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Pocket Monsters

March 29, 2021

In the early 2000’s, my wife Katie, went through her Harry Potter phase and two thousand miles away my sister was being hypnotized by boy-bands. In the same house, I had just had my treasured card collection stolen, ending my obsession for Pokémon. Pokémon are a media franchise created in 1995 by Satoshi Tajiri, which features a host of fictional “pocket monsters” which users can capture, collect, and battle with each other. I had the Pokémon playing cards, I had the Pokémon Gameboy games and I watched the Pokémon animes. I was lost in the magical world of Ash, a young Pokémon collector who visits far-flung locales in search of Pokémon, helping his friends and battling his foes along the way. I would scrutinize each Pokémon’s abilities and artwork while combing over my rolodex of caught Pokémon in my Pokédex. I would pump my chubby fists in victory when my Pokéball finally closed over the hyper-rare Pokémon I had been searching for.

Pokemon’s protagonist “Ash” with his Pokemon “Pikachu”

The endorphin rush from capturing “Lapras” for the first time has only ever been mirrored for me in bird watching. When a rare bird I thought I would never see blesses me with a short visit, I still fist pump the moment the bird flies away (after deciding it has had enough of me staring at it). I would assume that the creator of Pokémon is a birder, as they have captured, as in birding, the thrill of seeing something not often witnessed. Unbeknownst to the creators of Pokémon in 1995, some of the details of the Pokémon universe have been weaved into modern birding life, so much so that I continue to harken on that modern casual birding is just like Pokémon.

A fairly rare bird, the “Lanceolated Monklet”, has been a frequent visitor to our front porch in the early hours of the morning

Pokémon range from grass loving bug-type Pokémon, Pokémon only found in shore and open water environments and a variety of specialists thriving in the eco-niches of the Pokémon world. Here at the reserve, we have been encouraging bamboo to grow around the property and at the same time seeing several bird species that are linked to stands of bamboo. A walk up towards an old finca on a nearby trail reveals a few different species of seed-eaters, which you will not find if you are only looking in the dense forest. The variety of colors, shapes, calls, and behaviors in the bird world is astounding, while some birds boast amazing abilities such as the Club-Winged Manakin who plays its wings like an instrument. Sure, no bird can breathe fire, emit poison gas, or fire electricity from its wing tips, but my point is that the bird world holds my wonder on an even grander scale than Pokémon did, yet the feeling is the same as every time a new set of Pokémon characters were unveiled.

This Pale-mandibled Aracaris is a great example of the world of colors and specialized anatomical features that birds have to offer

Modern birding sees heavy use of eBird, a bird checklist app which is helping to monitor global avian population dynamics by asking users to submit observations of birds that they see around the world. More than 20 years after it was imagined in Pokémon, the modern birder can now carry their own Pokédex with them in the form of a cell phone loaded with eBird. We can check which species need to be filled on our next excursion and see which birds we are likely to find in certain areas. Unlike in Pokémon, the birds we observe in the real world are not used as pawns to battle out a war between human ideologies, however, the “hotspots” on eBird – areas, such as the Reserve, where birding is excellent or popular – make the quest to have your name as the “final boss” (number 1 on the top 10 list for the hotspot) an ever-present drive. Pokémon Gyms are a place where Pokémon trainers can pit their Pokémon against top resident trainers for fodder in more elite clubs or as a measure of an up-and-coming trainer’s progression in more beginner clubs. I like to dedicate at least 1 hour to birding per day and, on big days, I tap out at about 6 hours of birding per day. My quest to be the “final boss” of the reserve ends in the next few weeks and I am happy leaving the reserve after scratching my name on the scoreboard. The scoreboard of the big “gym”, Pichincha, Ecuador, however, requires years of dedication to get into the top ten. At just under the size of Texas, yet having around 500 more species than the entire United States of America, Ecuador packs a ton of diversity and abundance into one small area. The competition around here is fierce and uncrackable to those, like me, who are lucky enough to only visit for a while, before being ejected from the gym due to bringing in lame Pokémon.

An Ashy-throated Chlorospingus was foraging with its much more common counterpart, the Yellow-throated Chlorospingus. Even amongst the common species there often appears a rare.

Though Ecuador may be the best place to visit to really rack up your life list, it is not the first or last place that I have explored for birds. Mr. Peter Davey, the “final boss” of the Cayman Islands, told me when I first started birding that eventually I would get to the point that I would base my travels on what birds I would likely see in a country. I gave him a disbelieving stare back as an answer, yet here I find myself thousands of miles away from home looking for inconspicuous Antbirds. Much thanks and apologies to my loving wife who puts up with my adolescent like obsession with birding. We hope to move on after our experience at Reserva Las Tangaras to countries who may not host such a vast number of species as Ecuador, but who’s menagerie of offerings dazzle us just the same. You can beat a Pokémon game on Gameboy in a month or less, but the world of birds in unconquerable as the combination of precise GPS coordinates and timing are out of reach for most budget travelers such as ourselves. But just as with all high scores, the fun is in getting as close as possible to your goal.

Some species, such as this Guayaquil Woodpecker have very limited ranges. Travel is necessary to see it if you live outside of Ecuador, Peru or Columbia.

Humble birders will understand that their place is to be the mediocre species guffawing at a bird the moment it relieves itself in front of the observer, mid-way through its mind-boggling unassisted migration between continents. I am a satisfied with my place in this agreement, but some of my reasons to collect as many birds as possible lies in my suspicions that environmentally we are in the end of days. As in the Pokémon world, the natural world has its villains: mining, logging, oil fields and, according to Paul Smith’s College, an acre-of-untouched-Amazon-rainforest-cleared-per-SECOND scale animal agriculture industry, all of whom seem mighty keen on destroying our natural world as thanks for our continued patronage. Ash’s tale is weaved with battles between his Pokémon and “Team Rocket”, one of the villains of Pokémon, whose catch phrase “surrender now or prepare to fight!” is rather fitting for the times we live in. We should only be passive observers, interacting with birds on a mutual timeline, but now the need for our own heroic Ash figure is ever increasing with the rise of environmental threats to bird species around the world. Birders who do not join in the battle between good and evil will be satisfied to know that their grand children will not see the same wonders they have seen if our human path stays the same.

The fate of tropical forests – the destruction of all other animals for the rearing of a few. Change your meals, change this injustice.

Where the creators of Pokémon went wrong was to anthropomorphize the characters a bit too much. Birds are victims of humanity’s greed, yet they are not expected to understand why a bulldozer is tearing down their habitat to make pastures for cows or why our decades of garbage are littering the stomachs of seabirds. All they know is all they have known, to wake up and survive. Every trait, every color, every decision serves a purpose, yet they may not need or have any purpose themselves and just exist. To be, rather to be someone or be something, is a valuable lesson that birds have shown me. They do not seem to be thinking about yesterday, they are instead focused on eating or preening in totality. They do everything the best they can as their life balances on the knife edge of survival. This encompasses my quest to “catch ‘em all” – so I can be there in person when the birds decide to teach me a lesson on how to be a better human being.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dusti permalink
    March 29, 2021 9:41 pm

    Brilliant essay! Thanks so much for sharing your amazing view and perspective!


  2. Missy Correia permalink
    March 31, 2021 10:10 am

    From my English Professor’s perspective this is an excellent Comparison and Contrast essay. it is beautifully written, and I feel it is from the heart. Well done by my awesome son-in-law. Nick; thank you for your inspirational writing. Love and miss you!


    • April 10, 2021 10:18 am

      Hahaha this is a great comment, thank you so much mom! He really enjoyed writing this blog post and I think it shows. Appreciate your compliments and your perspective! We love and miss you! xo


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