What is wrong with most birding tours?
I got some flak from saying that in my webinar, and perhaps rightly so…..
BUT, I am not saying that I am doing it right and that everyone else is doing it wrong. Rather that there is an immense pool of people interested in birds that we (the bird tour operators) are not reaching today. How do we get them into our ranks? How do we convert them to clients and ultimately to passionate conservationists?
Here is the webinar on YOUTUBE where I presented these ideas. Read on for a summary.
Birding tours for the 99%.
What are the main problems with many birding tours today?
There are some fixed issues that birding tour companies face, especially when it comes to the US market.
- Americans don’t like to travel as much as i.e Europeans. Or rather, they first travel domestically. There is a sense, or belief, that the rest of the world is a dangerous place.
No passport. If they don’t have any desire to travel abroad they don’t have any incentive to get a passport.
It is expensive. A very real thing. Birding tours, in general, are more expensive compared to traditional tourism because of personalized service and small group sizes.
DIY with Local operators and Local guides. Many birders have of course found that they can connect with local guides and local operators through the internet, without having a middle man getting a cut.
Apart from these general points, there are principally two main reasons why the 99% do not take traditional birding tours.
1. Traditional birding tours are too long.
Not enough holiday. People in the US, unless they are retired don’t have much holiday in the first place.
Too busy. This day and age is fast-paced and people have a short attention span and a hard time focusing. (I.e are you just skimming through this post or reading it in detail?).
Many people need to be connected almost all the time – both for their work and privately. They can’t take a holiday and disconnect for more than a week at the time, even if they get four-five weeks of holiday per year. If they go longer, they will either have that pile of work when they get back, or someone else sits at their desk. Regardless, during the whole trip, they will probably need internet connectivity almost daily.
- Too Expensive. The price for long trips become too expensive, as they are all-inclusive and stay at expensive lodges and employing private guides.
Make shorter trips that can be fitted between two weekends so the birder only have to take five days off from work.
Always chose hotels with a good internet connection if possible
Shorter trips cost less. Time is money in more than one way.
Longer trips can be made less expensive by tiered pricing. I will come back to this in a forthcoming webinar.
All these points have been taken into account when setting up the core programs for 7 Wonders Birding Tours – the Kolibri Expeditions offshoot, which takes you to the best birding around the world by just taking 5 days off from work. These tours usually start on a Sunday afternoon or Monday morning and end on Friday evening or Saturday midday, so you can reach the destination traveling one weekend and then travel back the next weekend, if you wish. A mini jam-packed holiday in a week.
2. Traditional birding tours are too hardcore
This is the other reason why the 99% don’t take birding tours. Apart from being too long, they are also too tough.
Some bird tour companies have offered activities the non-birding spouses can do while the birder is out birding. That may be fine for some couples, but I imagine, that it is not a very satisfying holiday to have together, as the couples really are not together except during transports and the meals.
Here are the main things that make these tours too intense.
Every single endemic needs to be seen.The long tours aim to see every single special bird on the itinerary and sometimes make detours for a local endemic which looks almost exactly the same as another species. The spectacular birds often do not get enough room, time, and focus.
Focus is on seeing, rather than getting a photo.
Birding 24/7. Nothing but birds. Even birds for dinner, as the bird list needs to be done and after that it is owling. There is no time to just be social. There is rarely time for a good restaurant or seeing a world heritage site.
Hardcore birders can be intimidating.Imagine you being a birder who has just started and being in a group that aims to see every single species on the tour. They may know a lot, but you feel ignorant in their company. You shall have to endure two to three weeks with them.
Solution – Bucket list birding.
Rather, with short tours, the birding can be experienced together during a short burst. Most people even non-birding spouses can handle intensive birding if it is just a few days, but not for two-three weeks.
Additionally, the solution that we practice with the 7 Wonders Birding trips is to fill our 5-day tours jam-packed with experiences that define the destination, and that is not to try to see every single bird, but rather the best and most spectacular birds, as well as other non-birding highlights of the area you visit. These 5-day trips can be intense if you want to maximize the time in the field, or you can skip pre-breakfast birding, have a midday siesta or skip the owling at night if you want to take it easier. I’ll give specify the solutions we have put in place and examples from the 7WB catalog below.
Focus on the spectacular birds. The ones that give a good photo. On a short tour, you will not be able to see all the endemics anyway. Compile a bucket list of the top 5-10 birds of a region, focus on them to build your trip around. All else you see is icing on the cake.
Or like my friend Trevor Hardaker, #1 lister of South Africa with a similar approach on his travel abroad, says: “Everything else is bycatch.” So even the world’s most prominent birders have a bucket list and priorities.
It is not about seeing every little brown job that you will not remember in a year, but about quality. For example, our tour to Japan for five days in the winter focuses on seeing and photographing the majestic Steller’s Eagle, Red-crowned Crane, Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, and Snow monkeys. Similarly, there is a 5-day tour to Guatemala featuring Horned Guan and Pink-headed Warbler.
Give many photo opportunities. Include the best places for bird photography even if the tour is traditional birding trying to see many species. This gives the option to take it easier while the more hardcore birders look for more endemics for the list. The Kolibri Expeditions 5 day tours to Manu road and North Peru are such tours.
More Social. Nightly checklist meetings are so “last century”. You don’t need to keep a daily log, when the leader simply shares the daily eBird lists each day and everyone’s photos after the trip. Many of the new birders don’t keep a list of what they see anyway. So the evenings are for relaxation and socializing (apart from the owling, of course).
Iconic Mammals. Make iconic mammals central to the birding itinerary. This strategy works extremely well for Tiger in India, Platypus, Koala, Kangaroo, and Tasmanian Devil in Australia, Orangutan, and Proboscis Monkey in Borneo, Iberian Lynx in Spain, Jaguar in the Pantanal in Brazil; and Chimps and Gorilla (and Shoebill) in Uganda.
- Threatened species. It is always good to include threatened species in the regular itineraries if they are accessible. For instance, the 7 Wonders Birding to China include Crested Ibis and the main trip in Cambodia includes Giant Ibis, White-shouldered Ibis, and White-winged Duck.
Extensions. If some Critically Endangered and Endangered birds or endemics can’t be fitted into the core itinerary, offer extensions for traditional birders who have more time and want longer lists with specialties. For example, the Japan trip offers an extension to Okinawa for Okinawa Rail and other birds. One can also offer short extensions featuring endemic birds, which may include some more demanding birding or expeditions, such as the search for the remaining Cambodian Endemics hiking up Mt Aural Mountain in the Cardamom mountains.
- Focus on Bird Families. Many traditional birders who have realized they will not see all the birds in the world have started focusing on the Bird Families of the World instead. The new goal is to see or photograph at least one species from each family. There are 248 bird families so it is far more manageable. Oz Horine of the Bird families of the world webpage puts it nicely. “There are 10700 bird species in the world. Here is the abstract”. On his website, you can add your own list of bird families seen, and find out where you need to go for the ones you are missing.With 7 Wonders Birding, we are planning 5 to 7-day trips to clean up on unique bird families in New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, New Guinea, Caribbean, New Caledonia, Patagonia, and Ghana. These will be introduced during 2021 and 2022.
Applying the same strategy in Peru
Previously in this blog, I wrote about the Birding Peru Anytime tours. They are three destinations – Manu road, North Peru and Machu Picchu, that contain these same strategies and while they are particularly good for bird photography – especially hummingbirds, they are also extremely rich in general birdlife for a long lists of species and thus suitable for both experienced birders as well as for bird photographers or people new to birding.
One particular feature is that these tours can be run anytime. Ideally, when they get better known, and the pandemic is over, they will run with a departure every week, making it very easy to plan a trip whenever is it suitable for you.
The third webinar in the Birding Revolution series dealt with the background and ideas surrounding these tours. Check it out.
The video transmission, when I live-streamed this, was not great. I am considering pre-recording the webinars instead, for better images and voice from now on. Still, it should be interesting to you if you are thinking about Peru. The three 5-day tours really give the best Peru offers in very little time.
Let me know what you think about these ideas? Would a core birding tour of just 5 days to which you may, or may not add extensions, be an attractive strategy to you? Either comment in the comment section below or send me an email.
Which tour is next on your Bucket List? Which is your favorite destination? Which of the three Peru itineraries is most attractive to you, if you would only choose one?
Gunnar Engblom is a Swedish birder who lives in Peru since 1998, where he operates birdwatching and nature tours for Kolibri Expeditions. In October 2018 Gunnar lead a trip in Peru recording 1006 species in a Big Month. Gunnar is also a dedicated 3:04 marathon runner, still hoping for a sub 3h marathon in spite of turning 60 in 2020, perhaps in Berlin September, 2021.
In 2016, Gunnar re-launched his rock’n’roll singer career with his band Guran Guran, and in 2019 they released a new video – Feels Like Some Summer – also available on Spotify and other digital outlets.