Birding With a Guide vs. Going Bare

Mount Desert Island, Maine


When one charters a sailboat, you have a choice; board a craft with a captain, possibly even a cook, and just relax, or you can go “bare”.  Going bare does not imply complete nakedness.  You still have a seaworthy boat, stocked with food and plenty of navigation charts and devices.  You supply the seamanship, experience, and reap the rewards of independence and a heightened sense of adventure.

Eurasian Jay, Garrulus glandarius, from Italy

It seems to me that one makes a similar choice when birding.  I’ve done it both ways, using guides on four continents, as well as bare birding, both domestically and abroad.  I’ve come to appreciate the challenges of guiding as well as the traits of an ideal guide–I’ve never had a poor one.

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama, from India

But first let me point out some of the joys of going bare.  As in boating, you are not really all that exposed, eBird has seen to that.  All-star birder Phoebe Snetsinger’s technique of preparation before birding a new site has been a great lesson for me, and eBird has made that so much easier.  Just review their hotspot sightings for your trip, specific for the month of departure, and study those birds in your guidebook.

Red-breasted Nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, irruption this fall?

“Photo-birding” is a valuable tool when going bare, when there’s no guide at your side with a ready ID.  Generally I’m out to get the perfect shot; sharp, great background, lighting, and pose, but with photo-birding its all about the ID.  Just get something on “film” and make the ID later, over coffee and out of the wind.  Or you can send the picture to an expert for help.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus, in India

Am I strange in finding some exhilaration in finally matching the picture to guidebook, and claiming a new tick on my life list?  I remember going bare in India with colleagues, photo-birding, and sitting around a table for hours, reviewing shots and guidebooks, and arguing about the finer points and field marks–sort of sharing our ignorance.  It was fun and it worked.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris, in India

When overseas on a “non-birding” trip (is this ever the case?), I try to book hotels near parks or hotspots that can be easily visited while my spouse still sleeps.  This seems to work for us.  I’m sure I would have seen many more birds with a guide when we visited Japan, but those dawns alone, among the beautiful temples and gardens of Hakone, near Mount Fuji, or among the deer in Nara Park were unforgettable.  It was hard work to finally match that enchanting call to the elusive Japanese Bush Warbler, Uguisu. See posting “Birding Hakone, Japan”, dated April 17, 2015.

Hakone, Japan

Japanese White-eye, Zosterops japonicus, in Nara Japan

Bare birding in Kensington Gardens and St. James Park, London, walking the path that Kings & Queens have trod, and near the bunker where Churchill resisted evil a generation ago, was also memorable.  A local twitcher showed me the Little Owl in the Gardens, but I admit I did see more birds when excellent guide, Jack Fernside, took me outside the ring road for a day.

St. James Park, London

Little Owl, Athene noctua, in Kensington Gardens, London

A good guide tailors the outing to meet the needs of the client.  In Tuscany, along the west coast of Italy, we hired Marco Valtriani for a day, informing him that among the six of us, I was the only birder.  Now that’s a real dilemma.  He arrange birding by skiff, amidst the beautiful tidal wetlands, followed by exquisite cuisine on a cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.  After lunch we hiked the hills, exploring Etruscan ruins.  It was a home run for us all.

Tuscan birding with Marco, on Tuscan coast of Italy

There are some locations where a guide is almost a necessity, both for safety and his local knowledge.  The Himalayan foothills, Corbett National Park, and Ramnagar Jungle of India were examples of this.  Our guide, Bopanna Patada, was the ultimate guide; the equivalent of yachting with captain and cook, with all the accoutrements.  He met us at the airport, rented a van and hired a driver for the week, booked us into first class accommodations, and hired local guides to assist him at each stop in northern India.  This was in addition to his infectious enthusiasm and knowledge of birds of the subcontinent.

Bopanna & colleagues in northern India

We’re planning a cultural trip to Russia next spring.  I hope to squeeze in some birding, but doubt that it’s a good idea for a lone American to be traipsing around Moscow with binoculars and telephoto lens these days.  I’m currently trying to find a guide for birding St. Petersburg.  If anyone has a suggestion, please send it my way.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus, in India

But the birds don’t always cooperate, even with the best of guides.  Last month I hired the guru of birding at Mount Desert Island and Acadia NP in Maine.  The fall scenery was spectacular as he guided three of us to his favorite hot spots, but it was just not a “birdy” day.  I felt sorry for the guide as he repeatedly apologized on behalf of the hiding birds.  Not to worry–there is never a bad day birding.

Acadia National Park, Maine

In addition to knowing the local birds and hotspots, what are the characteristics of a good bird guide.  Enthusiasm and patience are near the top of the list.  Also, the ability to succinctly point out a new bird, making sure everyone in the group has seen it.  He needs to describe its field marks and behavior, why its an x and not y.  Having a field guide handy to illustrate these points is also a plus.  Lastly the guide needs to judge the mental and physical stamina of the group–when is it time to quit?

Wood Ducks, Aix sponsa, near Bar Harbor, Maine

Just as there are bird-less days, there are also days when the birds come fast and furious, almost too much of a good thing.  The guide is rapidly calling out the birds while we frantically try to keep up, lucky to actually see every other one.  A hard core lister may tick them all, but I’d rather get a good look, before claiming a new life bird.

Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus, in Blackwater NWR

I recently tagged along with a novice birding class visiting Bombay Hook, Delaware, one of the birding meccas on the East coast.  Wayne, the guide is an especially talented birder and teacher.  There was a mixed flock of blackbirds on a wire some distance away.  Wayne ID’ed the back lit Cowbird by its signature pose with raised beak tilting toward the heavens.  This was new info for me.  We saw 50 some birds that day but he was especially pleased when at the end of the session he saw a small flock of Marbled Godwits landing on a distance mudflat.  It was the bird we were all hoping for all day.

American Avocets, Recurvirostra americana, at Bombay Hook, Delaware

So which is better, guided or bare birding?  You decide, while I keep doing some of each.

Chasing Birds and Ancestors on Prince Edward Island

North Cape, PEI


It’s a large smile-shaped sandbar lying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just west of Nova Scotia.  There are no rocks, just the distinct red sand and soil, the result of iron oxides and eons of silting of prehistoric rivers.  This is a gentle land of low rolling hills, tidy farms, expansive and nearly empty beaches, with a few bays and harbors populated with more fishing vessels than pleasure craft.  The people are also gentle and smiling, happy to see us tourists supplementing their income from the land and sea.

Tignish Shore

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is named for George III’s fourth son, the father of Queen Victoria.  The Mi’kmaq First Nation called the island “Epekwitk” which means “cradled on the waves”.  Jacques Cartier was the first European to see it in 1534.  Initial Acadian settlers battled New Englanders from the colonies for control until England gained the upper hand at the treaty ending the Seven Year’s War in 1763.   British settlers were largely Irish and Scots, with loyalists also emigrating from the colonies during the American Revolution.  PEI joined the Canadian Confederation in 1873 as its smallest province.

Suzanne and I spent two weeks in the Canadian Maritimes this September, reliving a similar trip some 40 years earlier.  I planned to do some birding, as we enjoyed all the sights, and also research Suzanne’s roots.  All four of her great grandparents on the maternal side were multigenerational immigrants from Ireland and hailed from the region of Tignish, a small town near the northwestern tip of PEI.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

I’ve never seen so many crows as on this island.  They were American Crows, perhaps with an Acadian accent.  Not a rare bird, for sure, but they did pose for some good portraits.  The other most common woodland bird was the Red-breasted Nuthatch, honking from seemingly every pine.  I suspect they may have been actively preparing for the local winter, or perhaps a short migration to slightly warmer forests.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

St. Simon & St. Jude Church is a majestic brick church, the tallest edifice in Tignish.  The people in the rectory were very helpful in our search, showing us birth, baptismal, wedding, and death records.  Someone had previously cataloged all the tombstones in the adjacent burial ground and were able to direct us to the plot of one set of great grandparents.  “It’s just down the lane, on the left side, three rows past the seventh maple tree.”  Sure enough, there it was, just under a tree and in plain sight of the towering church steeple.

Great grandfather Peter Kinch was a young man on PEI who shunned the usual professions of farming and fishing and instead used his woodworking skills building carriages and coffins. His first wife tragically died during childbirth in 1883, leaving him with two daughters, ages five and two.  Where better to search for a prospective wife and mother for his children than at Our Lady of the Angels Convent School, right in Tignish?  That’s where he met Mary Ellen Murphy, Suzanne’s great grandmother.  They had fifteen additional children including grandmother Marguerite!  This same convent school later became the Heritage Inn & Gardens and was our highly recommended lodging for three nights.

Tignish Heritage Inn and Gardens

It’s ironic to find a “life” bird while combing through cemeteries, but one can bird while doing just about anything.  I was strolling along a hedgerow, just behind our B&B when I briefly glimpsed the chickadee.  It had more brown on the head and upper back than the black-capped.  I could not coax him out for a photo but will declare him a Boreal Chickadee and claim a new life bird.  The sparrow below was more cooperative.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

PEI is bordered by beautiful wide red sand beaches, almost deserted in September.  I spent several dawns birding the shoreline in the slanting morning light.  Common Eiders were the prevalent birds in the surf, with soaring gulls and the more purposeful flights of Northern Gannets and Double-crested Cormorants noted off shore.  Shorebirds included foraging Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones.  In the picturesque freshwater ponds amidst the dunes of Greenwich National Park we were able to get close shots of two feeding Greater Yellowlegs.

Common Eider, Somateria mollissima

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

At East Point, the opposite end of the island to Tignish, there is a lighthouse and birding hotspot.  Unfortunately we were there on a blustery, rainy day.  My hopes at seeing migrating raptors was dashed, but the rip currents offshore were spectacular.  A Northern Harrier gave us a brief airshow while we were waiting for the ferry to Nova Scotia, and thousands of cormorants had a farewell beach party as we departed from PEI.


Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

Cormorant beach party

The small museum in Alberton, PEI, has an excellent genealogy section in the basement.  It also has a wonderfully helpful curator, Arlene Morrison, who guided our search for ancestors.  She directed us to the gravesite of the other maternal great grand-parents, the Casey’s, in the burial ground of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, again a large majestic church situated at a mere rural crossroads today.

Alberton Museum, Alberton, PEI


We were also given directions to the old Kinch homestead.  Initially we couldn’t find the house so I flagged down a passing red pick-up.  As luck would have it, he was the owner of a large potato farm that included the old Kinch land, and very eager to talk and point out the old farmhouse.

1909 photo of the Kinch homestead, PEI

He in fact called his elderly father on cell phone who came and joined into the conversation.  After we checked out the farmhouse the red pick-up pulled up again, this time with a red-headed cousin of Suzanne, probably 3rd or 4th removed.  Then they sent us to the home of an elderly Kinch in-law.  This charming nonagenarian took us into her humble kitchen and shared her memories of favorite family fables.  What a day–no life birds, just real, live relatives.

Suzanne and cousin George

One wonders why people choose to leave such a charming and beautiful island, but then again, we were there in September with a warming sun–barely sweater weather.  It must be bleak in midwinter.  Fishing and farming are professions for the hardy.  One hundred years ago both Suzanne’s grandmother and grandfather left PEI separately as single young adults to seek their futures in Boston.  As PEI transplants in urban America they found each other, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.