Ornitherapy: Birding for the Soul

Looking back to some of our blog posts from 2013, this one caught our attention and is worth reposting. What is ornitherapy? How can birds help us to mentally, emotionally and physically thrive in today’s busy society? Read on and be inspired:

I recently came across a print ad by the US Fish and Wildlife Service showing beautiful snow-capped mountains against an orange sky and a foreground of wetlands filled with what look like hundreds of snow geese resting on the water.  The ad reads, “There is no wi-fi out here, but we promise you will find a better connection.”

Butterfly Falls, Mountain Pine Ridge Belize
Butterfly Falls, tucked away in the Mountain Pine Ridge, is a beautiful oasis

Connecting with birds

I have been thinking a lot lately about that ad; about what it really means to be “connected” and what things in this life are truly worth “connecting” to. On the surface, we, as a society tend to form fleeting connections that do little to feed us emotionally or nurture us physically. Even we birders are often so connected to our life lists that we sometimes forget about the birds themselves. How often have we seen a new species only to immediately check it off the list and move on to the next one, without taking the time to really marvel at the beauty of its feathers, or the grace of its flight?

When was the last time you immersed yourself, if only for a moment, in the secret lives of birds – watching them forage for food, preen, or simply perch quietly in the shade? Do we truly “connect” with the species we are watching? Even when we learn their calls it is usually for purposes of identification, and not to enjoy the unique melodious music that deserves as much appreciation as a fine aria.

A male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem in Costa Rica
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Connecting with ourselves

I can’t help but wonder… as a society, have we lost our connectedness, our mindfulness – our ability to be in present in each moment as it occurs and experience all the joy, beauty, sorrow or disappointment that moment brings? While Yoga and meditation strive to teach us how to do just that, those new to these practices might find them overwhelming and out of their realm or interest. But the truth is that neither Yoga nor meditation has to be done on a mat, sitting quietly in a room. In fact, our best moments of mindfulness are achieved off the mat.  One way to accomplish this is by immersing ourselves in nature. Yes, even while birding, we can achieve a feeling of peacefulness, tranquility, and joy.

Yoga in nature Belize
Yoga in the most serene rainforest setting, photo courtesy of Hidden Valley Inn

Whitehawk and Ornitherapy

We at Whitehawk want to offer our clients such an experience. Through our ornitherapy tours we practice birding in a mindful way – learning about the natural history of the species and spending time with each bird that we see. These tours also provide other optional mindful and relaxation activities such as gentle yoga  classes, both for beginners and for those who have been practicing for years. Our first ornitherapy tour brings us to the beautiful forests and colorful coral reefs of Belize. Our second ornitherapy tour will inspire us in Panama – stay tuned to our blog for more details coming very soon. Won’t you join us?

Ocellated birds: what they are and why they have that name

While guiding in the humid forest of Colombia, I spotted an Ocellated Tapaculo,  a beautiful but elusive bird. Upon hearing this species’ name, one of the birders asked  “Where do these names come from? What does that name mean?” At the time, I had no answer to give him. But I wanted to be able to answer this question for the next person who asked. So I did some research.

Ocellated Tapaculo in the Andean forest of Colombia

It turns out that the name comes from ocellus, a modern Latin word derivate and diminutive of oculus (‘eye’). So, ocellus literally means ‘small eye’. In this case, the name refers to the eye-like spots on the bird’s plumage. Therefore, the white ocelli (the plural of ocellus) that cover the body of the Tapaculo were the inspiration for its name.

We can find this bird from Peru to Colombia, within the Andean montane forest. If you are interested in seeing it, there will be good opportunities on our tour, Colombia: Three Andean Mountain Ranges.

The adjective is not exclusive of the Tapaculo

Many other species, curiously all in the Neotropics, also have  this adjective in their names.  Among the most interesting is the Yucatan Peninsula endemic, the amazing Ocellated Turkey. This bird – with a mixture of green and bronze colors and a bare, blue head, received its name from the astonishing blue and rufous ocelli on its tail.

Ocellated Turkey - Meleagris ocellata

During our tour, Honduras and Guatemala: Jewels of Central America, we will visit El Tikal National Park in the Peten region of Guatemala. This will be a great chance to spot this jewel. But,  if you would prefer a shorter tour,  our Belize: Birds of the Caribbean tour offers another good opportunity to see this species.

Finally, I should highlight one more spotted bird, which is widely distributed in Central America – the Ocellated Antbird. The black ocelli on its belly and back stand out against its otherwise brown plumage, making it look as if they were  painted on. That’s why this species  is one of the targets on Pipeline Road in Panama; and in La Selva Biological Station, which we visit on our new birding tour: Costa Rica: Wild Nature

Ocellated Antbird in Pipeline Road, Panama

Other Ocellated birds in the Neotropics

  • In the Oak-pine forest from southern Mexico to Nicaragua – Ocellated Quail.
  • A dark nightjar that we can find in many places in South America , and in Central America (Honduras to Costa Rica), we can also find a regional subspecies –  Ocellated Poorwill.
  • Found in Costa Rica and several countries in South America – Ocellated Crake.
  • The Mexican endemic  – Ocellated Thrasher.
  • One of the smallest woodpeckers found in Peru and Bolivia – Ocellated Piculet.
  • Found in the Northwest of the Amazonia – Ocellated Woodcreeper.

Common names aren’t the only ones use the word “ocellus”. Some scientific names also incorporate this word, such as ocellate, ocellatus, and ocellatum. For example, Podargus ocellatus and Leipoa ocellate are the scientific names of Marbled Frogmouth and Malleefowl, respectively.  The two species are in Australia – another upcoming destination for Whitehawk.