I have always thought that seeing a flamingo for the first time would be one of the highlights of my experiences with birds. That’s because I often associated flamingos to the scene in which thousands of scarlet birds gather around during breeding season, as presented in some documentaries about Africa I saw. In fact, I don’t even know that flamingos are also found in South America until my arrival in Argentina.
My first encounter with flamingos is rather dull and anticlimactic compared to my expectation. It was a juvenile Chilean Flamingo, standing in the ocean water within a group of swans in the fading light. It was so far from me that all I could see through the binoculars is a blurry outline. After a day of intense bird watching, the excitement of seeing a dream species is soon washed away by tiredness. Three months later, I finally found hundreds of flamingos in El Calafate, somewhere more than a thousand kilometers south of Buenos Aires.
I soon realized that flamingos are common visitors of the lagoons all over Argentina. As I encountered more and more of them in different places, the rush of excitement gradually faded because I have eventually taken these sightings for granted. However, when I take time to reflect on my birding experience in the past year, I still cannot believe that I have the fortune to see them.
You see, the thing about bird watching is that sometimes you need to travel to totally different sides of the world in order to see a species as spectacular as flamingos in the wild.
My second home
When I first settled down in Buenos Aires without knowing how to speak any Spanish, it appeared to me that birding in Argentina is extremely difficult. As a young birder battling to search for birds in a foreign land, sometimes I found myself confused and helpless in a country that is known for its abundance of birds. At that time, I was without any field guide and didn’t know how to use useful resources like eBird (because it is blocked in China).
I eventually familiarized myself with these resources by myself, but if not for the generous help from different people I met by chance, I would not have had such an amazing experience. In fact, the number of species I have seen in Argentina in the past year has already exceeded the species I found in China in the past three years, the place where I started my birding journey. A lot of this progress come from my frequent visits of urban reserve such as Reserva Costanera Sur and valuable lessons learned from excellent bird guides and biologists I met along the way.
The interesting thing is that, when I see more birds in a foreign country than my own country, it no longer seems so foreign to me. Just like how I immerse myself in Argentine culture by learning its language and interacting with its people, I’m developing a unique connection with this country by knowing more about its natural features.
I am a firm believer that every birder should have his or her region of “expertise” before going on exhaustive birding trips to different places. Unfortunately, that is a level that I have not achieved up to this time. One of the reasons is that I simply did not stay in a place long enough to be able to claim that I am an expert on identifying local birds. Buenos Aires, however, has the potential of becoming my area of expertise. Nonetheless, it is becoming my second home because of my immense connection with its people and its environment.
Nothing is more exciting for a birder to go birding abroad. Birding in a completely different country is a blessing because it can boost your life list in a short amount of time. It provides a respite from some of the mundane species you see everyday in your familiar territory. The thrill of exploring in a completely different setting can also give you a sense of novelty.
However, I do want to give you some advice based on some of my personal experiences.
When it comes to birding in a completely distinct region, the most effective and common practice is to hire a local guide to give you an all-in-a-day birding tour of the region. The shortcoming of this nomadic style of birding is that it merely gives you a superficial view of the birds in a region. If you doesn’t preview the species in advance, it’s hard to process all the species in your head while you are birding.
Birding can be less enjoyable if you rely too much on others’ observations. The fun in birding is largely based on the process of finding and identifying different species: it is a scavenger hunt without a guaranteed success. If you rely solely on other people to tell you the name of the birds, to me it is a form of birding that has lost some of its meaning. Therefore, it is fundamental that you get to know what species to expect before birding in a totally different place so that you are actually able to interact with your guide and enjoy the process of finding birds without too much interruptions.
It is both possible and rewarding to explore a new region without professional help. The advancement of online resources like eBird empowers you to explore birding hotspots and search for most recent sightings, especially for places with well-established birding industry. However, in a lot of places it is quite necessary to have professional guidance because the guides are familiar with precise locations where you can find different target species.
In both cases, the most important part is to do sufficient research since an underprepared trip is usually unsatisfying. After all, in the world of bird watching, hard work always pays off.