Girls are representing in the field of bird guiding around the world!
Soon, you’ll be able to plan your trip to any birding hot spot and hire a fellow female as your guide. I serve as your guide (ha, pun intended) to these amazing women and promise you continued coverage of them (check here to read earlier features with dynamic female birding guides to how women are making inroads into this male-dominated field).
The Southern Cone of South America may not be an obvious birding destination, but as Florencia Ocampo shares, Uruguay and its environs host an incredible array of birds within a geographically small area. Ocampo, 32, lives on the coast of this small South American country, in Ciudad de la Costa, surrounded by marshes, rivers and beaches. Her passion for birds and conservation stems from childhood, and later as a teenager becoming aware of the illegal pet trade of many South American bird species native to the region.
While in university studying biology, she honed her expertise of Uruguay’s native bird species (all 455) living or migrating through. She now works as a professional birding guide within her country and in parts of Brazil, running her own company Birding With Me for the last 10 years.
I was thrilled to see a female birding guide in Uruguay, where I have visited twice and have dear friends in the capital city Montevideo. Uruguay is a progressive country for Latin America: it is one of three in the southern hemisphere to legalize abortion and it recently legalized gay marriage and the regulation of marijuana. As you’ll read below, Ocampo shares observations of her experience as a female guide in her own country and in neighboring countries. Uruguay is indeed a special place.
What kind of a scene is there for birding in Uruguay? Who is attracted to birding?
Uruguay has a great diversity of environments that come together in small regions. It is possible to stay in a same area and see a hundred of species, in many different environments and in a single day. Water birds, shore birds, tropical birds, grassland birds... It is very exciting to start birding in a marsh and then in a while you finish birding in a deep forest.
In Uruguay there are people of different ages and professions that enjoy bird watching. There are as many women as men birders and it is common to join together for birding.
When did you start guiding professionally?
When I was in my early 20s I became a member of Aves Uruguay, an organization that represents BirdLife International in Uruguay. One day I was invited to lead a group and I loved it. I decided that I wanted to do this for living, so here I am, more than 10 years later. I first offered my self as a bird guide to all the tourism companies in Montevideo. I started working for some of them until I started my own company in 2014.
The people around me (colleagues, services providers and clients) helped me in so many different ways. For example, one of my first clients, who is also a great nature photographer, gave me a lot of his amazing photos to build my website. Furthermore, he donated some equipment such as tripods and a scope.
The logo of my company was made by a good friend from Uganda, who has his own project of nature and community tourism. My colleagues and I share the same birding spots and sometimes we casually meet while guiding our clients and we get very excited to see each other and have the chance to tell what birds we have seen and where.
Do you guide full time or is it a side job?
There is a high season when I guide full time. In the off season I have little activity as a bird guide so I take the free time to work in new itineraries in or outside the country and I also do some research as a biologist.
Are you a one-woman company or part of a larger group?
I am a one-woman company but local guides work with me in some tours, like the one in Brazil. They contribute special knowledge not only about the birds, but also about the places we visit. Local guides are full time in the birding spots we go to and so they know where the birds are and if they move to other places.
What are your biggest challenges as a guide?
I guess my biggest challenge at this moment is to try to make this job full time, (year-round). To make this possible I am working in some itineraries outside Uruguay so I could continue doing what I most like and enjoy even (during the) off-season in my country.
For several years I had to find equilibrium between my work as a bird guide and as a biologist. But I finally found out that working as a bird guide is the best way to reach my main goals: to share my passion with others, to show others the biological richness of the destinations I choose and to promote an environmental consciousness.
What about challenges as a female guide?
In my country, I am the only female bird guide and I am so happy to say that I have never felt at a disadvantage. I am blessed to live in a country where gender equality really exists.
Can you expand on that?
Maybe if I compare how I feel in my country and out of it, the answer will be clear.
In my country men don´t feel uncomfortable to deal with a woman who is a leader and is in charge to organize everything. It is not always like this out of Uruguay. It happened to me in northeast of Brazil that men don’t feel comfortable enough to talk with a woman. They expect to deal with a husband or someone else, it has to be a man. There, men are not even OK with the idea of a woman driving a car, and it’s more unthinkable for them if this woman transports passengers.
In my country, I don´t have any trouble to make suggestions to providers, it doesn’t matter if I am a woman, what matters is my experience. Out of my country, some men are not used to valuing the opinion of a woman. But luckily, none of this happens to me in Uruguay. Here, men and women work in the same jobs. We have women builders, bus drivers, women that work with the cattle in the country, football players, mechanics, plumbers or electrical technician; and now, a bird guide too.
Who are your clients?
Most of my clients come from United States or England. But some others come from Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and other countries of Europe. Most of them are retired and traveling around the world. Men and women come in same numbers. Some of them are serious birders and others enjoy nature in general and are happy to see any bird species.
What are the birding hot spots in Uruguay and what might you see?
To the west of Montevideo (this is in the south of the country) are the Santa Lucia Wetlands, a natural reserve that integrates the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) and an Important Bird Area (IBA). The wetlands are all along the Santa Lucía River that flows into the River Plate. The nearby beaches are a important destination for many migrant birds like terns, sandplovers, sandpipers and gulls that come here to feed.
In winter (birds arriving in the Southern Cone in February and staying through September) the territory receives Patagonian species like the Rufous-chested Dotterel, the Two-banded Plover; the Olro´s Gull, an endemic species that breeds in the southwest of Buenos Aires Province; the Austral Negrito, a kind of tyrant that feeds along the shores; and the Lake Duck. The greatest abundance of individuals is for sure between June and August.
In the summer (September through March), other species come from North America: the Semipalmated Plover, American Golden-Plover, the Greater and the Lesser Yellowlegs, Hudsonian Godwit, White-rumped Sandpiper and Common Tern.
Thus, it is possible to see summer and winter migrant birds in a same period and even in a same place in February through March.
There are also resident birds like the Snowy-crowned Tern, Royal Tern, Black Skimmers, Rufous-sided Crake, Plumbeous Rail, Giant Wood-Rail, Black-necked Swan, Warbling Doradito, and the Burrowing Owl. The Santa Lucía wetland is a classic birding spot for visitors from cruise ships that stay on dock just for the day.
In the east of the country, in the Department of Maldonado there are several lagoons and marshes that are part of an IBA. Many migrant birds come here as well, like the ones I already mentioned, but also some others that appear in the rocky beaches of this region; like the Ruddy Turnstone, the Blackish Oystercatcher and the Buff-winged Cinclodes.
In the contiguous Department of Rocha there is a RAMSAR (the international convention for the protection of wetlands worldwide) site called Wetlands of Rocha. It is part of the SNAP and an Important Bird Area because of the presence of endangered species like the Marsh Seedeater, Saffron-cowled Blackbird, Black-and-white Monjita and the Stright-billed Reedhaunter. Some other interesting birds to see are the Red-and-white Crake, Spotted Rail, Crested Doradito, Stripe-backed Bittern, Many-colored Rush Tyrant, Spectacled Tyrant, Scarlet-headed Blackbird, Southern Screamer and Rusty-collared Seedeater.
In the ravines and riparian woods of the northeast there are two IBAs and protected areas; the Crows Ravines and Paso del Centurión. Because of the special vegetation of these areas, can be seen species that aren´t in the rest of the country. Some of them are the Toco Toucan, Surucua Trogon, Large-tailed Antshrike, Planalto Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Pale-vented Pigeon, Brown Tinamou and Maroon-bellied Parakeet.
The north of the country preserves the most pristine landscapes, home to many special birds like the Red-rumped Cacique, several species of Euphonias, Variegated Flycatcher, Pearly-vented Tody-Tyrant, Cream-backed Woodpecker, many species of Elaenias, White-eyed Parakeet, Crested Black-Tyrant, Cliff Flycatcher, Blue-tufted Starthroat, Common Potoo, Band-winged Nightjar, Buff-fronted Owl, Long-tufted Screech-Owl and many others.
Some of the hot sposts are Valle del Lunarejo National Park in the Department of Rivera, Laureles Ravines in the Department of Tacuarembó and Rincón de Franquía Protected Area in the Department of Artigas.
In the west, along the shores of the Uruguay River, are found birds related with a special forest that is present in this part of the country and to the center of Argentina.
The Esteros de Farrapos National Park protects this special environment as well as one of the most important wetlands of the country considered as a RAMSAR Site. The special birds to this area are the White-fronted Woodpecker, White-winged Black-Tyrant, Black-crowned Monjita, Crowned Slaty Flycatcher, Tufted Tit-Spinetail, Little Thornbird, Brown Cachalote, Chotoy Spinetail, Lark-like Brushrunner, White-barred Piculet and Checkered Woodpecker.
So many other birds are left to be mentioned. In total, Uruguay is home to 455 species.
Do you take clients outside of the country? Where?
Yes, I do. Because I travel frequently to the northeast of Brazil where birds are amazing and there are many endemic species, I organized a 10 day tour through the Caatinga and Atlantic Forest environments.
What is your impact on bird conservation in your country and the places you take clients? Do you see that your participation in ecotourism helps conserve habitat? How?
I think my impact in bird and habitat conservation is not direct, but indirect. The more guests come to Uruguay interested in wildlife, (the) more good reasons for accommodation (by) providers, even municipal governments (start) to invest in conservation.
One of the accommodations I work with is a ranch with hundreds of hectares of land. Here, there are two types of native forest in an acceptable state of conservation that occupy a large part of the private area.
Most of the guests that stay here are hunters from the USA who come to the country to hunt several species of native birds, among them, ducks. But, when the owner of the ranch knew about my work as a tour manager and bird guide she told me she was a duck (live ducks!) lover and (even though) the hunting is legal, she was not happy to receive hunters in her house. She said she would like to work more with birders and avoid as much as possible the hunters. Even more, she expressed interest in what to do to improve the conservation of the forests to provide a good environment for birds.
There are many examples like this and I am very positive that this kind of tourism can change the value that local people give to nature. In some of the places I visit with birders (it) was common to see kids throwing stones at birds. After all these years I haven´t seen that again.
Can you imagine what a great reference (it) is for a child to see each week dozens of people carrying cameras, scopes and binoculars and making such a big deal just to see the birds that are sited on the beach? Even the municipal government keeps the beaches clean more often.
The more popular the bird watching becomes throughout the country, (the) more chances (there are) to awaken an environmental consciousness among local people.
How can people find you online and hire you?
On my website, Birding With Me, people can see some of the tours I promote and contact me in the Contact link. I generally answer immediately unless I am guiding a tour in a remote area with no signal. I also have a Birding With Me - Birdwatching Tours Face Book page where people can send messages. On Instagram, people can find me as birding_with_me.
Thank you, Florencia!
This interview was conducted by email in February and March, 2019. It has been edited for clarity. All photos courtesy of Florencia Ocampo, unless otherwise noted.