A lesson in Birding without recordings in Boquete, Panama

Panama Days 4 and 5

Bird song recordings. Some use them and others don’t.

When we were in Boquete, Panama, our guide, Terry—a resident expat from The Netherlands— doesn’t.

We had been birding for about an hour when I finally noticed that Terry wasn’t using an iPod or speakers or anything. Rather, we were just simply looking for birds at a farm in Palmira–a small town outside of Boquete. We weren’t calling the birds in, but they were calling to us, as if to follow them. They were the leaders in this game of Hide-and-Seek, not us.

Caldera River in Boquete

Caldera River in Boquete

I’ll be honest. Over the past six years of birding I was used to our guides using recordings. In fact, I thought they all did—that it was just a birding thing everyone did. Yet, I have seen some guides use recordings more aggressively than others to the point of even driving me a little crazy.  We could stand in one spot for an hour playing back a recording and we would hear the bird call back, but never see him. “Not cooperating,” our guide might say. My guess is that there’s a reason the bird isn’t cooperating—there’s likely a reason he doesn’t want to reveal himself. Should we be teasing him, then?

There are, of course, the arguments of stressing the bird unnecessarily, or like in the case of baiting, could potentially put it in danger by changing its behavior in how it hunts or reacts to human encounters.

Bat Falcon

A Bat Falcon hanging out at the Caldera River in Boquete.

I totally get the fact that there are the tickers/listers/twitchers who have a goal in mind to see as many species as possible—that they may have traveled a long way to see a particular species. For Steve and I, we certainly like to list our birds, but that’s mostly out of organization so we know what we saw and where. It’s not a race for us, but we sure do get excited when we see lots of species, but at what cost? And exactly how did we see them?

I also see how bird guides and birding trip organizations and lodges that specialize in birding want to make customers happy and often that’s by showing them as many birds as possible. It’s a business model and it certainly helps bring more awareness of wildlife to more people, and there’s no doubt that increased awareness and deep interest in birds can help the support of conservation efforts.

Silver-throated Tanager (Not called in. He just showed up.)

Silver-throated Tanager (Not called in. He just showed up.)

I’m not hear to argue one side or another. But I am writing this post to tell you that when we birded with Terry for two days in Boquete I had the most enjoyable two days of birding in a long time. I was relaxed. The birds were relaxed. It felt very natural to me and we didn’t go at a fast pace. We just showed up as guests in the forests or jungle and took great delight in what we stumbled upon.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Doing some homework

The next time I go birding with a leader I’m going to find out a little more about my guides in advance. Do they use recordings? If so, how much? Are they willing to not use them? Use them sparingly? Just as important is finding out if you’ll be grouped with other birders (which is common when staying at a lodge that specializes in birding). Find out if the other birders in the group expect the guide to use recordings. If they do, and you don’t like that, you may want to find another leader. At a minimum, let the guide or organization leader know.

One thing I’ve learned since becoming a birder is to ask questions. If it looks like Steve and I are going to be grouped with other birders who might want to go at a quicker pace and focus on seeing as many species as possible we’ll request a private guide. It’s much more enjoyable for us that way and allows us to not only go at the pace we’d like, but also have a bit more influence on how we go birding.

Slowing down the pace allows you to see some things you might have missed otherwise. For instance, take this Blue-black Grassquit we found:

Blue-black Seedeater  is trying to find a mate so he jumps up and down on the branch...

Blue-black Grassquit is trying to find a mate so he jumps up and down on the branch…

…like this. He does it over and over. (No ladies showed up, though. Oh well.)

…like this. He does it over and over. (No ladies showed up, though. Oh well.)

A challenge

I’m not here to start a campaign against recording, but would like to challenge birders to take a break from using recordings just to see what they see without song playbacks. Try it for a day. I think you’ll find that it will take you back to what initially sparked your interest in birding.

You’ll likely fall in love with the organic nature, if you will, and not the contrived. I initially began the hobby of birding because I fell in love with a guy who loved birding. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I soon found that being in nature and being awestruck by these little fragile, colorful creatures took my breath away.  I felt like I was walking on sacred ground—their territory.

Those two days birding in Boquete without recordings was like falling in love with my husband for the first time. They’re both connected, you know.

The guy who started it all for me. (In Boquete)

The guy who started it all for me. (In Boquete)

The List

And in case you’re wondering, here’s our list for our first morning birding with Terry. A pretty good list, considering we were done by noon and it was very rainy that morning. Oh, and did I mention that we didn’t pull out a single recording of a bird’s song?

3 Lifers for Steve and 5 Lifers for Lisa (lifers in bold)

  1. Gray-headed Chacalaca
  2. Great Egret
  3. Green Heron
  4. Cattle Egret
  5. Black Vulture
  6. Turkey Vulture
  7. Little Tinamou (heard at our cottage)
  8. Common Paraque (heard at our cottage)
  9. Road-side Hawk
  10. Unidentified hawk
  11. Bat Falcon
  12. Spotted Sandpiper
  13. White-tipped Dove
  14. Crimson-fronted Parakeets (big flock)
  15. Squirrel Cuckoo
  16. Vaux’s Swift
  17. White-collared Swift
  18. Snowy-bellied Hummingbird
  19. Magenta-throated Woodstar (male)
  20. House Wren
  21. Plain Wren
  22. Lesser Elaenia
  23. Rough-legged Tyrannulet
  24. Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
  25. Tropical Kingbird
  26. Yellow-throated Vireo
  27. Blue-and-white Swallow
  28. Rufous-breasted Wren
  29. Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush
  30. Clay-colored Thrush
  31. Tropical Mockingbird
  32. Mourning Warbler (lifer for Lisa)
  33. Wilson’s Warbler
  34. Golden-crowned Warbler 
  35. Rufous-capped Warbler
  36. Cherrie’s Tanager
  37. Blue-gray Tanager
  38. Bay-headed Tanager
  39. Blue-black Grassquit
  40. Yellow-faced Grassquit
  41. Black-striped Sparrow
  42. Summer Tanager