Q & A with Fabrice Schmitt

An interview with Fabrice Schmitt, coauthor of Birds of Chile: A Photo Guide

Who is this book intended for – seasoned bird watchers, novices, or both?
Both! The idea is to have a book that’s useful to anyone interested in the identification of Chilean birds, regardless of skill level. To help beginners, there is a pictorial table of contents, which will help them quickly find the group of birds that they’re looking for. We also group together species with similar behaviours or that are found in similar habitats (for ex. swallows together with swifts) in order to help readers find the birds in the book. Finally, we did not cover rare species that are unlikely to be seen in Chile. Meanwhile, experienced birders will enjoy the book because of the images of species in their habitats, which are helpful when seeking them out, along with key ID features highlighted in pale yellow text boxes.

Can you offer some tips for identifying different kinds of birds?
Perhaps the two key questions to ask are, “What is the bird doing?” and, “Where is its habitat?” That’s why, in our book, we decided not to present the birds in an arbitrary taxonomic order. Instead, we chose to present them in groups such as, “Walking Waterbirds” and “Aerial Landbirds.” Once you find the right group, just scan the photos for the closest match to what you have seen.

Why do you think Chile is becoming a popular destination for birders?
Chile is a beautiful and incredibly diverse country, with stunning mountains and volcanos, extensive desert and a sublime, temperate forest— the landscapes alone justify a trip! And obviously, you can find some fantastic bird species. If you want to see the charismatic Moustached Turca running between cacti, the beautiful Magellanic Woodpecker in the Patagonian forest, the sublime Diademed Sandpiper-Plover breeding in high Andean bogs, or the endangered and superb Chilean Woodstar in an oasis of the Atacama Desert, then you should plan a trip to Chile! Also, since their bird habitats are mostly open or semi-open, birding is easy there, making it a wonderful destination for birders traveling to South America for the first time.

How have your experiences as a bird tour leader with WINGS prepared you to write a field guide like this?
Bird identification is a challenging hobby, and leading birding groups helped me to realize how field guides could make it easier. For example, most field guides still present the birds following the taxonomic order, which is generally useless in the field. In our guide we preferred to place the grebes together with the ducks and coots because they are all “Swimming Waterbirds,” and not between flamingos and pigeons according to the actual (and ever-changing) taxonomy. Also, we really wanted to present the birds in their habitat so readers realize what they must look for. Leading tours to Chile for many years has also given me a good sense of the most common miss-identified species; hopefully this guide will help to make it easier!

What is your favorite bird in all of Chile, and why do you like it?
Mmm, that’s a hard one! I really like all the large tapaculos found in Chile, so let’s choose one of them: the Black-throated Huet-huet. That species lives in the beautiful Nothofagus forest in the South of Chile. As they are found in dense understory especially with bamboo, they are usually hard to see but fairly common by voice. When agitated, they call their name ‘huet-huet’ (pronounce wet-wet), and another of their vocalisation is a loud Wook! wook wook wook, wook, wook, … it sounds like they are laughing at you because you can’t see them! But with some patience (or luck), you can cross path with one of these fantastic birds!