafood café you happen upon when you’ve been exploring Barcelona all day. Sure, you saw the Sagrada Familia, but remember that paella?

I’ve visited Costa Rica’s famed La Selva Biological Station only once (a decade after my first visit to the country). The day was a virtual blizzard of wonderful birds, from Black-striped Woodcreeper and Purple-throated Fruitcrow to Rufous Motmot and a Tiny Hawk sitting on its nest. Yet what I remember best, by far, is the turn in the path that led me to stumble across, almost literally, an absurdly unafraid Slaty-breasted Tinamou, its red legs extravagantly colorful in comparison to those of most of its relatives. I saw my first Snowy Cotinga later that day, but even that gorgeous bird takes second place to the “Tinamou Moment.”

These kinds of birding encounters can happen anywhere, but for me they’re especially associated with tropical forests, where dense vegetation and short sightlines make it easy for a bird to appear and disappear, and where the diversity of the avifauna so greatly expands the range of possibilities. A Highland Guan in the Guatemalan cloud forest crossed the trail quickly but paused atop a fallen limb as if to say, “Okay, I’m giving you three seconds to look, but that’s all.” In Queensland, an Orange-footed Scrubfowl appeared beside the path in the dark woodland, its thick legs and odd crest making it seem positively dinosauresque. I hadn’t had time to study the field guide before this, my first trip to Australia, and this unexpected oddity literally left me dumbfounded.

A drive up Costa Rica’s Irazú volcano doesn’t rank with a relaxed stroll on a quiet trail, yet it produced one of my favorite serendipitous birding surprises; you might call it a tinamouless Tinamou Moment. My nonbirder companion and I had gone up hoping for one of these rare days when both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean can be seen from the top, but, alas, as we ascended, the clouds closed in and the panorama was like the view from within a giant cotton ball. I managed to spot my first Volcano Junco (not a surprise) before my friend understandably insisted we depart for someplace more interesting. We crept along the highway on the way down, fearful of a bus or giant truck appearing out of the fog in the near-zero visibility. There, beside the road like a sentry on guard duty, stood a Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. In two subsequent serious birding trips to Costa Rica I’ve never seen another one, and who knows if I ever will? “Extremely wary and furtive,” the book says—well, maybe not when it thinks it’s invisible.

Black-faced Antthrush is another dullish-looking bird that tends to materialize out of the shadows on tropical trails. My first one, at Palenque, Mexico, was a Tinamou Moment, yet subsequent sightings don’t qualify. I know the song now, for one thing. The antthrush vocalizes during the day, when birders are on trails, so seeing one is often not a surprise. And in my experience, they’re pretty easy to call up. Anyone with a minimum of whistling talent can imitate the bird’s song, and with patience bring one into view. Maybe it’s the birding equivalent of a nice evening in a pub you read about in a guidebook rather than found by accident.

Now that I think about it, there’s a tinamou on my life list that wasn’t a Tinamou Moment. After a morning full of raptors and hummingbirds at the Yanacocha Reserve in Ecuador, our group boarded a bus and set off for the next destination. We’d hardly left the parking lot when a Curve-billed Tinamou showed up on the road right in front of us. Exciting, yes, but the circumstances—bus full of birders, guide calling out the sighting, view through a window, and the bird walking like a chicken across the road and into a cow pasture in bright sunlight. It was random and certainly a surprise, but just too far removed from the quiet rainforest path of my ideal. For another thing, a Tinamou Moment isn’t supposed to involve people climbing onto each other’s shoulders and shouting, “Where, where?”

Last fall, thanks to some carefully squirreled-away frequent-flier miles, my wife and I went to Paris, where we managed not to go to the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, or the Pompidou Center, and barely stuck our noses in Notre Dame and the Musée d’Orsay. But we’ll never forget the wine bar cum recording studio where the wonderfully friendly owner was a fanatic about old American jazz and poured us sample after sample of his favorite reds, a place we wandered into simply because—well, could you walk past a wine bar cum recording studio? We found it strictly by chance, and it’s a travel memory that will surely endure.

We’re dreaming now of a return to the darkly verdant forests of the Neotropics. We’ve looked at the map from Argentina to Guatemala, weighing cost, travel time, safety, novelty, and everything else that goes into a vacation fantasy. But one thing is nonnegotiable: we want a lodge with trails nearby where we can stroll by ourselves, at our own pace, whenever we want, and turn this way or that on a whim. And our only goal will be, somewhere along the path, to stumble upon something that makes us whisper, “What is that thing?”

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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