I suspect that the vast majority of birders have contemplated this at some stage. Fact is that most of us birders are married to, in a relationship with, or the children of non-birders. And when birders have holiday time, particularly in new lands, we immediately start to think with glee of sewage works, stinking mosquito-infested swamps, and leech-ridden jungle trails; and the glories of Banded Pittas (Pitta guajana), Long-tailed Manakins (Chiroxiphia linearis), and Woodward’s Barbets (Stactolaema olivacea woodwardi ). It is only later that we come to the startling realization that – surprise surprise – leeches, mosquitoes and smelly places are really not that appealing to our non-birding brethren.
After lengthy -well, let’s call them “discussions”- with various non-birding holiday partners (non-birders are people too;), it seems that places like white-sand beaches, pretty little islands, and Khao San Road. There area a number of problems with this as a location strategy for families that include birders:
– white sand beaches are typically fairly barren environments frequented by thousands of screaming children. If you get there at the crack of dawn, however, they may offer something really special, like a Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius) in Costa Rica, or a Crab Plover (Dromas ardeola) in Thailand – both birds of equally bizarre looks and a rarity that makes them particularly appealing to the average birder. So, when I have to go to a stunningly beautiful white (or black) sand beach, I always try to negotiate that it is as out-of-the-way as possible. Crab Plovers (and Dales) don’t like big crowds of partying tourists. Also, getting up early will not hurt – the first rays of light will bring a beauty and magic to even the most over-run of beaches, and you dramatically increase your chances of finding something special.
– Island Biogeography Theory tells us quite clearly that islands have low biodiversity. What is there is oftentimes special, but the density and diversity are likely to be low. This makes for potentially interesting birding (think Nicobar Pigeon Caloenas nicobarica), but very little else. So, if you are birding somewhere like Thailand for the first time, and the family takes you to Kho Phi Phi, you can try look for a handful of special birds, but don’t expect to be smashing birds on to your life list. In this case, however, the Christmas Island Frigatebirds (Fregata andrewsi), Lesser Frigatebirds (Fregata ariel), Black-nest Swiftlets (Collocalia maxima) and German’s Swiftlets (Collocalia germani) will keep your heart racing while enjoying the wonderful setting and fantastic warm-water diving and snorkeling.
– Temporarily ignoring the ministry of David Lindo, cities are not the greatest places to bird (sorry, David, but it is true). But just through sheer numbers, cities are more likely to hold a couple of birdingpals or bird guides that will be keen to take a day trip out with you while your wife looks at Hugo Boos jeans (no jokes, on a street in Panama, I was offered “original” Hugo Boos cologne. I had no doubt it was the original thing, but the packaging looked suspiciously like Hugo Boss). But, let’s face it, your better half is unlikely to be pleased with you if you dash off to go find a Spoonbilled Sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus), leaving her to her own devices in Bangkok. And as we learned in Hangover 2, when Bangkok takes someone, they never come back.
So, my current position is that it is possible to do birding while on a family holiday, but it is always going to be a tough compromise. On the one hand, I am more likely to get to interesting birding destinations, but on the other hand, making a serious boost to my life-list is always going to be a major challenge.