Sbu Mkwanazi finds that bird watching in a foreign country has more challenges than expected.
Normally, when a youngish South African like myself – in his late thirties valiantly visits Bilbao, Spain, the main reasons are usually common.
These include relishing the more than 40 Michelin-starred eateries (such as Azurmendi by Chef Eneko Atxa), savouring world renowned pintxos (tapas), and experiencing the abundance of local arts and culture, such as the Museo de Bellas Artes.
When I valiantly declared to family and friends that my main reason for spending four days in the Basque Country’s capital was birding, I received a less than enthusiastic response.
As a twitcher, I have accepted that all my birding adventures start the same way: with me questioning how I am usually the only relatively young person in attendance.
Is it perhaps because Bilbao’s younger crowd would rather decipher birds’ mating calls by watching films such as The Big Year and the 10-part documentary The Life of Birds, presented by the iconic Sir David Attenborough?
It could also be that millennials are more passive than anyone thought, opting to log into online bird-feeding live cams, while familiarising themselves with guide books such as Noah Strycker’s The Thing with Feathers: The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human.
After meeting my fellow birders, who only spoke Spanish, I found myself feeling like an outcast in the middle of a members-only club.
What made matters worse, was that some of the birding terminology seemed even more foreign to me than their mother tongue.
Terms such as Accipiter, which are birds of prey in the Accipitridae family; patagium, the tip of a bird’s wing; and gorget, which forms part of a bird’s plumage, made the day a little bit too interesting.
I took refuge in knowing the difference between Spanish doves and pigeons that congregate in the city centre’s Old Town.
The GISS System
Spanish twitcher Hernandes Gonzales, who hailed from nearby Vittoria, let me in on a little secret called the General Impression Size and Shape (GISS) system, developed for novices like me who, without fail, think of medical malpractice upon hearing the acronym CWAC, which actually stands for Coordinated Waterbird Counting.
While travelling from the city centre, which is an architectural hotspot boasting modern buildings and historical Basque constructions, GISS allowed me to follow a sequence of recommended actions.
I was sure that according to its size, shape and general behaviour around water, the bird I was stalking had to be a red-billed teal, until Hernandes gently mentioned it was just a run-of-the-mill crow.
We all referred to the various birding reference books, and after much deliberation and a drink or two, it was decided that the particular bird we were looking at could indeed have been a red-billed teal.
But in the greater scheme of things, I was consoled that as a novice, one bird did not really matter.
The Majestic Mount Artxanda
When I peered through a spotting scope or adjusted the focus on my binoculars, it didn’t matter that I was the only young person, and it was of no significance that I thought I heard Hernandes shout “lesbian”, when he actually was declaring a Caspian.
What mattered was what and where I was experiencing all of this: the majestic Mount Artxanda in the background, lush forests and pristine plains.
While on the lookout for the feathered kind in Bilbao, I had time to take a tram to the Guggenheim Museum, eat through the city’s pintxos bars, marvel at the Casco Viejo (the older part of the city) and ride to the top of Mount Pagasarri for breath-taking views.
What the general public almost always overlook, is that since birding needs daylight for it to be meaningful, it is the perfect pastime for those who delight in nocturnal activities.
The largest city in the province of Biscay is the perfect location for a dynamic nightlife.
One of the best bars in Bilbao – the eclectic Sir Winston Churchill Pub – offers no drinks menus. You have to converse with the bartender, and he makes a drink based on your discussion.
The Bilbao Exhibition Centre
If speech is not your strong point, then the Bilbao Exhibition Centre is the place for you.
With its modern design architecture, the all-encompassing facilities allow for cultural engagements such as concerts and theatrical shows, as well as sporting codes that include evening motocross races.
But perhaps one of the most significant drawcards of birding is that it fits very well on a tight travel budget. In fact, it is completely free.
Birding perfectly complements other outings that do not require a single penny, such as taking in the buskers’ live performances, appreciating the vast public art and simply strolling through the walk-friendly city.
Birdwatching Books for Novices:
- The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley
- Bird Watching for Dummies by Bill Thompson
- The Big Year: A tale of man, nature, and fowl obsession by Mark Obmascik
- Good Birders Don’t Wear White by various contributors
Innovative Birding Apps:
- iBird Pro Guide to Birds 2.
- Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa
- Newman’s Birds