Forrest Rowland took his first trip to the Neotropics at the tender age of 9 and this has blossomed into a lifelong love affair with the region’s birds and wildlife. Forrest has a technical education in Genetics but has since spent many years in the field, honing his birding skills throughout the Americas. He is now Rockjumper’s primary tour leader in this exciting region.
Forrest's first extended stint to South America involved several weeks at Tiputini Biological Research Station, in the Upper Amazonian region of Ecuador. This encouraged him to ship all his earthly belongings to Quito, where he became a resident after realising that he wanted to dedicate his career and life to bird guiding. Since this move in 2003, Forrest has guided over three dozen tours, and participated in numerous scientific excursions, in South America, including working with ProAves and other local conservation entities in Colombia. Forrest considers South America the world’s best birding destination, and looks forward to sharing his vast experience and enthusiasm with you!
How did you get into birding?
When I was 9 years old, my family and I took a tour to the island nation of Trinidad. We stayed at the Asa Wright Nature Center, from which most birding on the island occurs. Though not a birder at the time, being exposed to all those wonderful trogons, toucans, bellbirds and manakins got me hooked. Within a month of being home, bird feeders were up, field guides were strewn about the living room, and I was watching everything that flew with my new pair of binoculars!
What led you to choose a career in tourism?
Getting to share experiences with other people certainly enhances those experiences. What better way to get to enjoy seeing the birds of the world than with other birders? Plus, I find people fascinating, while Rockjumper's diverse and dynamic clientele certainly adds much to any experience.
What are your other hobbies and interests?
I like to read and write. Said as simplistically as that might belie my true enthusiasm for this, but I probably go through 2 books a week, on average, and try to write as many essays and articles as I can find the time for. I like to hike, run trails, and do anything and everything that involves water. I could swim before I could walk, and I love diving, snorkelling, or just swimming in a lake or river. My life has a soundtrack, too. It is dictated by what I come across on music blogs, record label press, and so forth. I play a few instruments as well, though my favourite (piano) isn’t quite as portable as I wish.
What do you enjoy most about being on tour?
The newness of it all! I can return somewhere 10 times, but it’s never the same as if I was returning there on my own. I get to show people what I've learned over the years, but, and perhaps more importantly, I get to see it as new through the clients' eyes. I learn much from them; in fact, I always want to be learning.
What are your strengths as a tour leader?
I have a great memory and I learn fast. Experience says a lot, but if you are constantly trying to learn new sites, then it is the ability to pick up on bird calls, shapes, habitat preferences and so on that really counts. In terms of guiding, people and logistics represent the lion’s share of the work. I enjoy people, and I work at recognising the interests of both the individual and the group. I put these together and am proficient at meeting these interests with thorough planning and by thinking on my feet.
Are you a keen bird photographer?
Yes, but I can always improve…. I look forward to continuing my interest in bird photography, as I am already very keen in other aspects of the hobby.
Are you a lister and if so, which lists are your main focus?
Of course! The only competition I feel in this regard is with myself. I keep the lists as a challenge to myself to get to more places, find more interesting birds in the places I visit and continue to learn more about migration and vagrancy patterns etc. Do I know the exact number of birds I've seen in the World? No. But I know how many I've seen in each country I've been to.
Any interesting stories or anecdotes from recent tours?
Recently, in the Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter) of the Sultanate of Oman, we were sitting at this oasis in the starkest desert I've ever known, waiting for both Crowned and Spotted Sandgrouse to come in to drink. We had the car angled (as our blind) as close to the watering hole as we could dare. Upon glancing in the rearview mirror, I noted a group of camels approaching from in the distance. We all had our cameras out as they came closer and were talking about the best way to capture images in this harsh light. The discussion continued at different speeds, through to F-stops, past ISOs, when one of the participants blurts, "WHOA!" I looked back, and there was the snout of a camel protruding IN this participant’s window! I then turned forward just as a whole head was coming into mine!!! We had to roll the windows up as quickly as we could, as we made noise and shoved camel noses out of windows. A quick look about proved that we were surrounded by probably 50 camels, with young. After they sized us up, and decided we were neither a threat nor a food source, they began to wallow, bathe, take dust baths and do their very best to keep any approaching sandgrouse from even thinking about coming to the water. Luckily for us, however, about 20 minutes after the rowdy group departed, sandgrouse came cruising in from all directions of the vast expanse of sand around us. We just sat and watched, smiling. We talked mostly about the Camels...
What are your future goals as a birding tour leader?
To enjoy every single tour I lead! With our clientele, this isn't a tall order. Maybe, too, I'd like to see every bird family on the planet. Seeing every species would require such a monumental effort that I'm not sure the reward would be worth it. But seeing every family....that would be fascinating, rewarding, and get me to every end of the Earth in the process.
What is your favourite place/country to guide?
Colombia… I can't choose definitively, as different places hold different mysteries, but Colombia is unrivalled, in my mind, as having the most interesting, most beautiful, and simply MOST birds of any place I've guided or could possibly even fathom. Peru rivals in numbers, but to me, Colombia is simply more mysterious. Any major migration point in both hemispheres also gets my attention. Migration is the most wonderful natural phenomenon, and I can't keep my eyes off it.
What is your advice to people who want to go to….?
For people who want to go to Colombia, try to spend as much time there as possible. Preparatory tours to other Neotropic countries are highly recommendable as well. Being a first-timer in the New World, Colombia would simply blow your mind. On the last tour I led there we logged 212 species on the first day alone! By the end of 24 days, we had netted 765 species seen, and another 30+ heard. Literally mind-blowing, unless you've had some experience in the general region. Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador are all wonderful places to start.