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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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. http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk
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. http://www.Birdinginitaly.com
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. http://www.indiabirding.com
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
So which is better, guided or bare birding? You decide, while I keep doing some of each.