Birdwatching with Raul Arias de Para
By Raul Arias de Para
Businessman and Conservationist
28 June 1992
During the past five years or so, I have been dedicating a good part of my spare time to bird-watching. I never imagined that this peaceful and apparently useless activity could captivate me so thoroughly. I have discovered, however, that it offers multiple levels of satisfaction and delight; as a result I have become an avid practitioner. I would now like to share some comments about this pastime hoping to interest the reader in this fascinating activity.
The greatest enjoyment I obtain from bird-watching is the visual delight of the birds’ colorful plumage. For example, watching the flight of a Resplendent Quetzal, with its long, wavy tail and its red breast on the dark green background of a cloud forest, is an extraordinarily beautiful natural spectacle. This bird’s plumage has a metallic appearance like that of the hummingbirds. When the sun shines upon its feathers they glow as if they had an inner fire. I suppose this is the same sensation art lovers obtain when they admire a painting from a great master. I doubt, however, if any artist in the world can duplicate the glow of the Quetzal in full flight.
Besides the visual pleasure described above, we can also derive intellectual satisfaction when we correctly identify the species of bird that we are watching. This is not an easy task because in Panama there are 936 species of birds, including migratory birds that cross our skies twice a year. This number is greater than that corresponding to the United States and Canada together. In other words, in our country there are many bird species in a relatively small physical area and it is easy to watch them. However, it is difficult to identify them, as we shall see below.
It so happens that in many of the species the male is different from the female, thereby doubling the number of specimens to be identified. Also, some species vary their appearance during mating season, and in others the young are different from the adults. Therefore, in Panama we have approximately 3,000 different specimens which the bird-watcher tries to identify using the English or Spanish name or perhaps even the scientific name in Latin! On the other hand, some species are almost impossible to see because they remain hidden among the bushes, while others are active only at night. We identify them by their song, thereby utilizing in this peaceful and apparently useless activity of birdwatching, the exquisite sense of hearing. Lastly, it is important to point out that we have only assessed the effort corresponding to birds in Panama. When we include the species worldwide the difficulty is multiplied by ten because our country has about 10 percent of the world’s avifauna. It is really a challenge worthy of the keenest mind.
Going into our forests in search of birds also serves to strengthen our commitment to environmental and social causes because it is impossible to be a bird-watcher and to remain indifferent in the face of the deforestation our country is undergoing. I do not know how many thousands of hectares are being deforested by the land-hungry farmers; by the industrial lumber mills and urban construction. Possibly, within the next two generations Panama’s forests will exist only in the minds of the elders, in museums and in history books. That is why, the bird-watcher, is by nature, a conservationist. However, a conservationist must not only struggle to conserve the forest, he must also understand the underlying causes of the deforestation and promote measures to decrease it. For example, the exemption of duties on importing lumber, birth control education and a more balanced sharing of wealth. Bird-watching thus becomes an incentive to attain greater goals.
To walk alone silently in the forests, alert to the slightest movement and the faintest sound, can result in watching a very rare and dazzling bird. Sometimes, the solitude and silence of the forest also make me introspective and allow me to understand Mother Nature’s wordless language. On those rare occasions, I gladly talk to her and allow Mother Nature to lead me by the hand through invisible pathways and indescribable trails. Suddenly, in a clearing beyond the ferns and the trees, I find Old Man Forest awaiting my visit. It is then that I vividly remember that Oriental belief that maintains that one seeks God in the things one loves the most, and it is through them that He reveals Himself. So, bird-watching, that peaceful and apparently useless activity can in the last analysis lead us to God, as every human endeavor should.