Cover Red bird-of-paradise (Photography: Bjorn Olesen)

Earthbound during the pandemic, many of us turned our eyes to the sky, and to the birds that encapsulated the liberty we longed for ... is this the beginning of a birdwatching boom?

While humans have largely stayed home over the past year, there have been plenty of anecdotal reports of wildlife reclaiming their habitats or even extending their territory. The David Attenborough-narrated documentary The Year Earth Changed, which chronicled the profound changes in the natural world in 2020, featured penguins exploring sidewalks in Cape Town, deer returning to their ancient grazing patch in Nara, and male leopards staking their claim on terraces at a safari lodge.

For city dwellers, waking gently to the sound of birds chirping has been one of the few upsides of lockdown, when traffic noise was replaced by the calming consonance of nature. Being stuck in one place also gave people time to explore their immediate surroundings, seeking solace in urban parks or nearby nature reserves.

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“I believe many people found that nature helped get them through the isolation that the pandemic brought,” says Jackie Cestero, a local conservationist collaborating with Cap Juluca, a Belmond Hotel on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, to improve the resort’s sustainability initiatives. “Birdwatching in particular seems to be on the rise as a result of Covid-19. Many of our guests have noted they started birding during the pandemic and want to continue to explore birds when they visit Anguilla.”

The same is true closer to home. “During lockdowns all over the world, people paid more attention to nature,” says Singapore-based Yong Ding Li, Asia advocacy and policy manager of Birdlife International Asia. “I know several people who started ‘backyard birding’, which is basically observing the species of birds in one’s backyard.”

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Oriental Pied Hornbills, for example, have been more visible in the Lion City not because of a change in their own behaviour, but due to more people stalking and posting photos of these distinctive creatures on Instagram. It’s not unusual to see throngs of birdwatchers and photographers at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the outlying island of Pulau Ubin waiting to spot a Straw-headed Bulbul, Jambu Fruit Dove, Great-billed Heron and Lesser Adjutant Stork, species that call the cosmopolitan city-state home and are difficult to find in other parts of Asia.

For Yong, who advocates for the conservation of birdlife across the region, the more birdwatchers there are, the better. When he arrived in Singapore in 1990s, he was one of only a handful of birdwatchers on the scene; the community today numbers in the thousands.

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One appeal of birdwatching is its low barrier of entry. All you need is curiosity, time, patience, a key location and, if you’re keen enough, a really good set of binoculars. “When you’re starting out, find a small local place to go birdwatching and learn all the birds in that area. Get yourself familiar with the more common species and expand from there,” says Adrian Boyle, a guide and ornithologist for US-based Quark Expeditions, which specialises in sailings to the Arctic and Antarctic regions and offers birdwatching programmes. But the goal isn’t to capture the best shot of a rare bird in flight, Boyle adds. “Many people focus on getting photos and don't fully appreciate the birds; sometimes it’s best to leave the camera in the bag.”

The stereotypical image of a birdwatcher—a white, middle-aged, binocular-toting male—is a cliché even in Europe and the US, where the hobby is more established. A study by Swarovski Optik, one of the leading manufacturers of high-end binoculars, identified about 20 million birdwatchers across the two regions. Contrary to the perception that it is dominated by men in their 50s and above, their research found an even distribution among genders as well as age ranges, with millions of birdwatchers under the age of 44.

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No two days are ever the same, even at the same site. The appeal of birdwatching is that it is never static.
Jackie Cestero

Birdwatching in Asia has grown in the last decade, too. A Facebook group in India called “Indian Birds” had 180,000 members at last count, making it one of the largest online birdwatching groups in the region. And a story in the South China Morning Post earlier this year asserted that the activity is considered cool in Beijing and, like other slow living pursuits such as making sourdough and crafting pottery, is attracting millennials and Gen Z enthusiasts.

The story profiled Li Siqi, also known as “Crazy Birdy”, an avid birdwatcher in her early 20s who leads sightings in Mount Ling, 120 km west of the capital. Through her environmental education company, she teaches families and children about the city’s rich biodiversity. Densely populated locations may not seem like the best places for this peaceful activity, but Beijing in fact has the second largest bird species of all the capital cities in the G20 owing to its being a bird migration pit stop.

Interest in the hobby can be piqued after spotting a single bird. For ecologically focused resorts, that simple act of discovery forms part of their mandate to nurture a conservation mindset. “Many of our repeat guests develop an interest in birding. Every lodge highlights about 10 birds to spot during their stay to get them started. When we see guests engage with the little things, they slow down and get into it,” says Nicole Robinson, Chief Marketing Officer of luxury travel company AndBeyond, which runs lodges in biodiverse areas in Africa and South America.

“I see many guests who first come here with little knowledge of birds return with their own pair of binoculars and later with super-sized camera lenses,” says Irshad Mubarak, the Resident Naturalist of The Datai Langkawi, a resort in Malaysia known for their eco-centric approach and initiatives. There are over 260 species of birds in Langkawi and nearly 100 species around The Datai Langkawi itself, of which the White-bellied Sea Eagles, Banded Kingfisher, Orange-breasted Trogon, and Blue-winged Pitta are the most coveted sightings.

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For many, the beauty of birdwatching lies in its ephemeral nature, and the lifelong learning that comes with it. Another draw has less to do with spectating, and more with being an agent for change. There has been a push among birdwatchers to act as “citizen scientists”, primarily helping in data collection. The details and figures they gather can have a measurable impact on the conservation of birdlife.

“I recently participated in the Global Birding Weekend. Using the eBird phone app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the United States, I was able to share Anguilla's bird counts with more than 51,000 birders from around the world, including more than 2,100 from Asia,” says Cestero. “That means the snapshot of birds on our tiny 35 square miles of rock and sand is part of the big picture of species across the globe.”

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Once we can fly freely again ourselves, birdwatching is a hobby we can easily enjoy anywhere, from the savannahs of Africa to the remote reaches of Antarctica. Regardless of the possibilities of international travel, however, scanning the skies for avian activity in our own home towns is just as fulfilling. “No two days are ever the same, even at the same site,” says Cestero. “The appeal of birdwatching is that it is never static.”