Birds and the Visitors who follow them

Faraaz Abdool – engineer turned eco-photographer - talks about the growing niche market for Tobago tourism. What is birding and why is it so important to us? (All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool)

To most of us, the word “bird” is a noun, a word ascribed to various feathered animals that form part of the diorama of our daily lives. We see them every day: the Frigatebirds soaring effortlessly hundreds of feet above our heads and the Bananaquits quarreling over who sat on whose flower last. They all tend to fade into the landscape though. Until we observe some khaki-clad humanoid eagerly gesticulating, all attention focused on some inconsequential facet of what we see daily. 

Blue-backed Manakin: The unique geography of Tobago allows one to see secretive forest birds like the Blue-backed Manakin and still be within a half hour of a pristine beach.

This is birding, where “to bird” is a verb, meaning the pursuit of a particular bird (or birds) for the sole purpose of seeing it in its natural habitat, free as mother nature intended. People who bird are called birdwatchers, or birders – the latter term rapidly increasing in popularity with heightened familiarity around the once mysterious pastime. Some birders keep lists, where they simply record the birds they have seen for a particular trip; others carry huge lenses and cameras to photograph the tiny creatures from a respectable distance. No matter the means of recording sightings, birders are an invaluable arm of citizen science for ornithologists worldwide. There is no more economic way of tracking the journey of migratory birds than having birders in various countries record sightings throughout the year and submit them to an online platform such as eBird – an intuitive app that allows the user to submit sightings of all species from wherever he might be in the world. 

Copper-rumped Hummingbird: These feisty hummingbirds can only be found in T&T and Venezuela

Apart from the contribution to global ornithological data, birding has significant economic benefits. Birding tourism falls under the umbrella of ecotourism, and birders form the largest single group of ecotourists worldwide. But what is ecotourism? According to the International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

Red-billed Tropicbird: These elegant seabirds are often featured in adverts for T&T in birdwatching magazines worldwide.

How can a country attract this sort of tourism? First of all, ecological attractions are a must. In Trinidad and Tobago, we are blessed with countless natural wonders that are sought after by many travelers: from pristine waterfalls to endemic amphibians. Adventure seekers and researchers alike travel thousands of miles to T&T annually to enjoy our nature. Eclipsing all of them, however, are the birders. 

For a physically tiny country, T&T has an extreme wealth and diversity of birdlife. Clocking almost five hundred avian species, our twin islands are high on the list of many birdwatchers’ ideal destinations, unbeknownst to most of us. Some of the largest tour companies in the world run annual birding trips to T&T; many of them do multiple tours each year based on sheer demand and the fact that trips are often sold out months in advance. 

Tobago Greenlet: Recently declared its own species, the Tobago Greenlet can only be found throughout the island of Tobago, and nowhere else in the world. 

What this means is that the groundwork involved to kickstart an entire industry has already been done. The infrastructure is already in place, the soil is already fertilized. With the current state of affairs worldwide and the burgeoning ecological sensitivity among global powerhouses, there is no better time to capitalize upon this rapidly growing sector. 

In a 2014 survey among Americans, it was found that there were approximately 60 million birdwatchers in the USA alone. A considerable portion of these indicated that they travel as part of their birding experience. Given the fact that most birders are relatively affluent, they are more likely to inject foreign exchange into our economy than say, backpackers on a budget who are looking for a beach to sip a beer and take a selfie. I interviewed a bird photographer who visited T&T for two weeks in December 2017; he spent upwards of seven thousand US dollars on his trip which all goes towards local tour guides, locally owned hotel accommodation and food. 

Trinidad Motmot: Can be found nowhere else in the world but in T&T, the Trinidad Motmot is notoriously difficult to see on Trinidad but excessively visible on Tobago.

Being sensitive to the natural environment, birders are more likely to opt for a low-impact, sustainable travel experience. They avoid the large hotel chains and over-commercialized, generic tourism products. They are more likely to choose a local, specialized birding guide over a rehearsed, manufactured product that memorized a tourism video produced two decades ago. Local guides are a gold mine among birders worldwide, as they are the ones who know exactly where to find specific birds critical to the success of the expedition. 

Birding tourism, or avitourism, is tourism at community level. From local crafts to bed-and-breakfast establishments in remote areas, everyone stands to benefit from this very unobtrusive and generous segment which appreciates the lifestyles of populations which keep nature intact.. Capital investment is extremely low, should any “development” be proposed for this sector. Birders are more than willing to travel three hours to the remote forests of Grande Riviere in Trinidad to have a 40% chance of glimpsing the critically endangered Trinidad Piping Guan, without ever wishing for a highway. Endemic species as well as range-restricted species are major attractions to birders and birding organizations worldwide. 

Trinidad Piping Guan: Critically Endangered and a much desired bird for many birders, only a couple hundred of these birds remain in the last remote pockets of Trinidad's Northern Range.

T&T is already on the birding map of the world. What is currently needed is a nationwide awareness campaign that highlights the economic benefit of live birds in their natural habitat, and the benefits that we as a nation stand to inherit from this paradigm shift in perception. People do not fork out thousands of dollars to travel to our shores to see dead Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in someone’s pot. Local communities are the first to benefit from being known as a birding “hotspot”, supporting local guides, taxi drivers, farmers, craftspeople and more. 

Aside from the immediate human benefits, preserving the birds means preserving the ecosystem which just happens to ensure a clean and functioning environment for our children’s future. 

White-tailed Sabrewing: Almost wiped out by Hurricane Flora in 1963, this hummingbird has made a comeback and can only be found in the rainforest of Main Ridge as well as in Venezuela


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