This month's interview is with a Birdwatcher. B Journal Editions spoke with Gonçalo Elias, an author and certified professional trainer that has dedicated his life to observing and studying wild birds. Gonçalo is one of the most active people in Portugal in the study of wild birds and in promoting and sharing knowledge and information with the community. He is then, the founder and manager of the website Aves de Portugal, has contributed to eight ornithological atlases, and has published more than 20 books about birds and the best locations to observe them in several different locations in Portugal.
How did the interest in birdwatching start?
For Gonçalo, it all started when he was about 15 or 16 years old, invited by his uncle who already observed birds back then. Even though observing birds started out of curiosity, Gonçalo soon realised that he wanted to take it more seriously, and around 19 years old he started writing down everything he saw.
What was so far the biggest challenge as a birder?
Despite so many contributions to ornithological studies in Portugal and other countries and several books written, Gonçalo confesses that his biggest challenge so far has been the creation and setting up of the website Aves de Portugal (Birds of Portugal). As he mentioned and we agree this website came to fill in a gap, a lack of information online in Portuguese about the species that can be seen in the country. Considering the amount of information about identification, distribution and phenology on the website, it is understandable that it could have been a lot of work that still needs constant updates and management.
Front page of the website avesdeportugal.info.
What is still a big challenge for you in birdwatching?
After dedicating so many hours in the field observing and studying birds - “I never made any calculations, but certainly, over 10000 hours and probably over 20000” - Gonçalo reveals his constant challenge - trying to find something new every day. Not necessarily a new species, but “for example, a new place that nobody had yet visited, or a sighting of a species at a place where it was unknown before. This way, I feel that I am contributing to global knowledge.”
What equipment do you advise everybody should have?
For Gonçalo, his favourite equipment - the binoculars - is an essential piece of gear for anyone that wants to practice birdwatching. In his opinion, “a field guide is also practical”, especially for beginners, but “everything else is optional, although having a telescope and a camera can be helpful.”
What tips would you give to someone that is just starting to go out to birdwatch?
Gonçalo leaves us with two great pieces of advice for beginners. First, “make notes of what you see because that will help you understand birds.” Then, “try birdwatching with someone more experienced”, as according to him, will help you learn more and improve your birding skills.
What’s your favourite birdwatching location and why?
Gonçalo, whose dream birdwatching destination is Australia, confesses that he doesn’t have any particular favourite location for birdwatching. For him, visiting different places and exploring new habitats is what he enjoys the most, “I like to visit different places every day because I enjoy exploring different habitats and comparing various sites.”
Over the last years, do you feel the activity changed in any way?
“Definitely. The number of people who have an interest in watching and photographing birds has skyrocketed. This means that there are many more pairs of eyes out there to spot birds”, and consequently, “now the amount of information available is enormous.” Because of that, Gonçalo says that now “we know much more than we did 20 or 30 years ago.” Also, nowadays, “the knowledge is more readily available”, which we believe helps both beginners and expert birders, but also, science.
Could you tell us a memorable story you had while birdwatching?
“Sure. It was back in 1989. By then, I had already seen most species that regularly occur in Portugal, but the Black-bellied Sandgrouse still eluded me. One day, someone told me that the road linking Castro Verde to Mértola, in the Alentejo region, was supposed to be one of the best places to see Sandgrouse. So one day, in November, I challenged a friend, and together we took the train towards the Alentejo, taking our bicycles with us, to travel on that road and try to find the mythical bird. At Castro Verde, we had to go to the local workshop to have one of the bicycles repaired. I immediately asked the owner of the workshop if he knew about the ‘cortiçol’ (sandgrouse). Hearing this name, the man shook his head, but when I showed him the illustration from my field guide, he said: “Oh, I know that very well! That's the ‘black belly’! That used to be common! But you will no longer see that, they are now very rare. Unless you're lucky enough to have one flying over your head!”.”
“Despite the dismal prospects, we followed the road. After about 20 km, we stopped to watch a Raven. Suddenly, we saw two brown birds with an unfamiliar silhouette flying low and heading towards us at great speed. As the man from the workshop had suggested, the birds actually passed “over our heads”, displaying their dark underparts. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared – they were two Black-bellied Sandgrouses!!!”
After so many years of birdwatching and hours in the field, we can’t imagine the number of stories Gonçalo must have! Well, maybe a subject for the next book!
Would you like to share something else with us?
Before the end of the interview, Gonçalo leaves us with this sentence, which we couldn’t agree more with - “Birdwatching is interesting, valuable and fun. The more people get interested in birds and birdwatching, the better we will know them, and that will help us make better decisions towards conservation.”
Hope you enjoyed reading about this iconic person of Ornithology in Portugal as much as we enjoy talking with him and writing about him. If you haven’t already, we encourage you to read more about him in the links below.
Also, take a look at the books he was published so far. We suggest the most recent book “Aves de Portugal Continental - Guia Fotográfico” (“Birds of mainland Portugal - Photographic Guide”), the most comprehensive photo guide to birds in mainland Portugal, featuring photographies of all the 466 species recorded in the country so far, giving biggest highlight to the 294 regular species occurring in Portugal.
Links for the books:
Cover page and an example of an inside page of the book "Aves de Portugal Continental".
You can learn more about Gonçalo Elias´s work and get in touch with him through: