Chris Done became a flight attendant in no small part due to his passion for birding. While he doesn’t choose his destinations (“I go where the roster gods send me,” he says) work regularly takes the Brit around the world, from Finland to Gambia to Cuba, and he always tries to carve out time in the field.
Even when he’s stuck on the tarmac or at a hotel, he’s on the lookout for birds—a practice that helped him spot 632 species last year, a personal record. Done tries to go out with a local, and often finds new friends on BirdingPal.org, a birder connection site. If he can’t find a buddy, he sets out alone. “You can always pull up the map and look where it’s green,” he says.
Audubon spoke to Done about his life-long passion for birds, how he packs in so much birding on the go, and his favorite spots around the globe.
Audubon: How did you get into birding?
Done: My auntie gave me a book about birds when I was nine. It was simple as that. I’ve been birding now 36 years.
A: What’s your birding routine like on the job?
D: When I first started as a flight attendant, the crew would be having a cig break in the back of the aircraft and I’d be on the steps looking at a bird. Then we started doing long calls, where we have 24-hour layovers.
On long calls, I tell the rest of my colleagues that I’m going off, for safety’s sake. I usually go birding first thing, then meet the crew for breakfast in the hotel, then I go birding after breakfast. I might see them for lunch, then I chill in the afternoon for a bit, then go birding in the afternoon or evening as the sun’s coming down and it’s getting cooler. A few crew have actually come out with me over the years. I joke and say it’s Chris's Bird Watching Tours.
A: What’s the most memorable bird you’ve spotted on a layover?
D: In 2016 I woke up nearly an hour and a half after sunrise in Barbados. I walked onto my hotel balcony to get some fresh air, and I heard a bird. I’m thinking, “That sounds like a Great Kiskadee: kis-ka-dee.” But I'm in Barbados, that can't be a Great Kiskadee. Just as I'm about to go back inside a Great Kiskadee flew past me underneath my balcony round to the front of the hotel. Those are probably the greatest days, when you don't expect to find something rare.
A: Where are your favorite birding spots?
D: Vancouver has been a longtime favorite; my favorite birds there include the stunning Steller's Jay and its gorgeous cousin the Clark's Nutcracker. And I have to say Vegas is one of my newer favorites. The crew can't believe that I can actually go bird watching in Vegas. They say, “I’ve never seen a bird on the Strip!” Well you have to get off the Strip and go up, say, Mount Charleston. Or to Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, which is so close to the Strip; within 30 minutes, you can be out of the bright lights, seeing Burrowing Owls, White-faced Ibis, roadrunners.
A: What tips do you have for birders who want to start birding on their layovers?
D: I keep my bins and cameras with me in my carry-on luggage. We all know how the airlines handle your luggage with so much love and care. And if something goes missing, I can still go birding because I still have all my stuff.
If I’m in a new place, I look for a park or a green area to go. I also use bus maps and public transports, and of course the birding friends I’ve made all over the world over the years. I met a photographer in Vegas, and to this day we are friends. We talk on the phone, and when I’m in town basically he's my driver. I get him new birds; he takes me to places for free.
A: Have you always kept a list?
D: The first two years I travelled with my company, my notetaking was literally scribbling sightings on the notepad from the hotel. Then in 2004, I said this is it: Start birding properly. In 2007 I saw 400 species. That was my record until 2011, which I finished with 525 species.
For the last few years, I’ve been trying to break that record. I came close a few times; I was four short one year. Last year I finally managed to break the record, in part due to a working layover on the Canary Islands, where I saw birds like—lo and behold—an Atlantic Canary, Canary Island Chiffchaff, and Berthelot’s Pipit. I finished the year with 632 species.
This year I decided to still do my annual list, but rather than trying to break my record, I’m interested in seeing lifers, like a California Condor, and other wildlife species. And I’m going to try to go new destinations, and new areas in the places I’ve already been. I'm not just a birder, I'm a nature lover in general.