Q&A with Les Beletsky about Global Birding: Traveling the World in Search of Birds
Why should American and Canadian birders want to birdwatch in other countries? After all, North American birds are pretty great.
True, North American birds are wonderful. But the big lure of international birding is seeing new bird species--that is, species that you cannot see in the United States or Canada. Less than ten percent of bird species worldwide occur in North America. So to see the great majority of the globe's birds, you need to travel internationally. Also, some of the most beautiful and amazing species occur only in locations far from the United States--and here I'm talking about such groups as penguins, toucans, hornbills, bowerbirds and birds-of-paradise. Many serious birders, at least once in their life, try to see some of these birds in the wild.
What's the best part of international birding?
To me, it's the great feeling I get when I'm walking in a nature reserve or national park in, say, Asia, and I realize that essentially every single bird species around me is unfamiliar. By this I mean that they are not the usual complement of birds I see regularly in my typical US birding spots. Also great, of course, is the ability to add large numbers of new species to one's life list.
What's the worst part of global birding?
There is none. Occasionally, trips to exotic locales can be somewhat difficult, in terms perhaps of "rustic" accommodations and slow or unsteady transportation. But most people who travel to remote areas to see birds realize that these trips are adventures and they accept, and even value, the quirky nature of such experiences. Indeed, these odd experiences often become some of the most memorable parts of foreign birding trips.
What are two or three of your favorite world regions to visit for birding?
I love wandering far and wide in open areas and so Australia, with its magnificent open vistas and sunny landscapes, along with its great birds, is a favorite place to visit. I've also traveled to many of the countries of Southeast Asia, and I usually think that the birds there, along with the people and the great food, make this one of the best places in the world for birding. I also like going to Central America, with Costa Rica being my favorite birding location in that region.
What's one of the best international spots you've ever birded?
One of my favorite "eco-lodges" and birding spots is O'Reilly's Rainforest Guesthouse at Lamington National Park, located just outside Brisbane, Australia. It used to be more rustic and raw; now it's more modern and developed. But it's still a wonderful place to stay for its direct access to the great trail system of Lamington National Park, its canopy walkway, its feeding station full of Crimson Rosellas and Australian King-Parrots, its wandering Australian Brush-turkeys and small pademelon marsupials, and for its magnificent resident Regent Bowerbirds.
Tell us about one of the best spots you've ever birded that is little known or hard to get to.
I had a chance in 2003 to visit the Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Thailand, near the Malaysian border. Conditions were tense in the region, the extreme southern provinces of Thailand being predominantly Muslim and often unhappy with Bangkok's policies. Violence was escalating. We had to energetically convince our guide to take us to Hala Bala. He finally agreed but suggested my friend and I slouch down in our seats and keep our heads down while we passed through towns and other places people gathered. We felt silly doing this, but acquiesced. Upon arrival at the wildlife sanctuary, we found the unusual trip to be hugely worthwhile. The well preserved tracts of lowland forest here support myriad birds, but for me, three kinds stood out. First and foremost, Hala Bala is the best place I've been for Asian hornbills. Walking the area's roads over a day and a half yielded good sightings of Helmeted, Rhinoceros, Great, Wreathed and Wrinkled Hornbills, and several other species also occur here. Simply put, the hornbills here were fabulous. Two other wonderful birds I saw at Hala Bala were Javan Frogmouth (nesting in a tree near the sanctuary's research station) and Blue-winged Pitta (emerging from the forest's edge to consume cooked rice tossed from the kitchen by the station's cook). Unfortunately, continuing violence in this area makes visiting Hala Bala problematic.
What are some of your most memorable international bird sightings?
My first good, close look at a Turquoise-browed Motmot in southern Mexico, the sun glinting off its bright bluish head feathers, is a special memory. The hummingbirds in and around Monteverde, Costa Rica and the Mindo region of Ecuador are amazing, and I've had great times sitting in shady areas on hot, sunny days, watching sometimes ten or more species gathering (and fighting!) around feeders. And certainly the Galapagos Islands have provided me with memorable birding moments. The few land birds here are special for various reasons but they are kind of plain looking. The seabirds, however, are wonderful and wonderfully diverse. I'll always remember my first sightings of Galapagos Penguin, Flightless Cormorant, and nesting Waved Albatrosses and Great Frigatebirds.
What's one of your most recent great sightings and where did it occur?
The Ibisbill is an unusal shorebird that breeds only in mountain river valleys in parts of Asia. It's gray, brownish, black and white with a long, curved red bill. It is so different from other shorebirds that ornithological authorities place it in its own unique bird family. Because of its restricted distribution and unusual classification, the Ibisbill is almost always a high-priority target for birders who visit the regions where it occurs. On a recent trip to the high Tibetan Plateau in China, where birding often starts above 10,000 feet in elevation, I finally found an Ibisbill foraging next to a rushing, grassy stream. It was a "life" bird for me and a great thrill. There was a slightly disgusting part of the thrill, however: the striking bird was foraging by plunging its long bill deeply into mounds of fresh yak droppings, evidently searching for insects!
Where would you suggest a birder go if he or she had two or three weeks to spend birding internationally and wanted to see the most "new" species possible?
There are many possibilities. South America has the most bird species of any of the continents, so a well-planned trip to, say, Ecuador or Peru, perhaps with a birding guide, could yield sightings of several hundred species. For people who want to travel by themselves in a very safe-feeling country and still see many new species and lots of amazing birds, Costa Rica is a good bet.
Where could someone go to obtain lots of bird sightings that very few other people have?
A trip to the huge island of New Guinea would probably do the trick. It's located in the Pacific just north of Australia. There are more than 700 bird species here and many of them are found nowhere else. Most of the species of birds-of-paradise, the birds many consider to be the Earth's gaudiest, occur here. The eastern half of the island is occupied by the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, and some bird-tour companies offer guided trips here.