Cape St Mary’s, and its Québec cousin Bonaventure Island (still on my to-do list), are without doubt two of the best places in the world to see one of the world’s great birds: the Northern Gannet.
These mighty pelagic birds spend most of their lives out at sea, but once a year they come to land to nest. Their preferred nesting area is a sea stack – a pillar of rock with no connection to the land, so their chicks can be safe from terrestrial predators.
Most of the big Gannet colonies such as Ailsa Crag give good views of flying Gannets but aren’t accessible for close-in views. But the sea stack at Cape St Mary’s is very close to the land. We were able to stand and view the Gannets from about 30m distance, close enough to observe their nesting behaviour and the tenderness with which they treat their mates. And needless to say the photographic possibilities are awesome.
The cliffs around the sea stack also provide nesting opportunities for Black-legged Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Black Guillemots, as well as the occasional Thick-billed Murre. We also saw some interesting birds in the grassy fields around the visitor centre, including American Pipits and Horned Larks. (Though not, as the Visitor Centre suggests, Water Pipits. Were a Water Pipit to show up in North America it would be the first, and would be pursued by hordes of birders from across the continent).
I recently started teaching a Birding 101 course at the Seniors’ Centre in Kingston. Since the students are like me – late-onset birders – one of the points I wanted to focus on is how to accelerate their acquisition of birding skills and knowledge.
Most of my birding friends have been “in the game” since childhood, and they have often lived in the same area for many years, so their knowledge of everything bird-related is vast. They know all the calls, squeaks and squawks of birds both common and scarce, they know where and when to look, and their skills at identifying birds are honed by many years in the field.
Every time I go out birding with these people I learn something new. But how does someone become a good birder if they haven’t yet become friends with one of the Jedi Masters?
The obvious answers are (1) do your homework (study bird books, listen to tapes), and (2) spend a lot of time in the field. But I am a firm believer in my #3 recommendation: find a good birding guide and join some of their trips. I think this is one of the best and fastest ways to improve your knowledge and birding skills.
Think of birding guides as the personal trainers of the birding world. You wouldn’t start golfing without a few lessons and tips from the golf pro, nor would you take up skiing by reading a few books and watching YouTube videos. So why wouldn’t you take advantage of expertise in the birding world?
For overseas trips, this is a no-brainer. Local guides know where to go, recognize calls and habits, plan for food and accommodation, provide a vehicle, know how to drive in the environment, know the history and current events of the country, and non-trivially, recognize warning signs and know where not to go.
The advent of E-Bird and other bird-finding services means that you could travel to foreign lands without local knowledge, and some folks do. If your group includes a couple of burly and fairly menacing lads, so much the better. But when you look at the cost of flights, living expenses, and vehicle rental, and then calculate that you are likely to see twice as many species if you have a guide, to me the extra outlay makes sense. If I were 25 and had a full lifetime ahead of me I might think about this differently. But I have more money than I did when I was 25 and fewer years ahead in which to enjoy it, so guided trips are the way forward.
Closer to home…
Many people happily attend birding trips in their local areas organized by nature clubs, but I often get a puzzled look when I suggest that they should also consider working with a professional guide – as if “guide” has to exist in the context of travel to exotic lands. But for the beginning or intermediate birder, many of the same benefits that come from using professional guides apply equally to birding trips in their home province.
Guides have extensive knowledge of where to go and when to go there to maximize opportunities. With guides I have visited a number of little-known but productive sites for hard-to-find bird species in Ontario, and these trips were scheduled to coincide with the times when the bird was most likely to be seen.
Good guides also have an uncanny ability to recognize that an important bird is nearby, and great skills at locating it. Equally importantly, a good guide will ensure that everyone in the group has a chance to see the birds. This is not always the case in non-commercial birding trips, where beginners in particular may be frustrated by the tendency of the expert birders to speed by the more common species in search of more interesting fare.
The best guides are true “bird nerds”, and are willing to share their knowledge of all aspects of avian ecology, including feeding habits, breeding behaviour, and migration patterns. I have learned a lot about birds from people whose obsession is even greater than mine.
Finding a guide
So how to find a good guide? Personal recommendations are the most reliable method and I will give you a few of mine in a moment. But failing that, as with all things, Google is your friend. Search terms like “birding Ontario” or “Puerto Rico bird guides” should get you on the right track.
The websites of good guides and guiding organizations tend to contain the same sorts of information. You should expect to see specifics on their tours (dates, itinerary, costs). There should also trip reports from previous tours, ideally with trip lists (lists of species seen). You can also check the web for ratings, bearing in mind the usual caveat that some people are very hard to please.
I tend to favour guides from the country I am visiting, if for no other reason than the fact that their overhead costs are lower: when you bird with one of the large American or British companies you are paying for a leader’s flights and living expenses, and then they will often rely on the services of a local guide. If you can find that local guide you can cut out the middleman.
At the end of your search you have to make a leap of faith that your guide will be a good one, but I know of only a few cases where people were seriously disappointed. A poor guide will not last long in a competitive business. And part of the reason that the large global birding companies – operations such as Field Guides and Birdquest – are popular is that the likelihood of a poor experience is very low.
Let me save you some searching effort by suggesting these people, all of whom I have birded with and highly recommend. (And note that I do not receive any benefit for listing them here – though I am open to any free birding trips that might be offered. 😉)
Daniel is my guy in Colombia. I have been birding with him on four trips for a total of about eight weeks. Expert birder, safe driver, super organized and good company. My Colombia life list of 882 species speaks for itself.
On a trip to Tucson I had only one day to dedicate to birding. Melody led me on a fast-paced adventure to see a large number of Arizona specialties. Expert birder, safe driver… do you detect a theme here?
Josele was an outstanding guide but sadly I have just learned that for health reasons he has had to stop leading tours. This is a great loss. I believe he still operates his guest house in the Pyrenees where a number of great birds can be seen.
Predators was the local subcontractor for our trip to Tanzania, and they planned and executed a great trip. Joseph was one of our driver-guides and if you decide to go with Predators you should ask for him. Expert in all types of wildlife in the area, but he definitely has an eye for birds
I have not birded with the Burrell brothers (Mike and Ken) but they are expert birders and good folk so I am very confident that their trips would be excellent. They are co-authors of the recent book Best Places to Bird in Ontario.
Jim Palmer is a young biologist just starting out in the guiding business. I have good reports about him. firstname.lastname@example.org