An Exclusive Interview with Marcelo Padua
Field Guides, Inc. - Brazil
by Peter W. Thayer
I first met Marcelo on the Field Guides Rio Negro/Manaus Tour in September 2010. He was helping Bret Whitney, the legendary guide with the magic ears, to who has discovered over a dozen new birds in Brazil! After seriously birding for over 20 years, this was the first time I had ever met Bret! To put things in perspective - I had to sign up for this tour three years ahead of time in order to reserve a spot. I had heard that his co-leader on this trip would be a young man named Marcelo and that past tour participants seemed to like him a lot.
I was so impressed with the way the two of them worked together helping us find the birds that I signed up for another Field Guides tour with them in February, 2012 "Northeast Brazil: West to the Araguaia." Towards the end of the trip I had a chance to corner Marcelo for a while and listen to his fascinating story.
Peter Thayer: What got you interested in birds?
Marcelo: I was always interested in nature. Growing up in Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River I looked at everything as a kid. We lived in the city (1 million people) so I loved visiting my uncle's farm. When my father took my three brothers and me to the video store to pick out something to watch they chose action films and I would always choose a National Geographic film.
I did not get into birding until I was 24! I am 31 now. Back then there were no field guides for the Birds of Brazil - they didn't exist. Ten years ago, while still in law school, I went to the Pantanal (a swampy area in western Brazil with amazing wetlands and bird life) as an interpreter and started learning more about nature. My English was very good, having spent time in the US as an exchange student in High School. So they eventually let me lead some of the eco-tours.
Peter Thayer: Who helped you along the way to becoming a bird guide?
Marcelo: Edson Endrigo, who had twelve books published, gave me all his recordings. I met Bret Whitney at the 1st Brazilian birdwatching conference. I showed him some photos I had taken and Bret could not identify them. He saw my interest in birds and gave me my first microphone - a Sennheiser ME-80 so I could record the birds I was seeing.
Later I was a volunteer guide at Alta Floresta. Bret was leading a tour there and I asked if I could tag along. I guess he saw that I had some potential. I guided another Field Guides leader, John Rowlett, at Rio Roosevelt when he was there on a scouting trip. Eventually I was invited on two Field Guides trips and three years ago Field Guides hired me as a full-time guide. It has taken me about seven years to learn 1,800 birds of Brazil. I have also birded in Chile and Argentina.
Peter Thayer: How many days each year are you leading tour groups? Are you enjoying yourself?
Marcelo: I am typically leading tours for 165 days per year. With scouting trips, I am often out for 200 days each year. Luckily I have a very understanding and supportive wife! My life is wonderful! I went from zero birds to leading tours for the main birding company in the world in just five years! Can you believe I get paid to go birding? I make friends from all over the world. I get to see hundreds of different birds. By visiting the same areas repeatedly I am able to observe the year to year changes. I get asked for photos, recordings, bird territories all the time. I am very passionate about things and I enjoy doing things well. The worst part about being a tour leader is being away from my wife and family. I am not the same person as a guide vs. a husband.
Peter Thayer: What are your favorite birding spots in Brazil and do you have any special reference tools you like?
Marcelo: Brazil is an awesome country. I love showing it to people, breaking stereotypes. Brazil has so many unique birds, with hundreds of endemics, that it is difficult to pick favorite spots. I love the Sao Paulo Atlantic rainforests and Intervales State Park. Rio Roosevelt is a special spot. I have a passion for the Pantanal -- my first love!
For reference I like Birds of Brazil by Deodato Souza. Robert Ridgely's Birds of South America - both the Oscine and Suboscine Passerines are invaluable. I also have scanned the plates from Handbook of Birds of the World and put them in my iPod and iPhone.
Peter Thayer: Is there anything tour participants can do to make your job easier? Do tour participants influence you as you go along?
Marcelo: A happy client is all that matters to me! They certainly should not be thinking about how to make my job easier. But I do have one bit of advice I wish more folks would listen to: When a leader tells you to take a break and rest during the afternoon - DO IT!! Don't run around in the heat of the day. You may see a few more Kiskadees but you will be too tired to go out Owling that evening!
Each tour has an itinerary that we follow because we know those are the places to visit in order to give ourselves the best chance to see the birds well. But once the tour starts, the group sets the dynamics. Some folks are hard-core listers and present us with a list of birds they "need." Others are more laid-back and just enjoy seeing the birds well. All of that doesn't change the outlook of the trip. We are leading birding tours into an exciting part of the world -- so we will not be stopping for three hours at the Shopping Mall. The only thing I really dislike is when a client keeps harping on the few birds he "missed" rather than the hundreds of birds he saw well. Birds don't always appear on cue! We do our best, but I guarantee that a few will always "get away."
Peter Thayer: I am amazed at the way you can spot the birds! What is your secret?
Marcelo: The real secret is to understand the bird and its behavior. Then go out in the field and practice, practice, practice. After a while you begin to know which birds will fly right in to a taped recording of their voice and which will have a delayed reaction and linger in the underbrush for a while. Some birds are going to fly straight in while others are going to circle all around you and check you out. I know how high off the ground the bird will be when it perches. Is it in the canopy or skulking on the ground? I know if the bird is likely to land on a horizontal perch or a vertical perch. Some birds prefer larger limbs and others are out at the tips of a branch. Some birds will be moving up the trunk while others will be moving down the trunk.
In other words, I am already looking in the right direction at the right elevation. The Black-spotted Bare-Eye is going to perch on a thin vertical sapling. He will perch sideways and be two feet off the ground. He will not be five feet off the ground on a horizontal limb. By knowing how the bird behaves, I can often predict where he will land next. To some, that seems like magic!
But listening is critical as well. I am much more connected to the sounds in the forest than our clients (that's my job!) As guides, we hear what others are not listening to. Bret and I hear lots of obvious sounds that others don't. We can follow a bird through the thick tangles by listening to him make chip notes. When a client asks "What made that sound" I often do not know which sound they mean. He heard something that to him was "different" while I just heard seven different species calling. If it was the first time we heard a Screaming Phia on the trip, I am fairly certain I know which sound he heard, but often I do not.
I also know where we are and what I saw here the last five times I visited at this time of the year. I look at the vegitation and habitat and I know which birds to expect there. I also have a good hunch about which unexpected birds might just show up today!
Peter Thayer: Do you have any new trips planned for the future?
Marcelo: I love wine so I am putting together a birds and wine tour of Argentina and Chile. Field Guides should run it in May of 2013. I have been scouting the wineries and the birds. We will be getting up later than normal (7am breakfast) and feasting on gourmet food and drinking great wine! The temperature in May will be very pleasant. Birds are active throughout the day. It is a perfect trip for a non-birding spouse. We have a stunning drive over the Andes - that alone is worth the price of the trip. It should be great fun!