Columbus Red Wobbler
(This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of ‘Birdwatching’)
Arching my eyebrows I concentrated as my guide cupped hand to ear and repeated:
“Columbus Red Wobbler”
I shook my head again when he pointed to the LBJ that sang from the reeds, then light flooded the dark recesses of my brain…
“Ah! Clamorous Reed Warbler?” I opined.
“Col-am-brus Reeed Wobbler”, he chuckled, nudging me with his shoulder.
Again he had heard and identified a call, immediately found the caller putting me onto the bird in nanoseconds. His all-round birding skills finding, identifying and pointing out birds are legend. Ask anyone who is the best guide in that corner of the world; it’s no contest.
But legendary skills do not mark him out. A week earlier I was guided by a young man with perfect English who could pick out any singer from the chorus line and direct my eye to it. He too made faultless identifications. He got me to sites for hard to find local specialties despite my lack of mobility. He was personable, although rather serious and totally dedicated to birding having been a birder since he was six years old (twenty years ago). When not guiding he was out looking for new sites for target species.
What separated them was not age or experience, or even the older man’s sense of humour, but was revealed during my first conversation with the lad. He told me that unlike other guides he never argued with his clients or ripped them off. He said he was a bird guide, not an administrator… he left all that to the tour company.
He has yet to learn that guiding is not all about birding talent; that needs underpinning with social and administrative skills.
If you set up for local daily hire your remit is to show visitors as many of the top birds there as you can, you just need to get clients to the birds making sure they know what they see. But if you are taking clients from place to place over several days you need to be a trouble-shooter too.
Through world travel I have found that hoteliers often lie about their facilities, transport companies under estimate journey times (often by 50%) and an ‘a la carte’ menu turns out to be take the set meal or leave it. Most are not deliberately misleading, but combine a desire to agree with the client with a totally different perception of what is acceptable.
Good guides help their clients get around such problems, whether it’s the lack of a vegetarian option, an alien concept of time or that ‘luxury’ accommodation is not just a big room without rats!
I’ve recently took my fourth birding trip to the Indian sub-continent. It has ended my love affair with the area. Gujarat refusing to hand over Asiatic Lions to other states shows that they value tourism above conservation. Cows eating from middens in every village and city street belie their sacred status. Millions of dumped plastic bags decry environmental concern. India has entered the space race and nuclear club and produces half the world’s IT graduates, yet leaves children to beg for food and sleep under cardboard. Is there progress if poverty is ignored?
More selfishly I found it frustrating and depressing that after travelling hundreds of miles we had to face yet another argument (when what was promised in accommodation or facilities was not forthcoming). Moreover, arriving weary and dishevelled then having to confront problems alone for two thirds of the trip took the edge off the wonder of the birds and mammals we saw (well nearly – Indian Pitta, Sri Lanka Frogmouth and Malabar Trogon can make up for a lot!).
Thankfully our second guide took lots of pressure off us… and, seemingly, was never riled by being asked three times in a row to repeat bird names like ‘Wide-eyed Buzz Hard’ and “Wearable Wet Ear”.
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