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Mindo Christmas Bird Count, 2011

December 24, 2011

By Armando y Tita

Armando y Tita, very focused during the CBC at Reserva Las Tangaras

The morning following the bird count began warmly serene. We sipped coffee and ate leftover lentil-potato stew with such tranquility. The previous day, Tita and I had climbed up and down slopes, crossed rivers, slushed through mud and waded through wet grass during our fourteen-hour bird blitz. Now, we were mellow from solid sleep and a fulfilling Christmas Bird Count. Julia Patino, a local bird guide, had told us to meet at her house at 7am this morning to turn in our team’s list. She had enough confidence in us to allow us to lead our own group at Reserva Las Tangaras and the adjacent Yanez pasture. At the inauguration, the night before the count, she had given us some official t-shirts, sack lunches and animated encouragement that our reserve was special and distinct birds could be found there. Now we would be late to turn in our list, but at the risk of sounding judgmental, Ecuadorians are always late.

I did not have her phone number, so I called Grandmaster Gilberto Arias, a true legend of the old school of Mindo birders. Hey we’re gonna be late to turn in the list, I had told him. Okay just be here by 8am, because we’re leaving town for the meeting, he replied too calmly. Ciao ciao. It was 7:15am and the walk to mindo takes one-and-a-half hours! We grabbed the bird list and dashed out of the cabin full speed up Yanez pasture. Somewhere there, Tita and I split up and said we’d meet in Mindo. Now it was a mad dash through forest, with heavy dew falling. How could this be? After having developed a precise fudge-factor to compensate for Ecuadorian tardiness (1 hour in the day, 1.75 hours at night), it had backfired, and all the team leaders were planning on leaving by 8am sharp! I am not the only one to notice this. In 2003, a group called Participacion Ciudadana started a national campaign to fight tardiness. We too had fallen victim to this. The mistress Tardiness had enveloped us in her loving arms like a couple of babes and told us to relax, have some more coffee, everything will be all right, there is no rush, its just a little list of birdies.

I ran like Jaguar Paw, at least the thought was there, treading a muddy canyon rim. Halfway up I called a taxi guy who couldn’t pick me up at the road to Mindo, but assured me he’d send his son. Okay good, all is well then, I will get there in time.

At the road, to my unsurprised, there was no taxi waiting. So I started running down the hill against time but with gravity. I was drenched in saltwater and cloud as I descended. Meanwhile, a roadside hawk looked down at me in pity. Where were you yesterday when I needed you! I shook my fist at it. I waved “hallo” to the lyre-tailed-nightjar as I crossed the bridge into Mindo just after 8am. I saw Gilberto Arias in the plaza, waving a clipboard at me. I shook hands with the other guides and sat down. They were all chatting so calmly, skating around the question on everyone’s mind; how many birds did your team see. At this point I realized the Mistress did not take a day off, and we were waiting around for others as she tended to them.

Tita arrived shortly after I did with muddied gum-boots from sliding her way down to Mindo. She greeted the guides and we hopped in the back of a pickup. The meeting was held at a gorgeous resort thing outside of Mindo, with a beautiful pasture, ponds and surrounding mountains. Tables were set up in a large rectangle in the courtyard. During this, Luis, our neighbor who manages the massive Reserva Rio Bravo, chatted with us. He told us that 1300 meters was a good altitude for bird diversity here. He also inquired about the spectacled bear sighting at Las Tangaras the previous year, since he had seen many signs of it, but never it.

The meeting started perhaps one hour after we had arrived. Presiding over it was a guy named Caleb Gordon from Audubon. Bird names were read out loud and any of the teams that saw the bird on their route raised their hands and provided the number of individuals seen. The groups were seated in order of elevations they covered, with the highest going first. Certain species were in greater abundance higher up and would become less abundant lower, made visible by hands raised at one end of the rectangle and not the other. In this way, an interesting display of elevational gradients could be seen.

Applauses were given for rare birds, or if someone forgot to raise their hand when they should have, and of course, for latecomers. This was the most endearing part for us; neighbors lightly joking throughout the eight-hour meeting. Oh, he just wanted to raise his hand to let everyone know he didn’t see it, someone yelled. Oh, that bird was at my house, but I didn’t see or hear it, someone else joked. An older gentleman named El Gato, had actually fallen asleep which caused great laughter when he awoke asking what bird they were on. Nope, I don’t have that, he smiled. Sometimes someone got gracious applauses for a very rare bird, and then would sheepishly apologize for mistaking it for the next one down on the list, which was a common bird. An even stronger applause would follow such blunders. We only blundered once when we weren’t paying  attention while laughing at someone else’s blunder.

During the meeting a feral toucan snuck under a Grandma’s seat. I know this because a little girl said, Grandma there’s a toucan under you! The toucan snuck into the rectangle of tables and birders causing excitement. It then hopped onto Caleb Gordon’s desk, fittingly while we were going over the toucan family. Gordon said; he just wants to be counted too!

Besides the toucan, the Patino brothers, Santos and Hugolino occupied the space in the rectangle mediating the meeting, which by now was an event. My shirt had dried by lunch and we were fed massive plates of fish, rice, plantains, salad, and bolon de verde. Such a wonderfully pummeling feast tapered the group’s energy, but we powered through the lengthy list of tanagers, and rounded out with finches and blackbirds.

I don’t know how many birds were counted yet. Mindo has a friendly rivalry with the Lower Rio Napo people, with whom they alternate the crown for most number of species in the world, at least during the Christmas Bird Count. Our team at the reserve provided three birds which no other group found that year; white-bellied woodstar, plain xenops and green honeycreeper. Only the last is considered ‘rare’ for which I had to fill out a form, provide descriptions (including model of binoculars!), references, and phone number. The count produced several ‘rare’ birds, some ‘very rare’ and some new additions to Mindo’s master bird list. All these will go through the rigors of confirmation. A final number is expected within three months.

The meeting was done. Gilberto Arias, who had been in the back signing hundreds of certificates for participants gave us a warm handshake and showed interest in coming up to the reserve. Everyone packed up their Swarovskis, Leicas and Zeisses and carried them off like three-thousand dollar babies, safe on their binocular harnesses.

Birding is an incredibly weird hobby. Sometimes it is a selfish act akin to collecting Pokemon cards, unfortunately making birds a sort of possession. Its not rare to hear birders say ‘I still need that one, but I got this one already’ or ‘I’m gonna swoop down and pick that one up at the river later today’. However, Sometimes it can be a selfless pursuit of diversity; yielding an unimaginable sense of forgetting yourself, as all of your focus is on something else, even if just for an instance. The Christmas Bird Count is like Pokemon cards; however, it does give us a very general snapshot sense, perhaps the best there is, of the status of bird populations and habitats throughout the world. I do not remember who said this, but I think it’s valid to use here; All models are wrong, but some are useful.

There are countless praises and critiques of this yearly count in the literature. There will always be misidentifications, overzealous and dishonest birders, inattentive moments and erroneous estimation of numbers of individuals. In this sense, there is little control over the data that comes in and error abounds. Still, its super fun, exhausting and interesting, both for the birds you might see, and the people you may encounter. Given the opportunity, I highly recommend participating. If you do it in Mindo, don’t worry about being late.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Geoffrey permalink
    December 27, 2011 11:24 am

    Great CBC blog. All of those
    counts face the
    same issues. Mindo has all those species but humans have barely a clue!

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