By Mark Tower, Birder of the Year 2015
August 4, 2015: Swarovski has been amazingly generous! I just got a new spotting scope in the mail yesterday. Even though it was after 8 p.m. (i.e., low lighting) I had to test it on some domestic ducks at our local lake (i.e., highest magnification). Of course the color and resolution were still amazing. I can’t wait to try the scope on some shorebirds here soon. In a twist of poetic (or in this case, literary) justice, it appears I’ll be taking my 4-year-old to Costa Rica with me! My wife joked that the most important accessory on the trip won’t be binoculars but the toddler carrier.
December 22, 2015: I just returned from Costa Rica with Clay Taylor and Alex Villegas from Swarovski. What a trip! Clay and Alex were the consummate professionals (and superb birders). Alex clearly has the respect—near worship—of all the other tour guides in the country. Wherever we went, everyone wanted Alex’s approval or opinion about something birdy. He has a collection of over 1,000 personally collected bird sounds for nearly all the native species.
Additionally he can audibly mimic most of these songs and calls! Hummingbird chip notes heard from a moving car were correctly identified upon inspection. Predictions of exact locations of sought after species (ie. turquoise-browed motmot) were fulfilled within minutes. And this professional brilliance was combined with a thoroughly humane personality. Alex has a magnetism about him that is not explained by any technical skill.
Clay’s role in the trip was no less instrumental. Looking back on it, I don’t think Clay used binoculars the whole trip. We mostly birded in thick rain forest, and his chosen optic was a 95mm spotting scope! I probably don’t have to tell you how much practice it must take to be able to locate a 3-inch bird on a leafy limb 50 feet above the ground. But Clay’s specialty was photography (through a scope), and he was master of it. Through Clay I learned the value of scope birding (beyond ducks and shorebirds). If you could learn to quickly find the bird in the scope (a big “if”), the views were far superior to anything seen in a pair of binoculars. This is a particularly helpful skill to have if I am ever on a bird walk with others who might appreciate such a view. At Clay’s urging I toted a 65mm scope around on our walks. With it I began learning the challenges and advantages to scope birding. Needless-to-say I’ll be using my scope at home more since my CR trip.
I should probably mention that I ended up travelling with my dad, not my 4-year-old daughter. In the end, this was a much better decision. My daughter did have one request however: that I see a scarlet macaw, her favorite bird, and take a picture of it! I was able to bring her home stories of several encounters with the macaws. And Clay did her photo request one better: He took a digiscoped video of one macaw feeding on some tree nuts.
Thanks again, Bird Watcher’s Digest, for this wonderful opportunity!
Editor’s note: Thanks to Swarovski Optik for sponsoring the Birder of the Year essay contest. The 2016 Birder of the Year winner will be picked from essays received by January 6, 2016. The winner will receive Swarovski optics and a trip to Costa Rica! For more information, visit birdwatchersdigest.com/boty.
Here is Mark’s winning essay:
All for a Sparrow?!
Although I would never trade my wife and two small daughters for all the birds in China, it would make for less guilt-ridden birding if I were still single. This thought encapsulates just about all the birding I do at present. I would suspect there are others out there who can identify with me. The two oft-conflicting desires to see bird and be a family man were never more on display than one afternoon this past summer.
We had decided as a family (myself, wife, and two daughters, ages three years and four months) to visit one of our local parks, the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary. We left our home in Lexington, Kentucky, at noon on a sweltering July day to hike mostly in the woods. I thought it unlikely we’d see much in the way of birds, but I brought the binoculars just in case. During the 25-minute drive, I began wondering about the Henslow’s sparrows that had been reported at the park’s High Meadow Trail back in the spring. While known to nest in central Kentucky, Henslow’s sparrows are quite uncommon in my country, are declining everywhere, and are designated a species of conservation special concern. Similar to many birders, I especially treasure the declining or rare bird. And this one may be here at our local park! I wanted to see this bird. However, when we as a family frequent this park, we usually take the more leisurely designated trails, and my chances of dragging them up the rugged High Meadow Trail were admittedly meager. Oh well, I thought. Be the family man.
Shortly before we arrived, my oldest daughter fell asleep in the car. Now that stands to be the turning point of the story. You must understand, when my daughter wakes up from a nap it can be ugly, really ugly. Especially if she wakes up too early from that nap, or if Dad is not around when consciousness recurs. So, we’d surely let her sleep-it-out there in the car.
Enter my chance to see the sparrow! With a suspicious nod of permission from my wife, I was off to try for the sparrow while she read a book in the car. As I walked briskly from the parking lot, I realized that the sanity of the family and the stability of my marriage rested on whether I could get back to the car before my Godzilla daughter awoke from her never-quite-restful slumber. My pace quickened. By the time I passed the nature center I was in a wog (half walk, half jog). After the first turn towards the High Meadow Trail, I broke into a sprint. Despite considering myself a reasonably intelligent adult, I almost immediately realized the ill-advised nature of this decision. The trail quickly descends towards a stream with boulders, roots, and trenches blocking the path. But I couldn’t stop myself—literally or figuratively. I had reached an uncontrolled downhill speed; there was no stopping this train. I expected at any moment to catch my foot on a rock and tumble headlong, with highly undesirable effects. Amazingly, I reached the stream, my halfway point, unharmed. Then began the arduous uphill scamper on the opposite side of the gorge. I made it to my destination, and after a few brief moments looking for the sparrow on the high meadow, I repeated the insanity dash back toward my family waiting in the parking lot.
I would guess the path is a mile either way over exceptionally rough terrain. Now, I haven’t done any running (trail running or otherwise) since high school. So after I returned to level ground and slowed my pace back to the wog, I began to feel some ill effects from the previous 20 minutes. I was sweating profusely. I felt modestly dehydrated, with just a twinge of lightheadedness. In every muscle and joint in my body, I felt a strange combination of pain and extreme fatigue. At the very moment I started feeling sorry for myself, I looked up to see my exasperated wife walking toward me on the path. She was carrying both our four-month-old and emotionally destroyed three-year-old. No questions were asked on her part. No explanations offered on mine. Due to the frailty of her condition, I carried my toddler for the remainder of the day.
Synopsis: I didn’t permanently maim myself; I’m still married; the three-year-old survived; and I saw the sparrow! Extraordinary as defined by a birder.
About the Author
Out There With the Birds is the official blog of Bird Watcher's Digest, featuring engaging content, commentary, and creativity from some exciting new voices. New posts appear several times a week, so please check back often!