Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist
In the Wilds – A Life Time of
Odysseys Part 1
Not everything that we do in life is well thought out or carefully planned. I have found that some of the most important things that happened to me were pure accidents. For example, while at OSU a neighbor started a city-sponsored ceramic program. She cornered me one day and said, “you are a dentist and you likely have good manual dexterity; come to my evening clay class I think you will enjoy it.” I did not just enjoy it; I loved it. The first pot I ever made won a blue ribbon. When I moved to Atlanta, I wanted to continue the hobby and signed up for a course at a private art school. Its ceramic programs were so popular that they chose future participant’s names out of a hat. I was not selected. So instead, I signed up for an evening at Emory class on Georgia Birds. Little did I know that my free time and future vacations were going to take an unexpected turn. I quickly discovered there were birds in my yard that I had never seen before. I eventually recorded over 120 species. My house was on a spring-fall bird migration route. That started a quest to see and experience wild things.
One night in 1977, I found in an Audubon Magazine a tiny advertisement for a trip to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador. The ad had a rare toll free 800 number. So, I called and a most enthusiastic lady described the trip and I signed us up. I had to call her back the next day to confirm the dates and was embarrassed that in my enthusiasm I forget to ask the cost. We flew non-stop from Atlanta to Quito, Ecuador. Upon landing, I found out that there were 60 people on the trip, our guides had never been south of Florida, and that the first and only South American bird field guide was not published yet. We were furnished mimeographed pages of its plates. It turned out that the author had never been to South America either. He wrote his book using observations from dried specimens housed at the Natural History Museum in New York. I learned later that it was full of errors. Nowadays there are bird guides for just about every South and Central American country.
At a briefing the first night, they described the next day’s train ride originating in Quito. It was going to crisscross the Andean mountains and cross the equator at over 10,000 feet. At the end of the day we were going to be at sea level in the coastal town of Guayaquil. They suggested sitting on top of the train’s luggage rack if we really wanted to experience the Andes. Eight of us went to the top. It was a slow-moving narrow-gauge tourist train. There were so many switch-backs that it had to go slow. The luggage racks were meant for luggage thus were very uncomfortable. Sitting next to me was a young woman named Harriet who was traveling with her mother who was inside the train. Harriet, her mother, my traveling partner and I became fast friends. The Galapagos Islands were magical. Next we transferred to a house boat and in dugout canoes explored the Napo River in Ecuador.
We traveled with Harriet for 25 years bird watching. We have been to Mexico twice, Bolivia twice, Peru twice, Guatemala, Surname, Africa four times, Costa Rica, Belize thee times, Ecuador three times and Panama twice.
We discovered a bird guide early on by the name of Rose Ann Rowlett. She, her brother John and several birding friends founded a company called Field Guides. We became Rowlett groupies. Back in those days there were no eco-travel lodges in Central or South America. We stayed in places I would not consider today. They were chosen for access to the richest habitats for birds. Rose Ann traveled with a bank of prerecorded bird call cassettes on her waist along with a player-recorder. She also had a parabolic unidirectional microphone that looked like a small satellite dish, and a cumbersome Questar spotting scope that had to be assembled for each use. She was a sight walking on a remote jungle path.
On those exotic trips I was able to forget about all aspects of my life and totally and completely focus on the habitats, the birds, plants and animals around us. I became aware of a part of myself that I did not know, a newly discovered Bob Gilbert.
I became a good spotter. I did not always recognize what I was seeing but I most often found it first. One time in Panama we were told to watch carefully for the difficult to see the Tiny Hawk which was the size of our American Robin. There were 10 people in our group and suddenly the Tiny Hawk flew over us and perched in a distant grove of trees. No one else saw it but me. It was difficult to visibly guide everyone to the bird but eventually we got the spotting scope on it.
The cassette recordings were very helpful. If we heard an unfamiliar call, we would record it and play it back and the bird would often fly in close to us and sometimes you even had to duck. Nowadays there are mixed feelings about play-back recordings. Some think this disturbs the birds mating behavior and stimulates them to defend their territories unnecessarily.
Early on I met birders who were listers. They kept life lists and were generally only interested in increasing the size of their lists. They were sort like handy-cap golfers. On a trip to Bolivia we traveled with a man who had logged more species than anyone else in the world. He had previously been to Bolivia and returned to find four species, one being the Lancebill hummingbird. Its long straight bill made it look like a small bird is chasing a stick. It is often found feeding deep in the neck of the blooms of the Angel Trumpet plant. We didn’t find it until we were starting to leave in the van. I happened to look out the side window as the bird flew over the van but it did not land close by. Back in the van I looked out the front window and there we found one of the world’s largest hummingbirds, the Great Sapphire Wing. It is a 6-7 inch species that has very slow wing beats almost like a butterfly. At a high elevation one time we watched an Andean Hillstar hummingbird land and go into topor. This is a self-induced mechanism that slows the bird’s metabolism to save energy. This is similar to what mammals do when they hibernate. An amazing fact is that Ecuador has 152 species of Hummingbirds. Hummers are only found in the Americas. Central America has one of the smallest hummers, the Bumblebee Hummingbird, that is slightly less than three inches. It is hard to find but its pink neck band or gorget flashes as it turns its head. We first heard it and only three or four people in the group found it as it was so small.
In September 1982 the four of us were having dinner together as Harriet was in Atlanta visiting. During dinner, I said “let’s play a game-ignoring time and money for only a minute were in the world would you like to go?” Harriet’s mother instantly said Africa. An African exchange student had lived with her family for over a year while studying at Emory. Harriet volunteered to go with her and we said we had always dreamed of going to Africa. After a long silence I said “how could we do this?” And then spontaneously, we all said “Rose Ann.” We became so excited we finished our meal quickly and called Rose Ann. She was considering adding other African trips to her company’s birding schedule and needed a scouting trip. She made us an offer. So off we went to Kenya for three weeks. We saw the astounding number of 491 species of birds plus all the big game. It was game migration time enabling us to see thousands of animals. It was a trip of a life time. We ended the trip at a resort on the Indian Ocean.
Next week: Part II of “In the Wilds – A Life Time of Odyssey.”