Of all the virtual experiences being offered to us these strange days, this was the one that caught my attention: virtual bird watching in Colombia. The creators of The Birders, a 2019 documentary about a birding road trip through northern Colombia have created a checklist of all 102 birds that appear in the hour-long film (free on YouTube) so that you can mark them off as you watch.
The documentary, which stars Diego Calderón-Franco, an expert guide, and Keith Ladzinski, a wildlife filmmaker, is part of an effort by the Colombia Ministry of Tourism to establish the country as a birding destination. It’s a pretty easy sell. Nearly 2,000 species can be spotted there, more than you can see in any other country. Colombia’s birds range from hummingbirds so tiny they look like bumblebees to tall, pink flamingos that manage to be both gawky and elegant. The movie shows off the mountains, rain forest, beaches, and coffee plantations that attract all those birds, too, so the film is a nice escape, even if you don’t want to “bird” it. But if you do, here are some tips.
You don’t have to be a birder
One of the best things about the hobby of bird watching is how easy it is to start. Have you ever seen a bird and said, hey, that’s a pretty bird; I wonder what kind it is? Congratulations, you’re a bird watcher. Welcome to the club. Yes, you may have just taken your first step down a path that will lead you to spend large sums of money on binoculars and to have an obsessive list of all the birds you’ve seen in your life and to start dropping phrases like “sexual dimorphism” into your daily conversation, but then again, maybe you just like looking at birds every once in a while. That’s OK. And bird watching without even going outside? It doesn’t get much easier than that.
Print out the bird list If you’re a serious birder, maybe you don’t need the list. Maybe you want to see if you can tell a slender-billed tyrannulet from a specious tryrannulet without any clues. If so, go for it. But for most of us, having a list helpfully limits the universe of birds to consider: If you see a bird that looks like an owl, and the only owl on the list is the Andean pygmy owl, well, you know you just spotted an Andean pygmy owl.
Birdwatching the movie with the list in hand turns the activity into something like doing a jigsaw puzzle. You know the birds are there, just as you know the pieces of a puzzle are there, and your job is to find them. This is a bit different than birding out in nature, where you never know what you’re going to see. That’s more like a research project where you try to gather all the information you can, then draw conclusions. Each approach exercises different mental muscles. But even if you treat it like a jigsaw puzzle, you don’t have to find all the birds! (It would probably take you quite a while.) Follow your natural curiosity. You can just look up the birds you find the prettiest. Or identify 10 birds and call it a day. This is fun, not work.
Watch the film, then go back and bird it
The birds come at you rapid-fire from the opening scene. I quickly realized that I’d need to be constantly hitting the pause button if I was going to have much of a chance to identify any but the most obvious birds.
And it turns out that the movie is about much more than seeing a bunch of birds. It’s also about music—the filmmakers recorded bird calls and shared them with musicians who created songs around the calls—and indigenous culture and Colombian history. So let yourself watch it all the way through. Obviously you can check off the birds you know as you go—I identified about 30 on my first viewing—but I’d suggest you enjoy the film first, then go back for the birds. The movie is less than an hour long, so it’s not too big of a commitment.
You’ll also see that the closing credits include a list of all the birds. It says they’re listed in order of appearance, but it seemed to me as if they missed a few here and there. Before my second viewing, I took a screen shot of the list in the credits that I kept open on my screen as I rewatched the movie. It was a shortcut that saved me from having to look up every bird I didn’t know.
Get an app to help
The filmmakers recommend the free Merlin app, which, if you’re a birder, you might already have. It’s great for beginning birders because it walks you through identification by letting you click on observable characteristics. You answer the best you can: Is it bigger or smaller than a robin? What are the main colors? Did you see it flying? On a bush? Wading in the water? Then the app serves up photos and descriptions of potential matches. If you want to use the Merlin app with the film, you’ll need to download the free Colombia “Bird Pack,” which includes more than 1,000 species.
Merlin isn’t perfect. It doesn’t include every species in the film. And sometimes I wish it would suggest more birds; there are times, especially if you’re watching the movie, when it’s hard to tell how big a bird is, for example. The app also asks when you saw the bird, which, in the case of the movie, we don’t know. More serious birders can drop $25 on the All Birds Colombia app. I am not that serious. (There are other good birding apps, including ones by Audubon [free] and Sibley [$20], but they focus on the birds of North America.)
Embrace the birdwatcher’s view of the world Now is when I try to convert you. The film reveals some of the reasons lots of us love to make bird watching a regular part of our travels.
Bird watching gets you up early and shows you destinations in a new light (literally), before the rest of the world is up and about.
It takes you to beautiful, often off-the-grid places and invites you to experience them without distraction. (Yes, as the film points out, sometimes there are bugs there. But in the mornings, they’re usually not too bad.)
It awakens your senses. As you see in the movie, guides find birds first by listening—for songs, for chirps, for the rustle of leaves. Go on enough bird walks and your body learns to tread lightly, to breathe slowly. These are good things.
It introduces you to nice, interesting people. I’m sure there are evil birdwatchers out there, but I’ve never met one. Bird watching encourages patience, curiosity, and an appreciation of life’s small joys, all qualities of people worth hanging out with. And birding guides? They’re the epitome. The best ones have encyclopedic knowledge, good people skills, and unquenchable enthusiasm. It always blows me away how excited a guide gets showing visitors a bird the guide has seen probably hundreds of times before. Even less-expert guides are usually interesting to talk to about local culture. On a recent bird walk in Mexico, I saw a bright-blue indigo bunting and an orange oriole and a few great kiskadees, but what I’ll remember more is what I learned from my guide about pig farming. Likewise, in the film, birding opens up ways to connect with the indigenous cultures of Colombia.
Try bird watching in real life
OK, now we’ve got you. You’ve got the app on your phone. You’ve got time on your hands. You’ve got windows. It’s springtime. Take a look outside and see what you see. On your next walk, listen, and when you hear a bird—seems we’re all hearing more of them these days—stop and see if you can find it. And I hear that Amazon sells binoculars.
Which binoculars should you buy?
You can find many opinions about which binoculars are the best. But binoculars are personal. The main things to think about are weight, how much they zoom, how comfortable they are on your eyes, and, of course, price. If you do order some for yourself, make sure you can return them if you don’t like them, and be honest about how you’ll use yours. Do you want to pack them for every trip? They shouldn’t be too heavy or bulky. Do you find it easy to see through them? It seems obvious, but if they’re annoying to look through, try a different pair.
I use a pair of Vortex Diamondbacks with 8x42 magnification that I bought at a Cabela’s near Glacier National Park when I realized I’d forgotten to pack my old pair. I can’t claim to have done vast amounts of research, but I knew I didn’t want to spend more than $250. I tried a few pairs out at the counter and these were the most comfortable and had the clearest, steadiest view when I used them to read a sign on the other side of the parking lot. I’ve since taken them birding in Costa Rica and on safari in Africa, and they’ve served me well. And when I lost one of the lens caps, the customer service people were nice and sent me a new one right away.
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