A day in the birding life: our Birds & Wine tours

Enjoy this piece by guide Marcelo Padua as he provides a glimpse into a day on each of the tours in our Birds & Wine series coming up in 2019: Birds and Wines of Chile & Argentina in February, Beyond the Ports of Portugal in April, and France’s Loire Valley: Birds, Chateaux & Wine in June. Each of these tours features great lodging, fabulous food, incredible scenery, an easier pace, and a focus on birding with some time spent enjoying the cultural riches of each destination.

Chile & Argentina

Elegant-crested Tinamou in Argentina with FIELD GUIDES BIRDING TOURS
The well-named Elegant Crested-Tinamou, by guide Dave Stejskal

On a cool morning in Argentina you step out of your room onto the manicured garden of your lodge. Checking some flowering plants, you spot a Red-tailed Comet, a spectacular hummingbird that takes your breath away. Meanwhile, a Blue-and-yellow Tanager feeds in a nearby tree and an Austral Pygmy-Owl sings in the distance. Walking out of the lodge and away from the manicured vineyards, you move into desert scrub habitat, where a White-throated Cacholote sings from one of the few trees in sight and adds another stick to its massive nest.

Birds & Wine: Argentina with FIELD GUIDES BIRDING TOURS
The Andes with a fresh dusting of snow as seen from wine country in Argentina. Photo by participant Dennis Serdehely.

As you walk farther into the desert, you marvel at the beauty of the Andes rising up beyond, covered in a mantle of fresh snow from the previous night. A movement catches your eye—a family of Elegant-crested Tinamous quietly running away from you. Later in the day you enjoy a typical Argentine barbecue—the asado—while sipping a delicious glass of Malbec. Your afternoon is devoted to visiting a museum and a state-of-the-art winery before returning to the lodge to enjoy a five-course dinner paired with wines produced on site. Life is good, and you are lucky to be here.


Portugal

On a different continent you wake up to a strangely familiar bird call as a Common Cuckoo broadcasts its famous song. You find yourself in a medieval village along the Portuguese border. After a leisurely breakfast, you head out to bird the mountains that cradle the famous Douro River.

Portugal Birds & Wine with FIELD GUIDES BIRDING TOURS
The Douro River valley, by participant Ken Havard

Along your way, an old man and his dog block the road as they patiently keep his sheep moving at a steady pace, and you realize that this scene has repeated itself here for hundreds of years. Moving ahead, you find an overlook from which to scan the valley bellow. From the roof of an abandoned house, a Blue Rock-Thrush lets other males know that this patch is taken, and it does not take long before the first Eurasian Griffons fly by at what seems to be an arm’s length.

Portugal Birds & Wine with FIELD GUIDES BIRDING TOURS
An immense Eurasian Griffon soars past, by participant Maureen Phair

You continue your journey through the mountains, taking in the spectacular scenery. At another perch on top of a hill, you enjoy a picnic lunch while Egyptian Vultures, Peregrine Falcons, and Cinereous Vultures seem to dance in the wind at eye level. On you return to the lodge, you take some time to explore a tiny village, learning about its history and inhabitants. After a delicious homemade dinner, you go to sleep listening to the calls of a Eurasian Scops-Owl.


France

In France it is spring, and you wake up to a cacophony of sounds produced by hundreds of young Rooks roosting in nearby trees—it doesn’t take long to realize where the term rookery originated. You walk away from the noisy Rooks only to find a plethora of other sounds coming from warblers, tits, and nesting House Martins. You devote the day to exploring the fabulous Loire River, once described by French novelist Gustave Flaubert as “the most sensual river in France.” The Loire runs low and sedate, studded with sand and gravel bars that provide protected nesting sites for Yellow-legged, Black-headed, and Mediterranean gulls, as well as Little Ringed Plovers and Common Sandpipers.

France Birds & Wine with FIELD GUIDES BIRDING TOURS
The chateau and gardens at Villandry

Each stop along the river brings the group one step closer to the renowned gardens of Chateau Villandry, where a delicious French picnic awaits. Sated, you venture into the gardens of this chateau, a testament to love and determination. The evening brings a fine day to a close as you take advantage of famous French gastronomy paired with a lovely Sancerre.

France Birds & Wine with FIELD GUIDES BIRDING TOURS
The Chateau de Chenonceau, by guide Megan Edwards Crewe

Read more about each of these tours, see the itinerary and past triplists, and enjoy more images on their respective tour pages:

Birds and Wines of Chile & Argentina

Beyond the Ports of Portugal

France’s Loire Valley: Birds, Chateaux & Wine

NE Brazil: Last-chance Pickup, Part I

If you’ve traveled with us before, I’m sure you’ve heard tall tales and humorous anecdotes from your guides. Over nearly 25 years of Field Guiding, we’ve accumulated quite a few! Every year at our late-August business meeting, with as many of us as possible gathered together from the field and our Austin office, our Field Guides step forward to add new ones to the archives. But we don’t forget the past…

If you’ve traveled with us before, I’m sure you’ve heard tall tales and humorous anecdotes from your guides. Over nearly 25 years of Field Guiding, we’ve accumulated quite a few! Every year at our late-August business meeting, with as many of us as possible gathered together from the field and our Austin office, our Field Guides step forward to add new ones to the archives. But we don’t forget the past — often there’s a call for an encore telling of an especially memorable or funny tale that we treasure and can relate to from our collective experiences in the field. Here’s one by Bret, from way back, with a little history, a few rocks, some bum tires, a little booze, a little good luck, and a whole lotta bird. Bret’s updated a few key bits with recent info, but even with the passing of ten years and more the story’s still current for birding adventures in places far off the beaten path. Enjoy!
—Jan Pierson

nebbretIt was the Ides of March 1996. I was leading a small group of birders through the hinterland of northeastern Brazil on our fourth Field Guides tour to that fascinating region. Having spent much of the previous ten years in Brazil, and living in Rio at the time, my pork-n-cheese, I mean Portuguese, was getting pretty good. I would need it that memorable day, the day we set out for Lear’s Macaw in the arid outback of the vast state of Bahia.

You see, the Lear’s (or Indigo) Macaw is a mighty rare bird. For most of ornithological history it was known from only a few specimens that had come to light through the cage-bird trade. Then, in late 1978, a few months after I graduated from Earlham College, Helmut Sick (the German “father of Brazilian ornithology”) and two students set off from Rio de Janeiro to traverse the northeast in hopes of discovering the secluded stronghold of Lear’s Macaw. At the time, this ranked among the top ornithological mysteries yet to be unlocked, and the team had to start from near “zero.” But luck and a healthy dose of perseverance were with them. At dusk on 31 December 1978, they became the first ornithologists to encounter these magnificent macaws in nature. In the following days, they discovered the breeding area in the remote Raso da Catarina of interior Bahia where the birds nested on high cliffs in rugged canyon country. What an incredible thrill it all must have been! Imagine a spectacular bird like this being discovered alive in the wild as recently as 1978!

neblearsmacaws
A pair of fabulous Lear’s Macaws on their favored food source, the licuri palm

Today, there are probably fewer than 500 individual Lear’s Macaws surviving in this same core area of north-central Bahia. The birds receive reasonably effective protection (at least in the main breeding area), but their natural reproductive level is low and their numbers are easily decimated by hardships of the environment exacerbated by ongoing attempts to capture and smuggle out young and adults for sale on the black market. Finding Lear’s Macaws in the wild, hearing their strange voices and admiring their beautiful indigo plumage set off by striking yellow patches on the cheeks, orbital skin, and tip of the tongue, is one of the great quests we expect to realize on every Northeastern Brazil tour we offer. And we have been successful all 17 years now, but that 1996 trip was a close call…

Dry habitat with bromeliads and cacti near Petrolina
Dry habitat with bromeliads and cacti near Petrolina

We departed that day pre-dawn from Petrolina, Pernambuco, a busy town of some 250,000 on the great Rio São Francisco. I had a small group that year, only seven participants, and our vehicle was a “12-passenger” van. That translates to room for 8 adult gringos and their usual massive amount of luggage — and nothing else. Consider that a couple of the boys in the backfield were pretty big fellas, Jim Plyler and David Galinat, with skyscraping Jane Brooks cheerleading all the way, and you get the picture: we were loaded to the max! Tom Raque, John and Barbara Ribble, and Polly Rothstein rounded out the group. We were in exceptionally high spirits, because we had found a pair of Buff-fronted Owls a few days earlier and had seen the last wild Spix’s Macaw only yesterday (that bird sadly disappeared in late 1999). Our route would take us across the river and eastward along that little black line you can still see on today’s maps, through Poço de Fora, Uauá, Bendegó, and Canudos all the way to Jeremoabo. It’s 250 km of rocky dirt road, narrow and potentially muddy in places; one impasse along the way (serious mud, broken-down vehicle blocking the road, bridge washout…worse yet, your vehicle dying), and you backtrack to make the swing over the top of the São Francisco and down through Paulo Afonso — in other words “game over,” you missed Lear’s Macaw and you have to use another day in hopes of getting it right (but see Note 1 at the end of Part II).

nebgroup1Our day seemed to be going well enough, albeit slow and steady as we kicked up a rolling cloud of dust and braced against the constant bashing of rocks on the floorboards. Goats and sheep trotted ahead of us, scampering off the road just before we bumped them off, bells clanging on all sides. A veritable plague in northeast Brazil, these animals eat everything from the roots up allowing essentially no regeneration of native vegetation — but they are the lifeline of many poor families in northeast Brazil, the only livestock able to survive the harsh dry seasons. We took advantage of the cool, early hours for a couple of birding stops. Then, just 60 km into the drive near Poço de Fora, we blew a tire. The spare got us another 50 km to Uauá. Uauá is on the map, but just barely. I am here to tell you that Uauá had a borracharia, and thank goodness for it (Spanish-speakers, see Note 2 at the end of Part II!). The greasy-armed, smiling little man who came out to greet us was the usual, hard-working Bahian soul who resolves problems with genuine interest and hospitality, and we were soon on our way with all five tires. But the road was merciless. I gritted my teeth against sharp rocks and tried not to think about our weight and low clearance. We made it the 40 km to Bendegó, but blew another tire halfway to Canudos, this time irreparably. The spare again did its job, getting us to Canche. But we had no “spare” at that point, and the way things had been going, I saw little chance of us making it to Jeremoabo that night. Unless, that is, we could somehow get another tire…

( continued in Part II )

NE Brazil: Last-chance Pickup, Part II

(Did you miss Part I?)

cactus-garden-neb-09
Wild cactus ‘gardens’ are characteristic sights in NE Brazil.

Limping gingerly through Canche, a place with apparently no wheeled vehicles larger than wheelbarrows, we came to a bar at the far edge of town. There were three pickup trucks parked at odd angles in front of the place. Our driver pointed out excitedly that one of them had tires just the size we needed. “Graças a deus,” I thought to myself as I asked the group to wait a moment and I went in to find the owner of that last-chance pickup. The sun was still about 30 degrees above the horizon, and it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the hot, dark interior of the bar. Waving flies out of my face but not the smell of drying cachaça (Brazilian aguardiente) from my nose, I asked loudly (“polite” would not be appropriate in this setting), “Opa! Quem é o dono daquele pickapy verde?” (“Hey! Whose is that green pickup out there?”). Faces stayed down on tables, not a sign of life in the joint. I gave three loud claps and repeated the question. A head came up and a red-eyed, scraggly-bearded guy about 30 or 50 said, “Quem quer saber?” (“Who wants to know?”). Time to get a little more polite. I said that I was passing through town and needed to buy his spare tire, and could we go look at it. He slumped back down and said he didn’t have a spare. I said no matter, any tire in decent shape would do. He thought about that for a minute, then raised up to exclaim in no uncertain terms, “Look, dumb___, I DO NOT HAVE A SPARE!” Time to get quite polite. I sat down and introduced myself to this deeply drunken man, explaining that I had a group of innocent and aged tourists out there needing to make it to Jeremoabo in the worst way (nothing about the macaw to muddy the picture; apologies to all of you who were there with me that day). He was unimpressed, and reiterated that there was not a thing he could do about it.

All tour leaders the world over will now chime in in agreement that there is indeed one thing that will resolve an issue such as this one (as well as almost anything else of material worth): money. I offered him the equivalent of about $60 for the tire of my choice. Unbelieving, I guess, he looked at me for a long, cross-eyed moment as he processed this new information, and grinned as he stood up. We walked (staggered, more like it) out into the blinding sunlight. Leaning on the truck, he paused (I feared he was going to hurl) then raised his arms silently as if to say, “Go ahead, she’s yours, just take it!” Our driver had the best tire off that truck and on to our van (bad tire already off) in a flash. We left the pickup on a block of wood and I shook hands with the guy as I gave him his money. He expressed no apprehension at having so handcuffed himself to that bar; his world hadn’t changed significantly (yet). I thought to myself that I envied him being able to do that, to just let things play out as they would “amanhã” (mañana). And I entertained the idea that he might be one heckuva nice guy even as it occurred to me that he had very few brain cells firing forward.

first Lear's Macaws in sight...
We’ve got the first Lear’s Macaws in sight…

But forward, onward, it was for us. With renewed but not replenished confidence, we continued our eastward way from Canche. The sun was getting low as we pulled up to the reliable feeding area of Lear’s Macaws that I had come to know over the past several years. I’d prepared folks for the possibility that we were too late that day, that we might well have to take tomorrow morning to retrace a long section of bad road from Jeremoabo to have a chance at finding the macaws. Our ears were ringing from the pummeling of that relentlessly rocky road. We walked into a dry, yellow pasture studded with low licuri palms, the favored food plant of the macaws. Several long minutes elapsed. A Burrowing Owl gazed lazily in our direction. We scanned the palms and tall shade trees for dark, long-tailed shapes within…then it happened. First calls of distant birds, then Tom picked up a pair flying through a gap in the trees. Minutes later, we had the scopes on several brilliant Lear’s Macaws as they preened in treetops and flew around calling loudly just before departing the feeding area for the distant cliffs of Raso da Catarina. We’d made it!! The day was an overwhelming success despite a heavy dose of frustration along the way — but isn’t that so often the way on a birding trip? Just when you fear all is lost, the best pulls through and what was a desperate mess becomes a good story.

A pair of Lear's Macaws in flight...a spectacular sight!
…and what a spectacular sight they are!

Now, I wish that were the end of the story for that day. But we had 50 km of nasty road between us and our simple little hotel in Jeremoabo and, all agreed, little chance of making it on the rubber we had. We optimistically resolved to take it really slowly and just “think light.” But only about 10 km along the way, we lost another tire which sent us from orange to red alert (despite the world being a lot more peaceful place back then). As our tour itinerary says to this day, “…if the tire and radiator gods are with us, we will see Lear’s Macaw, not a moment too soon.” Well, the gods fortunately were with us, though working in mysterious ways, and we did make it to the hotel for a good, home-cooked dinner washed down with lots of cold beer. We toasted the Lear’s Macaws heartily that night, “Long may they live!” And I quietly toasted the drunk in Canche, as I have done a number of times since.

O Fim (The End)

————————

A couple of notes
nebbus (1) The road through Uauá and Canudos is in much better shape these days, and our huge (Greyhound-sized), comfortable bus lets the miles slide by painlessly. Yes, some things do improve over the years!

(2) You Spanish-speakers out there are no doubt raising an eyebrow (“borracho” meaning “drunk”), but rest assured that this is merely the equivalent of a vulcanizadora, a tire-repair shop (“borracha” in Portuguese is “rubber”).

If you’re pondering a Lear’s Macaw in your future,
see our Northeast Brazil: Long Live the Lear’s page.