FOR THE BIRDS: The Marvellous Spatuletail hummingbird is a frequent visitor to Peru.
Murray Cooper/Corbis

A novice hanging out with hard-core birders looking at the Marvellous Spatuletail hummingbird should be prepared to look at nothing else.


We walked on an upward path along the forest’s edge until we reached a clearing on the crest of a hill. Our guide told us where to set up our tripods with scopes on them and pointed to where we should look. Then we waited. It was dawn, and as the sky lightened, I looked out over the hazy, broad valley in front of us. We were in a cloud forest in northern Peru waiting to catch a glimpse of the Marvellous Spatuletail hummingbird. I thought it was a joke when someone told me the name — I’m that kind of birder: ignorant. But then I saw the picture in a bird guidebook of this wild-looking hummingbird with a couple of really long tail feathers that had what looked like large diamond-shaped cards on the end of them. It looked straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

I saw the Marvellous Spatuletail hummingbird that day. I watched him as he flitted through the forest — long tail trailing behind — and headed to the nectar feeder that had been planted to attract him. Very cool. Then I sat back and watched the clouds lift and roll from the valley like great pieces of cotton being pulled by an unseen hand. I thought it was a marvelous sight, but the birders I was with didn’t seem to notice — they were still watching the Marvellous. I waited and waited … and waited as the birders took long, long … and even longer looks at the hummingbird through their scopes.

Today’s birders are not the stereotype fostered in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. They are not older women in sensible shoes with walking skirts and tweed hats. They don’t necessarily have British accents. They are not called bird watchers. They are birders. The ones I know tend to be male and spend a lot of time and money on their passionate pursuit of feathered fauna.

The group I was with in Peru was as hard-core as birders come. There were several moments on the trip through the Northern Andes when I watched a dozen birders train their binoculars and scopes on scrubby undergrowth on the side of a dirt road while a heart-stopping view of an open valley flanked by jagged mountains and ridges sat just on the other side of the road. But the intense birders noticed nothing else. They stood with binoculars fixed on the brush and waited to see a bird that, according to a guidebook, was probably little and brown. I don’t have the dedication or concentration to be that kind of birder.

I have, however, been to sewage ponds looking for ducks, to a ­natural-gas drilling field looking for the sage grouse and to the middle of a swamp looking for the holy grail of rare birds: the ivory-billed woodpecker. And I feel like I’m always along for the ride. I’m a willing participant in what amounts to a great game of hide-and-seek. The birds are hiding, and we are seeking them. I wasn’t always this way.