Extreme birdwatching: Twitching in war zones

Extreme birdwatching: Twitching in war zones

Paul Rendell didn’t think he was in trouble. High up in the mountains, in a remote, lushly-forested corner of the Philippines, the pensioner from Dorset had envisaged a peaceful day amid spectacular scenery.

Then the bullets started whistling around him.

“We all dived to the ground,” Mr Rendell said. “Our guide Carlitos was shot immediately – his arm shattered. There was an awful lot of blood, so I had to tie a tourniquet. Then we had to run as fast as we could, doubled up across the fields.”

The 66-year-old from Weymouth had travelled with his wife Jill on a mission to spot the critically-endangered Philippine Eagle – the largest and rarest eagle in the world.

Extreme birdwatching: Twitching in war zones
Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi): Photo: http://lowlandtohighland.blogspot.com

But up on the thickly-forested mountainside, two hours trek from their remote jungle lodge, Mr and Mrs Rendell found themselves face to face not with the Philippines’ national bird but with their army, in the midst of a shoot out with Communist rebels.

“It was hard to tell how long it went on for,” he said.

“There was a lull in the firing, and then a bang. Someone in our group said they were firing mortars. But we didn’t hang about – we just ran for it.”

The group of six tourists – Mr and Mrs Rendell, three Danes and an Australian – tried, with their Philippines-based British guide Peter Simpson, to help their local guide down to safety. Carlitos Gayramara, 61, was an extremely experienced wildlife expert but his injuries were severe and he was going into shock.

“It was so hot carrying him down the mountain – my wife nearly collapsed,” said Mr Rendell. Fortunately a local boy on a horse rode into sight, and they hoisted Mr Gayramara onto the saddle and he was taken away to safety.

The rest carried on down into the nearest town – walking more than seven miles in the intense, humid heat by midday.

“I wouldn’t really want to go through that again,” said Mr Rendell. They never did see the Philippine Eagle.

But for the Rendells, and other committed birdwatchers like them, the risks are worth taking. From Syria to Somalia, North Korea and Iran, bird watchers are turning up in some of the most remote and challenging places on earth.

In 2012, two European birdwatchers from the Netherlands and Switzerland were abducted in the Philippines, while on an expedition to photograph rare birds in the remote Tawi-tawi island group in the south.

The Swiss man, Lorenzo Vinciguerra escaped from the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants in December 2014. But the Dutchman, Ewold Horn, has not been rescued, and is believed to remain in custody.

In October 1990 two British birdwatchers, Michael Entwistle, 30, and 32-year-old Timothy Andrews, were killed by Shining Path terrorists in Peru.

“It’s not that we go looking for trouble,” said Martin Garner, a fanatical birdwatcher based in Flamborough, Yorkshire. “We’re interested in nature, and nature doesn’t have boundaries.”

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Birdwatchers keep detailed records of their observations, posting them on a website, SurfBirds.com. And Britons are currently occupying the top four spots, with the top “birder,” Jon Hornbuckle, having spotted 9,178 different birds – over 90 per cent of the total known animals.

“I think it would be fair to say that virtually everywhere I go now I have a list of what I want to see,” said Mr Hornbuckle, in an interview with a birdwatching magazine. “Mostly it’s something like twenty species in three or four weeks, and I’m happy if I see fifteen. That’s how it works.”

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Swiss man Lorenzo Vinciguerra arrives on a stretcher at a military hospital, following his rescue from Abu Sayyaf abductors, on the southern island of Jolo, Mindanao

Bird lovers Ruth Miller and Alan Davies decided to make it more extreme.

Working for the RSPB, they always dreamed of taking a year off to travel the world and see unusual bird life. So, in 2008, they sold their house, gather together their life’s savings, and took off with the aim of breaking the Guinness World Record for the most birds spotted in one year. They succeeded, seeing 4,341 birds. in 27 countries

“We really went for it,” said Ms Miller, 50. “In Botswana, we saw 170 birds in a day. The toughest was Canada, because the weather was against us. But Ethiopia was incredibly rewarding as I never knew how rich it was in bird life.”

Their determination did cause them problems, however.

The couple nearly drowned off the Great Barrier Reef, after a mission to see the Brown Noddies, when their boat began sinking in heavy swell. In Ethiopia, they had an AK47 pulled on them by an angry border guard – who was only contained by their driver charging him, and wrestling the gun from his hands. And in South Africa they nearly died in a forest fire in KwaZulu Natal which killed 20 people.

“We tried to run, but a local man said the wind was blowing the flames too fast,” she explained. “He told us to seek shelter in a house with a tin roof, which we did. It was thick with smoke inside within minutes of our arrival, and flames were at the windows. The saving grace is that the wind blew the blaze onwards – if we hadn’t came across that building, we would have died.”

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A Brown Noddie

Some of the most unusual and intriguing birds are to be found in the most difficult of environments.

“It’s all about the wildlife,” said Peter Kaestner, an American diplomat. “We don’t search out challenging places for the sake of it. It’s just that that’s where they happen to be.”

Mr Kaestner has been been able to take advantage of his far-flung postings with the US government to carry out his hobby, and travel all over the world. The 61-year-old is considered one of the world’s top bird spotters and has travelled to 150 countries, following a passion which begun as a child.

Last year, while based in Mazar-i-Sharif, in Afghanistan, he caught sight of the Afghan Snow Finch – a seed-eating sparrow found only in the Hindu Kush. Now based in Frankfurt, he has managed to see every one of Europe’s birds. He is eagerly awaiting retirement, when he can clock up some more sightings and write a book detailing his adventures.

“Back in the 1980s, I was posted in Papua New Guinea,” he recalled. “I was in the Philippines and went to Mount Apo for the weekend. As I was coming down the mountain in the back of a pickup truck, diplomatic passport in my pocket, a Red Army rebel came and sat next to me.

“If he’d have known who I was, I’d have been toast,” he said. “But thankfully he got off at the next village and went on his way.”

He tells how he got lost in the Solomon Islands for two days and one night, while searching for the Kolombangara Leaf Warbler; how, while travelling in the Caprivi Strip near Angola, he had a very tense encounter with a drunken, AK47-wielding guard who mistook him, his wife and two daughters for poachers.

“And then there was the time in 1978 that our boat sunk in the middle of the Amazon,” he said.

“We were rammed by a bigger boat in the middle of the night and started taking on water. Thankfully we only settled onto a sandbank, so there were still a few feet between us and the surface of river – it was miles wide at that point. We sat on the boat’s roof in the middle of the Amazon and waited to be rescued. That was pretty exciting.”

His one sadness is that, given his employment with the American government, he is unlikely to be able to explore Iran when he retires “and begins taking bird watching seriously”.

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North Korea’s Tristram’s Woodpecker is a rare subspecies of the White-Bellied Woodpecker

North Korea is another place that would be problematic for some – but that did not dissuade Chris Geraghty, a Canadian marketing expert, who was one of two people to go on the first – and only – birdwatching trip there in 2013.

“Bird watchers are a pretty eccentric group of people,” he said. “But part of the appeal is to see unusual and endangered species. You can see much of North Korea’s bird life in China or Russia. But we also wanted to see three endangered Scaly-sided Mergansers, which we did spot.”

They also went with the hope of spotting Tristram’s Woodpecker – unique to North Korea – and a bird that most ornithologists are unlikely to ever see.

“It was really fascinating place, like nowhere else on earth,” said Mr Geraghty’s fellow traveller – Mike Falcon, 47, a florist from Kensal Green in west London.

“There are so few places that are completely untouched, and this was one – without cars, like being in Medieval times. The people were grindingly poor but everyone was really friendly – and to be honest, 80 per cent of the attraction for me was to go somewhere off the beaten track.”

Walking around with binoculars and telescopes could prove problematic, he noted, and no one was allowed to enter with mobile phones.

“Yes things were ‘controlled’ – we had two guides the whole time,” he said. “But they were great company, really good fun. They got into the swing of birding and were pretty good by the end of the week.

“Although the birdwatching was actually pretty rubbish, and they didn’t know the spots or birds. I think if you were a hardcore birder you’d go to China instead.”

Back home in Dorset, Mr and Mrs Rendell are glad that they managed to escape from the Philippines unscathed.

“It was quite traumatic,” he admitted. “But not their fault. They wouldn’t have taken us there if they thought it was dangerous.”

His concern remains for Carlitos, the guide, who has lost his livelihood as a result – his broken arm means he cannot work.

Hasn’t it put them off?

“Not at all,” he said. They are planning their next trip, to Estonia.

“We’ve been to Colombia and Venezuela, where we had a knife pulled on us during our first visit, and narrowly missed a plane crash off Ethiopia.

“We’re not going to stop now.”

This article was first published by The Telegraph on 01 Mar 2015.


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