Q & A with Ricardo Miller, Founder, Arrowhead Birding, Kingston, Jamaica
“Providing high quality birding tours in Jamaica since 2012.”
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU REALIZE YOU LIKED NATURE?
I guess I was always interested in nature having grown up in a rural section of the island. It was a pleasure waking up in the morning and going outside and hearing the birds singing. The most influential person would have been my father with whom I would often go with to tend to his cows or jog with on a Sunday morning to the beach.
YOU STUDIED LIFE SCIENCES AT UNIVERSITY?
I loved my biology classes in high school, so for my undergraduate degree I chose Zoology at the University of the West Indies at Mona [Jamaica]. In my final year I did a course entitled “Caribbean Biodiversity” with the late Dr. Peter Vogel that introduced me to bird conservation and bird watching. I later did a Masters degree in Marine and Terrestrial Ecology with a focus on bird conservation.
The sheer diversity, peculiarities and prominence of birds make them very fascinating creatures. Their ability to fly makes them the envy of man - myself included. Plus they are beautiful - the beauty of our endemic birds is there for all to see. Indeed, there is not a bird more beautiful and graceful as our National Bird of Jamaica – the Streamertail Hummingbird (a.k.a. the Doctorbird).
IN YOUR OPINION, WHY IS BIRDING SUCH A POPULAR HOBBY WORLDWIDE?
Man is fascinated by beauty, and birds are visually quite stunning. It is also due to our native curiosity that we explore and travel - the fact that different groups of birds are found only in certain locations gives us the incentive visit these places. It becomes a personal challenge to see all the 10,000+ different birds of the world.
I had been thinking about this for a while when I joined BirdLife Jamaica, our local birding club. I also joined BirdsCaribbean, the largest regional organization dedicated to the conservation and study of Caribbean Birds. At one point John Fletcher, the past President of BirdLife Jamaica, invited me on a private birding trip to the Blue Mountains with visitors to the island, and he gave me a portion of his earnings. Soon enough I was leading regular trips for local hotels when they had visiting birders. I soon came to realize that Jamaica was in need of a dedicated birding company where the guide would stay with the guests at their hotel, eat with them at meal time and travel with them to the various birding locations. This would provide a much better opportunity for ongoing dialogue and cultural exchange. I received much encouragement and support from bird club leaders and my family to start my company.
DO YOU PROVIDE TOURS FOR OTHER COMPANIES?
Yes, this remains an important part of my business model where I organize and do all the necessary logistics in Jamaica for other international companies; sometimes I co-lead or I am the only leader when their clients arrive.
DO YOU PARTICIPATE IN ANY BIRD COUNT PROJECTS?
Yes - I have participated in Christmas Bird Counts, population assessments of game bird species for the Jamaican Government as well as various water bird censuses. Currently I have taken on a personal project to census the rare Plain Pigeon on the island with the hopes of publishing a short paper in the near future.
Most are from the United States. Quite a few are from England or Germany or Sweden.
WHY DO YOU CALL JAMAICA THE BIRDING GEM OF THE CARIBBEAN?
Jamaica boasts 29 extant endemic species of birds. This is more than any other Caribbean Island (though the Dominican Republic claims anywhere from 27 to 32 endemics depending on which source you use). It is very possible to see all 29 species during a week-long trip. Jamaica offers well-known locations with good roads for comfortable walking or hiking in places like Hardwar Gap in the Blue Mountains and Ecclesdown Road in Port Antonio.
ARE THERE ANY REFORESTATION INITIATIVES HAPPENING IN JAMAICA?
The Forestry Department of Jamaica is actively engaged in reforestation initiatives. Many non-governmental and community-based organizations are also actively engaged in reforestation especially within our watershed management areas. Other governmental organizations such as the National Environment and Planning Agency actively manage these efforts and conduct some of their own such as mangrove forest restorations.
DO YOUR GUESTS PREFER CERTAIN LOCATIONS?
Most guests prefer to go to the Blue Mountains or Ecclesdown Road since they have read about these areas in trip reports and know that those areas are the best places to maximize the number of endemics that can be seen in a short period of time.
WHAT IS THE LIMIT TO GROUP SIZE?
It’s usually 6 max per guide. But occasionally we get requests for as much as 10, and so a second guide is usually introduced.
THIS IS YOUR BUSY TIME [DECEMBER]?
The busiest birding period is December to April. There are more birds on the island to see due to the influx of the winter migrants. Also there is no better time to be in the Caribbean than when it is winter in the north!
MANY BIRDS “WINTER OVER” IN JAMAICA?
There are over 180 different winter migrants that have been recorded in Jamaica. Many of these, however, are one time records or only observed once in a few years. This still leaves a large portion that can be seen in the various habitats with some effort. The wetlands in particular are a good place to visit to maximize the number of migrant birds you see on a trip.
Groups stay at Jamaican owned lodges and villas which are clean and comfortable and offer the modern amenities one would expect [hot water, WiFi]. All my week-long tours include meals, accommodations, transportation (including transfers to and from the airport), trail snacks, bottled water, and guide fee. We ask that guests bring their own water bottles to be refilled from larger bottles. Alcoholic beverages are not included, but it is not uncommon for a bottle of wine to be purchased and shared at dinner. Many also like our Red Stripe beer.
WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
Jamaican jerk chicken or jerk pork is a must-try along with our ackee and saltfish which we hold as our national dish. We eat a lot of chicken in Jamaica, and we prepare it in various ways for our guests. Being an island, we also have a lot of seafood dishes. We’re known for our spices, curries, tropical fruits and vegetables, so vegetarians or vegan eaters can be easily satisfied. Let’s not forget our Blue Mountain coffee! Not only can guests enjoy drinking the coffee, on trips to the Blue Mountains they can see the farms where the coffee plants are grown.
IN SUMMARY - GIVE US YOUR BEST PITCH FOR VISITING JAMAICA.
Jamaica is a jewel in the Caribbean Sea, a beautiful country with tropical beaches, mountains, waterfalls and plenty of sunshine. We have a culture like no other - which is why we are world-famous even for such a small island! People everywhere follow our cuisine, our reggae music, our athletes [Usain Bolt] and more. The Jamaican people are warm, friendly and welcoming with the brightest of smiles. Join me, and I will show you the "true Jamaica" where people still walk to their farms and say hello and offer you freshly picked fruits if you stop by. Then there are the birds – all 29 endemic species here for you to see!
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