Tips for birders joining an organized tour

Tropical Birding

Jose looks for the Torrent Duck on our trip in the High Andes.

So, I had never been on an organized tour. Usually, Steve and I do what our birding neighbors and friends call “freelancing,” which is fancy for saying that we plan our locations and lodging on our own and hire a local bird guide. I like the idea of researching everything and planning it all out. I wasn’t sure I’d like an organized tour.  Would there be too many in the group? Would I be able to keep up? Would I feel trapped? But those same birding friends had such a great experience with a well-known group, Tropical Birding, in Ecuador that we thought we’d try them out. Plus, the more I visit places outside the the U.S. in search for birds, the more I find that I need help. Especially when I don’t know the language.

We went on the Tropical Birding tour our second week in Ecuador. That’s when we met Jose Illanes, a tour guide/leader for Tropical Birding for 11 years now in Northwest, Eastern and Southern Ecuador, as well as Peru (Manu and Machupicchu). He also has led trips in Venezuela and has been on scouting trips in Brazil, Bolivia, Thailand, been birding in England, Holland, North America and South Africa, and as I write this I believe he’s on his way to Australia.

Jose is young, but don’t let that fool you. His birding knowledge is impeccable and he can spot a Torrent Duck from the van while traveling at 40 miles an hour. And he hears birds no one else in the group hears. I recently followed up with Jose and asked him a few questions about how he got into birding and what he would recommend as tips for people who want to join an organized birding tour.

Accidental Birder (AB): How did you get into birding?

Jose Illanes (JI): When I was 13 or 14 years old I saw my Uncle Jose Hualinga going out and looking at birds, watching through a little hole in a scope, so I became interested too. One day my uncle gave me a broken pair of binoculars and then I began walking up and down along the Napo river bird watching, and I still remember my first bird species: the Yellow-rumped Cacique. My Uncle Jose Hualinga is still birding and works at la Selva Lodge where I joined him when I got older. It is there where I helped my uncle and met some bird leaders who now are my colleagues. By fortune I met Mr Coopmas who introduced me to the Tropical Birding crew.

AB: There are different “types” of birders who go on birding tours. Who are they and can you describe them?  

JI: Well there are different types of birders: Some of them can be the beginner, who want to go and enjoy watching the colorful birds and wildlife; Listers, who want to see as much as they can and tick them on a list; and People, who simply like to see birds and be able to recognize them.

Birders of all types are nice. It just all depends on how you adjust yourself to the clients. You must adjust, otherwise you won’t do well as a guide.

AB: What 5 things should birders keep in mind when going on an organized birding tour?

JI: Well that’s very easy and simple and very interesting;

  1. When you sign up for any organized birding trip you should determine what condition or shape you are in and match that to what the tour company is offering.
  2. Understand your ability and scale for birding.  You don’t want hold back the rest of the people on the trip and not enjoy yourself.
  3. Respect others in the group.  You never know what people you are going to meet on your tour so you need to be tolerant of everyone’s ability and level.
  4. Help each other, as the leader might not be able to help everyone on the trip if they are numerous.
  5. Most importantly, you need to respect and do whatever your leader says, as they have been doing this many times, and must have reason. It’s not because they are crazy or simply want to annoy you.

Sure, we’d do it again.

Did I enjoy my first organized tour? I actually did. We were lucky, though, and were part of a very small group. There was only three of us and we all were the same type: We loved just simply finding and looking at the birds. We weren’t in a hurry and even though I struggled with the altitude and the terrain, Jose was not only helpful but encouraging to me all along the way. Also, the staff at Tropical Birding was amazing. They handled everything for us and even helped us book our week at Sacha Lodge prior to our Tropical Birding tour and also helped arrange guides for Quito and for Otavalo Market so we could experience more of Ecuador. We’re hoping to do the Tropical Birding tour in Kenya in 2015.

Have you been on an organized birding tour? What tips do you have?


Other posts about this trip