When I have traveled to new destinations, particularly those that are tropical and lush, my kit has always included binoculars and a bird book of that region. My grown children often lampoon my habit of festooning myself with camera, binoculars and a ridiculously thick bird book (the one for Peru was nearly 700 pages covering 2,000 bird species). I will admit backpacking the Inca Trail in Peru at 14,000 feet above sea level with all this ridiculous avian-related baggage was a bit testy. 

Birding on canoe trips that involve paddling whitewater has always demanded I have waterproof protection for my field guides and binoculars. In the thousands of miles of paddling, I am pleased to report that I have ruined only one pair of binoculars.

Call me old-fashioned but I love keeping hand written bird lists from my various trips. These tallies are sometimes on a scrap piece of paper, a journal page or in its own pocket notebook. I do keep track of the scores of bird species that I have seen on our property. I am a late bloomer to using the electronic means of compiling a bird list, such as eBird.

All these trip lists are scattered throughout the house, tucked away in books, file folders or heaven knows where. Organization of journal and bird notes is not a strength of mine. However, the discovery of a wrinkled and torn bird list serving as a maker in a shelved book can brighten my day, so I continue with this practice of surprise discoveries. 

Through my thirty years of working with the Science Museum of Minnesota I have had great travcl opportunities. I have experienced some remarkable birding locations in the world. These include remote areas in Peru, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, South Africa, Mexico, the Hudson Bay lowlands, the Arctic and many state birding hotspots. More than once folks have asked me how many birds species have I tallied for my life list. 

My quick response in answering the question about my life list is, “I have no idea.” I’m not a “life lister.”

I would rather pause and watch a particular bird and note its behavior than put a check mark by its name and hurry to garner another new bird. Besides I would need to collect and compile all my scraps with scribed bird lists.

Less than a week ago we returned from an amazing trip to Vietnam. I had never been there before. Luckily, I had managed to avoid a US Army paid trip there in the late 60s and early 70s by hitting the books and pursuing a college degree. The college deferment combined with a moderately safe lottery number kept me from being drafted.

This was the first trip to an exotic destination that I chose not to carry binoculars or any type of field guide. It wasn’t an easy decision but I wanted to travel light and I did not want to be the dawdling anchor when traveling with other family members who are not really birders. (I’m really trying to change that by indoctrinating grandchildren.)

Without binocs and bird field guides, I managed to spot and identify a handful of birds with the help of my iPhone. While paddling in a surreal landscape on the Ngo Dong River in the  Ninh Bin province, we passed an aptly named species of grebe called the little grebe. Swimming near the shoreline, these small nondescript birds were quite common. I also glimpsed a kingfisher perched over the river. I later learned that there are a dozen species of kingfishers in the country. 

While visiting Phu Quoc, the southernmost island in Vietnam and the fish sauce capital of the country, I saw an adult white-bellied sea eagle. Similar in size to our bald eagle, it soared overhead with its wingspan easily six feet. With its totally white head and underside, it was quite stunning. 

While cruising through the sharply rising limestone islands of Ha Long Bay, there were numerous slender raptors swooping over the water. It didn’t take too much phone work to identify these as black kites. Wonderfully adept at combining arcing swoops, hovers and climbs, these raptors were entertaining.

The night before we were to head back on the long flight home, we found a dark small bar down a side street in Hanoi. Inside, it was very quiet and intimate. The only lights were twinkling from a small artificial Christmas tree. Otherwise the half dozen tables and bar top were lit only by candles. It was here that I tallied my last bird of the trip off the menu.  Titled “Jungle Bird” the cocktail was a perfect nightcap. It was a blend of rum, Campari and pineapple juice swirling around a large cube of ice.

Cheers to an amazing trip, a handful of new birds and a gentle and kind people.

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