iPod mating calls, $2,000 binoculars, and the search for the elusive pygmy owl.
COLIMA, MEXICO (FSB Magazine) -- Like Force Recon Marines scouting an enemy field, 11 over-the-hill birders and two tour guides jump from a pair of vans, toting binoculars and $2,000 Swarovski scopes. They rush to the top of a freeway overpass, line up, and gaze into the optically magnified distance.
The target: a roadside marsh shimmering in the desert sun. The birders squint into their scopes, backsides poised inches from speeding cars and honking 18-wheelers. "I see it!" yells one of the birders.
Fifteen minutes later, after everyone but me has confirmed the bird's identity, we pile back into the vans and move on. As we zip down Mexico's Federal Highway 110, I am the only confused birder, flipping through Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. Did we just see a black-bellied whistling duck or a Mexican duck?
The ducks are two of about 350 species we're searching for in Colima, a mountainous Mexican state on the Pacific Coast south of Guadalajara. We've flown down for a two-week tour run by Wings, a Tucson company that organizes birding trips all over the world.
Wings was founded in 1973 by Davis Finch - yes, he was born with that name - and Will Russell, graduate students who wanted to make their livelihood pursuing their favorite hobby, bird watching. Starting with tours in Maine and eastern Canada, Wings expanded slowly, adding new routes only as Finch and Russell recruited guides well versed in the culture, topography, and bird species of a particular region.
Birding all over the world
Today Wings offers 120 trips, adding eight or nine locations each year. (In July the company offers its first excursion to Iceland, where birders will ferry across North Atlantic waters searching for puffins and blue whales.) Prices range from $1,500 to $9,000 and include everything except airfare. For 12 days in Mexico, I paid about $3,200.
Rusell, 65, won't divulge Wings' revenues, but he says the company grows 5% to 10% annually. (Almost all of Wings' trips sell out.) According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 18 million birders take trips each year, up from 17 million in 1996, spending about $32 billion on airfare, equipment, and bird club membership dues.
During the World Series of Birding, an event held each May in New Jersey, teams record as many species as they can in 24 hours, competing for cash prizes. Recent press about the ivory-billed woodpecker - last fall experts reported sightings of the giant bird, supposedly extinct since the 1940s, in the swamps of Arkansas - has also buoyed the sport's popularity.
My plane touches down in Manzanillo, the starting point of our tour. I have never birded, and as I gaze across the airstrip at the Pacific Ocean, I decide to treat the trip as more of a vacation - sun first, birds second.
After all, how intense can bird watching be? Nigel Driver and Chuck Hocevar, fellow Wings participants, answer indirectly while we're waiting to be picked up. They speak about past trips as if they were combat campaigns. "Panama was brutal," says Hocevar, 65, a commercial real estate entrepreneur in Hilton Head, S.C., who has birded for nearly 40 years.
"You do Fiji?" If exotic rain forests and the Alaskan tundra are their battlefields, then $2,000 scopes and $800 Leica binoculars are birders' weapons. "Wasn't sure I'd get this baby through security," Hocevar says, patting the steel box that encases his scope. Driver, 47, gives a low whistle, and I start to feel insecure about my $80 Bushnell binoculars.
During the 20-minute drive from the airport - and throughout the rest of the trip - I am mesmerized by Colimas scenery, a clash between mountainous desert and extreme poverty. Meandering dogs and donkeys outnumber cars, and the wooden shacks lining the freeway are decorated with hand-painted Corona signs.
Driver and Hocevar, however, see only the birds. The trip hasn't officially started, but they're already scanning the marshes, joyously calling out species: "White ibis!" "A happy wren?" "Ooh, swifts!" As we pull up to the hotel, I've already learned two lessons. Wings trips aren't for beginners, and although my compatriots view birding as a hobby, it's far from relaxing.
I am the only novice on the trip and, at 29, the youngest by more than a decade. Our head guide is Steve Howell, 43, the author of six books, among them A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America.
Howell leads seven Wings tours a year, including trips to Chile, Ecuador, and New Zealand. Colima is a gold mine of seldom-seen species. Extending inland about 70 miles, the state is home to one-third of the country's 1,050 bird species, including 40 of the 100-odd birds that live only in Mexico.
Learning the ropes
Each day we rise before dawn to spot birds when they're most active - before the day's heat settles in - and "bird" (in these circles it's a verb) for five or six hours, until lunch.
Our first day out we kick things off in a tropical deciduous forest, admiring a gray hawk that turns its back the moment I focus my binoculars. The pace is slow until someone spots a Modelo beer can wedged between two branches. (The contents of the can attract insects, which attract birds.)
Within 30 minutes we've logged more than 15 species - a few flycatchers, wrens, and one Western tanager. The birders call out names so fast I can't keep up, and I don't know if I should be taking notes, flipping through my guidebook, or asking to look through Hocevar's scope.
Throughout the trip the veteran birders are helpful and patient with me. Howell teaches me to identify birds using a guidebook, and when he turns away, two others whisper hints: "Consider the markings, his coloring. Does he really look like the size of a coot? Try page 139."
Still, by lunchtime I've experienced the greatest frustration among birders: hearing species but not seeing them. During the morning about 12 parrots flew overhead, but we saw only green blurs (Howell identified them by their calls).
Mountain pygmy owls taunted us with their low monotone toots. According to the sport's unwritten rules, you can add a bird to your species list only if you've clearly seen it. Serious birders keep checklists of new species they see; new birds are "ticks." Hocevar has logged nearly 4,000 species. Driver, 5,000. Me, 15.
The next day Howell hears a rosy-thrush tanager, a bird with an electric-pink breast, seen only south of the U.S. An assistant whips out an iPod and a pair of ten-inch speakers encased in Ziploc bags. We grip our binoculars, silent and barely breathing. From the iPod comes a canned rendition of a tanager's call, downloaded from a bird-call website. We hear the real tanager fly closer, but we still can't see it.
Howell takes a turn, holding up a cassette player that blasts a song recorded a week earlier in the same spot. This time the tanager sallies close enough for us to glimpse its silhouette, but it appears to be going crazy, flapping its wings and calling furiously.
My colleagues snap digital pictures and zoom in with their spotting scopes, but something just doesn't seem right. "Don't you feel bad, badgering that bird?" I ask Howell. The tanager is defending his territory, thinking the call is coming from an intruder.
"I feel worse for the thousands of birds killed each year by domesticated house cats!" snaps Howell. Then, more quietly: "It's a sensitive subject." Later Binnie Chase, one of the trip participants, pulls me aside. "Sometimes on these trips the guides feel intense pressure to 'present' native birds," she says.
After four days of birding on the coast, we drive inland to Ciudad Guzmán, a tourist-free town about 20 miles east of Volcán de Nieve and Volcán de Fuego, twin volcanoes that peak at 14,000 feet. We spend the next three days driving and hiking up the volcanoes, alternating between the two. Fuego is smoking, and the air reeks of burning ash.
On the seventh day we reach a 10,000-foot plateau on Nieve (which is dormant), trespassing on a rancher's property to scan the oak trees beyond his fence. A pygmy owl calls, the fist-sized bird we've heard each day but still haven't seen.
Suddenly Chase, Driver, and Howell are jumping up and down, beckoning for me to look through one of the scopes. About 500 feet ahead, a brown blob the size of a tennis ball sits on a branch. In the scope he's staring right at me, perfectly stern with bright-yellow eyes and a sharp tan beak.
He turns his head, and I see the two black markings on the back of his neck, false eyespots that help him evade predators. It's the best bird I've seen so far - the most distinctive of all my ticks - and I have a hard time leaving the scope to return to the van.
When the trip is over, I go back to New York City with 264 ticks and a new appreciation for just how addictive birding can be. My first Saturday back I wake early and head to Central Park, where I see rainbows of birds - pink, yellow, and waxy blue-black birds, and something that looks like a gray woodpecker with a crewcut.
My hand hurts from jotting so many notes. Ecstatic, I go home to e-mail my birding friends. But after comparing my notes to my Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, I find only one I can identify: Columba livia, the common pigeon.
To learn more, visit americanbirding.org.