When we were in Monteverde we did a birdwatching tour with a real, professional, bird guide. B., his name can not be mentioned here because of the privacy laws, has almost thirty years of birdwatching experience, is well known and more than lived up to his reputation! For starters, he kept us busy watching one bird after another for an hour and a half on the very non-prosaic location of a certain parking lot beside a busy road opposite a bakery. You can imagine how that continued inside a nature reserve. In any case, earlier I reported on the lazy birdwatcher. In Monteverde, I had the chance to do some bird-watcher watching so that I can report the characteristics of the expert birdwatcher.
In order of appearance, to begin with, the expert birdwatcher is an early riser. Our tour began at 6.00 in the morning, which was around sunrise. It was just not dark anymore, so one can actually see the birds.
The expert birdwatcher is also not a lazy one. Cristina and I were the first to arrive and as soon as we did B. started pointing out birds to us. No waiting for the others of our group to arrive. No, look there is something moving in the tree! Let’s go and see! Also, B. did not hesitate to burst into a sprint to go after something that moved.
Binos and telescope
The expert birdwatcher comes equipped with a decent pair of binos and a small but high quality telescope with a huge ‘pupil’ so that it is really easy to look through. In terms of magnification, I am guessing B.’s telescope magnified about 20 times or a bit more. So apparently that is good enough, at least for birdwatching in the jungle.
The telescope was attached to a ‘fast’ tripod, meaning one that allows to quickly spread out its three legs (without so-called spreader) and is easy to pick up. Virtually every guide that we saw that day and the next, had the same combination of a Swarovsky telescope (some newer or older version of the same model) and this typical model tripod.
The expert birdwatcher also knows how to handle the telescope. B. did not really need it to find or identify a bird. He needed it to show a bird to us, the amateur birdwatchers. It was amazing how fast he managed to point the telescope at a bird so that everybody in the group (of six in our case) could see the bird. If you find it difficult to point a pair of binoculars to a point in a tree, then you know what I am talking about. I think it took B. about two to three seconds to set up and point his telescope. The guide that we had the day after took about double of that at his best – which is still pretty fast.
Incredibly good eyes
Next, the expert birdwatcher has incredibly good eyes. Often we were surprised when B. would be explaining something, stop in the middle of a sentence and then point at a tiny blob in the distance and say, ‘look a female Yellow-faced Grassquit’, or so. Even with our telescope at the maximum of 60 times magnification, it was difficult to see.
Incredibly good ears
Following up on the previous, the expert birdwatcher has equally good ears. There are two major leads to finding a bird: it moves, and secondly it makes sounds. Third – after a lot of nothing between second and third place – is that it sits still but against a contrasting background. Here it was the same. B. would stop in the middle of what he was doing and turn his piercing eyes elsewhere to see where the sound came from. If he could not find it – yes, it did happen occasionally, nobody is perfect – he would show us the bird in the Merlin birdwatching app and we could collectively look for it.
This leads to the next characteristic of the expert birdwatcher: he does know how to work in a team. Like I said, we would sometimes collectively look for a bird, or people would just be looking around and spot one. B. was more than happy to follow up on it, identify the bird and point his telescope for everybody else.
Another part of the teamwork is that he and the guides of other groups wondering around the parking lot and nature reserve, would exchange tips about what they had seen or heard. Just like the guides in the Okavango delta in Botswana did.
Imitating bird calls
Sounds are not only a give-away of the birds, they can also be used to lure them. B. could imitate quite a few of them. And for those that he could not, he used the Merlin app and a Bluetooth speaker. Funnily enough, sometimes we would hear a bird answering the recorded call, but B. would notice that it was the sound coming from another guide who was looking for the same bird.
Last in this list, but probably first in order of importance, the expert birdwatcher indeed has expert knowledge of birds. Tellingly, B. did not bring a field guide. He just knows the birds. All 400 or so that occur in Monteverde, and probably many others that occur in Costa Rica. He knows what they look and sound like, how to tell them apart if they are similar, what they eat, how they migrate, and so on and so on. Whereas we – the amateurs – would see some shadow speeding through the canopy, he would notice some little detail, mentally search his personal knowledge base in a split second and call out, ‘Yellow-throated Euphonia’.
I looked up this example. There are six Euphonias (Euphoniae?) in Costa Rica that have dark blue wings and head, with a yellow belly and a yellow cap on their head or forehead. Four of them occur in Monteverde according to ‘The birds of Costa Rica’ field guide and in the book I can spot the differences, in real life I will have a hard time.
If you ever come to Monteverde, I do recommend a tour with B. Perhaps you find the tour expensive, but it is absolutely worth the money. Let us know, and we’ll tell you his name and phone number.
I wish I were an expert birdwatcher. Sometimes.
I sometimes wish I were an expert birdwatcher, but this one year in Costa Rica is not going to be enough. Also, back in Sweden, I know I will have other priorities. That is okay. Right now, I am simply enjoying. It is a lot of fun and very rewarding to be spotting birds and looking them up and gradually learn to recognize them and learn a little bit about them. The state of our copy of the field guide is already telling us that we are definitely on the way, what with the curled page corners, the broken back, the notes inside and the pages getting floppy from all the browsing.
Check out this photo album for bird pictures from the tours that we had with B. and another guide the day after