Finding the Right Guide is No Accident: Interview with a Panamanian Bird Guide
I came down the stairs at the Canopy Bed and Breakfast where Steve and I were staying in Gamboa, Panama and found Steve and a stranger looking through binoculars at a bird in one of the trees on the property. “You must be Beny!” I exclaimed as I reached out my hand to shake his. He flashed me a big broad smile and at that moment I knew we were in for a fun adventure for the next three days.
I learned of Beny through the managers of the Canopy Bed and Breakfast, who gave me his contact information a couple of months before we arrived in Panama. Steve and I love to hire local bird guides when we travel and while good field guide books and even bird-finding guide books are a must we knew we would miss so much if we didn’t hire a guide–in particular, a local who knew where to spot the birds. Besides, I always love sitting down and having lunch with local guides and learning more about the culture and their lives. And to be honest, they always know the best places to stop for lunch.
Whether it was Beny’s big smile, hearty laugh or his David Attenborough impersonation as we watched for birds atop the observation tower on Pipeline Road, I will forever remember the wonderful time we had with Beny and know in my heart that he will be a lifelong friend. (He even brought me a Coke Lite one morning after he learned I was addicted to the stuff.) But I can’t keep Beny all to myself, so I decided to interview him so you all can learn more about this fascinating bird guide from Panama.
Accidental Birder (AB): When did you first become interested in birds?
Beny Wilson (BW): When I was young my father would point out birds during Sunday train rides and I still remember seeing my first woodpecker in a train station when I was 7 years old –a male Chestnut-colored Woodpecker. Then when I was about 16 years old a friend and neighbor attended a presentation of the book, Guide to Birds of Panama, which was newly translated in Spanish. During the presentation our friend had some drinks to the point where he couldn’t manage to get to his house so he decided to spend the night on our couch. The next morning I awoke to find that he had left the house without some of his belongings, including the new book. I opened the book and started reading the prologue and other information, but when I got to the plates my mind was just blown away by all the drawings, shapes and colors of so many birds! I asked our neighbor if I could use his book for awhile and during the first week I managed to ID a little over 50 species of birds just in my backyard. I had no idea that we had so many bird species around our house. The tipping point for me happened when after reading and looking at every single plate I was able to ID a Southern Lapwing, which was very uncommon back then. I was so excited that I decided to keep going on with birding. Later on I had two mentors: Loyda Sanchez from Panama Audubon Society who taught me how to properly use my binoculars and books, and my master Wilberto Martinez, Panama’s greatest birdwatcher, who took me around the country on his tours and showed me the art of guiding birders in the wilderness.
AB: How long have you been a bird guide?
BW: I have been guiding since age 19. That is already 16 years of career. I began by guiding environmental education programs with Grupo Ecologista VIDA, an environmental education group I helped to create while in college. I have also led many other tours, including frog photography, wildlife filming, cruise ship nature expeditions, family adventures, cultural journeys and native art appreciation tours.
AB: What gear do you usually take with you when you take a group out birding?
BW: I carry a Kowa NTS-77 telescope, two Leica Ultravid 8×42 binoculars, a laser pointer, and a little speaker to plug into my cellphone to playback species of bird calls.
AB: Everyone seems to have a favorite bird. Mine is the Melodious Black Bird. What is your favorite?
BW: This is a complex question, though hummingbirds are my favorite group. I enjoy watching them in feeders and they are an easy target for beginner birders so they have a special spot in my outings. However the Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and the Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher are my favorite birds. They are both tiny, shiny and they are not too glamorous. My two grannies were very religious women so I learned the appreciation of modest beauty.
BW: I love it when the people I’m guiding are surprised and express their delight, such as, “Whoa! I didn’t know that about this bird!” I also love to explain a bird’s natural history. People create better connections to the birds and natural spaces once they get a history to carry home.
AB: You probably meet a lot of very interesting people. What type of person or people make it fun for you when you’re guiding?
BW: I have my very own classification of birders: WABIES (wealthy amateur birders), contemplational birders, listers, go-getters, and lazy birders. I love them all but listers are the ones that I can survive without. My general rule of thumb is that if they have a good sense of humor we can go birding!
AB: Panama has a rich diversity of geographical regions. Do you have a favorite place in Panama to go birding?
BW: I love the Chiriqui Highlands and Darien lowlands. There is so much contrast from the cool and misty cloud forest of the highlands to the vast and remote flat lowlands. Each area has completely different avifaunas, climates, people and surprises.
AB: Do you have a favorite experience when taking a group or a person birding?
BW: Many years ago while helping Wilberto Martinez with a group of birdwatchers, he sent me with the oldest member of the group to look for Resplendent Quetzals. The rest of the group was in good shape to go further up the the trail so they kept going with Wilberto while I stayed at the head of the trail with the 81-year-old guy who had tried three different times to get the Quetzals in Costa Rica, but was never lucky enough to find them. The temperature was only 49°F–cold for a Panamanian–so my hands were numb. Wilberto told us to stand under a gigantic bambito tree that was a good fruit producer for the Quetzals. After some five minutes a female Resplendent Quetzal showed near the top of the tree and we both began staring at this magnificent bird. Five minutes later a male with an almost two-foot long tail flew in and sat right next to the female. I turned to my guest and saw that he was in tears and in complete awe, watching the superb couple of birds. Next thing I noticed is that I got wet eyes too since these were my first pair of Quetzals ever.
AB: What advice would you give people who are looking for a bird guide?
BW: Look for other birdwatchers’ references. Sometimes an excellent guide may not speak full English but is most likely an amazing spotter, so do not limit your search to only a bilingual guide. Make sure they have a telescope or bring yours along. I will always prefer that people hire local guides instead of the well-known international trip leaders. Helping local guides also helps the conservation of the local avifauna, as most birdwatching guides are involved in bird conservation, which make it a big plus.
AB: How do you promote your business as a bird guide?
BW: I used to work through tour operators but I am now starting to promote myself via my own webpage (www.benywilson.com) Still under construction and will include all my social media connections. But a simple email or phone call is the best way. email@example.com or 011-507-6112-2082 is my cellphone.