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Bird Bath and Beyond

Have you ever found yourself confiding in a friend on a Sunday morning in Central Park, only to be interrupted mid-sentence by her screaming "Cinnamon Teals in formation at 10 o' clock!"
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Ever wondered if you are in the company of a birder?

Does your new friend sleep with binoculars by his/her bedside table. Does this person have a telescope at every other window in his/her house? This is not because they are perverts or peepers, they are just passionate birders. They perceive a world, you fail to, they also forget that you perceive a world, they fail to.

Have you ever found yourself confiding in a friend on a Sunday morning in Central Park, only to be interrupted mid-sentence by her screaming "Cinnamon Teals in formation at 10 o' clock!" Perplexed you ask, "what?" because you were just telling her about having your heart broken the previous day, but she is still preoccupied, "there's a few Blue-winged teals in the flock..." Or recall that time you were wandering around the Metropolitan Museum of Art with this charming guy, and he was busy distinguishing the species of vultures on the Egyptian urns instead of comparing you to a work of art? If you answered yes to any of these scenarios, then the person you have unwittingly befriended is a birder.

Birders can bird even in their sleep. Somnambulistic birding. This was the case with George Armistead, from American Birding Association, who once woke up in the middle of the night at his girlfriend's apartment, opened a window, pulled apart the curtains, and screamed "Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher," while he was still asleep. His girlfriend told him, "You're being creepy, come back to bed.

Birders in this season's birder essential raiment: Bluebird earrings, khaki multi-pocket utilitarian vests, sun shielding hats and shirts, insect repellent scarves, and durable hiking boots. Accessories include but are not limited to top of the line cameras, heavy duty tripods, binoculars, and digiscopes.

Birders are sadly a misunderstood bunch. They have heightened senses, their eyes never miss a sighting, their ears never miss a call, well, maybe yours but certainly not a bird's. And as a side bar, to those who are dating birders, I strongly believe it will help to program your number into his/her cell with his/her favorite birdcall. The chances of them answering your calls are likely to increase ten-fold with this change.

The Puff-rumped Charlie. Fee, fi, fo, fum, I spy BIRDS.

Birders say the darnedest things.

For instance, we were talking about our top five favorite films, and George, began shaking his head despondently before he stated, "One of the most disturbing moments in Shawshank Redemption for a birder is when Red lifts up that large piece of obsidian rock that "had no earthly business being in a Maine hayfield" to find the box Andy left for him, because just as Freeman pulls out the box, this Cactus Wren that truly has no earthly business being there, in New England, sounds off. Cactus Wrens need cactuses to thrive... when films just plug in whatever birdcall they think sounds good in any location they please, it feels like water torture. And don't even get me started on South Park. "

Me: Why?

George: Because they constantly play the Hermit Thrush and the Warbling Vireo in the background as a constantly. After a few episodes it begins to feel like an endless loop of nails on a chalkboard and caterwauling cats.

Dorian: So George are you saying that of all the things on South Park the only thing that offends you is the bird calls?

George: Absolutely (chuckling).

Alvaro Jaramillo pointing out the bird species we just saw in the Birds of Colombia guide book to Juan-Pablo (works on Colombia's tourism outreach) and me (the girl who spots leaves and lasers as birds.)

George isn't alone in feeling this anguish.

Alvaro adds, "Unlike with visuals, with sound, you can figure out exactly where in the world you are. Birds have very distinct calls, and it differs from region to region. You can experience a place just through the soundscape as a birder, you know exactly what types of trees, vegetation, flowers, fruits exist in a place when you hear the calls. Hollywood does not get this, they constantly allow for the wrong bird to sound off in the wrong place, and it ruins the integrity of the entire story. It's as if a guy in a gorilla suit walked through a critical moment in the film..."

If you can't beat 'em, bird with 'em. It quickly becomes a bonding exercise. This was a shot of me with local Colombian guides and volunteers from Pro Aves Foundation, atop the Santa Marta Sierra Nevada National Park, on the Eldorado Reserve side of the range, on the morning after forest fires ravaged 50 hectares of this biodiversity hotspot that contains over 15 endemic species of birds.

I made the choice to tumble further down this rabbit hole. For a girl who had only seen birds in her grandmother's backyard birdbath and feeders, this was like walking through the wardrobe and discovering Narnia.

Me: "Is the mix of calls in a geographical area distinct despite the numerous migratory species that fly over the landscape?"

Alvaro: "The mix of calls you hear in a sound byte can help you narrow down the specific geographical location. It can be as local as a certain corner of a state. You have got to know your birds from your bugs and frogs and you've got to know what flocks come together in each place."

Me: Flock me.

I could not help but wonder if any of these guys had considered a career as a movie critic, or a position with a crime investigative unit.

"Maybe the killer stashed the body last summer?" The cops would ponder. "No absolutely not." The birder would intervene. "The fabric has dirt in the pockets that contain traces of a fungus that occurs only in spring, and the presence of Woodcock droppings only further emphasizes the time of year. You see, the very smell of that fungus in the forest denotes the migratory season for Woodcock, and by extension the dawn of spring." Another case solved by the "Birder Boys". "Birder Boys" by Asher Jay, a book and/or TV series about crimes solved by boys who bird. It will be an overlap between The Hardy Boys, boy scouts and a birding club. I plan on writing this as soon as I finish all my outstanding projects to conserve actual birds in the wild.

Rufous-collared Sparrow. Something known, now for something new, something burrowed, and something blue.

Having spent a week in the company of some renowned birders on the Northern Colombia Birding Trail, on a trip organized by Audubon Society and USAID, I have been able to discern some of the unique characteristics that define this subculture of individuals.

They love khaki cargos that can zip off into shorts. They really love their optics, and if you show up at 3 a.m. in a white van and play birdcalls outside their hotel, you can kidnap the whole group of them. Daily exposure and proximal association with the bird-watching tribe meant that I too began showing signs of such eccentric behaviors.

I began bolting up in bed whenever I heard chirps outside my window.

I started seeing birds in my sleep. They were all in focus and nothing but close-ups of bright colored plumes. I was pretty excited in my dream state.

I now have a wish list of birds I want to see.

Last but not least, I just signed up for eBird. If I was not an endorsed nerd before, I sure am now. My username is Empress Brilliante, mostly because the boys bestowed that upon me, as my field birder name, during my visit to the dry forests in Colombia, and it has stuck with me ever since. In fact I have recommended that eBird start a dating site so birds of a feather can get together. Since a moment of inspired dialogue urged me to coin this, I strongly maintain the app should be called Flock Me.

What's a banana between birds in love? A male and female Acorn Woodpecker. If they can flock together so can you.

Golden-naped Tanager at Kilometer 18, Cali, Colombia. One truly is the loneliest number.

I can no longer deem myself an outsider to this community, in fact I am seriously considering starting a Birder's Anonymous chapter in Manhattan, because like so many, I too am hooked to these beings that soar effortlessly across the heavens.

Birders all suffer from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) in the field, and fraternizing with their ilk encourages you to emulate this seemingly distracted mind state. In trying to transcribe an interview with Christopher Calonje, avid birder and organizer of the Colombian Bird Fair in Cali, I realized how often we broke our thread of conversation because of a bird. Mostly because I was finally getting good at spotting these winged wanderers, and I could not stop myself from naming or photographing them, even though I was the one conducting the interview.

Me: "Sorry, I sent us off track again."
CC: "No this happens all the time, birds come first. There are times when I am on the phone, and... look Green Honeycreeper!!"
Me: Oh I wanted to get her..."(and I hand my recorder to Chris, and proceed to photograph the bird).
CC: "Go go go!!!"
A few seconds and a symphony of clacking Canons later...
CC: "Should I stop this recorder?"
Me: "No, you should continue talking about... how you are dealing with bird trafficking?"
CC: (He laughs but cooperates with my request). "There's a lot of educational awareness going on to combat the trafficking of birds, and promoting birding has helped us mobilize local communities..."

I got my picture of the fabulous Green Honeycreeper, even if it happened at the cost of my interview. If this were a birder initiation test, I am certain I passed it in flying colors.

The Colombia Bird Fair, takes place in Cali, and is on its second year now. It gathers an incredible array of individuals from various countries and walks of life with one shared passion: BIRDS. From installing murals across the city depicting endemic bird species, to empowering local guides and offering transport services, Christopher enables the birding culture to take root in Colombia.

Female Flame-rumped Tanager, not quite as orange as the male's rump, but she doesn't need to try, he does. His courtship determines her choice. When did the human dating scene lose this basic plot?

I asked some of the bird enthusiasts I crossed paths with, "why birds?" Here's a list of my favorite responses:

"...because staring at women is considered creepy." - Dorian Anderson, Los Angeles

"It gives you a great reason to get out of the easy chair." Ron Majors, Pennsylvania

"It's the most portable hobby. You can bird anywhere, at any time. At night, on a boat in Antarctica, you can golf and bird, wine taste and bird, boat and bird, because it's richly diverse, beautiful, and not geographically curtailed.
" - Chris Wood, eBird Project Leader, The Cornell lab of Ornithology

"...birding is the gateway drug to nature." - Alvaro Jaramillo, Alvaro's Adventure, San Francisco

"... because it keeps you alert engaged, living in the moment, observing something strange, weird, colorful or beautiful." - George Armistead, ABA, Philadelphia

The brilliant, hard not to fall in love with, male Red-headed Barbet. I gasped the first I saw him.

The beautiful female Red-headed Barbet. The name comes from the male's red head in this dimorphic species. Her palette although, subtle is stunning nevertheless, rather like a Cezane, or Monet, while the male is more like a bold and bright Hundterwasser.

So, why birds?

"There are plenty of them. You hear, see and find them easily. They are accessible. Birding trains your eye to search for life in all sizes." - Roger Rodriguez Ardila, Biologist, Bird Guide at the Eldorado Bird Reserve.

"There are birds in every habitat, and you can understand how they are all connected through evolution, and how we can use such convergence as a force for good. Use it to get people on board for the conservation of greater tracts of wilderness in relation to sustainable economic growth for local communities." - John Myers, Audubon Society, Washington DC

Multicolored Tanager male, branched, for all to bask in his inimitable beauty.

For me it is a lot more personal than all that. When I was a toddler, my mom exposed me to the works of Dutch and French masters, but she had no way of preparing for how I was going to respond to their use of color. She just knew I was moved by a piece of art when she spotted me trying to lick it.

Now nearly three decades later, I was completely unprepared for the fact that on the Northern Colombia Birding Trail I was going to come face to face with birds that would put museum worthy masterpieces to shame. From the Crested Quetzals and Emerald Toucanets to Multicolored Tanagers and Long Tailed Sylphs, I wanted to lick the heck out of every bird I had the privilege to see in the wild. Their color combinations are not only intoxicatingly expressive but more harmoniously resolved than any painting by any well-known artist. Nature's brush is effortlessly innovative and it always results in unrivaled perfection.

In my pre-school days, I licked my fair share of globally celebrated paintings. I was young, free and less judged by people for this sensory peccadillo but licking birds as a grown woman....well, a girl's got to draw the line somewhere. So for now, photos of birds will just have to do.

The exquisite, irreplaceable Crested Quetzal. Good heavens that's a hot bird... look at all that yummy! So...

...Any one have any good remedies for healing a paper cut on one's tongue...Not that I... Just asking...Oh never mind. You wouldn't understand. It's a birder thing.

Emerald Toucanet. I imagine a birder's compliment would go something like this, "your eyes are as green as an Emerald Toucanet's body, your summer dress the yellow of his bill, your lips the red of his are beautiful."