Hope is a thing with feathers

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A needle in a haystack. That’s what looking for the Esmereldas Woodstar is like.

It’s our last day birding along the western coast of Ecuador with our guide, José. There’s really only one place you’d find the second-smallest hummingbird in the world, and that would be south of the Río Ayampe in Machalilla National Park near Puerto Lopez and where locals call the tiny bird, “Estrellita” or “little star.”

But we were late. This rare and endangered little hummer only hangs out in the area between December and March and we were there in early April and no one seems to know where it goes for the rest of the year.

Yet we still look.

We walk amid the different shades of green that surround us. Fig trees. Cecropia trees. Leaves as big as tennis racquets and leaves spread out like pin wheels. Trees entertwined with other trees. Little leaves, dead leaves, the occasional flowers poking out. The flowers are where we mostly look for the barely 2 1/2 inch bird, and José listens for a rapid chit-chit-cheet sound. We walk, we stop, we listen, we look. The slightest movement in the leaves is sometimes a clue, sometimes a trick.

A white-lined tanager perches out in the open on a bend in a branch. I love tanagers and this is a new one for me, but it’s not the Esmereldas. I get a good look at the tanager through my binoculars and then take a seat on a make-shift bench of rotting wood planks on cement posts. Steve and José go up the road a bit, but I decide to rest my feet and figured sitting is just as lucky as walking. The Esmereldas might—just might—fly right over to where I’m sitting. At least I could hope for that.

Hope is what drives birders. You hope to see something you’ve never seen before. Or you hope that you see a returning bird each winter. Or the migrating birds that come in the tens of thousands to fatten up before they head to their final destination. Hope gets you up at 4 a.m. whether on vacation or a birding tour or even at home.

You hope that you got a good shot with your camera before the bird flutters away. And you hope that the light was good enough so you could examine its markings and feel confident in your identification.

But most of all, you hope to experience something new. It could be the same bird you’ve seen in your backyard, but you notice something interesting—something crazy fascinating—that you never saw before. The way it’s singing its heart out in a downpour, or that the male is bringing food to the female. You may notice that the tail is a little chopped off and wonder, why? Did it escape from a predator? Or you see a bird in a place it’s not supposed to be and get both excited and concerned. Will he find his way to where he’s going?

On the bench I realize that my tired feet, aching lower back and the stinging sweat dripping down my forehead and into my eyes are all a result of hope. It’s why I choose to travel the way I do. I used to think the best vacation on the planet was shopping in New York City with girlfriends or sitting by the pool in a cabana at a tropical resort with a bronzed young man with a washboard stomach bringing me drinks and a cheese plate. But now desire for the unknown and unexpected drives me to new destinations in search for new birds. Somehow along the way over these past six years my DNA became encoded with hope.

We never found the Esmereldas Woodstar that day. We went away a little brokenhearted, but knew that one day, just maybe, we’d find it next time we visited Ecuador.

At least that’s my hope.

Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul

and sings the tunes without the words

and never stops at all.

—Emily Dickenson