Tag Archives: ecotourism

Desert Birds are Marvels of Adaptation

The big banana-like beak of the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and its long fringe of “eyelash” feathers are not just defining characteristics of this iconic African species; they are adaptations, deployed by desert birds to battle climates others find inhospitable.

Desert Birds of Namibia

  • Southern Yellow-bill Hornbill are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Southern Yellow-bill Hornbill are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • the range of Southern Yellow-bill Hornbill in southern Africa.
  • sociable weavers are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • The Secretary Bird are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • The Secretary Bird are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Freckled Nightjar are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Gray's Lark are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Sociable Weavers are camoflauged in dun

We see many hornbills and other desert birds and arid-land birds on our trips that include Namibia:

Ultimate Namibia-Botswana Combo: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes

July 23 – August 15, 2022

Grand Namibia: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes

October 13 – 25, 2022

Every desert has birds, even when it has little else, as British explorer John Philby saw for himself in 1932 crossing the Arabian Desert by camel train. Setting off with an increasingly disgruntled crew and 32 camels in the midst of a 30-year drought, the only plants the search party found were dead. Yet somehow, there were animals still calling the desert home, among them many Hoopoe Larks, according to The Ohio State University researchers who study adaptations of desert birds.

Larks are one of the most common desert birds, and ecologists study them closely to see how they prevail in such austere conditions, including “intense solar radiation; extreme air temperatures; low relative humidity; scant, unpredictable rainfall; and meager primary productivity,” as the OSU researchers wrote in “Physiological Adaptation in Desert Birds,” published in 2005 by the journal BioScience.

“For inhabitants of these environments, food supplies and drinking water can be scarce. In such extreme habitats, there may be strong selection pressures on the physiological attributes of animals that live there, especially adjustments that minimize rates of energy expenditure or water loss, or that enhance tolerance of high body temperature,” the researchers wrote.

Dune Lark can be found on Naturalist Journeys' birding and wildlife tours to Namibia
An artful Dune Lark, a Namibia endemic. Photo Credit: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Consider the Dune Lark, a Namibia endemic we have chances to see, which deploys a three-part survival secret recipe. It’s one part “pre-adaptations,” shared by most birds, like having a naturally high body temperature and being able to fly to get water. Dune Lark also help themselves behaviorally by nesting on dry stream beds, which serve as unobstructed flight corridors, reducing energy output. Finally, unusual subcutaneous fat deposits in the sun-facing part of their wings are believed to represent physiological adaptation to arid conditions, reducing evapotranspiration to retain precious water.  

But the lark family is just one among a rich variety of desert and adjacent arid-land birds displaying a staggering array of adaptations. Many, naturally, are focused on conserving water or regulating temperature – and not just heat, but cold, since deserts demonstrate dramatic temperature shifts between day and night.

Coffee, tea and birders go together. Photo Credit, Peg Abbott

Behavioral adaptations dictate the pace of our tours, as we go out early to catch diurnal birds at their most active, at dawn and dusk, resting like they do during the hottest part of the day. But the physiological adaptations of desert birds are perhaps the most fascinating.

Coming back to the charismatic hornbills, they are able to shed heat by dilating the vascular structure beneath their hard keratin bills, whose large surface area offloads unwanted body heat like a radiator. This adaptation reduces their need to open their bills and pant, an evapotranspirative cooling method which by definition squanders precious water resources.

Other adaptations address different environmental conditions, like their feathered “eyelashes” which, according to some theories, help keep things out of their eyes, including blowing sand or glaring sun.

Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Ground Hornbill, which we see on the Botswana portion of the Namibia-Botswana tour. Photo Credit: George Bakken

In a further nesting adaptation that is part behavioral and part physiological, the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill female dens up with the chicks, walling its developing family off from the sun and nighttime chill. Typically starting with an existing hole or crevice in rocks or a tree, the hornbill pair line it with nesting material.

They then work together using an ‘adobe’ made of food scraps, excrement and whatever mud the male can find and bring back to help seal in the brooding female. They leave a “feed us” sized hole that the male hornbill pokes food through and the female, waste.

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill investigate a nesting site in Botswana. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Protected or imprisoned, depending on your viewpoint, the female has the capacity to voluntarily shed her flight and tail feathers to make movement easier on their now-feathered carpet. She will slowly regrow them before emerging with the chicks.

  • spurfowl in namibia and zaire

Hartlaub’s Spurfowl has devolved its titular fighting mechanism, preferring to conserve precious resources by hiding from predators between rocks in the granite outcrops where it nests. Its spurs are little more than bumps now.

Another African desert bird, the Freckled Nightjar, has evolved a high tolerance to both heat and cold. They manage to survive surface temperatures on their rocky outcrop nesting grounds of up to 60 C/140 F, and yet, in the colder winter months, can also enter torpor, a form of short-term hibernation that conserves energy, warming back up to an animated state with sufficient sunshine. Like other desert birds and nightjars, in times of great heat, they may engage in “gular flapping” behavior, fluttering throat skin with their bills mostly closed to help offload heat.

Rosy-faced Lovebirds are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
Rosy-faced Lovebird is a species threatened by the pet trade. In fact, escapees have colonized desert areas near Phoenix. Photo Credit: Charles J. Sharp

One of the most sought-after birds in Namibia is the Rosy-faced Lovebird, which inhabits arid-land areas that are flying distance to water sources. These short-tailed parrots charm with their namesake canoodling and have been known to opportunistically try to “get a room” inside the massive apartment-complex nests of the Sociable Weaver.

They thereby hitch a ride on the weavers’ behavioral adaptation to beat the heat. They build multi-chambered suites that are an upgrade from the studio apartments most birds use, with interior rooms used for warm nighttime roosting and exterior rooms providing mostly shade.

Sociable Weaver nests may be quite large and we see them on our Namibia and Botswana Naturalist Journeys birding and wildlife tours
Sociable Weaver nests may be quite large. Photo Credit: Sonse via Wikimedia Commons

Though we don’t see them on our Arizona tours, there is a sizable feral Rosy-faced Lovebird population outside of Phoenix, having moved from wild to pet to wild again. Failing to find Sociable Weaver apartment complexes in the Wild West, they continue to seek out existing nests made by other birds, like the cavity nests made by Gila Woodpecker and other desert bird species in Saguaro, Barrel, and other cacti.

Arizona Desert Birds

  • Gila Woodpeckers feature in Naturalist Journeys tours in Arizona

Native desert birds, each with their own clever adaptations, are plentiful on our two spring and three fall tours of Southern Arizona.  

The Greater Roadrunner has some things in common with the Secretary Bird, both snake-hunters capable of flight but preferring to walk or run after prey, up to 20 mph in the Greater Roadrunner’s case. That’s roughly half the top speed of their coyote predators, with flight as a solid escape plan in reserve. Like some marine species, roadrunners are able to excrete salt through glands in the nose, because passing salt requires substantial water. A roadrunner also uses its dark skin to help regulate temperature, spreading its wings and fluffing its feathers to expose this ‘solar panel’ when they want to invite the warmth of the sun, and re-covering it like a parasol, when they’ve had enough.

Costa’s Hummingbird, one of the world’s smaller hummingbirds at just over 3.5 inches, can, like the Freckled Nightjar, enter torpor, greatly slowing its heartbeat and maintaining a lower body temperature. During torpor, a Costa’s heart beats just 50 times per minute, a fraction of the 500–900 times it beats while active, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds.

We may also see tiny Elf Owl on our Arizona tours, nesting in tree hollows and other cavities to stay warm during cooler nights. The Cactus Wren will often nest in the branches of a Cholla cactus, taking its spiny defense for its own against predators not small enough to slip past them.

  • Elf Owl are among the birds and animals we may see on our Arizona birding and nature tours.

To decide whether desert Africa is the right journey to the continent for you, we have written a guide for how to choose a birding tour to Africa.

And of course, our travel planners are always happy to talk with you about any of our tours! Email us at travel@naturalistjourneys.com or call 866-900-1146.

Trinidad and Tobago Ecotourism GetS a Gold Star with UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Designation

Northeast Tobago Earns Valuable ‘Man and the Biosphere’ Recognition

In 1776, back when the US colonists were still beefing with King George III, Tobago gave birth to the modern conservation movement with the founding of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, the oldest tropical rainforest reserve in the world.

  • Map showing Northeast Tobago, which was named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in October, 2021
  • Parlatuvier Bay is part of the new UNESCO biosphere reserve in Northeast Tobago
  • UNESCO biosphere reserve status protects birds, like these Red-billed Tropicbirds

Tracing Tobago’s mountainous spine, the nearly 9,800-acre rainforest reserve is one of many jewels we visit on our tours to Trinidad and Tobago.

Main Ridge is an important piece of a large area in Northeast Tobago that UNESCO described as “a rare largely intact Caribbean Island Ridge-to-Ocean ecosystem,” when it granted it “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” status in 2020.

“By joining the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, the community aims to revitalize cultural and spiritual bonds between people and nature and boost the preservation of this fragile and remarkable human and natural landscape,” UNESCO wrote in its declaration.

One of now 714 UNESCO Nature Reserves, among Caribbean sites only Guadalupe Island’s reserve is larger.

Dollars flow to UNESCO biosphere reserves

The recognition should help dollars flow into these twin island nations and help them  to recover from the 16-month COVID lockdown, UNESCO noted in the declaration. Trinidad ended its lockdown in November, and visitors have begun to flow back into the islands, supporting ecotourism destinations like the ones we visit.

“Some of the expected benefits to Trinidad and Tobago include the generation of sustainable green and blue economic activities beyond tourism, including fisheries, agriculture, cultural heritage promotion, scientific research and education, among others,” the declaration said.

Fifteen communities and 10,000 people live inside the massive terrestrial and marine reserve, which envisions them working sustainably to develop Tobago while preserving its biodiversity.

The founding of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve is considered the first act of modern conservation, by the British in 1776.

Of course nature tourists, and especially birders, knew all about Trinidad and Tobago’s wonders well before the UNESCO biosphere designation. Naturalist Journeys guests have been coming to Trinidad and Tobago for decades, and we’ve long worked with trusted local partners to explore areas inside the new biosphere boundaries, including a half-day visit to the Main Ridge Forest Reserve.

We also visit the marine portion of the UNESCO nature reserve, which encircles Little Tobago. On a glass-bottomed boat tour our guests can look down at colorful reef fish and up, to discover awesome pelagics like the Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-billed Tropicbird among many others.

As Caribbean Islands saw forests clear cut for sugarcane plantations during the colonial period, in 1776, Main Ridge was set aside “for the purpose of attracting frequent showers of rain upon which the fertility of lands in these climates doth entirely depend.”

It was the culmination of an 11-year lobbying campaign by a member of the British Parliament, Soame Jenyns, who was influenced by the work of English scientist Stephen Hales linking rainfall and forests. (The reason he suggested it was to preserve the fresh-watersheds of Great Britain’s own colonial-era plantations.)

The protection of Main Ridge was sadly an outlier. Only 10 percent of Caribbean forests remain intact, noted UNESCO in its biosphere reserve designation.

Although Trinidad and Tobago is one of the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean, its tourism sector is much smaller and less developed than its neighbors. The hope and the expectation is that the UNESCO nature reserve designation will help focus more investment not just in sustainable tourism, but in diversified industries that are compatible with protecting biodiversity.

The pandemic-driven closure of the Asa Wright Nature Centre in January of 2021 was a big blow to the tourism sector on the islands, and one that required Naturalist Journeys founder Peg Abbott to work hard to re-create our tours there.

As she wrote in a recent social media post:

“When it all fell apart, I realized I had a deep bond to place, the magic of two twin islands, a piece of South America on the one Trinidad, and the Caribbean on the other, Tobago.

“I picked up with amazing people that I’ve worked with for seven years, and we picked up the bones and we put it back together…we have survived, and we have carried on, and we offer a great post Asa Wright experience.”

One of those partners she wrote about is longtime guide Jason Radix who speaks below about the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, and discusses some of the wonderful birds we will see there.

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.”