Birdwatchers the world over can be found hiking through fields and forests, binoculars and guidebooks in hand. Three passionate 'birders' talk about their fascination with our feathered friends.
It's 4.30 am, shortly before sunrise. A warm southerly wind blows over the uppermost tip of the Dutch North Sea island of Texel. A nightingale is singing furiously outside a tent. It's time to get up.
A cacophony of hoots, chirps and whistles fills the air as passerines, pied flycatchers, redstarts, tree pipits and whinchats try to lustily outdo each other with their bird song. For Arjan Dwarshuis, this is the perfect start to the day.
The young archeology student from Amsterdam has been an enthusiastic bird watcher for as long as he can remember. “As a child, I would stare in awe at these feathered wonders as they came to feed at the bird table in our back garden,” Arjan said. His first bird book and his grandfather’s old binoculars opened a whole new world, and meant he was able to put names to the blue tits, song thrushes and great spotted woodpeckers in his garden.
Arjan has been a devoted bird watcher ever since. Over the last two decades, he has spotted almost half the 10,000 known bird species worldwide, and is determined to continue with his hobby for the rest of his life. He hopes he might even be able to earn a living from 'birding.'
5,000 species, 22 countries, 1 record
His greatest adventure to date could well pave the way for that. Arjan is currently preparing for a so-called “Big year,” a dream for every birdwatcher. The goal is to spot as many species as possible within a single year. He plans to start in 2016, and cross 22 countries and spot 5,000 bird species in the ensuing 12 months.
If he pulls it off, the Dutch student would break the world record set by British birders Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, who managed to spot 4,341 different birds in 2008. They are also avid bird watchers and have made a career of their passion. Both worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which does not only work to save the creatures themselves, but the rivers, lakes, forests, swamps or coastal cliffs in and around which they live.
“The RSPB protects these landscapes from destruction and from being built on,” Ruth and Alan said.“ RSPB is able to protect the whole range of biodiversity that inhabits each habitat.”
Though the duo enjoyed working for the RSPB, they soon realized that they were spending too much time in meetings and seldom had time to get outdoors and observe birds. So, on the suggestion of a friend, they decided to take a break for a year, travel leisurely around the world and spot a few birds. "He suggested we should set a new world record for the most bird species seen in one year,” they explained.
The pair gave up their jobs, sold their home and belongings and prepared for their big journey. The whole process took 18 months, and took them to 27 countries, where they had some incredible experiences and adventures. Contrary to popular perception, the two stress, bird watching is anything but boring. It can be exciting to the point of positively dangerous.
Joys and pains of birding
In South Africa, they were encircled by a bushfire, which spread so quickly that they couldn’t escape. “We took shelter in a building which was immediately surrounded by flames on all sides, the air was full of smoke and it was really hard to breathe. We honestly thought we were going to die,” they said. "Luckily for us the strong winds blew the flames past the building before the roof could catch fire, so we were able to escape.” But 14 people lost their lives in the fire.
It was the worst thing they experienced during their attempt to set a birding world record. But, at the same time, Alan and Ruth say nothing is more powerful than the beauty of their many hours of quiet observation.
That's something Arjan Dwarshuis can relate to. He was at a height of 4,500 meters in the Peruvian Andes suffering from altitude sickness when he saw a Diademed Sandpiper-plover. "I cried out of utter happiness,” he remembers. “It was an awesome experience.”
A kind of meditation
Like Arjan, Ruth and Alan, there are millions of people around the world who absolutely love the thrill of spotting an elusive or magnificent bird. The US alone counted some 47 million birders among its population in 2011. And, their numbers are growing.
Arjan says it's easy to see why. “Birding is the best hobby one can have. It takes you to the coolest places in the world and you never know what to expect,” he said. “It teaches you to focus more clearly on the world around you. You could say it is a form of meditation. A relaxing break from often hectic city life.”
Alan and Ruth also believe there are many advantages to birdwatching. One is the role it plays in protecting the environment by getting people interested in saving natural habitats and understanding what is at stake.
“Once you’ve been able to experience watching a particular bird in its habitat, you care so much more about protecting it,” the two birders said.
Big year, big money
Arjan has big plans to raise awareness about the need to protect the environment during his upcoming trip. During his Big Year, he aims to visit 50 different projects that mostly focus on endangered bird species and ecosystems, and to report on them and his experiences on his blog www.arjandwarshuis.com. Besides generating public interest, he hopes to encourage people to loosen their purse strings.
“I want to make people aware that nature needs them, (and their money) as ambassadors for its protection."
The Dutch student still has another year to prepare his trip. Alan and Ruth advise him to plan for budget generously for his Big Year. Their own was curtailed when they ran out of funds.
But, the most important thing, they say, is that Arjan enjoys his trip and the many gorgeous birds he gets to see and hear.