Posts Tagged ‘Birds’

A Good Guide Is Hard to Find

August 10, 2009

I am an amateur birder, very amateur. When I came to East Africa from Kentucky, I could not distinguish a robin from a sparrow. The only birds I could identify were cardinals and blue jays, largely because their names suggest their colors and because they are commonly used as mascots for sports teams. Hawk, eagle, and falcon were synonyms, all referring to any big bird of prey. I knew nothing at all.

BustardBut I bought a pair of binoculars and a bird book – Birds of Kenya by Dale Zimmerman – and I started paying attention. Now, more than three years later, I’m not bad, even pretty good. On the days that I keep track, I can usually tally a couple dozen different species, from the small to the large and the bland to the colorful. I know to look to the ground for finches and to the trees for weavers. Naturally, my memory for sounds is weak, but I can identify the calls of the more gregarious birds in the neighborhood, like the common bulbul and the woodland kingfisher; I know a sunbird when I hear one. Most of the birds that I know are pretty common, but I have learned to keep my eyes open for the relative rarities in the area. It is a good day when I find a great blue turaco, black-headed gonolek, black-and-white-casqued hornbill, or saddle-billed stork. Like nearly everyone, I have a fondness for the beautiful paradise flycatcher. Hawks, eagles, and falcons, it turns out, are three distinct types of raptors.

The fun of birding is in the learning process. It is a puzzle to identify an unknown species and a game to keep track of how many you have identified. It does not take long before you learn whether the bird you are looking at is more likely to be found among the shrikes or the fiscals, the weavers or the canaries, the mannikins or the waxbills. But then the puzzling becomes more refined. Is that Mackinnon’s fiscal or the grey-backed fiscal? A black-headed weaver or a Vitelline masked weaver? The black-crowned-waxbill or black-headed waxbill? The more novice you are, the more challenging the puzzle. The more expert you become, the more rewarding the game. My record to date is 48 species in a day, on a day when I did not intend to be looking for birds. It’s nothing compared to a true ornithologist, who, in the right location, might identify a hundred birds in an hour.

Crested Crane

Like many puzzles and games, the enjoyment is personal. Sometimes we have to ask for help, of course, but most often only grudgingly. Uninvited assistance is so resented that it ruins the fun. Children instinctively know this. When playing a game of Clue, no one wants mom or dad to explain what weapon to guess. As adults, we do not want our smarter friend with the bigger vocabulary to tell us the word we’re missing in the crossword. We prefer to figure these things out on our own; it’s more fun that way, and more fulfilling.

HornbillThis is why it is so difficult to find a good birding guide – the very nature of guiding sucks the fun out of birding. There is no puzzle to it if someone else is feeding you the answers, and there is no game in it if you’re only tallying someone else’s achievements. It is nothing but detached boredom to be told, “That is a broad-billed roller.” It is exciting and rewarding, on the hand, to wonder – “What is that big purple one?” – and then after some sleuthing – “Does it have bright blue wings? Is there a blue patch on its throat?” – to exclaim – “Oh, cool, it’s the broad-billed roller.”

This is not to say that birding guides do not have their place or their purpose. They can be very useful in dense forests, where birds are more often heard before they are seen and where, consequently, you have to have a trained ear to find any bird at all. Similarly, they can be helpful trackers when you’re hoping to see that one elusive species that only an insider knows how to find. Secretary BirdIn wetlands and savannahs, open spaces where there are often countless species, guides are less valuable. In such places, common throughout much of East Africa, an enthusiastic amateur can spend hours identifying and observing new species. You might miss that one rarity that you did not know to look for, but you will have found dozens of others all on your own.

In any location, a good guide does not simply “bag” a species and move on to the next one. An amateur can do that, identifying, recording, and leaving. A guide should be a teacher, able to explain something about the ecology of the birds that are found. The best guides do not identify birds at all. They do not point and name but give clues so that the amateur can play the game, solve the puzzle, and find the bird.

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