I often recall the time I unintentionally, intentionally killed a bird. I aimed my Daisy BB gun up into a tree after seeing a bird swoop in and take cover behind a cluster of leaves. It was spring in New York and the robin redbreasts were ever-present foraging about in the mild weather. As fate would have it, one of those robins got in the way of my projectile and dropped from that leafy tree, dead at my cold-blooded hand. Yes, I had aimed and pulled the trigger deliberately, but I honestly didn’t mean to kill the little creature. I ran over to it and knelt down ashamed and sad. That afternoon, I presided over its shoebox burial. I think it’s a familiar boyhood story from the days when BB guns were standard issue for a lot of snot-nosed little rascals like me.
Paying my respects to that slain robin was my first act of heartfelt regret over my treatment of a living thing. Today, I would have no difficulty finding the very spot on which that bird hit the ground fifty years ago. Whether because of this indelible offense against nature or just because birds are so diverse and resilient, I became enamored with them.
I grew up in a coastal environment on the Long Island Sound in Westchester County, New York. I’d often go to Playland Amusement Park which was just a mile from my house on Grace Church Street. The park is situated on the water and ringed by saltmarshes. A saltmarsh is a rather pungent and sometimes dreary habitat, but it's a vital ecosystem as are most estuaries. Shorebirds love saltmarshes where they can peck into the smelly mudflats and find all sorts of tasty worms, mollusks, and crustaceans. The school field trip I remember most fondly from my childhood was to the Marshlands Conservancy not far from Playland. I think I must have had an epiphany there, because over the course of my life to-date, I have wandered into similar watery habitats to encounter, with delight, myriad birds.
I left New York forever when I was sixteen years old. The next few years of my life were spent in Okeechobee, Florida, a rural town located on the north end of the vast, shallow Lake Okeechobee. Before the Army Corps of Engineers built a 100 mile-long circular levy to create this unnatural lake, the area was a rich expanse of unimpeded watershed flowing south into the mesmerizing Everglades - greatest of all wetlands on the planet. Now, no school field trip was needed for me to find myself surrounded by a great variety of birds. Here, so close to the tropics, birds were far more bountiful and exotic than those of the New England saltmarshes. I marveled at huge Sandhill Cranes, Great Blue Herons and all the birds of prey - Bald Eagles, Swallow-tailed Kites, Red-Shouldered Hawks, Crested Caracara... the list goes on. But shorebirds remained my favorite and their wetland habitats fascinated me. Roseate Spoonbills, Ibis, Moorhens, Purple Gallinules, and numerous species of heron were common sightings for me in Okeechobee.
Throughout my youth, birds were just incidental to my life experience, occasionally grabbing my attention and sometimes even capturing my imagination. Nothing led me to a deeper understanding and appreciation of birds until I was thirty years old. At that age, I went to work for a company that created nature travel experiences worldwide.
While working for International Expeditions, I had many opportunities to travel to remote wildlife habitats - mainly tropical rainforests - and I was often in the company of highly skilled ornithological guides. These were local experts born and raised in the natural areas I was visiting. As such, they had an innate knack for spotting, identifying, and even imitating the calls of the endemic and migratory birds in what was literally their own backyard. Beyond just spotting birds and learning what kind they were, a wealth of other insights were shared with me regarding diet, mating habits, seasonal plumage, nesting behavior, camouflage adaptations, and other ideas on how each species managed to survive and thrive in such incredibly competitive environments.
The guides and birdwatchers with whom I traveled also imparted to me a passion for birds and for habitat conservation. I became especially connected to a place called Crooked Tree Village located in one of Central America's premier bird habitats. It's a beautiful region of lagoons, rivers, and wetlands. There in Crooked Tree, Belize, I instigated a unique conservation project promoting a sustainable agricultural opportunity. The objective of the project was to offset villagers' reliance on ecologically adverse livestock farming. That was in 1992 and the benefits of the program endure to this day through the village's steady income earned from harvesting, processing, and marketing their indigenous cashew crop, formerly ignored. The village's new identity and the annual festival to celebrate the cashew harvest generates additional revenue for the village and increased awareness for the area's value as a bird and wildlife sanctuary. Now, the over 300 species of birds which are possible to see in Crooked Tree have a more certain future, including my favorite bird of all, the Northern Jacana.
I don't spend as much time birdwatching as I once did, but wherever I go I pack a pair of binoculars and one of my many field guides. Bird guides are almost always regionally focused, for example, Birds of Southwest Florida; Birds of the West Indies, etc. The best ever published in my opinion is the Birds of Costa Rica by Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch. It's a meticulously written and illustrated study of each species found in Costa Rica, but it is useful elsewhere, as most of the birds found in Costa Rica range throughout parts of South, Central, and North America.
My Bushnell binoculars are powered "10 X 42." The magnification power of binoculars is important in birding and 8 X 42 or 10 X 42 are ideal. The "10" and the "42" mean that from 42 meters away, an object you're focused on will appear 10 times larger than with the naked eye. Any power higher than 8 or 10 will make for very shaky viewing, simply because you're holding binoculars in your hands as opposed to mounted on a stationary tripod, as necessary in photography when using a high powered zoom lens. In addition, you're often viewing birds in flight and a power of 8 X 42 or 10 X 42 provides a wide enough field of vision to locate a swiftly moving subject.
A decent pair of binoculars and a pocket field guide is all you really need to thoroughly enjoy birdwatching, whether you're in the Costa Rican Cloud Forest in search of the Resplendent Quetzal or just in your own back yard observing flycatchers.