As the world becomes smaller and more accessible, travel is easier and cheaper. Keen birders have always found ways to connect and share information. It lies in the essence of birding itself; you can only discover more when you have a grasp of the present knowledge. Birding is for the curious minded, the tourist who when travelling, will not consider themselves a tourist, but rather to be simply pursuing their passion, wherever it takes them. The fascinating thing with birding is that there is always more to explore.
When dedicated people meet a culture and a common understanding is developed, connections are made in an instant. Catering to birders can be a tricky business if you don´t understand the culture. A birder can travel to a new country and a new culture, but once they meet with a local birder chances are they will instantly connect. Birding is a worldwide culture, complete with its “language”, ideals, morals, websites, businesses and so much more. This article aims to give the reader a better understanding of birding in general, and how it relates to tourism worldwide.
“Birding is hunting without killing, preying without punishing and collecting without clogging your home” - Mark Obmascik*1
The sheer joy of birdwatching (or birding) can be hard to explain to those who do not pursue it. In its simplest form, it is a celebration of nature. For many, it is the complete unpredictability of birding that makes it attractive. You can go out with a basic idea of what birds you might see, but you will almost certainly come back having witnessed something you did not expect to. You may chance upon an unusual bird species for the area, a familiar bird wearing an unusual plumage or exhibiting behaviour you have not seen before. Yes, the swallows leave in the autumn and return in the spring but year-to-year their arrival and departure dates will differ. They may have a good breeding season or completely fail.
For some, birding is all about little discoveries: what is the date of your earliest Swift back from Africa for the summer? What is the biggest Oystercatcher flock recorded on the local beach? How close do Sparrowhawk breed to your house? For others it´s an expression of their primal hunting instinct: stalking the bird, using fieldcraft to make themselves near invisible, then (rather than killing the bird) achieving that perfect view or dream photo. For others it is the chase of rare and unusual species. Everyone considering themselves as birders or birdwatchers have an admiration for nature and a desire to see more, to understand more and to experience more. Birding is both connectedness and exploration.
When we use the term “hobby” to describe birding, it is selling short the community of people who make learning about the identification, movements and behaviour of birds their life. Perhaps “counter-culture” or “tribe” is a more appropriate term. Better still: it is a lifestyle. Birding for many is a passion that extends far beyond hobby or pastime.
Worldwide birding is so large; it really does have its own culture. Many will describe it like being in one giant friendly club. It is quite normal to turn to a stranger next to you in the bird hide and strike up a pleasant conversation. “Anything good?” or “is it showing?” are universally understood questions within the birding community. Binoculars or a telescope are like ID badges, identifying yourself to other birders.
A 2011 study in the United States found there to be 47 million Americans who identified themselves as “birdwatchers”. To be counted as a birder in this study, an individual must have either “1) taken a trip one mile or more from home for the primary purpose of observing birds or 2) closely observed or tried to identify birds around the home”. 18 million (38%) fell into the first category, arguably the more “birder-ish” of the criteria. The figure is likely to be higher, since teenagers under 16 were not counted and the survey did not reach every citizen (Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2013). 18 million was the figure of birders that were estimated to travel away from home within the U.S at least once annually.
In the UK, birding is a seriously popular pastime, or rather lifestyle. Within the UK, a national survey of 36,000 people in the UK April 2014 - March 2015 found 7.8 million people to have “an interest” in bird watching, 3.7 million said they went birdwatching occasionally and 1.9 million go birdwatching regularly (Sleight, A., Bird Watching Magazine, pers. comms., 2015)
It is rather hard to give a very accurate estimate of the number of birders in a country, as it varies a lot how formally the birding communities are organised. In the UK the number of people who support charities is high, and who consider themselves either to be birders, birdwatchers or keen nature enthusiasts. Most famous in the birding world is the RSPB or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RSPB has over 1300 employees, 18 000 volunteers and more than 1.1 million members (including 195 000 youth members), making it the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe. The RSPB has many local groups and maintains 200 nature reserves.
In membership terms the RPSB is closely followed by The Wildlife Trusts, an organisation made up of 47 local Wildlife Trusts in the United Kingdom. The Wildlife Trusts, between them, look after around 2300 nature reserves covering more than 90 000 hectares. As of 2011 they have a combined membership of over 800 000 members. However many of these members are not necessarily dedicated birders. Many will be of the “lighter” category of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.
The birding world has become so large and so well-connected internationally that there are a number of birding “trade-shows” held every year across the world. Largest of all is The British Birdwatching Fair (more commonly called The BirdFair) held annually in Britain at Rutland Water every year since 1989. The Birdfair goes one step further than being a place for companies and charities to exhibit themselves. It lays on back-to-back lectures and entertainment features, guided walks and bird ringing demonstrations. Its popularity has exploded and The BirdFair now hosts 25 000 visitors and over 400 exhibitors annually (Birdfair History, http://www.birdfair.org.uk/birdfair-history/, 2015).
On top of this, there is a wide number of annual birding festivals across the world. The aim of most of these is to bring people together to go birding and celebrate a certain area. The Eilat Birds Festival champions all things birding in Israel. Participants pay to take part in guided tours around the birding hotspots and evening presentations. In 2014, 215 birders were registered taking part in the festival, with c.4000 birders visiting the area that spring (Meyrav, J., Israel Ornithological Center, pers comms, 2015). In Ohio, the Biggest Week In American Birding is a 10-day pilgrimage for many birders to THE place in the world to see the colourful North American wood warblers. Guided tours, lectures, ID workshops, birding celebrities and of course, fantastic birding are all part of the programme. The USA is well served with similar events occurring at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (Harlingen, Texas, 2288 visitors 2014 (Mahathey, S., Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, pers. comms., 2015), Cape May Fall Festival (Cape May, New Jersey, c.1500 visitors 2014 (LaPuma, D., Cape May Bird Observatory, pers. comms., 2015), Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival (Florida, c.5340 visitors 2014 (Harris, N., Brevard Nature Alliance, pers. comms., 2015).
As is common in the birding world, these festivals become increasingly niche, with one American bird festival titled the Alaska Hummingbird Festival: celebrating the spring return of the hummingbirds to their state. In Louisiana, the Yellow Rails and Rice festival purely revolves around the harvesting of the rice fields, with birders following the machinery and watching any rails (small secretive waterbirds) that fly out from the crop - particularly the scarcely observed Yellow Rail. These are simple ideas that work extremely well.
With the hundreds of birding festivals around the world it can be hard to know which ones to attend if your primary goal is not to go birding, but rather to meet potential customers and to to engage with other birding related businesses. To a large extent you can meet potential customers on any birding festival. The trick however is to be a birder yourself. That makes everything easier. After all, sharing an interest or passion for the topic at hand is what matters if you want to relate to people.
There are hundreds of birding festivals around the globe, but a much smaller selection of “trade shows” or “fairs”. This is where people in the birding business meet, exhange ideas, build relationships, make deals and much more. They are also often attended by a large number of birders who are there to be inspired, learn about new destinations to visit or check out the latest optics or books on birds and nature.
Key trade shows or fairs to visit are (covering the biggest markets today):
•The Rutland Birdfair (The British Birdwatching Fair): The worlds greatest gathering of birders with 25 000 people attending over a weekend in August.
• The Scottish Birdfair, still very big with over 6000 people attending over weekend in May.
• The American Birding Expo, a newcomer to the scene, arranged for the first time in USA in October 2015. This sets out to become The Birdfair of USA. A much needed development, as the US birding scene seems very dispersed in a myriad of smaller festivals and businesses, but until now without a shared space to meet and mingle.
is an ambiguous term. Generally, birdwatchers are people who do just that: watch birds. They may simply look at the birds in the garden. They might take binoculars on walks in the park. They may go on a bird watching walk in nice weather. But apart from that, they do not have the obsession or dedication that birders do. “Birder” is a phrase that became common parlance in the American bird watching scene in the 20th century. Most serious birders now much prefer the term to “birdwatcher”. Birdwathcers will have binoculars, but neccesarily a telescope. Birding is more of a hobby then a serious lifestyle. Mostly on Facebook, a little less on Twitter. Often on Instagram.
are birdwatchers who have made birds their life. They rise at 4am to catch the early bird. They are out in all weathers with optical equipment that may have cost them upwards of 10-20 000 NOK. They write notes on birds they see, record the calls of birds they hear. Free time not spent in the field is used reading books on birding, surfing the internet for the latest papers on bird identification or planning their next trip abroad to experience amazing wildlife. They use the term “bird” as a verb. “Where are you going?” “Birding”. Will have binoculars, a telescope and a camera to document sightings. Birding as a lifestyle. They will engage widely on Facebook, they will very likely run a blog, and Twitter is a favoured social media for sharing the latest news and views from the birding world. Keen birders can be your very best ambassadors. Take good care of them.
are a birders with an express interest in chasing rare birds. They may travel vast distances to see vagrant birds, to study an unfamiliar species, to add the bird to their list (see glossary) or simply to be part of the birding “event” surrounding this birds occurrence. For twitchers, the thrill of the chase is often as important as seeing the bird. British birder Graham Gordon expresses the cocktail mix of panic and euphoria when a rare bird turns up. In this scenario he is stuck on a boat full of non-birders as he tries to travel to another island to spot a very rare bird that has been blown off-course by hurricanes from North America.“It wasn't just tension, you understand: it was the sheer, unadulterated joy within of being on Scilly when something BIG was happening. I just wouldn't have been able to put it into words for these humans. I needed to be with my own subspecies!”*9. Twitching can be an all-consuming lifestyle. They will follow several Facebook pages dedicated to birding. Twitter is a key media, providing fast and easy to reach information. Instagram is not used much.
Bird / wildlife photographers
are often focusing on the creative side of birding, and uses a camera to express his or her relationship with nature. However a birdwatcher/birder/twitcher can also fall under the umbrella of bird/wildlife photographer, often using the camera to document his or her finds. There are also people who are bird/wildlife photographers without being birders. There is a growing market for photographers, and they are very often willing to spend a lot of money on achieving their “dream” shot. They are attracted to places which offer the possibility of capturing spectacular wildlife in exciting circumstances. They may be less bothered about seeing rare birds or gathering a long list of species. For example, the White-tailed Eagle is a relatively common bird in Norway but is very popular with photographers. The eagles are impressive looking birds, and offer the possibility of being photographed in a range of scenarios. Bird / wildlife photography related products often offer opportunities make a business outside of guiding or accommodation. Pay for photo hides are becoming more widely used. The bird photographer will most certainly have his own blog and / or a website, a dedicated photopage on Facebook. They are often on Twitter but many are not. Instagram is also widely used.
Active nature enthusiasts
are a very large group of people. They constitute they major bulk of RSPB´s membership. They are often families who are into nature, but not necessarily deeply into birding. They are an important group to cater to as they more often will need and / or benefit from more information and better presentations of nature. A large number of people worldwide will express a deep interest in birds and nature when presented to it in a clever or very nice manner. This can be through use of guides, exhibitions in nature centres, nicely designed bird hides and wind shelters. Unlike the keenest birder / birdwatcher fraternity they will often not be actively engaging with the birding community on social media. This is one of the most underestimated benefits of the birders: when treated nicely they are your best PR people, through very active blogging and presence on social media. The active nature enthusiasts are more often found on Facebook and Instagram.
Commonly used words and phrases:
•Blocker: A twitcher´s term for a very rare bird species that has not been seen in an area for a long time. It has been “blocked” for the twitchers who did not see it before. When one finally turns up again and is seen by more people, it has been “unblocked”. “I was so glad Masked Shrike became unblocked last week!”.
•Bogey bird: One species that a birder has always had trouble seeing. Usually unique to each birder. “Another year over and I still didn't see a Red-breasted Flycatcher. It´s become my bogey bird”.
•Dip/dip out: Failing to see a rare bird after attempting to do so. “We tried to twitch the Black Stork but we dipped”.
• Dude: A derogatory name used by birders to describe other birdwatchers who have little knowledge of birds or all the gear but no idea.
• Jizz: The “feel” of the bird using a combination of movement, shape, behaviour etc. Expert birder can identify a bird in silhouette or from a great distance by its jizz. “At first I wasn't sure, but it moved with that classic Common Sandpiper jizz”.
• Lifer: A bird species that the observer has not seen before. “I hope we get Corncrake on this trip. That would be a lifer”.
• List/lister: Listers are birders that keep lists of the birds they see e.g. Life list (every bird you see during your life, sometimes confined to your home country), year list (all the birds you see in a calendar year) with the aim of seeing more (having a longer list) than your fellow listers. Listers often adhere to rules set out by bird listing organisations on what they can and can´t “tick”.
• Patch: An area local to a birder where they regularly go birding.
• Scope/bins: Shorthand for telescope and binoculars.
• String: The act of making up a bird sighting (not mis-identifying). Birders who do this are “stringers”. “Have you seen this report of an Aquatic Warbler? Total string”.
• Suppress: When a particular rare bird is found but its presence is not broadcast, wether it be for the good of the bird, the refusal of the land owner or the malice of the birder who found it. Birders who do this are suppressors. “I´m so annoyed with those suppressors in Norfolk, I was 10 minutes away from the Black-eared Kite and I had no idea it was there!”.
• Tick: The first time you've seen the bird, meaning (if you keep a list) you can “tick” it off. Divided further, for example year tick (first time you've seen the bird this year), country/county/garden tick (first time you've seen the bird within that given area).
• Twitch: When birders descend upon an area due to a sighting of a rare bird. e.g. “the Glaucouswinged Gull in Vardø sparked a big twitch”. People who twitch are called twitchers. They may keep a list of how many rare bird species they see, with the aim of seeing as many as they can. “There was a bunch of twitchers here yesterday ticking the Pacific Eider”.
• Vis-mig / viz-mig: The act of watching birds visibly migrate. There are many specific lookouts birders congregate at during the migration periods to watch this. “The viz-mig was crazy this morning - a thousand Bramblings came through!”.
As a part of this article about avitourism we aim to describe key characteristics of the travelling birder and nature enthusiast (short: NE) scene. Birders and NEs love to travel. Birds themselves migrate amazing distances to find the best breeding and feeding grounds. As a natural extension of being deeply into birds comes an urge to travel and see various bird species in the wide array of habitats they utilise.
The following study is based on an international online survey we conducted in 2015 and the below statistics are drawn from the results of this. In the survey we aimed to get feedback from the keen birders and nature enthusiasts. As such the survey was set up to last for only 3 days and it was spread throughout the birding community via twitter, direct mails to our contacts, and with the help of several key online birding services (like Birdguides and Rare Bird Alert in UK). 346 people completed the survey - a very nice result and when read with background knowledge of the birding scene, provides a lot of interesting and representative information. We wish to thank all the people who took part in the survey and the ones who helped us spread it to a very targeted community of birders and nature enthusiasts.
Key findings and insights:
Most birding holidays last for 1-3 weeks, and are made with birding friends, however birding will and can be done with anyone.
Independent travel is by far the most popular.
Birding is the main focus. Everything else is secondary!
Hotels and lodges rule, but everything goes!
Credible information is key: Advice from other birders is by far the most important when deciding on where to travel.
Destination websites are often considered less valuable, as birding information there is often is found to be less trustworthy.
Local tour operators (of the non-birding kind) are often not considered to serve trustworthy information, but when a hotel is run by birder they can provide very valuable information. A deeper then average knowledge of the local birdlife can be a key selling point. If you do not have this interest of knowledge yourselves, connect with someone who has.
Destination bird guide books are (almost) always written by a birder or someone with good knowledge of birding in the region. These are often considered to be very valuable, and in many cases having a destination guide book will help launch the destination in the birding world. The key is detailed site information, with good maps and / or descriptions.
64% of travelling birders will sometimes hire a guide. Many prefer to travel independently, but being able to hire a guide for parts of a holiday will give a great introduction to an area, but the sense of exploring on your own is still important.
More than 75% will ALWAYS use a guide book for the destination. Make sure one is available.
Additional products are very valuable, and if available very often used. Make sure unique experiences become available products.
There are enough birders in the world to have birding happening at every price range. However birders are often willing to spend considerable amounts of money on their passion and hobby.
Birders most commonly travel internationally once or twice a year. However some travel much more.
Birders are very focused on the birding experience but 60% still prefer to pay more for comfort and / or good food.
Birding happens at every age, from teenager to retired. Birding is a lifestyle. Once you have chosen birding it will stay with you for life. Birders are, by many hotel and lodge owners, considered to be some of the best kind of guests. They are often very knowledgeable about local conditions (most birders do a lot of research before a trip). Birders are also very often easily satisfied (providing the birding is good!). They are also often return customers for many years.
In Europe a large portion of birders are male. In the USA however there are just about more women then men who are into birding. The survey used here had a high input from the UK birding community, hence the high proportion of men in the above result. This is also reflected in many European birding destinations.
Pay-for photo hides are not widely used by travelling birders. This survey was aimed more at the keen birding community and a smaller number of wildlife photographers contributed. Photographers will very often like to use pay-for photo hides. Sometimes a good photo hide is a reason to go. Preferably a destination needs more then one kind of photo hide to become attractive to an international audience. When travelling to Norway one often spends considerable money on travel and having more attractions available will make it more worthwhile.
Public bird hides and / or wind shelters are very often used. They make birding more comfortable and more easily available. They are also often a sign of a good birding location. Such facilities also makes it easier to bring family on trips. Bird hides and wind shelters come at a low cost compared to the high value they provide.
In Europe: Most birders live in the UK. The UK can, with its long tradition of "natural history" almost be considered the homeland of birding.
Birding is popular in the other western European countries. It is also on the rise in most other countries.
Birding is very big in USA (but with a more relaxed / less intense style of birding).
Birding in Asia is on the rise. In particular in China (where people come into birding via photography).
Birding destinations are popular based on 1.) being easily accessible and safe 2.) being exotic and / or adventurous 3.) providing a very high diversity of bird species.
Norway ranks very high on being the world´s easiest available arctic birding destination. Surely some of the people taking this survey will have had Norway on their mind when taking the survey, simply based on where the survey comes from. Still, even with this taken into account, the survey result is very positive for Norway!
Spain is cleverly marketed, and it's key regions have become famous destinations. It is very easily available from the main European market, UK.
Norway offers unique and very exotic birding, easily available. Again, survey bias considered, it is a very good result for Norway, and should fuel the work to make Norway more attractive for birders.
“By birders, for birders” seems to be the industry standard. The global birding business scene is made up of people who have made their passion their job. This in turn can make it difficult for a non-birder or a non-birding business to relate to the birding scene. This is a good thing. It is a means of securing quality throughout the scene. For example a tour operator specialising in birding tours could not do so successfully without intimate knowledge of both birds, birding and birders. In mainstream tourism business you will every now and then be confronted with a product or service of low quality, in the sense that the provider is obviously in it simply for the money. The result can be charging a high price for a low quality product, but coated in a professional packaging (with nice brochures, websites,etc). If you are met with a product of lower quality in the birding world you will more often find that it is the presentation that is of low quality, but the products are often surprisingly good. However throughout the international birding scene there are an amazing number of very high quality businesses, catering to an often very quality minded audience. This ranges from specialised guesthouses, lodges, B&Bs, hotels often run by birders, or people who's interest in nature has become above average. Running a bird tour operator business and being a guide for birders is not something you based on a weekend course in birding. Your guests will expect you to be able to identify any bird in your region, by sight and by sound. Achieving these skills requires years of fieldcraft. The international birding scene is big enough to have a huge number of people who are great at both birding and business. The standards are high, but there is always room for more, new and better. The key is to know your niche.
As previously mentioned birding is a worldwide culture. With that comes much more then just business. There are a wide range of other initiatives that are important. Bird and nature conservation is always very closely linked to the birding scene. There is a wide range of nature reserves that, both private and charity owned, that consider it their job to protect and facilitate for nature to thrive, but with centres, shops, guided tour, etc, it is also a business model.
Another example of the bird conservation scene is the 24-hour bird races occur worldwide, the simple aim: to clock up as many bird species as you can in one day. These are hardcore events for hardcore birders, participants are up from dawn until dusk, getting very little rest and making as few comfort stops as possible - any time not spent birding is time lost!
In Israel, teams from across the world compete in the Champions Of The Flyway, the name celebrating the position of Southern Israel for major bird migration “flyways”. The event has really taken off, with teams from the USA, South Africa and even a joint Israeli/Palestinian team taking part, showing how birding can bring people together. All money raised by teams goes towards a specific charity. For 2015, money went to the organisation BirdLife Cyprus to aid their work in preventing the illegal trapping and killing of migrant birds. The overall winning team is the one which records the most species of birds in the 24 hours. Similar well-known events occur with the World Series of Birding and the American Birding Association´s Christmas Bird Counts in the USA. These events of course also provide great PR for the destinations they are being held in.
Birding is in the literature scene as well, and there are several books that are near-essential reading for birders. American-oriented novels The Big Year by Mark Obmascik and Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman tell the tale of competitive year-listing, where birders travel far and wide to see as many bird species as they can within the USA during one year. Pete Dunne is widely regarded as one of the best “birding writers” out there and his books Golden Wings, Tales Of A Low Rent Birder, the sequel: More Tales Of A Low Rent Birder contain series of short stories, some true, some fictional, mainly revolving around Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey.
Not even popular culture is safe from birders. In 2002, they broke into Hollywood thanks to James Bond 007 himself. In Die Another Day Pierce Brosnan´s character went undercover as a birdwatcher in Cuba (a top birding destination). Birding takes centre stage in the 2011 film The Big Year (based on a book of the same name) as characters played by Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson compete to see as many North American birds in one year as possible. Birds were also in the spotlight for the independent film A Birder´s Guide To Everything released in 2014, a coming-of-age story about four young birders on a road trip.
Across the world, there are thousands of organisations and charities committed to wild birds. The biggest of these is BirdLife International, a non-governmental organisation that brings together countries across the world to conserve birds and their habitats. Each country has its own organisation that represents BirdLife International as a “partner (designate)”.
The largest Birdlife partner is the UK´s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB); a world famous charity that runs over 200 reserves across the UK and supports a huge variety of projects that protect, celebrate and enhance Britain´s birdlife. They have over 1.1 million paying members who provide the majority of the charity´s funding through membership, donations and legacies.
Perhaps as (if not more) famous as the RSPB is the Audubon Society of the USA. Named after the “father” of American ornithology, John James Audubon, who published a huge book in 1838 documenting over 700 species of North American birds with life-size paintings. It has been dubbed the first proper “field guide” to North American birds, even if it stood a metre tall. Now the Audubon Society promotes birding and the conservation of birds, with each US state having their own Audubon Society branch.
Despite its (largely false) image as a hobby for the older generations, the birding community is a rapidly increasing one, supposedly the second-fastest growing outdoor hobby in the U.S. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 127.8 million birders in the U.S alone (Birding Expo, pers comms 2015).
Birding can be done anywhere. But this does not mean everywhere is desirable for birders. Birders visiting from abroad make the effort to travel in order to see new bird species or experience wildlife in an exhilarating way. Within Europe, or even the world, there are popular “must-see” destinations for birders. Ask a group of birders their top travel destinations and you will hear many repeats. Morocco, Turkey and Hungary may high on their wish list. Luxembourg and Macedonia are probably not. Becoming a must-visit destination requires great birdlife and unique birding opportunities, and skilled people who can promote it.
Thanks to readily available information and the desire of birders to see new and exciting birds, you can name a country and a birder will list the top places to go birding there. When you say “Romania”, they picture the Danube Delta, “Finland” gets them thinking about Oulu and Kuusamo; with “Iceland” it´s Mývatn in an instant. How do they know this. Online trip reports from other birders, guide books and birding tour operators have all helped to define certain areas as the places to see birds within a country/county/continent. It´s birding branding.
A strong birding brand is important in order to attract birders from across the world. Most often this will be based on a series of bird species that is characeristic of the destination. For example birding in Finland is characterised by woodpeckers (7 species), owls (up to 10 species) and birds for which Finland is their toehold in Europe, such as Red-flanked Bluetail. While visiting birders will see many more birds than just these, they are the ones that they travel the distance for. These are the target species. You need a certain variety of species, but having an iconic species is also important. Finland has become famous for being the best place in the world to experience the Great Grey Owl (lappugle). Similarly, birding in Iceland is characterised by species that are essentially American or Arctic, but their distribution stretches to accessible Iceland. Harlequin Duck (harlekinand), breeding Red Phalarope (polarsvømmesnipe) and Gyr Falcon (jaktfalk) are the main draws.
In a European context Spain is very popular with birders. Most who are serious about seeing European birds will make at least one trip to Spain. Many of the species that can be easily observed there are difficult to see elsewhere in Europe (Marbled Teal, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse etc.). The habitats are varied, the birds attractive and the country is accessible by road and air.
While the country is large, visiting birders have no uncertainty in where to visit. Spain is expertly split into several birding destinations or “hotspots”. Every site has its own lineup of desirable bird species and wildlife spectacles. Each site is vastly different from the next. They are all served well with airport and road links. The Spanish tourist boards and birding travel companies advertise these hotspots as THE places to go birding in Spain. It is birding tourism done very well - if you ask a birder that has never been to Spain before where they'd like to go, they'll probably start listing these locations “Extremedura, the Pyrenees, Straits of Gibraltar and Coto Doñana…”
There is a key lesson to be learned from how Spain presents itself to an international audience. Rather then trying to make all of Spain sound interesting for birding, they have chosen to foucs on a select few regions or destinations. There are of course a number of other great birding sites in Spain, but these are the regions or destinations that holds both a wide number of species and some iconic species, and that are consistently good, even for many days in a row. This is important. One should not try to promote everything possible, but rather focus on the places with a quality level of international interest.
Biotope have since 2009 initiated and worked with the development of Varanger as a birding destination. Working with developing a birding or nature destination requires an ability to destill key features of a place and to cleverly analyse the situation and context and to clearly present this through a wide range of means. Getting both local businesses, politicians, locals and many more onboard with an idea and a concept takes a lot of targeted work. Developing an understanding of the unique birding niché is key:
Norway´s best selling points in this context are:
Norway retains a feeling of a wilderness, with dramatic scenery, harsh but beautiful weather and an extant megafauna such as bears, wolverines, moose and whales.
The birdlife is extremely varied, seasonally and regionally. The natural wonder of migration is evident. Norway hosts species which are desirable for birders to see due to their rarity, beauty or because they are difficult to see elsewhere.
Thanks to great seasonal differences, birding in Norway is totally different experience at different times of the year, both in terms of scenery and wildlife. Visitors return to see the changes the country and its wildlife undertakes.
There is still a feeling of untouched nature in some areas, with pristine forests, mountains and beautiful fjords. Much of the land is intact nature, providing good birding in amazing sceneries. Other natural wonders such as the aurora borealis only help to cement Norway as a world-class nature location.
For birds and wildlife, Norway is also spectacular. The habitats are varied and by extension so are the birds. There are extensive marshes, tundra, vast forests, mountains and endless kilometres of coastline, all with their own supporting cast of wildlife. Especially notable are Norway´s seabird colonies which provide an experience for all the senses.
There is an exclusivity with the birdlife of Norway, mainly thanks to the Arctic species to be found in Northern Norway, and in particular in Eastern Finnmark. The combination of species here at any time of the year are unique and unlike any European country, making this area extremely desirable to birders. A birder cannot find another easily accessible location where they have the chance of seeing King and Steller´s Eiders, Snowy Owls, White-billed Divers, Brünnich´s Guillemots and Gyrfalcon all within the same trip. Without Varanger the birdlife of Norway, while still spectacular, is made up of species which can be seen elsewhere.
The country lies on a flyway, a path which migratory birds take on their seasonal journeys. Large numbers of birds including waders, wildfowl and birds of prey, pass south down the country in the autumn and return north again in the spring. Sites such as the Lofoten Islands and Lista, Røst and Utsira are well-known for being migrant-magnets: islands that provide birds with a rest-stop during their long journey. The sight of migrating birds can be spectacular at times and as such the latter islands mentioned have all become popular among Norwegian birders. Every year, each site sees many thousands and birds pass through, including many rare birds that should not be there but have become caught up in the migration of other species, or appear as wind-blown strays. In fact, many of these islands have bird observatories in their own right, purely to study birds.
Migration is also evident at other specialised sites, including Slettnes on the Nordkyn Peninsula. Every spring birders gather to watch the annual migration of seabirds, the main draw being Whitebilled Divers (gulnebblom) and skuas (particularly Pomarine Skua / polarjo) moving north to breed on Siberian tundra in Russia. Nordkyn is considered to be a part of the wider Varanger region. However it does have large potential for much more fame and recognition internationally. Nordkyn is still relatively unknown, and could easily see an increase in numbers of visitors provided more promotion and work to better cater to birders.
Unlike many countries, Norway has retained its megafauna (large herbivores and carnivores - mainly mammals) which a big draw for wildlife-watchers. Many want to see them as evidence of a healthy working ecosystem, as each plays an important part in the habit they occur in. Brown Bears, Grey Wolves, Wolverine, Elk, Musk Ox, Reindeer, Eurasian Lynx and a variety of whale species are all possible to see in Norway. In Svaldbard there is also the Polar Bear which is a huge attraction.
There is massive potential for wildlife-based tourism centred on these creatures which is yet to be explored in Norway. Looking over to Finland, there are several specialised Brown Bear, Wolverine and Grey Wolf photohides: large, secure hides in the taiga forest which are baited with carcass of livestock. Photographers (or even simply dedicated wildlife watchers) pay good money to spend several hours in these hides (http://www.wildfinland.org). It is exhilarating nature, up-close-and-personal. Visitors to these hides also see a range of bird species like White-tailed Eagles. This market is not just unique to Finland, with hides available to hire in Estonia and Slovenia amongst others. A similar hide experience in Norway would be extremely in-demand. There is obvioulsy a challenge with the conflict between large predators and livestock. Legislation dictates that Norway´s Brown Bear numbers are culled every year to “reduce livestock predation”. There are around 150 bears in Norway, yet in the 1800s, 200 - 300 were killed every year, showing how much larger the population used to be. The story is similar with Wolverines, lynxes and wolves in Norway. A photohide project would rely on an area having at least a relatively healthy population of the desired predator and a good working relationship with those that work and live on the land adjacent. There is already great interest in the Musk Ox in Dovrefjell national park, central Norway, with organised safaris for wildlife watching tourists to get great views of these animals. Musk Ox used to occur across Scandinavia but were hunted to extinction. In the 1940s, animals from herds in greenland were brought back to Norway and bred to create the two small herds that exist today.
Another advantage Norway has over many similar locations is it is hassle-free birding. The chances of getting mugged or experiencing a threatening situation is virtually zero. The infrastructure is secure, the government stable and all of places will have English speaking residents. Roads are well developed, easy to use and open all year. This is particularly true for the “off the beaten track” locations such as Arctic Norway, where you can still get about easily by car to wildlife sites on good roads that are managed to be drivable even in the heart of winter. Both accommodation and food are easily available and are of a high standard. All the above is not a matter of course in many of the worlds most desired to visit birding destinations.
Seasonal changes: A birder visiting in June will see an entirely different cast of birdlife than one visiting in February. In the north, particularly in popular Varanger, this is even more apparent. Summer is characterised by a wide range of breeding waders, singing passerines (perching birds like Bluethroats / blåstrupe and Arctic Warbler / lappsanger) and migratory birds which spend the winter in warmer climates. The 24-hour sunlight means the wildlife-watcher can theoretically be out at any time in the lookout for nature. A return visit in winter or early spring will not only give a totally new range of species, but a completely different experience, but of the same place. I winter the species are fewer in number but it is still “high quality” birding, with rare seaducks, white-winged gulls from Siberia and the aurora borealis on show in a pristine snowy landscape. This vast polarisation over the seasons creates a higher level of “site loyalty” for many wildlife watchers, who may come in one season and are interested in seeing the location at another time of the year. This is huge attraction to many visitors, and should not be underestimated.
Birding products in Norway can be understood as the following: There are two different types of “products” available within the birding and wildlife-watching niche. The first is a whole geographical area as a product or attraction. Varanger can be considered as such since it is totally unlike any other area in Norway. Other products include services and experiences that provide an exhilarating interface between man and nature, or contribute to creating that. Typically this can be boat trips to experience unique bird species, or photo hide based products for bird / wildlife photographers. The product based experiences can be based almost anywhere in Norway (but the previously mentioned destinations will be best suited for developing a product with a surrounding high quality nature to make it a top nature destination). The quality of a product is based on how close to the birds or animals you will be able to come (without disturbing them!).
In terms of actual products, different types of wildlife-watchers will require different services:
Binocular, telescope, tripod hire: serious birds will not require this service but general nature enthusiasts may not possess their own optics. Having good quality optics available to hire will vastly enhance the wildlife experience for those that take advantage of the service. It is possible that looking at the natural world through a pair of binoculars may make a birder of them!
Destination site guidebook: this will be used by all types of wildlife-watchers for local information on the best places to see their desired species.
Maps: for those that are driving around the given area, doing their own birding, local maps are invaluable. This may not be as vital if the local guidebook contains good maps of the area.
Bird field guide: many nature enthusiasts may not own a bird field guide, but see birds on their trip which they would like to identify or find more about. Good field guides include Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and any site-specific guide (of which there are virtually none available in Norway).
Waterproof dry suit rental: really only necessary where wildlife-watchers may be going on a boat or in snow but very useful when this is the case, or for non-heated photo hides.
Photohide service: will provide bird / wildlife nature photography opportunities without disturbing the wildlife. Very popular and widely used worldwide. A great business opportunity if handled well.
Photo lens hire: likely to only be required for serious photographers who have noticed a photographic opportunity for which they do not have the correct lens (often in combination with renting a photo hide).
Popup-tent photo hides: for photographers, these provide a way of remaining unseen to wildlife when photographing it. Some species become accustomed to the non-human shape of the tent and behave normally around it. However, it should be reminded that excessive photographing of one pair of birds, when not done discreetly, can have an adverse effect on their breeding behaviour and even individual health, if they are not allowed to feed or rest.
Internationally the Varanger region is by far the most famous region for birders and nature enthusiasts. As reflected in our survey there really is not much competition when you ask birders from around the world to mention top places in Norway. Varanger has been a name in the birding world for about 100 years. However the book “Arctic Summer” by Richard Vaughan from 1979 but Varanger on the map in particular in the UK birding community. Several international bird tour operators have been running tour to Varanger during the past two decades. The bird tour operator Finnature has been a key operator as they made Varanger a part of their Finland itinerary, as an Arctic coast extension to their trips. They have helped put Varanger on the map. Still Varanger was not a very well known international birding destination before 2009. The fact that nearly all international birders visiting Varanger came to the region via Finland shows the significance of Varanger as an add-on to a Finland birding experience. In 2009 Biotope started the first effort to build Varanger as an indipendent world class birding destination in its own right. The idea was to promote Varanger as an easily accessible birding destination, that would provide specacular birding based on the arctic tundra, taiga and the arctic coast. Kirkenes was the natural hub of the destination. This nature destination work was made possible in a large extent to Innovation Norway, as IN supported the first efforts to establish Varanger as a birding destination based on a new approach to destination development. Biotope aimed not to work with tour operators, but rather connect directly with birders from around the world.
With the timely rise of social media, it seemed a natural step forward: to simply by-pass the traditional destination - tour operator relationship, and rather connect with independent travellers. Via blogposts, Facebook, Twitter, direct mail contact, meetings, etc. it was relatively easy to connect with birders from anywhere. Providing locally based news and views from a destination with very high interest proved to spark a new interest in Varanger. During the past 6 years the numbers of visitors to Varanger has doubled many times. All the guest houses and hotels in Varanger have increased their capasity. This growth has been organic and driven by a person-to-person system. The development and fine tuning of Varanger as a birding destination is still in progress. Varanger is now being promoted as “the world´s easiest accessible Arctic birding destination”.
In our survey of birders and wildlife watchers, when asked to name 3 locations for birding and / or wildlife in Norway, 85% of people mentioned Varanger (or at least one site within Varanger). It is fair to say that when birders think of birding in Norway, most of them turn to the Northeasternmost Norway. Varanger (including Pasvik) is the most accessible arctic birding destination in the world. It offers the chance to see a combination of species that are specialised to the area. The landscape is wild and beautiful. All birding in Varanger can be categorised into one of three habitats: taiga, tundra or Arctic coast, and a visitor can experience all three within a day´s drive. This is impossible to do in pretty much any other Arctic birding destination. A birder could start their morning watching Siberian Tits in the taiga forest, have their telescope focused on White-billed Divers on the coast by the afternoon and finish the day experiencing the breeding wading birds of the high tundra.
Target species for most birders taking the trip to Varanger will be northern specialities including King Eider (praktærfugl), Steller´s Eider (stellerand), White-billed Diver (gulnebblom), Gyrfalcon (jaktfalk), Brünnich´s Guillemot (polarlomvi), Northern Hawk Owl (haukugle), Siberian Jay (lavskrike), Siberian Tit (lappmeis), Pine Grosbeak (konglebit), Arctic Redpoll (polarsisik). Even commoner birds can be seen in amazing circumstances. In winter and early spring, Common Eiders / ærfugl (as well as Steller´s and King Eiders) gather in flocks numbering 15 000 individuals. Fishing vessels are followed by flocks of Fulmar (havhest), including the northern “blue” forms, which are rare outside Arctic waters. On the island of Hornøya, 100,000 seabirds of 10 species cover the cliffs, a breathtaking spectacle. In summer, roadside fields can be full of lekking Ruff (brusfugl), one of the most spectacular courtship displays in the birding world. It is not just birds that hold the visiting wildlife-watcher´s attention. Those driving the tundra will keep a look out for Arctic fox (even if chances are slim you will actually see one). Lucky visitors to the taiga forest may spot an elk, brown bear or wolverine. The sea holds many species of whale as well as seals and otters.
Varanger has become synonomous with the bright orange colour so characteristic of the target species Steller´s Eider. The Steller´s Eider graphics are now found on the leaflets, on postcards, as street art pieces, in exhibitions, etc. In a world that has been to a large extent dominated by people from a natural history / biologist background, Biotope have approached birding from a creative background as architects and designers (but as keen birders as well, which is key to the success). Varanger has been largely promoted via social media and blogposts, making sure that great information is searchable and inspirational: The blogposts are both full of advice on birding, in addition to great photos and links to accomodation, etc. A search in Google using the term ´Birding Varanger´ will give you an impression of the search engine ranking. This is essential to consider and work with when developing a birding destination.
Birding has benefitted the economy of Varanger. There is a relatively large density of businesses that operate with birds and wildlife as their focus. Guesthouses, campsites, hotels, restaurants, car-hire companies etc. etc. in Varanger all have birders and wildlife-watchers as customers. Varanger has with the past few years of efforts become world famous as an arctic birding destination. The regions tourism businesses have all benefitted from this. In addition we have seen a significant rise in the local awareness and appreciation of the the regions unique wildlife. This is also important when working towards establishing a birding destination. Again, a birding / nature destination in its full right should be about more then business - and it is good for business when it is.
Unique for the effort to establish Varanger as a birding destination is the dedicated attention to making a series of unique bird hides, wind shelters and photo hides. Biotope have been the architects behind this. 16 small pieces of architecture can now be found around Varanger, each unique to their site, but still recognisable as open and inviting public bird hides. The Biotope designed hides and nature shelters have various owners and have been realised through a collaboration of several parties, most notably, Nasjonale Turistveger, Innovasjon Norge, Finnmark Fylkeskommune, Vardø-, Vadsø- , Berlevåg- og Båtsfjord kommuner, Finnmarkseiendommen and Fylkesmannen i Finnmark. Varanger is now a complete birding destination, with dedicated birder hotels and guest houses, to the niche architecture and the overall branding of the destination.
Not surprisingly using bird/wildlife guidebooks for an area are rated as “very important” by most travelling birders in our survey. When up to date and reliable, guidebooks are invaluable. While many will use online trip reports, unless these are printed out they may be totally inaccessible upon reaching your destination to find you have no internet signal. A guidebook also saves hours trawling the internet for trip reports covering areas you are visiting, that aren't out of date and that focus on the same sort of birding that you are into. As another plus, should one site fail to deliver, the guidebook is likely to display other areas to view the particular bird a you have attempted to see or other good birding sites nearby. To reflect on the value of a guidebook, almost 78% of those surveyed stated that they “always use / buy” a bird or wildlife guidebook to the area. Good guidebooks are not to be underestimated. It is in a birding destination´s interest to have a great guide book available. Make sure it is written by a birder or someone with deep and exact knowledge of the destination at hand. This is not something to be outsourced to the lowest bidder. A destination guide book, or as a minimum a site map for key locations, will make the destination much more available to a much larger audience.
Below photo: Minsmere nature reserve. Among the most famous of nature conservation initiatives in the world is the RSPB´s nature reserves. More then 200 reserves in UK are designed and often made from nearly scratch to become wildlife havens rich in birdlife. In addition these reserves are great examples of conservation and business. The reserves themselves are visited by up to 100 000 visitors a year at a reserve, fuelling the economy of both the reserves and the nearby towns / communities.
How can wildlife-based tourism be sustainable?
Engage in conservation
Code of conduct
Sustainability for wildlife-based tourism is about more than reduced carbon emissions and recycling plastic and paper. The nature of the hobby is to intrude into the lives of animals, but do so with as little impact as possible.
In the very widest sense engaging in nature conservation means to take action to make people presence a benefit for birds and wildlife. This approach is undertaken to excellence by conservation organisations such as the RSPB (Royal Sociaty for the Protection of Birds). Through the design and making (often from scratch) of over 200 nature reserves in UK, the organisation is providing resting, feeding and breeding grounds for an enormous amount of birds. Wildlife in UK and Europe would have been much poorer without these efforts. A vast number of birders, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts make this happen, through memberships, volunteering, donations, etc. For a country of destination it is important to facilitate for conservation efforts.
Examples of engagement in conservation:
Species across the world are under threat. There are many thousands of wildlife conservation organisations working to prevent extinctions, save habitats and build awareness of many threatened species. Funding for many of these projects is low. As an act of sustainability, to help preserve some of the nature they are also enjoying, many wildlife-based tourism companies and organisations choose to support a conservation project financially. British birding tour operator Bird Holidays has a policy of supporting conservation efforts in different parts of the world, including one scheme that funds the purchase and reforestation of land in Ecuador alongside the World Land Trust* and Jocotoco Foundation**. Native plants are reestablished on the land to recreate habitat for rainforest species. This means that all the flights taken by the tour company´s guides and clients are carbon neutral. Bird Holidays also supports the Spoon-billed Sandpiper through BirdLife International by registering as a BirdLife Species Champion.***
The code of conduct: “The interests of the birds come first”
In Britain, a series of wildlife and birding organisations have created the “birdwatcher´s code”, a code of conduct that should be practiced by all birders as a means to maintaining the enjoyment of the hobby for themselves and others in a sustainable way. Birds respond to people in many ways, depending on the species, location and time of year. If birds are disturbed they may keep away from their nests, leaving chicks hungry or enabling predators to take their eggs or young. During cold weather, or when migrants have just made a long flight, repeatedly disturbing birds can mean they use up vital energy that they need for feeding.
Intentionally or recklessly disturbing some birds at or near their nest is illegal in Britain. Whether you are particularly interested in photography, bird ringing, sound-recording or birdwatching, remember to always put the interests of the birds first.
Avoid going too close to birds or disturbing their habitats – if a bird flies away or makes repeated alarm calls, you’re too close. If it leaves, you won’t get a good view of it anyway.
Stay on roads and paths where they exist and avoid disturbance in habitats used by birds.
Think about your fieldcraft. You might disturb a bird even if you are not very close, e.g. a flock of wading birds on the shore can be disturbed from a mile away if you stand on a high point and in silhouette.
Repeatedly playing a recording of bird song or calls to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young. Be very careful of using playback to attract a species, in particular during its breeding season.
The increased disturbance by wildlife watchers is often the reason particular pairs of some species fail to breed or move away to a different area. In Britain, Long-eared Owls are famous for being disturbed during their winter roosts (often in bushes in plain view) by overzealous birders and photographers. Following the code will stop observers intruding into the lives of wildlife, particularly when it may be vulnerable e.g. wasting precious energy flying away during harsh winter months. This code should also be taken onboard by wildlife tour operators, many of whom take clients to the same single pair of a particular species as they know they are present. While this is fantastic for the clients who get to see the species, the animals themselves may be put under increased pressure from frequent visits and this has the potential to impact upon the birds breeding success.
In the effort to act sustainably one should consider:
Each individuals responsibility as a a visitor (code of conduct). It is the hosts / destinations responsibility to create awareness of this, and preferable develop a code of conduct that is perfectly tailored to the destination and its wildlife.
A nature destination or a nature based company should somehow engage in conservation. The possibilities are endless, and when well handled it can be a great business model in itself.
No one gets into birding strictly for the money. Despite this, the birding world has a surprisingly large economy, and all based off natural processes that are entirely free. The birds take no charge for migrating every year, they ask for no wage when they visit a birder´s garden. Nature is a resource from which everyone benefits.
In one study, of the 47 million self-confessed US birders, 84% were found to earn an “above average” (more than $20,000) salary (Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2013). It is no lie that birders are on the whole quite well-off financially. They are prepared to spend more money pursuing their interest than many other people would spend on their hobby. In the U.S., the total annual economic impact of the birding market came to $107 billion (Feathered Impact: The Demographics and Power of Birding in the United States http://www.americanbirdingexpo.com/featheredimpact/#/featheredimpact1).
Total expenditure from birding trips across the USA for 2011 came to almost $41 billion, including $26 billion just spent on wildlife-watching equipment, from binoculars to boat rental. In an independent study of travelling birders (of predominately British origin), the majority stated they spent 1000 - 2000 GBP on each birding or wildlife holiday (with most birders travelling once or twice a year for birding trips) though 5% spent 8000 GBP or more on their birding / wildlife holidays.
Example, Israel: Thanks in part to the Hula Valley Birding and Eilat Birds Festivals, plus Champion Of The Flyway birdrace, birding brings around $4million to Israel per year (Meyrav, J., Israel Ornithological Center, pers comms, 2015).
Example, New Zealand: New Zealand is a highly desired birding location for many travelling birders since a huge proportion of the wildlife is totally unique to the islands. One online New Zealand Birding Guide lists 48 different companies offering personalised tours, boat trips, walking trails and accommodation all completely catered to birding and birders. There will doubtless be more companies that were not listed. They go from reserves containing many species to extremely niche operations such as guided tours of an Australasian Gannet colony (New Zealand Bird Guide, New Zealand Birding Network Incorporated, 2012).
As well as being a great way to get people together, showcase and celebrate all things birds, birding festivals bring in big money for the immediate area they are held in. In a study, daily spending at U.S. birding festivals came to $250-$350 daily per person and $1,000-$1,400 weekend/person.
At the Space Coast Birding Festival in Florida, the local economy received a $1.29 million pump from the visiting birders over the 5 days. Ohio hosts not only the Biggest Week In American Birding festival but also some of the best places to see North American Wood Warblers and other attractive birds. 6 birding sites across the north of the state helped the county rake in $26.4 million annually. In Maine, birding and nature travel brought $345.9 million. The Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas is one of the USA´s most popular birding destinations for its specialist birdlife and pleasant climate. Thanks mainly to the visiting birders, the region receives $463 million annually through birding and nature travel (American Birding Expo).
No one goes into birding for the money, but many have made birding their business. This is a market of very passionate people. For most people in the birding business it is a lifestyle, not just a job. This makes the birding world very exciting to work with, and an incredibly productive one. Worldwide millions of birders enjoy their passion, and millions travel internationally every year in search of great nature experiences.
The birding world is highly decentralised, making it tricky to "get into". There is not a clear hierarchical structure, but rather a flat structure or culture with millions of contributors. There is a birding tour company for every taste or age, there are magazines to cater for every variety of the interest, and on top of that a very high percentage of birders are producers of content themselves.
In birding you need to find and work with your niche. Coming from an outside point of view can be tricky. For example: a destination marketer will have trouble with engaging with the birding community, and perhaps his or her job should not be to be the marketer of birding, but rather seek the management skills and understanding to support the right people for the job. The new digital world with high engagement and a wide variety of social media is a perfect fit for a decentralised niche such a birding. Learn to love it and work with it.
We hope this article will inspire action. We also aim to further this work and to build on this article. It is by no means a complete overview of the birding world, but it will give you a great understanding and insight to the very complex world of birding. Please feel free to give feedback directly on mail to Tormod Amundsen on email: email@example.com or to my collegue firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks again to all contributors!
Tormod Amundsen / Biotope UK