A Poignant and Refreshing Travelogue

July 24, 2023

A review by Aidan Place

The Condor’s Feather: Travelling Wild in South America by Michael Webster

September Publishing, 2022

314 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15346

Much as with birds themselves, it is not uncommon for birders to feel a sense of Zugunruhe, or migratory restlessness. Birding is, in many ways, a travel-centric hobby, and it is natural to desire to see new birds in far-flung places. I’ll never forget the first time I opened a field guide to South America and stared in slack-jawed awe at plates bursting with tanagers, hummingbirds, and antpittas. What followed was the inevitable, all-consuming desire to get to those birds as soon as possible. The marriage of birding literature to the travelogue genre therefore seems a natural one. Sometimes it’s nice to sit at home and read about someone seeing all those birds you’ve been dreaming about. It scratches that travel itch a little bit.

The Condor’s Feather: Travelling Wild in South America by Michael Webster is an exemplary new offering in the birding travelogue genre. The book chronicles Michael and Paula Webster’s four-year journey across South America from Tierra del Fuego in the south to the Caribbean Sea in the north, following the spine of the great Andes Mountains. The Websters, accomplished wildlife filmmakers, travel with only a loose itinerary and stop for months at a time to make films for local conservation organizations when the opportunity presents itself. The result is a beautifully written account which delves deeply into not only the birds of South America, but also the human beings who live around them and protect them. The book reflects a deep understanding and appreciation for the South American continent accrued from years of travel and active engagement with the region and goes above and beyond the well-trod ground of the “went to a place and saw a bird” narrative.

While the descriptions of birds and nature are evocative and beautiful, what stands out the most is the human element. Travelogues as a genre have been far too often used as a tool of colonialism, constructing an Orientalized image of non-Western countries for digestion by Western readers, and shaping those readers’ attitudes of the people and places discussed. Natural history travelogues are not free of this unseemly history. Alfred Russel Wallace, in his famous book, The Malay Archipelago, refers to the inhabitants of what is now Indonesia as “savage.” In between describing his excitement at seeing orangutans, tropical butterflies, and birds-of-paradise, he spills much ink in defense of the brutal colonial regimes of James Brooke in Sarawak and the Dutch in Java. Charles Darwin, whose Voyage of the Beagle is a natural history classic, refers to the indigenous people of some of the same areas covered in The Condor’s Feather as “barbarians” and “wild animals” and defends their enslavement by the Spanish.

The Condor’s Feather stands in stark contrast to this history. The Websters make an active effort to engage with local communities, to explore how they are conserving their birdlife, and to give back to them through their filmmaking services and educational programs at local schools. Throughout the book, birds almost play second fiddle to the people who orbit them. Perhaps the best example of this is when the Websters attend the release of an Andean Condor in Argentina. At the behest of a condor rehabber friend, Claudio, that they met early on in South America, the Websters detour to a remote area of northern Argentina where condors are set to be released.

The release takes place in collaboration with the Mapuche, an indigenous group in Patagonia, on their land and with their assistance. Claudio has brought with him, as a gift, a totemic wooden carving of a Bald Eagle, Resplendent Quetzal, and Andean Condor to represent the indigenous people of North, Central, and South America respectively. The return of the Andean Condors to mountains where they were once common, in front of a crowd of people who call that land home, is a solemn yet joyous occasion that clearly has a deep impact on the Websters. A Condor biologist present puts it best when he says, “As the condor has two wings, so does this project—one wing is scientific, the other cultural.” The whole passage showcases the type of travel experience often lacking from travelogues, birding or otherwise. It embodies a recognition on the Websters’ behalf that birds cannot be untangled from the people who live around them; and that South America and its history cannot, and should not, be untangled from its indigenous people.

The book serves as a mid-life “coming of age” story, too. When the book begins, Michael is undergoing AIDS treatment as he had just been the victim of a savage mugging where he was stabbed with an HIV-tainted syringe. His life has been radically altered, and he is at a loss as to what comes next. The trip is his new beginning, and the book stands as a testament to the power of nature and birds to help get us through difficult times in our lives. Michael’s slowly reemerging confidence and contentment as their trip progresses is palpable throughout the book. Their early trip naïveté and inexperienced foibles are depicted with a self-awareness that is commendable, and watching the mistakes, misunderstandings, and anxieties slowly cease throughout the book as the Websters come to understand their surroundings is a satisfying experience for the reader.

That their trip is unrestricted by any schedule and covers such a long span of time allows this narrative of self-discovery and improvement to develop organically as the Websters go wherever their adventures take them. The unhurried and exploratory pace is helped along by there being no listing motivation for the trip, unlike many birding travelogues which center around a core listing concept like a Big Year. As a result, the book depicts a much more holistic view of birding and focuses more on the experience of being out in nature than on any sort of teleological, goal-driven hunt. It’s more of a contemplative walk in the woods than a frenzied dash for the finish line.

The Condor’s Feather is an excellent blend of birding narrative, cultural exchange, and travel adventure. Unladen with much of the colonial baggage of the travelogue genre and freed from the listing constraints of many birding travel books, it’s a refreshing and laid-back read. Those who have birded in South America before will find themselves nodding along at relatable experiences and familiar places, while those who haven’t will uncover a newfound fascination with the continent. No matter how many times you’ve been to our neighboring continent, The Condor’s Feather will have you checking flight prices to Bogotá and Buenos Aires—and perhaps that’s the very best thing you can really ask for from a book about South American birds.


Aidan Place is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Originally a resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he works as an avian field technician across the U.S., spending his free time either reading or birding, with a particular interest in birding internationally.