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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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)
- Gray-headed Chacalaca
- Great Egret
- Green Heron
- Cattle Egret
- Black Vulture
- Turkey Vulture
- Little Tinamou (heard at our cottage)
- Common Paraque (heard at our cottage)
- Road-side Hawk
- Unidentified hawk
- Bat Falcon
- Spotted Sandpiper
- White-tipped Dove
- Crimson-fronted Parakeets (big flock)
- Squirrel Cuckoo
- Vaux’s Swift
- White-collared Swift
- Snowy-bellied Hummingbird
- Magenta-throated Woodstar (male)
- House Wren
- Plain Wren
- Lesser Elaenia
- Rough-legged Tyrannulet
- Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
- Tropical Kingbird
- Yellow-throated Vireo
- Blue-and-white Swallow
- Rufous-breasted Wren
- Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush
- Clay-colored Thrush
- Tropical Mockingbird
- Mourning Warbler (lifer for Lisa)
- Wilson’s Warbler
- Golden-crowned Warbler
- Rufous-capped Warbler
- Cherrie’s Tanager
- Blue-gray Tanager
- Bay-headed Tanager
- Blue-black Grassquit
- Yellow-faced Grassquit
- Black-striped Sparrow
- Summer Tanager
I agree with you about the recordings and calling-in. When I am on my own and hear birds, I often answer them and eventually they come around to check me out. But that’s one-on-one with the bird. When there’s a group of 8 or 10 people standing there looking around and the guide’s job is to make sure everyone gets on the bird, there aren’t a lot of alternatives, I guess. Thanks for the post.
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I couldn’t agree more, Thanks for writing this.
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Heee Lisa and Steve, what a great story. Thank so much for this post! And for the nice compliment. Hope to see you again in Panama
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Thank you so much for your story. My wife (non-birder) and I (birder) are doing exactly the same this December with Terry in Boquete. For me it is about the peace and serenity of being outside in a natural environment and the birds are a wonderful bonus. This is my first “official” birding tour and it seems a perfect fit. P.S. I appreciate the list so now I know what to study out of 978 species!
Joe, You are going to love birding with Terry and you may just fall in love with Boquete like we did. I look forward to hearing how your trip goes. Safe travels!
I’ve been following your birding adventures over the years, and enjoy reading your blogs a lot.
My husband and I are thinking of birding in Bocas del Toro and Boquete in the future.
I was wondering if you could share with us any tips on the logistics of getting around there, bird guide and lodging. Would flying from LAX to Panama City, then fly to Bocas del Toro and stay there for a few days first before going to Boquete a good idea?
We went to Central Panama for the first time last year, but at that time all transportation was taken care of by the Canopy Lodge/Tower where we stayed. We had so much fun there, so would like to go back to Panama, but we want to go to different regions the next time.
Did you enjoy your stay at the Tinamou Lodge? Where did you stay in Bocas del Toro? Tranquillo Bay seems nice, but more pricey.
Please let me know if you have any suggestions anout Bocas del Toro and Boquete area.
We flew to Panama City (Tocumen Airport) from the US. Since our flight arrived late evening, we took a cab to a hotel near Albrook Airport. Albrook is where you’ll depart out of to fly to Bocas Del Toro. I wouldn’t recommend the place we stayed in Bocas (it wasn’t centrally located), but we did eat a few times at the restaurant at Hotel Palma Royale, and we decided that we’d try that place next time we go to Bocas del Toro. (By the way, we didn’t do any birding in Bocas del Toro–we were there to go scuba diving.)
After a few days in Bocas we then thought we’d drive to Cerro Punta (nearish to Boquete), but there weren’t any car rental companies in Bocas (plus it’s an island), so the closest place I could reserve was in Changuinola. We had to take a water taxi to Almirante on the mainland, then we got a cab driver to take us to Changuinola (I think it was about a 40 minute drive) and then when we go there we had no car even though we had a reservation. (Keep in mind that there are very few folks in Changuinola who speak English.) They recommended that we take the bus to David and from there we could rent a car–there’s an airport there, so prospects of renting a car would be greater. I highly recommend the bus. It’s not very expensive. It takes a bit of time because they stop and pick up pretty much anyone on the side of the road, but you won’t have to navigate the windy (well-paved, by the way) roads and get frustrated when you’re behind a big truck. I think you can skip Changuinola completely because we had taken the water taxi from Bocas to Almirante and I’m thinking you can probably get a bus from Almirante to Boquete, or at least to David. (So, skip Changuinola altogether. You don’t need that unless you want to think you’re renting a car, only to get there and find out that there is no car.) Once you get to David, rent a car (recommend reserving in advance) and then it’s only a 30 min. drive from David to Boquete. You can drive around Boquete and when you’re done, return the car back at the airport, fly from David to Albrook and either spend another night in Panama City or take a cab from Albrook to Tucumen. I prefer to stay a night in Panama City because the flight schedule just works out that way. As for Tinamou WE LOVED IT AND RECOMMEND IT. The owners are wonderful. Oh, and now that I think of it, they might be able to help with the transfer from Bocas to Boquete. I think they do a tour that could help you avoid taking the bus (though the bus is always a little adventure). Holler if you have more questions.
Hi Lynn, I replied to your other note with details on how to get from Bocas del Toro to Boquete. We loved Tinamou Lodge and I think they can help with a transfer to Bocal del Toro. They are very responsive with email, so drop them a line. In Bocas we stayed at a lousy place (not centrally located and so many sand flies where the property was), but we thought next time we’d like to stay at the Palma Royale, which is on the main street. We ate at their restaurant a few times.
Hi Lisa, I was forwarding this post to a group who is looking into the use of recording in Panama and your post is always very helpful (thanks again). Also to let people know what kind of birdwatcher I am. We even have a link of your post on our website. But then I did see all the comments down below your post.. what a great comments, thank you and the other birders also. I see you both are in Panama city and did see already great birds. Super …have a great time!!!!!! Happy birding! Greetings Terry
Hi Terry, I am so happy that my blog post is so helpful to you and your guests/clients. We’ll have to travel back to you so when we’re back in Boquete. We just love it there. And when we finally got to see the Great Tinamou on Pipeline Road it reminded us of the name of our cottage at your place. We had such a brilliant time. Cheers! -Lisa