Having a fine time of it all
Finding a niche market in the tourism industry is no mean feat but Del Richards has made a success of his local business, Fine Feather Tours, as Moya Stevens discovered.
Birdwatching, or birding which is the new term, is a flourishing pastime which often involves enthusiasts travelling vast distances to see as many types of birds as possible, many endemic to a specific area.
For 22 years, Del Richards has run his birding tour business in and around the Douglas Shire and is considered an integral element of the tourism industry here. He is the longest serving owner-guide in the district.
According to Del, birding has dramatically increased in popularity, particularly in the US, mainly due to the introduction of digital photography.
But Del’s interest in our natural environment started when he was a boy on his parents’ cattle property just out from Singleton, New South Wales.
“My grandfather was a selftaught environmentalist with a great love of animals,” Del explained, “and he taught me a great deal about birds.
“When I was out following cattle on horseback I would see the various birds around the property and I suppose I just developed an early interest in birds.”
Del also enjoyed calf and steer roping and entered many rodeos. During the ’70s he won several championships including the ABC World Championship in Texas, Queensland.
Del inherited some of the family’s property once his father retired. He travelled around Australia in the early 70s and met Pat Goulter in Mission Beach, they married in 1976. They remained on his family’s property for another four years then moved to another property closer to Pat’s family at Narrabri where they grew lucerne hay and chaff.
“I worked out I moved 16,500 tons of the stuff in my 11 years there,” Del said, “but we got sick of dealing with banks – it was just too hard especially with the high interest rates in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
Del and Pat returned to the Far North in 1994 and decided that, as this area was close to an international airport and had great bird life, they would settle here. While living at Newell Beach, Del started his business, Fine Feather Tours.
“I had the idea of a birding tour business in the 1990 as I had seen how this interest was growing, particularly in the US.”
When asked the difference between ‘birdwatching’ and ‘birding’, Del explained that traditionally birdwatching entailed a lot of sitting and waiting, whereas birding sees people getting out to locate the various species.
“I was the fifth business to establish a website in Port Douglas, and the business started off really well,” Del said, “and some people I took on a tour during the first month of operation have come back six times.”
Birding is very popular in many countries and particularly in the US, UK, Germany, France and Canada.
“I have had such a wide range of visitors on tour, literally from Lords and Ladies, Lord Mayors, many doctors and of course, regular people who just love birds.
“I recently hosted a past Secretary of the UK parliament.
“One of the funniest things I remember is when a visiting doctor, a world expert on Alzheimers, came on one of my tours after attending several conferences around Australia and we were going through a few gates on properties.
“This doctor was clearly extremely intelligent but when he opened the gate for us, he closed it and discovered he was on the wrong side.
“It took him a while to come to terms with his mistake, but no-one said a thing,” he said, “and seeing this very capable doctor make a mistake like that proves that we can’t be good at everything.”
Traveling around the bush has its hazards and although Del is extremely cautious and well prepared when he is taking tours, one day proved exceptionally unlucky.
“I had two flat tyres at the same time – which is extraordinary as I had only had four flats over the 22 years of running my business,” he said.
“But I had a trailer with an extra spare so I managed to limp home.”
The best aspect of the birding tour business according to Del is the variety of interesting people he gets to meet and befriend.
Del explained that Australia is a popular destination for birders as all but five species in Australia are unique to this continent and “there are 700 birds here that you won’t find anywhere else”.
The majority of guests on Del’s tours are from overseas and due to distance, avid birders often visit South and Central America before they venture Downunder.
“I have had many repeat customers and one guest has returned six times,” he said, “and two ladies came back after their first tour 17 years previous.”
Del manages to do his share of birding away from the Far North visiting places such as Christmas Island where he saw 14 species not found anywhere else. “I hope to visit Kangaroo Island this year to see some rare geese and honeyeaters,” he said.
In 2012, Pat, Del’s wife of nearly 40 years passed away. He remains very busy with his tours and presenting a regular spot on ABC Local Radio.
“I was out doing a wildlife survey around Georgetown and met with the traditional owners,” Del explained, “and after I shook all their hands they said they ‘knew’ me from my radio spot.”
Del’s most challenging project however is the writing of his autobiography which features the many things he has learnt from his guests.
“Writing takes up most of my spare time and I am excited about telling some of the fascinating stories told to be by the people I have met over the years,” Del said.
The book, My Country Life – For What it’s Worth, is nearing completion and promises to be a good read regardless of the reader’s interest in birds.
Del Richards is a quietly spoken, well-mannered, amiable country man who, through his love of the outdoors and knowledge of birdlife had created a successful business and an enviable lifestyle in the Douglas Shire.
When I was out following cattle on horseback I would see the various birds around the property and I suppose I just developed an early interest in birds
Main picture: Del Richards today. Inset: Del in 1997