January 15, 2021
WHEN PERSEVERANCE IS ACCOMPANIED BY A STROKE OF LUCK
By David Ascanio
In the history of ornithology, some of the greatest discoveries have been accompanied by one or more unexpected events that altered the observer’s original plans and allowed different perspectives, resulting in unexpected contributions.
Many of you have had the experience of hearing your birding guide say (with raised eyebrows), “There is a chance that what you just saw may never have been documented.” This is clearly a moment for celebration. Although your observation may have already been known to a local community, the opportunity is now available to share it with a larger audience. This is one of the many ways in which birdwatching has played an important role in the history of ornithology.
Among many examples, I have read accounts of a swift that was dropped by a predator as it flew over the cooking fire of an expedition and turned out to be a new species for the country. Another example was a report in the preface of a publication extolling the beauty of a Great Black Hawk seen soaring that was later determined to be the first record ever for the species in that location. These are examples of the stroke of luck playing an important role.
Of the many stories that I have heard (or read) where a stroke of luck was involved, one stands out, not only as a good example of perseverance, but also for the series of events that preceded the finding. Here is a story about two friends from northwest Venezuela, Yaudimar Bermudez and Juan Carlos Yarza. Yaudi (as we call her) and Juan Carlos were born and raised in the north central part of the country. In 2015, in search of economic opportunities, they moved to the city of Coro to take care of a small hostel owned by a relative. (In 2012, a few years prior to their move, Yaudi was involved in a birding guide workshop at the foothills of the Venezuelan Andes, and there she got “the birding bug.”) Please note that this story occurred when the economic crisis in Venezuela was chasing away tourism, and despite their efforts to market this family-owned business, they found themselves managing a place that had almost no clients and little income.
The years 2015 and 2016 found them receiving a few local tourists and sport teams that advanced to regional matches. But everything changed for the worse in 2017. No international tourism, no students, and no sport teams arrived at their hostel. They would rely on an income from the short vacation period when local families visited the city of Coro for a few days. But their little income had to be invested in safety. Robberies had increased, and their property was no exception. Things got worse in 2018. In that year they sold a single room for only two nights. To deal with the anxiety, they found their refuge in birding. And birding brought them happiness. They were the first to report the Village Weaver in that part of the country. Inspired by their finding (and not knowing that it was an introduced species), they wanted to prepare a publication about the birds of that city but could not find a way to compile their records. Juan Carlos searched the Web and found a citizen´s program called eBird. Without hesitation, they signed up and started posting their records.
In the year 2019 things became very bad due to the lack of tourism accompanied by hyperinflation and social unrest. Towards the last quarter of the year, they had emptied their bank account. On top of that, political instability didn’t promise a good Christmas season, less so any visitors to that part of the country.
When everything looked grim, and they were dismayed by the lack of income for the near future, they decided to invest their remaining funds in doing what they loved: birding. On October 15, they took a bus ride to La Vela de Coro, where there was a monument about an independence hero—and plenty of concrete. Somewhere, in a corner, there was a cluster of Mesquite trees (Prodopis sp.) surrounded by shrubs. Yaudi pointed to that cluster of vegetation and said to Juan Carlos, “Let’s go birding there.” Almost immediately they had an encounter with an American Redstart in female plumage. With their small phone they managed to make a video (later, Yaudi commented that their phone was so basic that the redstart seemed like an ant in a garden, referring to its tiny size in the video), and returned home with their treasure, having seen a boreal migrant.
On October 25, they were determined to go back to continue documenting the presence of the redstart, but they had no cash left. However, a stroke of luck was just around the corner. They managed to trade food for cash, and with that money they took a bus ride to the very same square. Upon arrival, they didn’t see the redstart, but they did see a bird they couldn’t identify. To them, it seemed like a Blackburnian Warbler, but the throat was rich golden-yellow. They managed to take a low-resolution photo with their phone. Wondering if it was an unknown plumage of a common warbler, they returned home and searched for it in their copy of Birds of Venezuela. In their search, they could not find anything that matched what they had seen. They decided to upload the image in their eBird checklist and wait for the reviewers’ comments.
On November 2, they received an email from one of the Venezuela eBird reviewers asking if they had a better photo and if they could return to the site to document this individual. The email mentioned that they may have found a new species for Venezuela, the Yellow-throated Warbler. They checked on the Web and realized that what they had seen was indeed this beautiful warbler! Sadly, they had no remaining budget to reach the area. But, again, a stroke of luck was just around the corner. They learned about a Facebook group called “Aves de Venezuela,” and they uploaded the photo there. Within days they were inundated with emails congratulating them for finding a new species for the country, and Venezuelan birdwatchers started coming to their hostel to hire them as guides to see this beautiful bird.
“The stroke of luck” had enabled this young determined couple to contribute to the world’s largest citizen science project, despite the economic crash of their small family business. Since then, Yaudi and Juan Carlos have continued birding and have gained a wonderful reputation among the Venezuelan birdwatching community. Their lodge is now in the scopes of local birdwatchers, and we are sure that when this pandemic is over, they’ll reach new horizons as guides and hosts.
The takeaway of this story is that no matter the problems we face, we can find peace in our passions and in nature. Juan Carlos and Yaudi are an inspirational couple who faced a financial crackdown, safety issues, and lack of market, but were still determined to go birding. For that, destiny gave them the honor of reporting a new warbler for Venezuela.
Epilogue: The pandemic has caused the crash of their project, but they are still in good spirits. They continue to go birding around their area, documenting birds. But they have lost the mobile they bought with their 2019 earnings. They are back to a very small and basic phone and pair of binoculars. So, if you feel that you can contribute to this bright young couple by donating a used pair of binoculars or a used digital camera, please get in touch with me. Your contribution will surely represent another stroke of luck in their life!
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