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Opinion

Pritchett: Hanging with birders sharpens the senses — no matter where you look

A trip to Mexico with avian researchers may have tested my attention span, but ultimately it made me a much better explorer

I caught some sleep during the short interlude between frenzied barking dogs and the crowing roosters. It wasn’t enough. I won’t lie, this Mexico trip wasn’t easy, and in all the cliché ways: A grapefruit-sized whip spider shedding its exoskeleton on the bathroom ceiling, a scorpion skittering down the hallway, tiny biting ants stinging my bare feet in the kitchen, and the dogs running upstairs and peeing outside the doorway and then wanting to come in our rooms, all innocent-looking. 

But it was worth it for the birds. Or, no, it was worth it to be with a friend who loves birds. 

My friend and kingfisher specialist Marina Richie had gotten a group of us to the San Pancho Bird Observatory Research Station, which is basically housed in Luis and Wendy Morales’s home in Nayarit, Mexico, from which they conduct essential and powerful education and network with all sorts of other birding organizations.

Laura Pritchett

It’s not typical tourist housing, and when the taxi driver dropped us off, he asked twice, “You sure it’s here?” We weren’t here for typical accommodations, though; we were on the outskirts of San Pancho so Marina could connect with Luis and chat about chats (heh, birder humor) and geek out in the ways that only true birders can.

I myself am not likely to chat about yellow-breasted chats. I fully admit that something is wrong with my brain when it comes to birds. When I asked Luis how he had come to love birds, and thereby come into this position of being the bird educator and advocate in the area, he stopped his walk in the jungle and his eyes lit and he said, “Why, I was trained to be a marine biologist, but then the birds caught my eye . . . and ears!” He leaned forward. “It was torturing not knowing what they were. Torturing!” 

It is not torturing to me. I can’t seem to learn bird names beyond the obvious ones, maybe because my mind wanders on to other things. I am distracted by nearly everything that is non-bird. While everyone is looking up, I am looking down at the antlion dents in the ground, and then poking the center of their convex caves with a stick so I can see them come out and try to eat me. Later, at an estuary on the beach, when Luis and Marina set up a scope, I get down on my knees to look at a hermit crab and simultaneously start daydreaming. While Marina sat down to really observe black-necked stilts, I wandered over to a rope swing hanging from a palm tree and, as I swung, started remembering all the swings of my childhood. 

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Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure Marina and the others also notice the lion ants and hermit crabs. Apparently, their brains can do both things at once, but alas, my brain cannot. Maybe it’s my bad eyesight, but I can’t seem to concentrate on birds. Yes, they are very, very cool and diverse and have funky eyes and feet and coloration, as keeps getting pointed out to me. They also come with plenty of cool facts, such as that parrots move into termite nests – yes, termites! – but tomorrow I will probably forget which specific bird moved in with which insect. Obviously, I am easily placated and amused and distracted. Or just dumb. One thing I do love with a passion, though, is observing how others get tortured by their gaps in knowledge. 

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For example, I want to hang out with anyone who says things like, “Why would anyone build an aviary? The planet is the aviary! We just have to learn to look and protect,” which is what Luis was telling us as he excitedly drove to an area where he does banding. Clearly, the man is a true environmentalist, passionate about birds and about teaching, and I’m fascinated by his fascination. 

For example, Luis tells us that 70% of Canadian birds and 50% of U.S. birds depend upon this area. Which means protecting them in one spot is relevant to another. That’s the thing about birds, of course – they fly. While he animatedly chats about which birds migrate where and when, I consider how much I like to fly, too – and in particular, how much I like to come here. I’ve been trekking to Mexico about once a year since I was in my 20s, and I keep returning to this region in part because it’s a direct flight from Denver, and also because I know of some cool off-the-beaten-path places to explore. But also because there’s just something special about it – so special I can feel it in my cells, feel it biologically.

Indeed, Luis describes this region as a “center of genetic origin,” because it has an incredibly high number of endemic species of birds. San Pancho, which is the affectionate name for San Francisco, is north of Puerto Vallarta by about an hour, and it is officially still part of the Gulf of Cortez, which means that in terms of biology and geography, the area is more protected than south of the city, where conditions are more exposed and vegetation is smaller. Hence all the birds: the happy wren and egrets and the chachalacas and the yellow-breasted chat, which is a priority species, and which head up to Washington and Oregon and Canada. No wonder I like to come here! 

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As we end our bird trip, Marina whispers, “Wow! I just saw a jacana!” But already I am squinting at two very fat iguanas in a branch and noticing the way their reddish spines glint in the sun, arms and legs and dewlaps hanging over the branch. 

And then I have a small but important epiphany: How much I’ve learned on this trip! Indeed, in all seriousness, there is something quite healthful about observation, and about helping bird habitat remain healthy. Hanging with birders helps me be a better observer of everything non-bird, a better explorer. Whip spiders and scorpions and lion ants and geography and the cultural history and the projected future in climate change models. I may not truly remember the name of  a single new bird, but the rest has sunk in my non-birding bones. 


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