My first big trip without parents was at the age of Twenty-two. I flew off to South America to join an inexpensive camping outfit and drive across Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, and Ecuador. I timed my arrival to attend Mardi Gras in Rio de Janero where the dancing was interrupted only by a birding break to the Rio Botanic Garden. In an exhausted state of wonder I reported to the group only to find that my travel companions were far less interested in birds and very interested in beer. Moments that were awe inspiring for me, like when we were stuck in the mud of the Pantanal and the hyacinth macaws flew over, were hardly acknowledged. Admittedly, my bird list was embarrassingly short from that trip, but my tolerance for the constraints of organized tours was even shorter. I vowed never, never, to go on an organized tour again.
Okay, it was a silly vow, but till the last few years I hadn’t taken an organized tour, and frankly couldn’t afford one. Because I was approaching, okay reached fifty, and had a partner who couldn’t get away, I thought organized birding tours would be a good vehicle for seeing new birds and countries in a safe environment with like-minded individuals. It was a mixed bag of experiences from terrific fun with lots of birds and good humor, to one of the worst experiences in group dynamics I’ve ever had to suffer through. That said, the best part of traveling with a top tour company is undoubtedly the pleasure of birding with some of the world’s elite birders, the guides. I highly recommend taking such a trip if only to learn techniques from these under-appreciated masters of their craft.
Organized birding tours are famous, or perhaps notorious for finding the most number of bird species in the shortest possible time. However, if in addition to birds you want to experience the country, its people and culture, and maybe take in a few scenic spots, you will be frustrated by the pace and limitations of a devoted birding tour. There simply is no time to see anything beyond birds and the view out the bus window. Similarly, if you want to watch a family of Fairywrens moving in and out of the scrub simply for the joy of admiring their electric blue patterns, you are very likely to have 8 other people itching to move on to the next new bird. Though tour companies will take care of logistics, I’ve found that most of the places they visit can be traveled independently, more cheaply and with relative ease. A quick look on line at the huge number of trip reports from far flung places is proof.
What I miss most when on a tour, (aside from sleep and privacy), is the satisfaction of finding and identifying birds on my own. To me, the challenge of locating a bird in a new environment, observing it without distraction, and identifying it with little or no help is part of what keeps me birding. It is the game. There is nothing like standing alone on a trail listening to unusual bird sounds, experiencing an environment like I’ve never seen before, and struggling to sort out the birds’ identities. For me, it is this challenge that defines bird watching. Though I enjoy watching the top guides work, I do often regret being spoon-fed birds.
That said, I will often hire local guides, and typically find the experience very pleasant and rewarding. With local guides, you have the added opportunity to learn about the culture and to give something back to the local community. In years past, finding local English speaking guides that really knew the birds was difficult. Today, there are many highly skilled individuals around the planet ready and willing to lead you. I find this a nice tribute to the spread of birders and birding.
A great addition to hiring local guides are Bird Pals, an online group of individual birders who are willing to take visitors out to their patch (http://www.birdingpal.org/). In my experience, they are extraordinarily generous with their time and local knowledge a a huge help to traveling birders. I met and birded with some fantastic birders and wonderful people in several countries through this website. A fine testament to the generosity of the global birding community.
So someone asked me if I’ll go on another international organized tour. Possibly, but only to visit sights difficult to reach like Uganda for mountain gorillas, or the Himalayas for snow leopards, or places where there is no practical alternative. In the meantime, I will travel on my own and with friends, meet local birders, experience the country and see birds I’ve earned through preparation and practice.