I finally had to get a new laptop last week. While almost everything is up and running beautifully, I haven’t managed to figure out how to use the updated photo editor program I downloaded, or to transfer my old program to the new computer. It’s a good thing the piece I had written doesn’t depend on images. Still, sorry!
It was apparently all the way back in 2012, when I was first getting back into birding after a 30 year hiatus, that I took a sad little picture, with my sad little camera, of a cute little bird that seemed to not show up anywhere at all in my field guide. Of course, at the time I was also using really sad little binoculars, and a sad little field guide: a Spanish-language edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s 1973 A Field Guide to Mexican Birds. This guide was undoubtedly a great choice back in the 70s, but 40 years is a very long time in the taxonomic world, and my bird was no exception. Peterson had given prominence in his drawings to what was then considered the eastern race of the White-collared Seedeater, and my bird was of the supposed western race. To the relief of Mexican birders everywhere, this species was split several years later into two species; the black-and-white eastern race is now Morelet’s Seedeater, and the more colorful western race is now the Cinnamon-rumped Seedeater.
At the time, I did not know any birders in my city of Morelia. In fact, I knew no birders in the entire state of Michoacán. And I certainly didn’t know my Seedeaters. So, what was I to do?
What I did, to my great good luck, was to stumble across an online forum of Mexican birders named avesdemexico. (Don’t bother to look it up, as it has since morphed into a WhatsApp chat. Mexicans are big fans of WhatsApp.) For some reason, probably because they were eager to include their first birder from Michoacán, they accepted me into the forum, and patiently identified my Seedeater. Then they answered more, and more, and more of my beginning-birder questions. For the first couple of years, those questions were usually accompanied by the most dreadful photos, which made my ID requests a huge challenge. Such patience! Although they were very gracious, I always felt like a bit of a bother.
I remember when I finally had something to offer them, instead of just asking for help. I posted a picture, still rather sad but clear enough, of a beautiful medium-sized bird I had found in a newly discovered site. As I recall, on this occasion I had already identified it as a Chestnut-sided Shrike-Vireo. What I didn’t know was that this is a very special species. When one of the forum’s biologist members answered “I’ve been looking for that bird for years!”, I could feel my self-esteem climbing. When he travelled to Morelia a month later, and I was able to show him not one, but three Shrike-Vireos, I almost felt like I deserved to move up to the cool kids’ table.
My birding buddies from the forum/chat include quite a few more biologists. Los bebés (the babys), Gustavo and Alberto, are the youngest members of the group, and only recently got their degrees. Alberto is quite the boy wonder, with real possibilities of becoming a professional bird illustrator, and a YouTube channel with 5,590 subscribers (Crónicas del Chivizcoyo). His nickname, Chivizcoyo, is a common name for the Long-tailed Wood-Partridge, a large neotropical quail. I really, really wish I could show you a photo of this bird, but I have yet to see one.
Gustavo and Alberto have both stayed at our home on a couple of occasions, so they can bird with me the next morning. So have birders extraordinaire Amy, who is Canadian, and Jorge, who is from Mexico’s southeastern state of Yucatán, and goes by the nickname “Yuca”. On any given year, you can find them at the very top of eBird’s “Top 100” birders for Mexico. Taking Amy birding is an extremely rewarding experience, as she seems to know the calls of every bird species that exists. When I took them to Paso Ancho, she identified a Yellow-green Vireo by its call. I heard the call (when she pointed it out), and saw a bit of movement, so it went on my life list. But it was several years before I really got a good look at this species, one of the rare birds that migrate north in summer only as far as Mexico, rather than to the U.S. or Canada.
As I recall, Amy and Yuca are also biologists, and they are definitely professional birding guides. So are several other members of the forum/chat. But plenty of us are non-professionals, as well. Julio, from west of Guadalaja, Fabián, from Xalapa, and Luis from Veracruz, are all engineers. Early on in my experience with the group, my church work took me to Veracruz, a tropical city on the Gulf of Mexico coast, and I got to visit a mangrove forest near that city with Luis. I still wasn’t using eBird mobile at the time, and remember the thrill of writing down by hand lifers as fast as I could, glancing up briefly each time Luis would point out a new species. As I recall, I picked up some 15 lifers in as many minutes. I even got a lifer from that trip years later, when a split occured: the infamous Morelet’s Seedeater.
Rubén, the group’s moderator (and founder, I believe), is a retired amateur birder from Monterrey. We had been online birding buddies for years when we finally got to meet — in Madrid, Spain, of all places! I had arrived from Mexico a couple of days before Rubén arrived from a trip to the Balkans, so I had two days more experience finding the good spots in the heart of Madrid. But neither of us expected for me to find our first Eurasian Hoopoe there. Hoopoes — could they BE any cooler?!
One of these years, I, too, will retire. And when I do, it won’t just be my birding buddies visiting me. I will visit them: Jonathan, in Ensenada, for when I can’t go to California; Gerardo, for those cool Baja California Sur endemics (Belding’s Yellowthroat, anyone?); CheHugo, for the Longspurs, Sandhill Cranes, and Geese that winter in north-central Mexico; all my birding buddies in Monterrey; Fabián, Alberto and Gerardo in Xalapa for the incredible abundance of species in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental (too many to name); Amy, Yuca, Luis T, and Alan, for all those wonderful tropical birds of Mexico’s southeast (way too many to name).
Seriously… If you haven’t done so already, you need to find yourself some birding buddies. And cast that net as wide as you possibly can.