Ask A Scarlet Ibis: The First Name in Trinidad Ecotourism Was Nanan

Third-Generation Conservation Entrepreneur Lester Nanan is Raising a Fourth!

If there was a poster child—or bird—for Trinidad ecotourism, it would have to be magnificent Scarlet Ibis. Watching thousands of them fly into roost near dusk, transforming treetops from green to red, is the most poignant memory many birders take away from their time in the West Indies.

Scarlet Ibis can be found in Trinidad birding tours

Classic Trinidad and Tobago tours are 10 days and 9 nights of the best Neotropical birding. Upcoming tours with space:
Jan. 10 – 19 
Mar. 7 – 16

Ultimate Trinidad and Tobago tours add one more glorious bird-rich day on each island.
Jan 17 – 28
Jan. 31 – Feb. 11
Feb. 14 – Feb. 25
March 14 – 25
April 4 – 15
April 18 – 29

Now a protected species and Trinidad’s national bird, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Scarlet Ibis were routinely hunted both for meat and for their colorful feathers, which were used to make costumes for Carnival.

Although he would later become their protector and champion, Simon Oudit Nanan was once one of those hunters, his grandson and Naturalist Journeys’ longtime local guide Lester Nanan said.

A part-time farmer on a British-owned sugar plantation in the 1930s, for extra money he would take company executives from England and France to hunt in the massive mangrove swamps in Northeast Trinidad, and other times take their families out on nature cruises to view the birds and wildlife.

“My grandfather figured out that he was taking more people out to view the birds than to hunt the birds,” Lester said. “This is when an aspiration was born.”

Scarlet Ibis owe a lot to the Nanan family, first names in Trinidad ecotourism.
Simon Oudit Nanan (foreground) and Winston Nanan. Photo Credit: Nanan Family Photo

At these times of tourism disruption, it’s important to remember this “aha moment.” The belief that there can be more value in conservation than harvest is what underpins the success of ecotourism-based conservation. That’s why Naturalist Journeys always seeks out conservation-minded local partners (like Lester Nanan for our tours in Trinidad and Jason Radix in Tobago), and why when you travel with us, you can be sure you are supporting sustainability and conservation.

Lester’s grandfather started a petition to protect the swamp, taking care to collect signatures from the influential families he was guiding, which led to the Caroni Swamp being named a national park in 1948, its 14,800 acres protected from development.

  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni
  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni
  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni

The second generation Trinidad ecotourism pioneer, Winston Nanan, soon found himself drafted when Simon’s birding and nature tour business grew so popular he decided to pull his eldest of 11 children out of school at the age of 11 to help him.

“The passion and love for the Scarlet Ibis was growing, and the environment as well,” Lester said. “They were seeing it through the eyes of the British and themselves.”

When Trinidad gained its independence in 1962, the Scarlet Ibis was chosen as Trinidad’s national bird, and given a prominent place on the country’s coat of arms (alongside Tobago’s national bird, the Rufous-vented Chacalaca) and hunting of the bird became illegal.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Coat of Arms with Scarlet Ibis and Cocorico (Rufous-vented Chacalaca) Photo Credit: Sodacan via Wikimedia Commons.

Rogue poachers continued to hunt the birds, however, and Simon Oudit Nanan was deputized as an honorary game warden and given license to chase hunters out of the swamp. Sadly, his fervent defense of the swamp and the Scarlet Ibis earned him many enemies, Lester said, and he was beaten to death in 1968.

Left to help an ailing mother raise 10 siblings, Winston Nanan would avenge the honor of his father by redoubling efforts to protect the Scarlet Ibis and the Caroni Swamp and to continue what had become a sustainable and profitable business. 

  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.

He learned everything he could about birds, first documenting every species in Caroni Swamp, then expanding his expertise to Trinidad and Tobago and then far beyond its borders. He transformed himself into a world-renowned self-taught ornithologist, and was invited to lead scientific birding expeditions throughout South and Central America.

Working as a Trinidad ecotourism pitchman, Winston invited photographers and editors from National Geographic to visit Caroni Swamp, resulting in a splashy feature article that put the country and the Scarlet Ibis on the map for world travelers and for other writers and photographers. Some of his own photos were published there.

“Everyone in the world wanted to come to Trinidad to see the Caroni Swamp,” Lester said.

A follow-up article in Smithsonian Magazine kept the frenzy going. 

Winston Nanan was awarded a presidential medal “for 65 years of dedication to conservation in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Just after this Trinidad ecotourism pioneer died, in 2015 at the age of 74, Caroni Swamp was renamed the Winston Nanan Caroni Bird Sanctuary.

Both our Classic and Ultimate Trinidad and Tobago tours visit Caroni in Trinidad. In Tobago we also visit the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, founded in 1776 and celebrated in 2020 by UNESCO as part of a large new “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” for its ecotourism potential.

From the age of 16, Lester said he’s been a part of the family business. He remembers rushing home after school to help his uncles and brothers prepare the boats that ferried tourists to the sunset Scarlet Ibis show.

He went on to pursue an education in electrical engineering, but returned to the family business at the behest of his father. With more than 180 species documented in the swamp, Lester said, it had become a “must-see” stop for birdwatchers both local and international.

He helped Winston build a platform in the trees, where they documented the nesting behavior of the Scarlet Ibis. That experience helped to hook him for good, Lester said.

“I began following in my father’s footsteps.”

Now the managing director of their company, Nanan’s Caroni Bird Sanctuary Tours, “I love showcasing Trinidad and the birdwatching.”

In charge of operations, Lester said he’s shaped the company by transforming customs into formal policies, from safety to naturalist training to implementing COVID-19 protocols to protect guests and try to preserve the business in this time of tourism disruption. 

In 2017, flocks of American Flamingo began arriving in Caroni Swamp, adding to the biodiversity, but were being hunted, Lester said. What’s more, the $1,000 fine for hunting Scarlet Ibis was not sufficient to deter hunters.

  • Scarlet Ibis and American Flamingo are two birds protected by Trinidad ecotourism
  • Scarlet Ibis and American Flamingo are two birds protected by Trinidad ecotourism

Lester and others began lobbying for the Caroni Swamp to be declared an Environmentally Sensitive Area, which would protect all the birds within it. That hasn’t happened yet, but their efforts did yield a significant increase in penalties for hunting the Scarlet Ibis.

In 2018, the penalty was upped to $15,000 (US) and two years in jail per bird.

Lester said he also furthers the company’s ecotourism goals by hiring and rehabilitating former poachers and teaching them the value of conservation, lessons they pass on to others in the community.

“They will now tell their families ‘Don’t hunt this one;’ it’s protected, and I’m making a living out of it,” he said. “It’s part of a community approach to protect the swamp.”

As it has all over the world, COVID-19 cut into tourism in Trinidad, which shut its borders for 16 months before re-opening earlier this year.

To try and boost his business from locals, Lester created COVID-cautious private boat tours with an incentivizing basket of snacks. That went so well, he partnered with a local restaurant to provide three-course meals for families or private small groups, an innovation that has kept the business afloat as it awaits for a quickening from international tourists.

Meanwhile, Lester said he’s busy with another important matter: prepping the fourth generation of Trinidad ecotourism entrepreneurs, this time with a feminine face.

“My girls are already involved in the tours, birdwatching and pointing out species for our guests,” Lester said. “They will be the future of the environment, the swamp, and Trinidad and Tobago.”

This one’s for the adventurers: The Best Birding in Belize

Located on the northeastern coast of Central America, Belize welcomes travelers to enjoy its rich culture, delicious cuisine, and endless opportunities to explore. This diverse country features ancient archeological sites, massive barrier reefs, lush jungle scapes, and winding rivers. Naturalist Journeys offers two unique birding experiences to tour Belize.

During these two different itineraries, you’ll relish in:

Awe-inspiring birding:

With over 590 species of birds, Belize is a naturalist’s paradise! Join our guides and seek out extravagant Neotropical birds and familiar faces over wintering from North America. For example, you may find a Collared Aracari, or even a Barred Antshrike! This country offers extensive biodiversity to add to your life-list, so birding in Belize is a must!

Incredible wildlife:

Our two different itineraries  provide the chance to see the wonders of the rainforest first-hand including monkeys, wild cats, reptiles, and even the chance to spot the mystifying jaguar (ask Jessie about seeing a Jaguar swim across the river at Lamanai).

Enriching time at Maya ruins:

Dive into Belize’s cultural history while we explore ancient cities and other historical monuments—some of the best in all of Mesoamerica! Visiting the Caracol and Lamanai ruins gives us access to  breath-taking remnants of the Maya empire, a must see when traveling this country.

New friends, long-lasting relationships, and unforgettable experiences

The only thing better than an incredible experience is crafting long-lasting relationships with your fellow travelers. By the end of every trip, we are toasting to new friends and unforgettable adventures. Above all, you’re now part of the Naturalist Journeys family.

Between the captivating wildlife and the rich culture, Belize is a bucket list trip that we look forward to each year. So, if you need some help deciding which trip is right for you, here’s a breakdown of your two options. 

Our Classic Belize Trip

True to its name, this trip takes you to the two “classic” or must-see lodges when birding in Belize: Lamanai Outpost and Chan Chich, nestled in reserves and protected forests, and offering varying habitats, Maya ruins, and tasty food. During our Belize Birding & Nature tour, enjoy extended time at each of the two lodges to ease travel and absorb the special attributes that give them such amazing reputations.

We offer two departures this winter: January 15-23 with James P. Smith (click here), and March 23-31 with guide, David Mehlman (click here)

Ultimate Southern Belize

This extended trip was crafted by our owner, Peg Abbott, through years of experience birding in southern Belize. The result is an in-depth birding and natural history experience at a pace that lets you absorb and learn. In addition, we’ve carefully selected FOUR of Belize’s top birding lodges along with local guide, Steve Choco (2017 winner of the National Tour Guide of the Year award) to help us navigate these incredible conservation areas.

We offer three departures this winter: January 27 – February 7 with Bob Meinke (click here), February 23 – March 6 with James P. Smith (click here), and March 2-13 with Pat Lueders (click here).

To learn more about birding in Belize (and our upcoming trips) visit the link below:

Birding in Belize

Lifelong Birders Get Hooked and Never Stop Scanning the Skies

9 Birding Guides Share Their ‘Hook Birds’ and/or ‘Grail Birds’

Countless occupations and industries crash landed during the pandemic. At the same time, hobbies, especially outdoorsy ones like birding, took flight.

Stores ran out of bird feeders, binoculars became a must-have lockdown accessory, and birdseed became a “just in time” essential, bypassing warehouses as fast as companies could mix it, Audubon Magazine reported in its Birdwatching is a Bright Spot in a Pandemic-Stricken Economy on August 06, 2020.

Well before pandemic boredom attracted new birders to the flock, common and colorful backyard birds have routinely drawn new birders in.

Even professional naturalists and birding guides sometimes cite feeder species as the “hook bird” that caused them to start looking up and looking out. 

Today we discover what nine of Naturalist Journeys’ birding guides ID as their hook birds and, their counterpart, “grail birds,” species they would love to add to their life lists someday. 

Steve Shunk

Grail Bird

It was easy for Steve to decide on a grail bird – or rather 21 of them. He has already seen nine of the 30 endangered members of the woodpecker family, Picidae, which also includes wrynecks, and sapsuckers. A resident of gorgeous Sisters, OR,  and a woodpecker expert, Steve designed our popular Oregon’s Woodpecker Wonderland tour. Next year’s tour is May 18-27 and is a can’t miss if you love woodpeckers – or wildflowers, as we saw in the gorgeous photos of this year’s tour. Steve’s Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America, published in 2016, is a definitive reference to the 23 woodpeckers found in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Steve listed a couple of other grail birds as well: 

“My grail birds are Dovekie and Inaccessible Island Rail,” Steve said, “and I am in the process of visiting all the threatened woodpeckers in the world, about 30 species, of which I have only seen nine so far.“

Two of those, the Okinawa and Amami Woodpeckers, Steve saw and photographed in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands!

  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
  • birding guides are the best way to see Amami woodpeckers
  • birding guides are your best chance of seeing a dovekie
  • Birding guides are your best chance of seeing Inaccessible Island Rail

Hook Bird

“I didn’t really have a hook bird,” Steve said, “although the first bird I remember seeing through binoculars was Steller’s Jay. My real hook birds are woodpeckers.”

A birding guide is the best way to see bird's like Stellar's Jay.
Steller’s Jay. Photo Credit: Carol Comeau

Bryan Calk

Bryan’s Next Trips:

Arizona: Sweetheart Birding Feb. 12-16

South Texas Birding & Nature March 7-15

Southeast Arizona May 1-10

Hook Bird

Bryan Calk grew up loving nature in his Fort Clark Springs, Texas backyard. He became interested in birds around age 10 when 30-40 Painted Buntings captivated him for a full summer as they were visiting his mom’s bird feeders in the yard.

“Who could ignore a bird like that, especially so many of them?”

He was fortunate to be mentored by local birders through his early years and went on to pay it forward at Texas A&M Agri-life Extension Service’s birding program doing public outreach, education, and running his youth birding program, Rio Diablo Birding Camp.

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Painted Bunting.
Painted Buntings. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

Grail Bird

Bryan has many “grail” birds he hopes to see one day, and perhaps at the top of the list is the Pennant-winged Nightjar (nightjars are Bryan’s favorite family of birds). 

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Pennant-Winged Nigthtjar
Perched Pennant-Winged Nightjar.Photo Credit: Nigel Voaden from UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Gallardo 

Hook Bird

Since early childhood Robert has been passionate about the natural world and started collecting butterflies by the age of 11. Robert recalls seeing a male Western Tanager outside the window of his 7th grade biology class in southern California. 

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Western Tanager
Western Tanager. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Grail Bird

Though Robert has seen both the Harpy Eagle and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Panama, he still dreams of seeing them both in eastern Honduras. Robert has the distinction of having created for OTHERS a grail bird, by putting the Ocellated Quail on the world map of bird watching. For many, Ocellated Quail had been considered a species virtually impossible to find, though it can be seen on our tours with Robert to Honduras.

  • Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo
  • birding guides are your best chance of seeing species like Harpy Eagle

Jon Atwood

Hook Bird

Guide John Atwood has been a practicing conservation biologist for over 40 years, with his research focused on bird behavior that informs efforts to conserve habitat. His hook bird was an endemic:

“The Santa Cruz Island Scrub-Jay was probably the bird that really hooked my interest in bird behavior (although Least Tern is a very close second).”

  • birding guides are the best way to see birds like Island Scrub Jay
  • birding guides are the best way to see birds like Least Tern

Grail Bird

Gosh, I don’t know, maybe penguins in Antarctica!

Dodie Logue

Hook Bird

I remember when I was a kid a Snowy Owl showed up in our neighborhood in Lake Elmo, MN. That was my hook. We always had bird feeders up at my childhood home, and binoculars and bird books handy. There was a “bird lady” in the neighborhood I grew up in, Mrs. Lundgren. I loved spending time with her, we would do bird flash-cards, and yard walks where she would help us identify birds.

Snowy Owl. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Grail Bird

 I don’t have a particular grail bird – I like seeing them all, new and repeats.

Pat Lueders

Hook Birds

Having traveled to 49 states, the variety of birds throughout the country attracted my attention.  Early in my career, I became interested in a summer breeder to my neighborhood, the Mississippi Kite.  

Mississippi Kite. Photo Credit: Steve Wolfe

Grail Birds

World-wide, the magical Harpy Eagle was a target bird of mine for many years, and the sighting was finally achieved during a tour I led to Panama Darien, seeing the Harpy Eagle one day and the rarer Crested Eagle the next!  

  • birding guides are the best way to see birds like harpy eagle

Andrew Haffenden 

Our “shorebird school” professor, who lives on Dauphin Island, had this to say about hook and grail birds:

“There was no bird that hooked me into birding generally, but a banded Snowy Plover helped me become a shorebird junkie.”

“I don’t really have a grail bird either…I still get excited at seeing Sanderlings…maybe seeing one of my Piping Plovers that have wintered here for years on its summer breeding ground, with its tiny chicks running around.”

Snowy Plover. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Gerard Gorman

Hook Bird

Author of 10 books, many about Eurasian woodpeckers, Gerard had this to say about hook and grail birds:

“It’s hard to say what hooked me, I always loved nature, but obviously one or two species in childhood in England. I recall my first Short-eared and Tawny Owls near home in England, I was about 10 years old. Later my first Black Woodpecker, in Hungary, really hooked me, so much so that I later wrote a book about it.”

Gerard’s Woodpeckers of the World, A Complete Guide, published in 2014, is considered the definitive word on the world of woodpeckers, and is part of the Helm Photographic Guides series.

Grail Bird

My grail bird is Okinawa Woodpecker, which is an endangered endemic to the Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. One day I will get there.

Michael Marsden

Hook Bird

“I’m afraid I never had a hook bird – my birding developed from a more general interest in natural history.  But when I was very young, I spent many hours walking and cycling on the moors near my home and was captivated by the calls of the curlews and golden plovers.  Shorebirds and seabirds have always held a special fascination, with Buff-breasted Sandpipers my favorite. I learned American shorebirds in the UK (thanks to the wonders of the Gulf Stream) and was once able to show an American his first Buff-breasted Sandpiper – in England! 

Grail Bird

My grail bird would have to be Eskimo Curlew.

[Editor’s Note: It was much harder to locate images of professional nature guides’ grail birds, particularly in Michael’s case, as he wants to see an Eskimo Curlew, a bird not seen in 55 years and believed by many to be extinct!]

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Photo Credit: Nigel Lallsingh