My favorite way to bird is related to the slow food movement: stay local, stay focused, and stay appreciative. So how can I keep to my principles when I bird in places as far away as the Western Ghats in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India?
This is a legendary diversity hotspot and is near to a meeting I attended at NCBS in Bangalore, India. I try to bird as a world citizen, particularly in countries like India. I confess I did not exercise all of these tips this time, but will in future, and I hope this list helps you plan.
- Use a local birding company and guide. I really like to keep my dollars as much as possible with the people in the community. After all, they are the ones that will have the most impact on conserving the area. These local guides will know their birds. They will know where the Sri Lankan frogmouth roosts. They will be friends with the tribal people who show you how a different honeybee, Apis florea, nests. They will know where to walk in elephant country.
- Post to eBird and upload open access photos to Wikimedia. Ebird is a wonderful resource that only works if you post. Knowing I will post makes me take careful information. I get the GPS coordinates from my phone, either looking at the compass, or taking a photograph. Then I keep track of how far I walk with my Fitbit Surge which maps globally. I talk to the guides about local place names. I pay careful attention to how many of each species I see and what they are doing. I didn’t take photos of any note this time, but if I had, I would have uploaded them to Wikimedia with CC-BY-SA license. Please do this for at least one photo per bird.
- Bring your own map and lists. Some of the big birding companies provide you with lists and maps. They brag about how many birds you will see. It can feel too automatic, like numbers and checklists are the goal rather than feeling the magic of being in nature, listening to the birds, and connecting with a very special place. Local guides are less likely to have either maps or lists, so if you want these, bring them. What you need the guides for is to take you to great places, and to identify the birds.
- Don’t judge. You are in a different country with very different standards. Just remember they are likely to be using a fraction of the energy people in your home country use. The part of India I was in is very littered. Leisure gatherings of people in public were nearly always only male. The dogs had their own people-free communities. Honking was a way cars, motorcycles, and trucks talk to each other. Some small trucks even have painted “sound horn” on the back. I have opinions on all these things, but I am a guest in their country. I can help only if I respect. I focused on listening to and inspiring young women.
- Try to learn about and understand local environmental issues. Our host had English language newspapers which made this easy. I could see that pollution of the Periyar river was a big problem, for example.
Even if you are in a country with a language you don’t know, you are likely to be able to learn about issues from your travel guide or from Wikipedia.
- Find a local environmental group and donate. I haven’t chosen where to give for our latest trip, but the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary is a guess. Here is more info on Kerala.
- Bring an extra copy of that wonderful bird guide you just bought. Local bird guides are unlikely to have acquired a new bird book. In our case, we were using the excellent Birds of India by Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp, and many illustrators that just came out in 2011. I deeply regret not bringing another copy to give our guide.
- If you have spare binoculars or a scope and tripod you never use, bring them. If you are like me, you have some older binoculars at home that you have outgrown. I even have a scope that fits that category. Our host, the incomparable bird guide, Eldhose K. V., birded entirely without binoculars for 16 years until Sir David Attenborough came to film the rufous woodpecker for the Life of Birds. He gave Eldhose his first pair of binoculars. Local guides might have their own good binoculars, but what child or colleague might change their life with your old binoculars?
- Publicize the local bird guide you found. Use social media, your home bird group’s newsletter or whatever outlets you have to let people know about your local bird guide. You have access to publicity they do not. Some people are less comfortable with local guides without an international endorsement. Our guides, housing, food, transport were fantastic. We were met at the airport, cared for fabulously the whole time, shown amazing birds, all for a fraction of the cost of an international birding group. I’ve mentioned Eldhose K. V. before and will write more later on our trip.
- Tip and don’t haggle much. There is no good way to understand tipping around the world. I tend to decide on an amount per day with reference to various things I read. We tipped our guide about $30 USD/day, our driver half that, and our food providers and the organizer himself other amounts I don’t remember. If you visit a tribal community and they offer something for sale, there is no need to haggle.
We bought a couple of baskets at asking price. Even if everyone haggles, if you are buying from the maker, you do not need to. The amount you save does nothing for you and could help them a lot.
Have fun as a world citizen and responsible birder!