For the Birds Radio Program: Far Away Places

Original Air Date: Nov. 4, 1996

As Laura approaches her 45th birthday, she’s growing impatient to go to far away places. (date confirmed on transcript)

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My birding is geographically limited. I’ve seen 571 species of wild birds in my life, all in the lower 48 States. I’ve visited Canada three times–once to Thunder Bay and twice to Point Pelee, on Lake Erie, but have never crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico, though I did look across it with yearning once or twice. My dream is to spend a year in Costa Rica witnessing an entire annual cycle in that rich but tiny country. Costa Rica is the size of West Virginia, yet within its borders live over 830 different species–more than on the entire continent of North America.

Imagine a country with 57 different kinds of hummingbirds, with names as vivid as their plumage—Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Coppery-headed Emerald, Red-footed Plumeleteer, Blue-throated Goldentail, Crowned Woodnymph, Purple-crowned Fairy, Rufous-crested Coquette, Magenta-throated Woodstar. Imagine living where you could see 10 species of trogons, including what is perhaps the most magnificent bird in the universe, the Resplendent Quetzal. A lucky birder in Costa Rica might even see a Common Potoo–a relative of nighthawks and whip-poor-wills who sports bizarrely enormous yellow eyes–as if that little bird had received transplants from a Great Horned Owl. Seeing a picture of it makes me understand why ornithologists now put the nightjar family in the owl order. Costa Rica has a White-­ throated Magpie Jay–an azure bird with a long, streaming tail that incongruously sports a California Quail’s backward topknot. The Royal Flycatcher is drab, soft brown until it opens its bright black-speckled orange crest–a huge half-circle fan. So many strange and wonderful birds live in Costa Rica that it would take several lifetimes to know them intimately. All I want is a year, and I’d happily settle for a week.

I’d also like to spend a migration season in Panama, watching literally millions of hawks pass over the narrow strait. Then I’d head for Brazil where I could find out conclusively whether or not our Common Nighthawks, spending the winter down there, speak Portuguese. I’d bask in the tropical sun looking at bazillions of Brazilian birds before wending my way toward the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego to see penguins. Over 3,100 species of birds live in South America, almost 4 times as many as in North America, and I want to see at least a fraction of them. Birds living in Central and South America take on the colors of the rainforest–lush greens, rich browns, the bright hues of tropical fruits, and glowing, iridescent colors more dazzling than any rainbow. Reading about them is fun, but I yearn to see those pages come alive.

As I approach my 45th birthday and learn to deal with bifocals and hot flashes, I’m anxious to discover more of this planet’s avian riches while I still have enough high-frequency hearing to find them myself. In his poem “Birches,” Robert Frost wrote that ” Earth’s the right place for love. I don’ t know where it’s likely to go better.” Earth’s also the right place for birds, and I want to get out and explore the planet a bit. But not for too long. South America has thousands more species than we do, but no matter how many wonderful and exotic species I manage to find, I’ll always need to come back here to see the two birds that I couldn’t live too long without, the two species that define home and hearth for me–the Black-capped Chickadee and nature’s perfect bird, the Blue Jay.