Ask the Experts: #6

Welcome back friends. Question #6 for our Ask the Experts feature comes from SVBC member Kyler Pham, who lives in beautiful Prescott Valley, Arizona.

I’m thinking about becoming a birding guide and would like your advice.  When you are leading a group on a bird walk, what are some of the do’s and don’ts?  What can I do to maximize the birding experience for the people I am guiding?

Now please enjoy the responses from our three Experts:

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide.

When practicing the craft of guiding, it does not matter if you know all bird sounds or can recognize each species by its nest shape, first you have to identify the capabilities of the participants and determine how far they can go physically and measure their interest in birds in order to select a course and look for species that will be enjoyable for everyone. Right then you can relax and start showing your knowledge off!

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

To become a bird guide you need to have special skills. Sometimes people may think that bird guides are just having fun traveling around a place, country, region, continent or worldwide. It is true bird guides have the chance to know a lot of places, but they also need to study—study a lot! For example, they need to learn: the songs, calls and chips of residents and non-residents species; the different plumages and colors to identify a male or a female; the immature plumage and adult plumage; how birds behave; the best time to go to look for a specific target species; and about the habitat. Of course, you also need to learn about the culture of the places where you are thinking about going birding, to connect with the communities in a way that you can explain why it is so important to protect the forest habitat to keep species of birds. In other words, as you see, it is all about practice and experience, but the most important thing is to go out to the forest as much as you can, thus all those skills will start to appear soon or later. 

In terms of how to deal with groups, it is very variable, because as a bird guide you will be in touch with completely different points of view, so probably the most important thing to have is patience. There will be always situations when you have to say a bird name 20 times in a single day, due to the fact that your clients are just learning that name. If you can make the clients feel de-stressed, even when they can’t find a target species, you are doing well. How can you create that feeling? You have to go into the woods with the feeling that you are entering a holy place and show respect for every single creature; after that, the feeling you have will start to transmit to the people with whom you are sharing that moment. And remember it is always better when you go that extra mile to create the best experience for your client!

Uzvaldo Franzinni: Monthly contributor to the Zanti Journal of Ornithology.

I use the word TANAGER…it always reminds me of my birding do’s and don’ts when leading a group:

Take time to get to know the folks on your walk. Beginning birders? Advanced birders? Plus, you are responsible for the safety of each person you are guiding. Unless everyone can safely cross that stream…don’t cross that stream.

Ask questions.of your group. The birding experience will be a lot more fun and memorable if you engage your group with questions (.’Can you describe shape of the bill?’) rather than just saying ‘That is a Brown-billed Scythebill.’

Never bluff! If you’re not sure what a bird is…tell them you’re not sure.

Assistance; always give it when needed . When a bird is being secretive, assist everyone to a good vantage point. Use the unmistakeable landmark technique. (see below)

Gracious. Listen to everyone and respect what they say. I guarantee you’ll get a lot of comments like, ‘Well, back in Idaho we have a bird that looks a lot like that one. I remember one time……….’.

Expertise. Have it…do your homework.

Review. Following every walk (time permitting) go over and review what you saw on the walk. eBird is a great way to do that.

Best of luck, Kyler.

(photo courtesy of Helen LeVasseur)