Faraaz Abdool designs itineraries to show food, culture, and natural vistas on his tours for birdwatchers.
Homebound for the past few years, many people have fallen in love with their backyard birds and, by extension, the magic of birdwatching. Now, with the easing of travel restrictions in most countries, people are eager to visit new places, see new sights and see new birds. Bird tourism before the pandemic was already an important sector of the booming ecotourism market, and it is gradually gaining momentum as more and more people take to the skies.
Birdwatching tours take enthusiastic people from all walks of life to incredible, remote places as diverse as the birds themselves. As destinations vary, tours diversify to cater to different groups of birdwatchers – some keeping lists of thousands, some looking for that elusive winning shot, others simply interested in experience of being in nature. Most people who travel for birds fall into any combination of these categories. Some may value one or the other more, but at the most fundamental level, all are people who love the natural world and have a vested interest in its well-being. It is therefore no stretch of the imagination that the preservation of nature in all its forms is something that directly benefits the birdwatcher.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, however. Booking – and undertaking – a birding excursion has ripple effects on a considerable network of suppliers. Even what may at first appear to be a dedicated, single-minded, bird-or-nothing tour also involves an intricate web extending from a hub of birding guides, drivers and hoteliers.
Many birding days begin before dawn and end long after sunset. Fortunately, in Trinidad and Tobago, there are no difficult routes; getting from one island to another only takes a few hours. This ease of access is an integral part of the attraction of these two Caribbean islands but also typically South American. Plus, the ‘lunch at a local restaurant’ option is perfect for a long day by maximizing birding time. What’s not to love about a welcoming table that’s conveniently located and reserved and waiting for hungry birdwatchers ready for a break? It doesn’t have to be the biggest or most famous restaurant – many birdwatchers want to sample our local cuisine, and simplicity is often best.
Caution and consideration should be exercised as environmentally conscious people hosted in a restaurant will notice poor or insensitive practices. Ideally, any participating establishment should be one that adheres to the principles of sustainability – “cook and shark” does not fall into this bracket given the dire status of sharks around the world. A conscious shift to ‘cook and lionfish’ can provide a glimmer of hope and would forge a key link with yet another community – the local fishermen.
The focus is deliberately on the dining experience as stopping for a meal is a necessity; we don’t need to survive on snacks alone. Some restaurants have gardens of beautiful native plants that ensure the constant presence of feathered friends at lunchtime. Others take the landscaping to the next level and build elaborate paths for fruiting and flowering vines throughout the dining room – imagine sipping a cup of tea as the day finally cools, surrounded by creepers and hummingbirds. . Where stopping is inconvenient, meals can be arranged for delivery by intrepid mobile chefs. There really is no limit to creativity in logistics, especially given how fluid many birding tours are.
Gradually, more and more places are embracing the union of bird watching and hospitality. Many landowners and farmers in various parts of the Neotropics have welcomed birdwatchers by opening up their private lands for a fee. Ensuring their visitors can safely bird watch and offer a glass of freshly squeezed juice before departure is usually well worth the effort. The additional income from bird tourism encourages owners to ensure bird safety and welfare, as more birds mean more visitors.
Other aspects of life on our islands can often be incorporated into a birding excursion. For example, a trip to visit blue-and-yellow macaws at a known nesting site may be combined with a visit to a nearby panyard; an afternoon touring the vast tidal mudflats can begin with a visit to the famous Sea Temple at Waterloo and end with a spectacular sunset over the Gulf of Paria. The balance is particularly delicate and must always tip in favor of the birds.
There is so much to offer the ecotourist, sometimes there just isn’t enough time to see all there is to see. Yet it is essential to maintain the attractiveness of our destination. Two weeks of ardent birding can, with luck, see you half the species recorded for the islands. The same two weeks at a different time of year will result in a different selection of species as we are heavily influenced by migration patterns which are governed by seasonal changes. Likewise, the ever-changing list of attractions – from cultural to culinary – serves to create a stronger desire to return.
Nature is the model for sustainability, and if we modeled our operations on what naturally exists, we ourselves would be sustainable. The more places birdwatchers visit, the more people can become involved in this expanding web of trade, goods and services: coffee roasters, chocolatiers, home gardeners, permaculture pioneers, artisans, massage therapists, fishermen, hikers and many more. Each visitor is unique with different desires. It’s up to us to have the necessary conversations so that we can ensure that multiple interesting and memorable experiences are created that will benefit as many people as possible.