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When Traveling is for the Birds

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By Contributing Blogger Cathy Healy

Figueroa Mountain, CA – Thwarted by a damn mountain quail. Queeark, the male called to the female. Queeark she echoed. The quail were close, hunkered somewhere in the prickly foxtail. I was out birding with my friends Vicki and Dave Menzies near their Santa Barbara home. I met Vicki, a social worker on a children’s crisis intervention team, when I lived on the Galápagos Islands. Through her, I met Dave, a UC-Santa Barbara oceanographer who spent half the year on a research vessel in the Antarctic. My friends, now retired, plan their travels around birding adventures. Next up are trips to Duluth, Madagascar, and Thailand, with the best birding in Asia.

Vicki and Dave met on a Sierra Club hike and have passed the one-third mark on their life lists. That’s one third of the world’s 10,000 species of birds. Standing with them as the pine-scented breeze mussed hillsides of wildflowers, delighted by a jay imitating the call of a red-shouldered hawk, I thought, “I should be a birder,” and, “What a great way to travel the world.” So I quizzed them.

I know I should start in my own backyard, but I love exploring. I imagine there are lots of people like me. Where should we begin?
Vicki: Don’t do a trip that’s over two weeks or covers thousands of miles. You’ll be exhausted and bored out of your skull. Look for a trip where you stay put for several days, like the south of France, which gets you good birding and good French food.

Dave: A lot of people start with trips in the United States but consider a jungle trip. One favorite is the jungle canopy in Ecuador.

Vicki: It’s called Sacha Lodge. Fabulous place. You travel in a wooden canoe to the lodge, which has thatched roofs, a butterfly house, and decent food. (Editor’s Note: Learn more about the Sacha Lodge, one of our 2011 Stay List properties.)

Which birding companies do you travel with?
Vicki: Field Guides was the first we traveled with and have stuck with them, but there are a lot of good companies; VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) is good, also Wings and Rockjumper.

Dave: They all are unique. Some people are more cost-conscious and just want a roof and good guides. Field Guides and VENT are the most upscale.

Vicki: And they have more guides, so they can specialize. Before Dave retired, we were locked into his schedule and destinations, so we’d find a local birder online to go with. Sometimes we still do that, like last November in Brazil. The tour was four weeks, but we wanted to see some other regions, so we went on our own for a couple of weeks.

You’re always sending me funny postcards about chiggers and snakes and blizzards. Which one moment stands out that makes it all worth it?
Vicki: I know what you’re going to say, Dave.

Dave: For me it was on a small boat off the South Island in New Zealand. They were throwing chum [fish parts] to bring in the birds. The albatrosses were coming in like crazy– 12,  13 kinds. You could almost touch them. So often with these majestic birds you’re trying to see the albatrosses, but they’re flying high up and you’re on a rolling ship.

Grazyna Rybak/My Shot

Is that what you expected, Vicki?
Vicki: I thought Dave would say Lake Nakuru in the Rift Valley [Kenya]. Several million flamingos live there and when they fly, they rise like a pink cloud. For me, Iguazú Falls at sunset [Brazil–Argentina–Paraguay]. Some say Iguazú is more than 10 times as wide as Niagara. It’s one of the greatest wonders of the world and we were alone there, the two of us and our guide, watching big swifts come diving down and dart behind the water to get to their nests. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

I’ve seen the Iguazú swifts, but not at sunset and not alone. You make me want to go back – But first, the flamingos!

Photos: Above, Cathy Healy; Below, Grazyna Rybak/My Shot

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