Evolution of a Birder

Birding offers more than just seeing a new species of bird to add to a list. In fact, most people who have observed a few birds soon discover that they are not just “watching” birds at all. They are listening for songs, looking for field marks, and noting behaviors like flight patterns or how the bird sits on a branch or dives into the water.

Nearly twenty years ago, I began birding and enjoyed finding and naming the local birds, but I knew there were more possibilities. After my first birding tour outside the United States, I realized birding tours were a great way to continue my frequent travels but with a focus that took me off the usual tourist routes. Birding is a low impact way to enjoy natural environments while supporting local conservation efforts. More importantly, birding fills my need for an intense experience with the natural world—and international birding trips deliver in spades.

When the avian activity slows down on a trip, I find myself as interested in what is around me as I am in the birds; the landscape, its plants and animals—even the local fungi. I never tire of the fascinating complexity of the natural world and its inhabitants in all forms. My brief encounters with the local people, their culture, politics, and history often lead me to diverse queries during and after my trips.

A terrific biology teacher in high school, Calvin Foulk, piqued my interest in all living things and helped me begin to organize my thoughts about the natural world. In college, I envied the humanities students who could take a semester abroad. Chemistry majors like me did not have that opportunity. However, a summer work project in Malawi in central Africa with other college students screamed my name and I signed up. That formative summer led to my Peace Corps experience teaching biology in Tanzania, drawing on what I learned in my high school class. During my time in Tanzania, I was always alert for new living creatures to study, so much so that one morning, some of my Tanzanian students ran breathlessly to tell me they had found a snake in Mrs. Berry’s garden on Lake Victoria. Having dealt with rattlesnakes native to my home state of Oregon, I killed the snake and preserved the skin for the biology lab collection. Later, I identified it as one of the poisonous snakes, a Black Mamba as I recall, common but not often seen. (My Peace Corps work lead to the writing of my second book, Leopards at My Door: Peace Corps, Tanzania, 1966- 1967 (Peace Corps Writers 2014).

Previous to my interest in birding, my passion had been scuba diving, exploring ocean rocks and reefs. On my last scuba diving trip to the Solomon Islands in 1998, I lurked, weightless, above the reef and watched the colorful fish carry on with their lives. Between my gurgled exhalations, I enjoyed the clicks, grunts, and groans from various fish and even heard some whale songs. The names of the sea creatures were secondary although I did try to identify the few I could remember after I climbed back onto the dive boat. Usually any details I had garnered while scuba diving were soon forgotten once I was on the boat, which I found frustrating given my inquisitive nature. By this time, I was in my mid-50s and becoming acutely aware of the amount of heavy scuba diving equipment I had to haul around with me as a diver.

Over time, my personal library of reference books for fish, birds, wildflowers, butterflies, and so many other topics grew to support my interest in all living things, but still, I lacked a systematic approach to identification. For example, if I saw an interesting bird, I’d thumb through my bird guide looking for what had just flown away. It was frustrating but occasionally fruitful. After a five-day birding tour with the Portland Audubon Society in the Malheur region of southeastern Oregon in 2000, I finally felt comfortable using a field guide to identify a bird. During that tour, I learned the similarities of birds in various families, and thus, where to begin looking in my field guide for more information about the bird. The natural world began to make orderly sense.

After that week with the skilled Audubon staff, I thought, At least I know something about bird families and field marks. Then I got excited with the possibilities. There was so much to learn! I was far from feeling competent when I began birding in serious, but I understood that there was a method to identification. Watching birds delighted me to no end, whether they were flying, hammering on a tree trunk, eating a tasty seed or worm, or singing with abandon. Yes, birds are in a world worth investigating.

During that first intense birding trip in Oregon, I realized that birding filled that nature niche, and happily, the equipment I needed was minimal: ears to listen for the birdsongs, eyes to catch their movements, and binoculars for closer observations of bird life. After that first birding tour in May 2000, I hung up my wetsuit and focused on birding for my natural high.

As a newbie birder, my first goal was to learn the birds of my own region, anticipating travel far afield later. I thought it would be too embarrassing to be with knowledgeable birders far from home and ask the name of some bird common in Oregon. For almost two years, I went out with Audubon groups in every season, learning my local birds. As I gained confidence to go out alone, I discovered how practical my small sixteen-foot RV was for birding. It had all I needed to travel around Oregon and find birds not common in Portland. My RV also served as a very good blind to observe birds without being seen. Birds did not see my van as a threat, so I could get quite close. How exciting! I thought, I can sit in the front seat with a cup of coffee and watch the birds going about their business unaware I was observing them. Nothing better.

That fall after the Audubon workshop, I loaded my binoculars and telescope into my van that I had named Turtle. Travelling by myself, I meandered for two months across the United States and on to Nova Scotia, Canada and then back to Oregon. It was thrilling to see birds that rarely visited my home state, but were common and easily seen in other places. I concluded that going where they were in abundance was the easiest way to find birds, which vaulted me into several years of international birding trips. Three of those first trips are in this book.

Antarctica had been on my bucket list long before there was such a concept as a “bucket list.” Years earlier I had read that the residents at the remote Argentinian station in Antarctica threw their garbage on a penguin colony, and that cruise ships dumped their sewage into the water. This really bothered me and I was hesitant to join a tour that might further trash Antarctica—but I reconsidered in the spring of 2001 when Portland Audubon advertised a November trip to Antarctica. I signed up right away. I knew that if the Audubon staff made the arrangements, things must have changed regarding the protection of the birds. The combination of birding while knowing the environment was protected was irresistible. While waiting for that first international trip, I stretched my birding experiences with a tour to Southeastern Arizona with Portland Audubon and a tour to South Texas with Mark Smith Nature Tours.

Following my spectacular trip to Antarctica, I kept up my local birding along with a few other trips in the United States, including a birding trip to Florida with a friend. It was fun but we were both new to birding and it was frustrating. I decided organized trips like the Antarctica guided tour worked better for me. Birding friends recommended Field Guides, a well-respected birding tour company, as a possibility for future trips. My tour to Cape May, New Jersey with Field Guides’ Megan Crewe convinced me that this was a company worth using for future trips. Since then, I have done most of my birding trips with them.

Over the next twelve years I did fourteen international birding trips to far away places in addition to other non-birding trips. Three of those extraordinary journeys are found in the pages of this book. Antarctica was a good start into my foray of international birding, followed by quite a number of remote places that called to me: Madagascar, Bhutan, Papua New Guinea, Borneo, and the Amazon Basin, among others. The long plane trips to reach these destinations half way around the world were tiring, so I resolved to see as many of the far, far away places while I still had the energy. My plan was to do the closer and less rugged destinations later. Thus, my earlier decision to begin with a trip to Antarctica fit in nicely!

On my return home from some birding trips, I wrote about things that caught my attention, whether it was a single incident or a recurring theme that I noted during the trip. On every trip there were birds with their peculiarities and exquisite uniqueness, along with unrelated surprises in addition to birding. Realizing how fortunate I was to see these places firsthand, I made a point to write about the most unusual destinations and events to share with others.

I loved writing about my experiences, reliving the details, straining for just the right way to express what I saw, felt, heard, experienced. And I have continued to love the writing as I read and research related topics once I was home, expanding and enriching my own understanding of the places I’ve been.

More Than Birding is partly about the birds and the hunt for them, and a lot about other things. Readers will learn about Antarctica, Madagascar, and Bhutan, along with odd tangential ideas not considered by the hardcore birder who only wants to snag another bird for their life list.

At first, I envisioned narratives from eight countries in a book, but after reveling in the writing of these three, a single book emerged. Other stories will follow.


—Harriet Denison

   July 2018