My father was my first bird guide. With his reluctant children and their unenthusiastic mother in tow, he enjoyed his bird-watching excursions on weekend afternoons in the country. The weather always seemed to be grey and chill, with rain threatening.
Seabirds held the greatest appeal for my father, who possessed the only pair of binoculars and kept a firm grip on them. “Oh, look! A Bar-tailed Godwit!” he would cry, peering at what was just a dot on the bleak mudflats to the rest of us. We were busy thinking about a nice cup of tea at home.
Of course, I would give anything to go on a bird-watching trip with my Dad now. And what we now call “birding” has become a much more sophisticated affair, although I believe a pair of good binoculars, a reliable bird book and the wherewithal to start a good list (my Dad loved lists) are still essential items.
Fast forward a few decades, and the Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT) is a great example of what guiding is all about in the 21st century. It is a carefully crafted training program that aims to bring communities closer to birds, and to provide an income-earning opportunity for individuals in sustainable tourism. The CBT – a recently inaugurated project of the regional non-profit BirdsCaribbean – conducted its first Interpretive Guide Training session in Jamaica recently in Albert Town, Trelawny. This is the heart of Cockpit Country – Jamaica’s largest remaining contiguous rainforest, featuring fractured karst, collapsed caves and sinkholes. The area is now threatened by the bulldozers of the bauxite mining company Noranda and by unplanned agriculture and large housing developments; and by the ever-present, not-going-away-anytime-soon climate change. 24 staff from local tour operators, non-profit organizations and independent guides attended the training, hosted locally by the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency (STEA).
Funding for the program was provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act program and from local sponsors and partners, including the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency, Cockpit Country Adventure Tours, Idea Wild, and Paradise Birding. Participants were from the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, Jakes Hotel, This is Jamaica, Cockpit Country Adventure Tours, Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency, Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation, Dolphin Head Local Forest Management Committee, the Seven Oaks Sanctuary for Wildlife, Flamingo Beach Citizens Association, Caribbean Youth Environment Network and JUTA Tours.
The photographs alone tell the story of the enthusiasm the training generated – for example, the trainees engrossed in observing birds at the side of a country road. Now they have to start practicing their new-found knowledge and skills, says CBT Project Manager Holly Robertson.
There were expert presenters, too. Ecologist Dr. Ann Sutton, the author of the Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica, talked about the importance of birds in the ecosystem and the habitats they occupy. Dr. Sutton also generously donated copies of her book to all the participants. It’s a must-have, by the way! Michael Schwartz of Windsor Research Station also talked to the group about the conservation challenges facing the Cockpit Country region. Ricardo Miller told the trainees how he launched his own bird tourism company in Jamaica, Arrowhead Birding. Questions were fired at him about the practical business matters of licensing, insurance, branding and marketing. Because yes, money can be made from eco-tourism, but it must be done in a sensitive way that does not disturb the environment.
So what birds were they looking at, and hoping to discover? Cockpit Country is a biodiversity hotspot, and along the Burnt Hill Road 28 endemic species (that is, that live in Jamaica and nowhere else) can be found. The group also visited the Black River Upper Morass, an extensive wetland area, where resident birds can be found year-round and migrants stop for some “R & R” en route north or south. Among the birds they saw was the West Indian Whistling-Duck, a bird that is endemic to the region – but threatened.
What next for the Jamaican trainees? “We are developing a post-training program to assist participants in reaching the level of skill needed to become a fully certified CBT Interpretive Guide,” says BirdsCaribbean Executive Director, Lisa Sorenson. “The program encourages logging hours in the field practicing bird identification and guiding, entering checklists into the online program eBird Caribbean, participating in an online forum where they can ask the facilitators and professional bird guides questions, and accompanying experienced bird guides on tours to learn firsthand how the bird tourism industry works.”
Because, guess what? Bird tourism, and eco-tourism in general is an industry. According to an extensive survey completed in the U.S. by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012, 71.8 million people 16 years old and older enjoyed observing, feeding, or photographing wildlife in 2011. A significant portion of this includes birdwatchers. Of this group, 22.5 million people took trips away from home for the purpose of enjoying wildlife. In 2011, US wildlife watchers spent $54.9 billion, 31% of being trip-related expenses such as food, lodging, and transportation. This amount exceeded the direct contribution of the entire Caribbean travel and tourism industry in 2011 ($15.1 billion). Bird watching tourism is increasing in popularity in Europe as well, especially in Denmark, France, Sweden, the Netherlands and the UK.
Our islands are being crushed by mass-market tourism, mega-projects that are putting additional strain on our fragile ecosystems. On the north coast recently, I was amazed to see more construction activity – an addition to an already huge hotel. Where is the water for those hundreds of guests going to come from? What about the sewage, and the damage to what’s left of our coral reefs by more construction materials ending up in the sea? Is any of this sustainable?
Bird tourism may seem negligible and low-key – a niche market – to some. Yet environmentally conscious visitors tend to have much more money in their pockets than your average “lie on a sun bed” all-inclusive tourist. Eco-friendly visitors also connect with communities; the business they bring directly supports rural enterprises and communities, and also creates a more satisfying experience for locals and visitors.
Does any of this make sense? I think it does.
Learn more about the Caribbean Birding Trail at http://www.caribbeanbirdingtrail.org. They are also on Facebook and on Twitter @infoCbt . And you can follow the CBT-Jamaica Pinterest board at http://www.pinterest.com/fermatainc/the-caribbean-bird-trail-jamaica/ where there are some marvelous photographs.
Contacts: Holly Robertson, Caribbean Birding Trail Project Manager, BirdsCaribbean. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: (608) 698-3448. In Jamaica, Llewelyn Meggs, CBT Jamaica Coordinator. Email: email@example.com. (876) 579-8219.