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.

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - NEWS | LOOKING BACK -

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

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