e have no control over what we are going to see
The most intrepid birders will use any means available to spot birds wherever they reside: on moors, spits, golf courses, garbage dumps or trawlers. But they often get started in public parks or even in their own backyards, which is to say this is a passion that can be pursued wherever birds fly, most anywhere on the planet. In South Africa, where he grew up, Boucher once drove 12 hours to see a rare Egyptian vulture. Today’s destination is decidedly less exotic, a 1,557-acre island of open space in the suburbs of Fairfax County, Virginia.
Boucher arrives at Huntley Meadows this October morning and waits for his group in the damp parking lot. The 47-year-old Nature Conservancy geographer is easy to find, standing six-foot-four with a beard and a big smile that says, “Yup, I’m in.” His tall frame is festooned with a scope, binoculars and a digital audio recorder for summoning elusive birds. The 12 people he will lead are mostly what the American Birding Association would call “occasional” and “mid-level” birders, people who bird-watch up to five or 50 times a year, respectively. Boucher himself is a birder of the first order, someone who has traveled to 47 countries to see 4,714 of the world’s 10,240 species.
As Boucher puts it, the majority of birders probably refer to this preoccupation as a hobby. For him, it’s more of a beloved affliction. His goal is to see and hear members of all 227 bird families; he has only 27 to go. Birding dictates his personal travel itineraries, and it fills his house with kitchy-birdy knickknacks. It introduced him to his wife, and it led him to his career in conservation.
In April and May, the height of bird season, Boucher birds to exhaustion. This time of year is slower, perfect to lead a group. “I enjoy showing people birds, especially beginner birders,” he says. “They get such a thrill out of seeing even the most common species, and it’s fun to see their reactions—to get them to understand and appreciate the joy of birding and being outdoors.”
Today’s group consists of some coworkers from the Conservancy’s headquarters. They know Boucher as the world-class geographic information systems (GIS) scientist in their office who uses satellite data to monitor the status of healthy and threatened habitats. They also know him as the bird-crazy map guy who has braved civil war and landslides to find and see birds. He has chosen Huntley Meadows for today’s walk because its wetlands and forest attract some 200 bird species, making it among the best birding spots in metropolitan Washington, D.C.
“Sun is nice, but it shuts down bird activity quickly, especially in the tropics. The best is seasonal, overcast, no wind, no rain,” Boucher informs the group as they enter the trail. Today is that kind of day. He pauses as he does before every bird walk, and listens. “The more you bird, the more important your senses become, especially your ears.”
As the sun burns off the morning haze, the group follows him on a boardwalk that cuts through wetlands. They spot a good number of birds for this season, including a bald eagle. Later, they watch a hawk attack a robin, a fascinating and sobering reminder of nature’s killer instincts.
Boucher points to a tiny mass of slate-gray feathers in a leafless tree. “A black-throated blue warbler,” he announces. “Male. Everybody got it?” The Sibley Guide to Birds depicts more than 500 warbler plumages. Finding the right page, much less the exact bird, can be dizzying. The group of fledgling birders is suitably impressed by Boucher’s keen eye for subtle markings; this specimen has what he calls a dapper look with no wishy-washy colors. Compared with the avian Lady Gagas he seeks in the tropics (birds of paradise in New Guinea, gaudy quetzals in Guatemala), this black-throated blue is a mousy librarian. But for him, the thrill lies less in the spectacle than in witnessing a late-season appearance of the species in Northern Virginia.
“That’s the bird of the day!”
Birding is booming. More than 48 million Americans are birders, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which tracks wildlife recreation. In 2001 birding was 232 percent more popular than in 1983, and it has gained steadily since. One reason for the surge, ornithologists suggest, is ease of entry: Anybody can become a birder. Although some devotees spend thousands on binoculars and exotic travel, birding requires little exertion or equipment to start.
According to USFWS, bird-watchers contributed $36 billion to the U.S. economy in 2006 (the most recent year for such data) and created 671,000 American jobs while generating $10 billion in state and federal tax revenues. Well-situated spots like Cape May, New Jersey, which sits right in the path of several migration routes, have profited by developing ecotourism; people from all over flock to the state’s southernmost tip to observe its bird populations.
Even Hollywood has gone avian. Released in 2011, The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black, is, of all things, a birding comedy; two more birding movies are in the pipeline. Meanwhile, ornithologists have ventured boldly into the public domain, posting sightings and tracking data online for citizen scientists to follow. For John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Internet, social media and mobile devices are enhancing the opportunities and the depth of experience.”
The downside to this popularity is a lack of general field etiquette among some birders. Research in Peru found that the human voice speaking at 50 decibels—the volume typically used inside a library—reduced bird sightings by more than 30 percent. Seeing this study last year inspired Boucher to pen a good-natured (albeit cathartic) ode to noise reduction entitled “Shut the Hell Up.”
Boucher grew up in suburban Johannesburg, where his parents’ half-acre garden attracted plenty of birds. On weekends, his family visited nature reserves and his grandparents’ farms near Cape Town. Trips to the Limpopo River and the Lesotho Mountains entranced them. Once in the Lapalala wilderness, Boucher leapt out of his chair. His dad thought he’d choked on lunch. In fact, he’d spotted an African finfoot, a white-and-brown waterfowl with bright feet the color of traffic cones.
In high school he excelled at computers and art, but he developed an even more intense curiosity about birds, which was only heightened when he went off to study at the University of the Witwatersrand. During his college years, Boucher and his brother scouted for the South African Bird Atlas Project, a catalog of bird populations that was updated monthly for five years. Although nothing symbolizes freedom more than winged migration, birds were not an intentional escape from the race riots and violence he had witnessed in Apartheid-era South Africa; they were his portal to nature.
After college and a mandatory stint in the army (where he skipped mock battles to go birding), he worked as a computer programmer—a job he refers to as a slow death. Without any reason to stay in South Africa, he and two friends in 1992 took a year off to bird North and South America. On their shoestring journey, Boucher trimmed hedges to earn travel money, got arrested for showering at a campground without paying, ate 30 mangoes a day in Costa Rica and sidestepped civil war in Guatemala.
Boucher eagerly recounts the adventures he has had in decades of searching for birds: 500-pound crocodiles, pelagic trawlers in icy waters and shorebird stew in Alaska. On their honeymoon in Zimbabwe, he and his wife, Ellen Paul (an ornithologist, of course), both quietly ignored the strong scent of a nearby predatory cat as they slipped through hip-high grasses looking for the secretive and rare African pitta. After sighting their bird and returning to their campsite, they each admitted having kept quiet about the lion for fear of ending the expedition early.
But his smile fades when he mentions Ecuador.
He couldn’t afford to bird the Galapagos Islands, so he took an overnight bus that got stuck in a landslide, trudged through mud till he found another bus, and rode it to the High Andes, where he saw “incredible birds, things people don’t see.” He also witnessed inconceivable deforestation. “You could hear chain saws. You could see large cleared areas. Incredible poverty. The entirety of it was life-changing for me.”
He returned to South Africa, where he resumed work as a computer programmer and birded with abandon. “I was almost like an addict that couldn’t get enough.” As he slowly metabolized his birding year, the memory of a harpy eagle he’d seen resurfaced. The harpy is the most powerful eagle, a bird that preys on sloths and monkeys. Boucher had glimpsed one from the window of a bus in Central America. The excitement of seeing a harpy collided with the realization that this raptor could never survive the destruction of its habitat, and he decided that “to watch birds was not enough.” And indeed, he’d never work as a bird guide for safaris. “I couldn’t bird without conservation,” he adds.
In 1995, Boucher quit his programmer job and moved to the United States to study Kentucky warblers, which is how he met his wife. He took a job at a GIS lab, where he learned how to tease information from satellite images and data to depict environmental change. Boucher’s years of tracking down reclusive birds gave him an acute sense for spotting areas that will and won’t support animal life. He knows how deforestation looks up close, and the satellites have shown him how far and fast it can spread.
Although understanding the interplay of geography and birding is an advantage that Boucher has over even top ornithologists—he can find an unmapped cave and the birds that might nest there—it comes with a price. He says his gift has no off switch. He is doomed to seeing birds not as splendid ornaments but as inhabitants of a shifting, imperiled Earth. “Even when I’m in a car looking out the window, I see the world through the eyes of a remote sensor,” he says wistfully. Whereas a normal person understands the landscape from ground level, Boucher can easily imagine it as seen from above, complete with signs of both life and destruction.
When he arrives at work, Boucher kicks off his shoes and stands on a gel mat in an office whose walls are lined with bird photos and maps that he traveled six continents over 15 years to amass. Some of the maps Boucher makes are land cover maps, created from satellite data. Others are gorgeous mosaics that depict the world in ecoregions, which the Conservancy uses to evaluate habitats (most maps, in contrast, parcel the world into political boundaries). One map depicts Yunnan Province in China, where he and a team of scientists went in 1988 to assess the relative ecological health of the region that would later become Great Rivers National Park. It is no small feat to collect the data and translate it visually so scientists and policy makers can decide which areas would most benefit from their conservation efforts.
At Boucher’s computer, a digital map shows Freeport, Texas, where he recently forecast climate change for Dow Chemical’s coastal factory as part of the Conservancy’s work in helping the company develop sustainability plans. Boucher plugs in different variables affecting the coastline along this 12-mile stretch of the Gulf of Mexico: how planting marshes here would mitigate floods, how the site would look in 50 years if they did nothing. “This is what the sea level rise will look like in 2050. If there’s a Category 5 hurricane, kiss [everything] goodbye,” he says, bringing to mind a picture of the hawk attacking the robin.
Still, looking at the world through a satellite is not how Boucher prefers to spend his off time. Like many other extreme outdoor enthusiasts, he is always planning the next trip. In January, Boucher and Paul tried their luck in Ghana, where they spotted 350 species. The bird of that trip was the yellow-headed picathartes, an “extremely beautiful bird, and a skulker. It exists only in a few places in West Africa,” he says.
For months, Boucher will study endemic birds’ songs and calls to increase his chances of finding the bristlehead. He and Paul will hoard their frequent-flyer miles and find a reliable local guide to lead their expedition. For background research, Boucher will check other birders’ online trip reports and their GPS trails, and review maps with the personal perception of a remote sensor. Mostly he will persuade his wife to spend a few thousand dollars and skip work for a couple weeks for this gamble. What if one sees it, and the other doesn’t? What if a flood or a typhoon hits? What if the forest is chopped down?
The stakes are high, the trek difficult, the money hard-earned and the bird extremely shy. Boucher is undeterred: “It’s very, very localized. But like any gambler, I’ve increased my chances by knowing when to go, and then I shut the hell up.”