I have been guiding groups of birdwatchers for 20 plus years and recently, I have noticed a very interesting shift in the preferences of many birdwatchers. It was typical to find groups of birders traveling with international companies from the USA or UK in South and Central America approximately at the same time of the year, to different destinations, and the length of the trips used to be 15 to 21 days. The leaders were/are usually original from the countries of origin of the companies and mostly excellent birders.
Currently with the availability of information available to all due to advances in technology that make communications very easy and fluid as well as with the availability of more local companies and local guides, it is easier for anybody to access other options and do your own trip on what I like to call birding your own way!
I’ve been finding more and more groups and/or individuals traveling with different local operators/guides at different times of the year and even to areas that are not covered by international companies. These people have contact the local operators directly which arrange everything and some are responsible for making many of the logistics arrangements themselves. For example, during one of my last trips in the cloud forest of Manu, which is a well-known birding area in the world, I found 7 more groups of birders (8 counting on the group that I was guiding). Among these, one of 2 people traveling without a guide and the others that varied from 3 to 8 participants. They all had guides from different Peruvian birding companies. The interesting detail is that I had modified the dates of my trip to avoid finding many people in the area and also because I knew that at that time of the year the conditions were very favorable for birding and certainly with less people, which was not the case!
Traveling as part of an organized group has its perks, from a social point of view is very appealing for a large number of people who like to interact socially at the same time to follow their passion to see birds under the guarantee of being in a tour operated by a company that organizes absolutely everything for them. They just have to show up and follow the itinerary with a guide. However, it can also be challenging and complicated for many reasons. From social interactions dynamics to the different levels of interest of each individual, the level of fitness, the ability to respond to instructions, personality, etc.
Let me use a hypothetical example (very real though!) to clarify this issue. For instance, we all know that the tropical andes and rainforest are some of the world’s top birding destinations with one of the richest avian faunas of the world and a series of complex habitats and microhabitats that makes birding very challenging. So imagine this scenario: In your group there are novice birders, new to tropical birding, in fact this might be their first international birding trip! Others are birders doing their second or third trip in the tropics and already know how (and where!) to look for the birds, in addition to that, they have seen most common/uncommon birds as well as some of the rare.
And finally we have the most experienced birders, those with several trips under their belt in different parts of these areas, with a few birds missing from the life’s list. These are generally birders looking for the rarest birds and/or toughest birds to find. Imagine the challenge that represents to be able to find all of the birds for such a cast of characters! In addition to that, not everyone has the same physical conditions or abilities and skills. Some might suffer from the heat and humidity, the mosquitoes; others cannot walk long distances, climb hills, muddy trails, early mornings, among other challenges. Add a photographer and we will have a whole other extra level of complexity to the situation, but let’s leave that for another blog post!
As a guide, in the past years I have been focusing precisely on small groups and individuals who had been looking to bird their own way for the reasons I mentioned above. Some are hard core birders, others are people that want to travel according to their time availability, others wanted to bird but also have interests in other wildlife, flowers, culture, others just want to bird at their own pace…all they want is to bird at their own way!
One of my first clients was a gentleman looking for a number of birds he was missing from the Peruvian northern Amazon. I took care of everything and we had a great time exceeding the number of birds he was looking for and more importantly, having great views of the birds he was looking for.
Another client, Mary one of my clients told me that every time she signed up on a trip that she liked from a company, she made sure that the leader was a guide of her preference but the most important thing for her was to make sure to know who would travel in that group. “If I found someone with whom I did not get along or had a bad experience in the past, I did not enroll on that trip”. So it became increasingly difficult for her to find trips until she decided to start traveling alone or with very small groups of friends using local companies and/or guides and discovered that it was exactly what worked best for her.
John, another of my clients told me that due to his poor ability to see and hear well, every time he took a group tour, he felt terrible because he had trouble seeing the birds and the guide had to spent extra time in order to show him the birds, which sometimes he could not see! “I felt a lot of pressure from the other participants in the group and little by little my experience was not enjoyable. Because of this and despite the fact I could still travel, I was considering stop birding internationally until a friend asked him to join him in a tour for two in Panama and it was great”.
For him, this change and making trips with local and/or private guides was the solution because he could focus on the birds he needed to see and take all the necessary time without any pressure in addition to taking more trips a year!
On another occasion, during a tour in central Peru, one of my clients told me that although it is true that birds were the main point of his trips, he was also very interested in knowing the culture, food and current affairs of the countries he visited. Unfortunately the leaders with whom he had traveled with international companies did not do a good job to keep a good balance on that, so he started traveling with local companies and local guides and he found the right balance he was looking for.
The list of examples is long and as you can see I could go on and on but the point here is that there are many reasons why traveling in a group is not necessary for everybody. There are several factors to take into consideration such as leader’s personality, group size, social interactions, different levels of interest of each individual, levels of fitness, ability to respond to instructions, personality, etc.
To learn more about this topic drop me an email. I will be happy to help you with any questions you might have regarding birding on you own way! I will be sending an update to this topic very soon…stay tuned!
In the meantime bird a lot, stay strong, healthy and happy!