Olive-backed Euphonia
Sanford M. Sorkin

An Interview with Holbrook Birding Guide Mario Córdoba

An Interview with Holbrook Birding Guide Mario Córdoba

Feb 10, 2021|BirdingHolbrook in the Field| by Holbrook Travel

Mario Córdoba Hidalgo is a familiar face to many Holbrook travelers. Born in 1973 in Quesada, San Carlos, he has been a birding and nature guide in Costa Rica for more than 25 years and has introduced many visitors to his country's beauty and biodiversity. He's also given various talks and presentations, including as a virtual speaker at the 2021 Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. (Jump down to view a short clip from that talk.)

In this interview with Holbrook Travel, Mario shares how he got into birding, how attitudes toward conservation have changed over the years, and how the global pandemic affected ecotourism in Costa Rica.

Q: When did you begin to take a special interest in birds and birding?

Mario: I spent a lot of time with my grandfather at his workshop, helping with sanding, carrying stuff, and cleaning. It was thanks to my grandfather's workshop that I really got into birding. One day, a beautiful Blue-crowned Motmot somehow managed to break in. It was right there by the windows, sitting quietly. Nobody knew what kind of bird it was, but my grandfather had the first edition of "Birds of Costa Rica" by Alexander Skutch—I still have that book—so I ran and got it from the bookshelf and started flipping pages until I found it. Yeah, so that's how everything started basically. Once I started high school, I sort of stopped because I didn't feel it was something cool for a teenager to do. But I was always interested, and when I began studying to become a naturalist, I picked it up again.

Photo by Sanford M. Sorkin

Q: When you hear a bird and you are trying to locate it in the forest, do you primarily look for movement or something else?

Mario: I think that step one is to listen. It is quite surprising, if you go to one place and sit quietly for 10-15 minutes, things will start to come. You listen, try to locate it, and then start to look for movement and colors. But listening is very, very important. That's why, as guides, we always insist on being quiet, because if we're all talking on the trails, we won't be able to see anything or hear anything. You can start birding in any place—your garden, your nearest park, or whatever you have available. I'm sure there will be something to see. It could be that you see just an American Robin or another common bird, but that's a start. You don't have to see the quetzal as your first bird.

Q: Have you been able to convert any of your family or your friends into becoming birders?

Mario: My daughter and wife enjoy it very much. It’s funny, because I have some friends that recently began asking me to help them learn how to bird and how to find them. I have people who try to catch up with what I do and they enjoy it. And in our family, any chance we have, we like to spend outdoors and look at birds and other things too.

Q: What tips would you give to someone who is interested in birding but doesn’t know where to start?

Mario: I guess my biggest tip is to just go out and try it. You can't go wrong with birding, right? It is good for your mind and is good for your health. It's an exercise. You get close to nature and you learn to become a more patient person. It also helps to reduce stress. And if you have to wait a long time, just take it easy. Don't get desperate if you can't find it right away. There will be another chance sooner or later, and you are developing your skills. You need to get out there. It's good for your head—especially with all that we are going through now. Trying to go outside for at least a half hour, whenever you can get it, you will start learning the songs and improving your identification skills. You can also play recordings of bird calls and listen while you are driving in your car or while doing other things.

 Photo by Debbie Jordan

Q: You started training as a naturalist guide when Costa Rica was just getting serious about conservation. What prompted you to consider guiding as a career at a time when ecotourism was still a relatively new concept?

Mario: You know, it was a combination of factors. As a kid, I spent a lot of time hiking and camping as a Boy Scout. Also, I got a lot from my grandfather who was always very respectful of nature, and he kept books about everything, including encyclopedias. But I got into the tourism business almost by accident. I started out studying civil engineering in college, but then I did a 9-month youth project that changed everything. We spent part of that time in New Brunswick, Canada, living with a host family and participating in community service projects. 

When I got back to Costa Rica, I found myself in the middle of the semester and not knowing what to do. I had no money, no job, and no income. Then one day I went hiking at Arenal Volcano with some friends, and we came across a neighbor of mine who was working at a bed and breakfast in La Fortuna, one of the first businesses there at the time. He asked me if I was back for good and if I had learned English, because he was hiring.

We began to offer trips to some local hot springs and hiking around Arenal Volcano. I had an English brochure about the volcano and I learned it by heart, then I would go up to the volcano and repeat every word. People were happy and in those days the volcano was doing most of the work, exploding and making noise. We were young and stupid and would hike up close to the lava flows—there were no restrictions in those days!

After working at this for a few years, I learned that the university I had attended for engineering was starting a new training program for naturalist guides. I figured this was my chance to go back to school and finish my formal professional training. We were taught about agricultural practices and the crops, and we learned the basics about geology, volcanology, biology, and how to be a guide.

Q: Your English is exceptional. I know you spent time in Canada; is that how you learned English?

Mario: I learned the basics in high school, but they don't give you much training in conversation—you learn mostly the grammar. Being in Canada helped a lot, and after that I got to practice and learn more while working with people at the bed and breakfast. Once I became a full-time guide, I began to have more conversations with clients, and I was always listening to people talking on the bus, at meals, on the trails . . . and then you find that you are learning, unconsciously, more and more. It helped to be surrounded by English-speaking people, but in the end, you won’t improve if you don’t make an effort.

 Photo by Deb Savarese

Q: You grew up in Quesada, San Carlos—a beautiful area of northern Costa Rica that is known for its dairy industry and farms. In your lifetime, have you noticed any major changes in the way people in your community view and treat the land?

Mario: Yeah, as a kid I remember sitting on the porch and counting the trucks, one after the other, carrying these huge logs. It was just too much to count. I could also relate in another way, because my grandfather and my uncles were in the furniture business and did a lot of woodworking. It’s also important to note that a lot of the land clearing was done for cattle ranching, not just farming and logging. 

But everything took a turn more or less at the end of the 1980s. The introduction of teak plantations was a solution for the consumption of lumber. It also helped a lot when ecotourism started to become an option. People saw the possibility of saving some of the forested land on their properties and getting income from people coming to visit, maybe even building small accommodations. That set the example for others and now you see it all over the place. Guys who used to be hunters and poachers, now they’ve become very good local guides, or they may become park rangers. I think as the local people noticed the difference, they began to have more respect for nature.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise in early 2020, and most leisure travel reached a standstill. What has it been like not having any birding or natural history groups over the last year?

Mario: Obviously, it hasn't been easy at all. This job doesn’t really apply as a job anymore. It becomes a lifestyle, right? When you're working as a guide, you're doing something different every day and going different places all the time. One of the hardest parts was that last year by mid-March—in the middle of the busy season—everything stopped and there was no more movement. We had only gone two and a half months into the year and still had another couple months to go. Then boom, all income stopped. At the time, I was thinking that it would be over by the summer when it got warm again. But here we are again, almost a year later, and another busy season has gone.

So part of what has happened here is that one has to find skills that one had from years back. For example, I have been able to bring in some income selling small woodwork—like shelves and baskets—things I learned to make with my grandfather and uncle at their carpentry shop. You get creative. Thanks to a good friend of mine who has his own business, I started learning about marketing, social media, and image editing. I had to learn something new, and that way I've managed to stay afloat. Well, it definitely takes you out of your comfort zone, you know?

Q: The negative effects of the pandemic are obvious and ongoing, but can you think of any positives that have come, or might come, out of this crisis?

Mario: It’s been interesting to see how we have been basically forced to find new skills and new knowledge that maybe we never thought we would use or have. Finding new things and discovering yourself . . . that has been one of the positive things that I see. And obviously, the reconnection with friends and family and having time to be home. I have three kids—a son in college, one just out of high school, and an 11-year-old daughter who started 6th grade today. I’ve never been home for more than 3 months at a time to be with my family—that part has been really positive. 

Video of Mario from birding presentation

At the end of our interview, Mario mentioned that he and some friends were going birding the following day in search of the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, a species that kept eluding him but that had recently been sighted nearby. The outing was successful! They saw four in total, including this one, only a few feet from where Mario was standing.

 Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo by Mario Córdoba