Where to find a kagu
Boston — Last July Peter Alden's tutored eye spied among some Chilean flamingos a sandpiper from Siberia. The red-necked stint, which nests in eastern Siberia and winters in Australia, had never before been sighted in Latin America.
Another discovery made by Mr. Alden, one of the most intensively traveled ornithologists in the world, happened in the French-owned island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. He was alone, an advance scout, mapping out one of the international birding tours that he leads for which the Massachusetts Audubon Society is now world famous.
After days of searching for the kagu, a bird that has been seen in the wild by only a handful of people, he suddenly came upon it. The bird is about the size of a pheasant and apparently flightless, and it walks on the floor of the island's mountain cloud forests, feeding on huge snails in rivers and creeks. "The French poodle of the bird world," is how young Alden of Concord, Mass., describes this species. The kagu, a beautiful pearl gray, with orange bill and legs and a rainbow of colors on its wings, is known to be heading for extinction.
Such finds, however exhilarating to a birder, hardly make headlines. But they are the stuff of which global bird watching is made. The possibility of neophytes making interesting new discoveries keeps the most advanced birders on their toes. It is one reason why bird watching has zoomed from a backyard hobby to a booming global business that sends birding tours to the ends of the earth.
After a decade of keeping meticulous notes on his criss-crossings of the planet, Peter Alden has collaborated with John Gooders, a prominent British ornithologist, writer, and world bird tour leader, in writing a new book called, "Finding Birds Around the World" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin).
In its foreword, Roger Tory Peterson, America's most celebrated bird watcher, author, and artist, reports that there are an estimated 8,600 to 9,000 species of birds in the world and that new species are still being found at a rate of at least one a year, particularly in the Andean forests and the tropics of Peru.
It is too much to hope, Mr. Peterson cautions, that the average birder on tour will find a new species. To birding, that's the grand slam in the seventh game of the World Series. "But," he writes, "he may well make range extensions, take the first photographs or sound recordings, locate the first nest, or add a first record for some province or country.
"My own astonishing find," he reveals, "was a Bridled Tern well south of Cape Horn in the Antarctic Ocean, 6,000 miles from its normal habitat in tropical seas. When the tired bird came to rest on a lifeboat on the upper deck of our ship, I was able to take it in my hand."
There are now dozens of individuals, nonprofit conservation organizations (such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society), and commercial travel agencies in various countries offering bird tours that may result in exciting bird-off-course and bird-in-the-hand experiences. For all these, this book offers new information that opens up for the first time many areas of the third world, especially in tropical areas. But its principal audience is the solo birder, or those who like to do their watching with family or friends.
There are plenty of good, well-illustrated field guides on the market to help birders identify hundreds of species. In fact, the authors of "Finding Birds Around the World" expect their readers to use field guides in conjunction with the book. But field guides, despite the name, don't really tell you how to get to those places where the birds they describe and depict in brilliant colors can be found. The Alden-Gooders book does. The key word in the title is "finding."
"This book," Mr. Alden says, "is a travel guide for people who want to find wild areas near cities or protected by some national park.
"We wanted to provide visitors with a map to some of these wilderness areas, with lists of birds they are likely to see there, how common and rare these birds are, and [during] what seasons they can be seen. Plus some travel and lodging tips and where to rent boats."
So, from Lapland to Zululand, and from Cuzco, Peru, to Katmandu -- as well as domestic haunts rich in birds -- each of the 111 brief chapters features a detailed, easy-to-read map drawn by Mr. Alden, plus a list of birds that visitors can expect to spot in that area -- sort of a bird-du-jour list. All told, the book covers 5,000 species, well over half the known birds of the world.
The black-and-white freehand maps are one of the most useful parts of this 680-page hardback. In many of these countries, as Mr. Alden points out, "you can't just pull up to a gas station and get a map. Often, to obtain one, you have to be a citizen of that country. Even citizens often have to apply for them at a military office. The military governments of a lot of these countries don't want you to have a map, because they want to keep them out of the hands of guerrillas."
With maps or without, it is possible to have exciting adventures on bird tours that have nothing to do with birds. The authors do not mention it in their chapter on Rio Napo, Ecuador, but back in 1976, a Massachusetts Audubon tour led by Mr. Alden ran into a totally unscheduled incident there.
It was the inaugural cruise of the Floatel Orellana on the Rio Napo east of the Andes. And despite what happened on this one occasion, Mr. Alden highly recommends this "very well-run operation" as "one of the finest ways to see the birds of the Amazonian forest."
Birders are flown on twice-weekly chartered planes from Quito, Ecuador's capital, to a dirt airstrip at Coca on the Napo River. On this maiden trip, there were several VIPs on board, plus a number of travel writers.
Each morning and evening the party would leave the floating hotel and go bird watching in motorized dugout canoes up different river tributaries. It is an easy way to savor the visual feast of flamboyantly beautiful tropical birds -- parrots, toucans, tanagers, and more.
In a well-built tree house that holds about 12 people high in the crest of a giant tree, Mr. Alden says that in just one morning he saw at eye level 72 different species.
After a few days of moving the Orellana up and down the river, the floatel docked at Coca again and tour members were transported back to the airstrip to rendezvous with the planes that would return them to Quito.
"While we were waiting for the planes to come," Mr. Alden says, "truckloads of Ecuadorian peasants -- residents of the area -- piled into the area, and parked their trucks on the runway at 50-yard intervals to prevent any planes from landing.
"They did not try to harm us -- there was no violence," Mr. Alden says, "but they did let the air out of our tires, told us to walk the two miles back to the floatel, and said we would be held there for a week. Our planes arrived, circled the field, saw they could not land, and flew back over the Andes. So there we were, with the peasants shouting 'La Huelga [to the strike]!'"
The issue in dispute was the disposition of revenue from oil found in the Amazon region. Peasants were seizing this means of embarrassing their government. They were protesting that the government had broken its promise to spend part of the oil profits on agricultural projects, roads, bridges, etc., in the overpopulated highlands of the Amazon.
Back in the capital, Ecuadorian officials moved swiftly to organize a rescue mission. They flew troops to another airstrip in the vicinity. That night, as the peasants celebrated their coup in a tiny village nearby, troops cleared the trucks off the runway.
At dawn, the Audubon group heard the roar of planes landing. Big Army trucks pulled up in front of the floatel and birders were told to jump on and lie face down. At the airstrip, without firing a shot, troops held back the now alerted peasants as they tried to swarm over the runway, while the bird watchers made a dash for the aircraft. "It was like the last plane out of Da Nang!" Mr. Alden exclaims.
"We expected Walter Cronkite would be in Quito to greet us," he says with a wry laugh. "But the government kept the whole thing mum. They never told anyone. We really liked the way they did it. . . . Instead of being held hostage for seven days, we were out in about 30 hours."
It was a slightly unnerving experience for the more staid members of the group. But bird watchers, Mr. Alden finds, are often seasoned travelers. "They can put up with a lot. The entire group elected to stay with us. So we just went on birding. While we were at a hacienda up in the Andes, the Army even delivered our luggage to us."
That, he says, is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to him in all his birding travels, which include no fewer than 30 visits to South America, 45 visits to Mexico and Central America, six forays into Africa, four across Asia, seven to the South Pacific, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand, and more than a dozen tours of Europe.
Ah, but what about snakes in the jungle?
"I am in the Amazon every year for a month," Mr. Alden says, "and I have seen only three poisonous snakes in my life. Only once in a while you might see one. I have never had a person bitten by a snake on any tour. Yet we are walking around in the jungle all the time."
"But," he concedes, "there are trails we don't take. And if I don't like the visibility, I don't go in certain areas. I am aware of what could happen. But I can still guide people around and show them tons of wildlife yet avoid any situation that I don't trust."
He says he has never run across a single tiger in wilderness areas. "However , in the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, a one-horned rhino did ram our Land-Rover. She had a baby with her and when the little rhino started walking toward us, mama charged into us with all her thousands of pounds -- from the front, fortunately! All she did was push us backward and dent in our front end. Had she hit us broadside, it would have been a different story."
The only thing that bugged Mr. Alden about that incident was that bird watchers in the Land-Rover behind were so transfixed by the charging rhino that nobody grabbed a camera to record the event.
Have Alden's birders, stalking wildlife with binoculars, ever been mistaken for guerrillas? No, he says, though a person traveling alone in some areas might run into trouble. "Group travel is very safe. Except for the Rio Napo incident, no group of mine has ever run into trouble in a rural area."
One special reward of world-ranging bird watching is catching sight of a bird soaring at some extraordinary height, way above its normal altitude. "I had never seen the Savannah hawk, a Caribbean bird, above 1,000 feet," Mr. Alden reports, "yet one day I had one up at 12,000 feet in the Andes."
On another occasion, hiking at 4,000 feet, he looked up at the sound of a rush of wings only to see a whole flock of scarlet ibis, those big, flame-colored birds with long, curving beaks, following a river course up a mountain valley. Were they heading over the Andes? He doesn't know.
But he says that ornithologists now think there is a large migration of birds not only from cold to warm climates (not to avoid cold but to find food), but also from one section to another of the tropics.
"Our knowledge of that is very weak," he admits. "But given that sometimes it is a rainy season on one side of the Andes during one part of the year, and it is the rainy season on the other side of the Andes at another time of the year, there would be differences in the availability of food. So some birds apparently have been forced to fly across these mountains in order to survive.
"And there seem to be some birds who spend part of the year north of the Amazon and part of the year south of it, because the rains follow the sun back and forth."
It is the jet plane, of course, that has turned the world into the birder's oyster. An estimated 15,000 birders travel to faraway places every year. Why do they do it?
"It's sort of an internal yearning to be out in nature," as Peter Alden sees it. "Having token areas of wilderness is very important, even if you aren't there looking at them. It is important to know that the Serengeti [National Park in Kenya] lives. Whether I ever get to Yellowstone [National Park in Wyoming] or not, I am a richer person just knowing that it is there for me when and if I elect to go.
"I have seen people's lives so improved by these trips that they are different people. Seeing some part of the world and its nature that they have longed for years to see, they are more complete human beings. It gives them an idea of what the earth is in size, what its problems are. Many of these people become more active in local politics and causes. It gives them an understanding of themselves and their own town and country in the context of the world."
An ever-increasing percentage of people, he says, are turning to nature, "looking for something other than honky-tonks, casinos, and traditional things people do in their spare time."
It is that much more distressing, then, Mr. Alden feels, to see what he calls "the rape of the planet." Unlike most travelers, he has been returning to many of the same places since the 1960s. Changes for the worse in natural settings are therefore acutely apparent to him.
"I remember flying into a place called Tiger Tops, Nepal, in 1971. When you came through the Himalayas out onto the plains, it was forest in all directions. I was there again last February. I noticed massive cuttings in the Himalayan forests and deep silting of rivers. In the monsoon season, what used to be a river is now a torrential flood, because forests are not there to act as a sponge and to release the water gradually through the year.
"So you get devastatingly worse floods every year and more severe dry seasons. Some of the most fertile areas now are covered with infertile sand washed down from the mountains. Except where national parks have been set up, the forest in the lowlands of Nepal has all but disappeared."
Some experts estimate that about 25 percent of Nepal's topsoil has washed down into the Ganges flood plain in just the last 20 years due to the scramble for firewood for cooking and to develop new agricultural land.
Destruction of lowland and mountain tropical forests, brought on by the exploding population in third world countries, is to him the greatest threat to the future of mankind. "The earth is really straining now," Mr. Alden says. And projections show a possible doubling of the population in another 50 years, unless social patterns change.
Time was, he says, when a staggeringly high infant mortality rate in undeveloped countries kept populations small. Today, a much higher percentage of children are surviving, becoming parents in their turn, and living longer than their forebears. Hence populations have rocketed out of control.
"As I look at some of the world now," Mr. Alden says, "there is a huge number of people tearing things down and planting something else with no idea of the consequences to their soil just five years down the road, or to other people living down the valley.
"Things are just being destroyed so fast! And in many cases these tropical areas will never be able to spring up again the way they could in temperate zones.
Most birds feed on insects that devour leaves. They are thus very important in protecting the growth of trees from which timber is produced, Mr. Alden says. China has recently learned the hard way the vital niche that wild birds occupy in the balance of nature.
"Among Chinese peasants," Mr. Alden says, "there was little recognition of different kinds of birds, just big ones and small ones. And since some birds were eating rice and wheat, a campaign was inaugurated under Mao Tse-tung to kill off all the birds in China's agricultural heartland, the rich farming valleys that lie in the big triangle formed by Peking, Canton, and Chongging.
"Today, this is the most birdless place in the world. Roger Peterson traveled for thousands of miles in that triangle for three weeks last fall and managed to see about 30 species. Almost anywhere else in the world you will see between 200 and 700 kinds.
"The Chinese, I understand, have since seen the error of their ways and stopped that campaign. But by killing the few species of birds which do compete with man grain, they have wiped out many other species with them. As a result, China has had severe problems with insects."
"Many of us shudder," he says, "to think what the world will look like if developers, budget cutters, and the profit motive are the only god, which they seem to be in Washington today. The attitude now seems to be to get as much out as fast as you can regardless of any other value that land might have.
"It greatly worries a lot of us -- especially where we are a rich country. Poor countries have to make so much greater sacrifices than we do to justify setting aside some land from their own heritage for the wild creatures. If they look to the US for leadership in the next four years, goodness knows what will happen. We are arming the forces of rapid destruction and setting a very poor example right now.
"We conservationists are very worried about the National Park System, the national wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. It's a pendulum thing. Developers perhaps were unfairly kept out of some projects by past administrations. Now the doors are opening too wide."
Mr. Alden can't remember when he was not interested in birds. His grandmother on the Alden side -- yes, he is a direct descendant of John and Priscilla Alden -- was one of the first members of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. His father, John Alden, instilled in his four sons a love of nature.
In 1964, while still at the University of Arizona, majoring in geography, he ran his first bird tour to Mexico for the Tuscon Audubon Society.Gradually he built up a loyal clientele. He led bird watchers on tours deeper into Latin America, to Europe, and ultimately to far points both east and west. He spent the money he made from tours on trips by himself to increase his own knowledge of the birds of the world.
Since 1969 he has been a full-time staff member of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The society gives him time out to lead some private, unpublicized invitation tours, which often prove to be valuable scouting tours which lay the foundation for the well-publicized tours he leads for the society.