Birding Rally Challenge: Exclusive Interview with Guy Kirwan from The Forest Falcons


Ahead of the next Birding Rally Challenge taking place in northern Peru this June, we’re proud to present this exclusive interview with Guy Kirwan, who was part of the UK team ‘The Forest Falcons’ that participated in the inaugural challenge last autumn.
Guy is an ornithologist and editor currently based in Norwich, UK, and working for Lynx Edicions on the HBW Alive project. He has edited or co-authored more than 30 major books. Since the mid 1990s he has been working intensively throughout South America and the Caribbean, living in Brazil for almost seven years, researching the taxonomy and breeding biology of birds, especially in the Atlantic Forest, Amazonia and the Greater Antilles.
 Photos taken by his team member Alex Lees 
Guy Kirwan

1. Where did your bird watching passion begin?

I grew up in North West England and can pretty much date my interest to a single event, seeing a summer-plumaged Great Crested Grebe on a local reservoir. Fortunately, I had a father who not only could identify the bird for me, but had a genuine interest in natural history in general. He certainly nurtured my love of birds, but never attempted to form it on my behalf, and took me on many trips to see birds throughout Britain.

2. The first BRC in association with ITA was a huge success. What was your highlight moment?

I think I can speak for the entire UK team in saying that our undoubted highlight of the whole event was watching a family of Spectacled Bears close to our hotel in Machu Picchu on the last morning of the rally. We’ll never know whether our spending an hour watching the bears cost us victory in the rally itself (we lost by three species, having been level-pegging with one of the North American teams overnight), but we were all in total agreement that it was worth it! So, I guess none of us will ever make Olympians with that attitude.

Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) cub

3. The Tambopata Amazon reserve is an incredible place for bird watching enthusiasts. How many species did your team specifically spot during the BRC 2012? 

Our overall total during the rally was 490 species, of which we recorded 326 species during our three days in the Amazon. This included a single-day total of 239 species on the last of those three days, which is even more remarkable given that we did not enter dry-land tall forest until midday. Terra Firme forest is the most bird-rich general habitat type in the Amazon.

The Saffron Crown Tanager (Tangara xanthocephala) and Inca Terns (Larosterna inca)

4. Birds aside for a moment, were you lucky enough to spot the Spectacled Bears that are found in the grounds of Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel?

Indeed, we were and it might also be mentioned that I think all of the six teams participating in the rally saw at least one bear during their stay at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. Simply incredible.

The final score of the BRC 2012

5. What are your top three countries for bird watching in the world?

Anywhere with some Amazonian forest really, so Peru’s scoring pretty highly, although I have only visited a handful of times. I have been hugely fortunate to spend a huge part of the last two decades in the New World tropics, from Mexico and the Caribbean all the way south to Argentine and Chilean Patagonia. A special focus during this period of my life has been Brazil, where I have spent approximately eight years in the field. I have to say that it is probably my favourite birding destination in the world. Another very special place in my heart is Turkey, where I spent several years working on conservation of wetland birds and habitats, travelling throughout the country and eventually writing a monograph to its birds. I always enjoy going back there and, of course, Istanbul is one of the great cities in the world, alongside Rio de Janeiro. My final choice is rather harder to make, but Cuba is a country that has fascinated me for more than a decade and constantly manages to lure me back, perhaps because I have still yet to see a Zapata Rail, much less an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The staggering landscape and seabirds of Alaska will also see me return soon too.

Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans), Cabot's Terns (Thalasseus acuflavidus), Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), Franklin's Gulls (Leucophaeus pipixcan)

6. Any tips for bird watching novices coming to Peru?

Number one must be, employ a local guide. Peru is one of the most diverse countries in the world, but birds are not always easy to see. Even vastly experienced birders will often find that a local guide is a big help, but for a novice they must be nigh-on essential. Number two, spend some time learning the birds before you come. Even ten years ago that would have involved an incredible amount of homework. It’s still not easy, simply because there are so many birds. With the excellent field guides you can purchase, namely ‘The Birds of Peru’ by Thomas Schulenberg, and online sound archives like xeno-canto (www.xeno-canto.org) it’s a lot easier than it used to be! My final recommendation, which holds for anyone be they a birder or not, is to learn some Spanish before you come. You’ll certainly enjoy your visit so much more.

7. With the next BRC heading to Northern Peru, do you have any birding expectations/species you are expecting to spot with this new location?

Northern Peru is an incredible birding destination; undoubtedly one of the finest in the world, jam-packed with hundreds of birds and many special endemics with highly localised distributions. Some are among the most charismatic and most-wanted birds in the world, with names to match their appearance, like Marvelous Spatuletail (one of the world’s most extravagantly-plumaged and rarest hummingbirds), Long-whiskered Owlet (a very poorly known nocturnal bird that hardly anyone had seen until a few years ago) and Pale-billed Antpitta (a magnificent denizen of the understorey that is very hard to spot). I am not sure how many of these we’ll get to see this time; fortunately I’ve seen a great many of the region’s key birds on previous visits to this part of Peru. We’ll see how we get on…

The Forest Falcons

8. How will the next two BRCs differ from the first one?

The northern rally is going to be a lot more vehicle-based. It’s going to be interesting to see how well this works, but I am sure all the teams will embrace the concept once we are on the ground and running (or should I say driving). We haven’t seen the format for the third rally yet, but I suspect that it will be closer to that in the 2012 event, which we all felt was a great success.

9. How do you prepare for the Birding Rally Challenge & what are your must have items for the rally?

Surprisingly, preparation was rather minimal last time, and might be again for this June’s event, especially as the UK team seems to be permanently scattered over about half of the globe. Mainly, I’ll try and listen to a few more sound recordings of birds I haven’t heard for a long time. Must-have items (beyond the obvious, binoculars) include one or two telescopes between the team and most importantly, recorders and iPods with pre-recorded birdcalls for playback. The best preparation, of course, would be to go out and do the same route a week in advance; it’s not like running a marathon, where covering the same distance combined with the same weather and terrain might suffice. You can’t really practice for birding in Peru where I live in Norfolk.

The Inkaterra Bird Watching Pack

10. Do you have any go-to magazines, websites or blogs that you read that keep you up to date with birdwatching news across the world?

I’m something of a traditionalist, so magazines and journals are still very important to me (especially as I am an editor in ‘real life’). I subscribe to all of the following: British Birds, Dutch Birding, Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, Cotinga and Neotropical Birding, Bulletin of the African Bird Club, Forktail and BirdingASIA ,and Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia. I regularly look at Surfbirds and BirdForum. Birders are also great users of Facebook.

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