Saturday, July 30, 2005

20 Questions with Bill Murphy, author of "A Birdwatchers' Guide to Trinidad & Tobago"

1. Who are you?

Bill Murphy

2. Where do you live?

Indianapolis, Indiana

3. What do you do for a living?

I'm a software quality assurance specialist with the Department of Defense.

4. When did you start birding?

Around age 5, although I distinctly remember creeping up on a Least Bittern when (I'm told) I wasn't yet 3.

5. Are you a member of any birding clubs or ornithological societies? Which ones?

Yes. American Birding Association, Indiana Audubon Society, Amos W. Butler Audubon Society, Ohio Ornithological Society, Trinidad & Tobago Field Naturalists' Club

6. What do you think about the re-discovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Do you have any doubts about the id?

I actually wept with joy when I learned the news the day before the public announcement. I would call my belief level 'guarded'. Having served on three rare bird committees, I have seen incorrect identifications made by extremely seasoned birders who were hoping to find a particular species. Although personally I consider that doubtful in this case, as a scientist I think that incontrovertable evidence is still needed.

7. What is your favorite birding "local patch"?

Ritchey Woods Park, in Fishers, IN, less than a mile northeast of Indianapolis.

8. Do you have a web site?

Yes. I maintain "Trinidad Birding" at . I also created and maintain "Birding Indiana" at to keep regional birders informed of birding activities in in Indiana and surrounding areas.

9. What prompted you to make your first visit to Trinidad & Tobago (T&T)?

My mentor, Dr. Donald Messersmith, of Silver Spring, Maryland, offered me an opportunity to escort one of his World Nature Tour trips to T&T as a novel wedding present, and I accepted his offer.

10. Why is T&T such a great place to bird?

Many factors combine to make it so. As a former British colony, the infrastructure is sound - modern highways and traffic devices, safe drinking water and food, a stable government, dependable electricity and transportation, absence of tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, and a highly literate English-speaking population. The climate on both islands is tolerable to most people and in the mountains approaches ideal for almost everyone. T&T's natural history has been extensively studied for more than a century by such notable people as Theodore Roosevelt and William Beebe. As a result, the avifauna is well known and an excellent field guide is available. Local expert bird guides such as Jogie Ramlal (Trinidad) and Adolphus James (Tobago) have assisted visiting naturalists for years. A new generation of even more knowledgable guides is emerging that with luck will not emigrate, as did many of the excellent local guides from 1980 until recently. As for birding, it is said that more species can be found per unit area in Trinidad than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, if not on earth, including many large, colorful species such as parrots and Scarlet Ibis.

11. Why did you decide to write a book about birding in T&T?

When my wife and I decided to have a child, I thought that my traveling days were over. It seemed a shame to let my extensive knowledge of T&T evaporate, so for six weeks I wrote down everything I could glean from my notes and from memory. I then made a solo trip to T&T to visit the most productive areas, measure distances, verify directions and landmarks, and interview local birders. I then spent a year scouring the literature for references to Trinidad and Tobago. Roger Clapp at the U.S. Museum of Natural History contributed a bibliography that supplemented that in ffrench's field guide to the birds of T&T. The most difficult part was creating the bar charts of seasonal distribution with the noncomputerized tools available back then - an X-Acto knife, art supplies, and many rolls of sticky tape with lines of different styles and widths. When the manuscript was complete I offered it to Jim Lane, who pioneered the birders' guide concept. He and Harold Holt turned it down, expressing their feeling that the market wasn't there for such a book, so I produced and marketed the first two editions myself. Fulfillment took me so much time over the years that I was glad when Prion Ltd. asked me to sell them the rights to the book.

12. What is the toughest species (endemic or near-endemic) to see on T&T?

The only endemic species on T&T is the Trinidad Piping-Guan, which some regard as a race of the Common Piping-Guan of South America. Its large size and excellent flavor have rendered it very scarce and extremely wary. A birder has little chance of finding one except at a fairly dependable site in Trinidad that is three hours off the beaten path. Other species that are difficult to see are simply reclusive (some of the nightjars, Striped Owl, Boat-billed Heron), pass through during a narrow window of time (Swallow-Tanager), or are found only in very low densities (Black Hawk-Eagle).

13. How many tours have you led to T&T?

My upcoming tour there in January 2006 will be my 53rd. In addition I've made six visits by myself or with one other person.

14. How many species have you seen in T&T?

As of today, 330.

15. Who is the best field birder you've ever birded with?

Without a doubt that would be Chandler S. Robbins (Laurel, MD). Not only can (or could) he identify all of the chip notes of migrating birds at night, I think he is the most accomplished at identifying birds by jizz. For identifying raptors, I thought that Frank Nicoletti (now in Duluth) had no equal. He could identify and figure out the gender of incoming hawks before the rest of us could even locate the distant specks.

16. Have you ever been arrested or otherwise detained while birding?

No. The only weird incident that comes to mind was what happened when I rested my old metallic binoculars atop a taut section of fence wire at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in the 1970s to stabilize them. I didn't realize it was an electric fence, and when I put my eyes up to them, the shock was intense. It provided a lot of amusement for the other members of my birding party.

17. What is your favorite birding spot in the U.S.?

Cape May, New Jersey

18. What is your favorite foreign birding spot (outside of T&T)?

The area around Monteverde, Costa Rica

19. What is your "most-wanted" bird?

Boreal Owl

20. Where will you go on your next birding trip?

Cape May, New Jersey


Thanks to Bill Murphy for being such a great sport! If anyone is interested in taking a birding trip to Trinidad & T0bago, check out Bill's excellent web site,

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