Women Who Travel Podcast Looking to the Skies With Birder MyaRose Craig
Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: Looking to the Skies With Birder Mya-Rose Craig

Host Lale Arikoglu chats with the ornithologist about her new book, 'Birdgirl', and takes listeners to Bonaire and the Amazon rainforest.

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We travel for all manner of experiences—culinary, adventure, music, and more. Mya-Rose Craig travels to spot birds. Lale chats with the 20-year-old ornithologist about birdwatching in some of the world's most spectacular places, sharing a platform with climate change activist Greta Thunberg, and her new memoir Birdgirl: Looking to the Skies in Search of a Better Future. Plus, we hear from Condé Nast Traveler contributor Betsy Andrews about her own birdwatching trip to Bonaire.

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Lale Arikoglu: Hi, I'm Lale Arikoglu with another episode of Women Who Travel, a podcast about exploring the world and where we share all sorts of transportive stories. Today, I'm talking to 20-year-old ornithologist Mya-Rose Craig.

A student at Cambridge University, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol at just 17 for her Black to Nature organization, an initiative that campaigns for equal access to nature, especially for communities in the UK that historically have been excluded from the countryside. Mya's love of the outdoors and of course birds is thanks to her parents, Helena, who's family is from northern Bangladesh, and Chris from Liverpool.

Mya-Rose Craig: My parents were very good at sort of phrasing it like a treasure hunt or something like that, where it was like a big event, uh.

LA: She started jotting down all her observations during their travels, which eventually turned into her blog, Bird Girl. Now, that blog has turned into a book, Bird Girl: Looking to the Skies in Search of a Better Future. Part travelog, part family memoir, Mya recounts bird watching across every continent, while exploring the dynamics of her own family and how their mutual obsession helped them together through challenging times. One of the first bird species to fascinate Mya? The sandpiper.

MC: I spent a lot of time talking about the spoon-billed sandpiper in the book for a few reasons. Like I think for me sort of personally, it's almost a bit of a flagship species, but it's essentially a critically endangered species of bird that breeds up in the Arctic Tundra in Russia and then every year migrates down the side of Asia, so like down the coast of China, in that sort of direction, over Thailand, and then it sort of, it winters in mud flat, in places like Bangladesh and Thailand and things like that. And it's also an, just an adorable looking bird. It's like very small, very fluffy, has literally a spoon-shaped bill that it uses to sift its food out of mud.

And at one point, there were about 200 birds left in the world, which is ridiculously low numbers, and it looked like they were going to go extinct basically. And it was just this amazing story of loads of different international organizations coming together and working to help it and to try and increase the numbers. And then numbers have gone up. It does look like it's slowing getting better in the last few years.

But the spoon-bill sandpiper was actually the reason I went on that trip to Bangladesh in 2015. I love going to Bangladesh. It's so beautiful. And it was just, it was just such a special bird to me.

LA: You also talk a lot about how confusing it can be to have dual identities both British and Bangladeshi. I am British and Turkish, so I get a little bit of what you're talking about. And it seems like that trip gave you a lot of clarity, both in terms of your own identity and also finding people like you who are into birding.

MC: Yeah. That was an incredibly special trip for me actually. I went to Bangladesh. That would be in, when I was 13 in 2015. One of the things I was getting hit with over and over again is like, oh, you know, there are just certain types of people who can't engage with the outdoors, AKA not white people basically.

LA: I was hoping you could just describe a little bit about what Bangladesh feels like and looks like to you and why you love it so much.

MC: Yeah, absolutely. I've gone back a bunch of times. Things like driving through all the old tea plantations. We spent a lot of time in like national parks and like walking through the forests and just seeing really cool birds, and it was amazing. But also we went down south to the mangrove forests called the Sundarbans. I think they're vaguely known by tourists 'cause you do occasionally see hikers there, but we went for birds obviously. It's completely water-based, and we just spent five days living on a boat, sort of motoring between all of these small rivers in the day time, sort of being punted, uh, you know, through these really, really narrow veins through this beautiful forest, and it was just really pristine and really amazing.

But I do think one of the most exciting moments when we were there wasn't the birds. It was when we found a pock mock, a footprint from a tiger. We did actually see one though. Yeah, really loved it there, and I always will, I think.

LA: Criss-crossing the world in search of the world's some 10,000 bird species quickly turned Mya-Rose into an experienced traveler. Birding isn't just a hobby or a vacation activity to Mya. It's part of everyday life.

MC: I get loads of people asking me all the time like, how do I come become a bird watcher? What equipment do I need to buy? And it's like you don't need a pair of like really fancy binoculars or like really fancy outdoor clothes. Low key don't even really need to know what you're looking at. What bird watching boils down to is like the joy of being outside and the joy of like appreciating birds that are around you. And it's from that love that people start to get really weird and obsessive about it, and they know all the songs.

And then lots of people know the Latin names and things like that, which is crazy to me. But like the starting point is just enjoying seeing what you can see.

LA: You mentioned the songs, and I might be putting you on the spot here, but do you have a favorite bird song?

MC: I'm really, really rubbish at bird songs, and I always have been. And I always used to spend so much time like on YouTube listening to videos and it just doesn't stick. But I think actually probably my favorite bird song, I feel like this isn't very exciting, but my t-

LA: Yeah, it's all, it's all exciting.

MC: I talk a lot in the book about going to all these like really exciting foreign places, and like the birds there are fantastic, but I think during the pandemic, I had such a moment that like I was in my house, I was at home, and I just completely fell in love with my local nature again. The UK gets a really bad rap. People always complain about how like boring and brown all our nature is, which is, it's not, but anyway. For me, it was literally just like watching the birds in the nests and like l- hearing the dawn chorus when it woke me up in the morning and stuff like that.

And so I think like one of my favorite songs these days, and it helps 'cause it's one of the few that I can also identify, is a wren, just because it's this tiny, really dumpy brown bird that sort of is likened to a mouse. It sort of hops around at the bottom of hedges in the UK, and it's probably not the most exciting thing to look at, but considering it's only maybe a couple of inches and, uh, it's only a few inches long, like it has the loudest song of any of the garden birds, and it has this rattle that just sounds like a machine gun. And it's like, it's so identifiable, and I love wrens in general. And I love that they're shouting over all of the other birds in the morning, and it's just, it always makes me smile when I hear it. So, that's probably my favorite, is just an English garden bird.

LAu: Love a wren, I have to say.

After the break, Mya refers to herself as a twitcher. If you're enjoying this episode, make sure to check out the rest of Women Who Travel, and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. We'd love to hear from you.

The twitcher, a very British word for a bird watcher trying to spot as many different species as possible. It's sort of like a trainspotter or a country counter.

MC In terms of twitching, it comes down a lot to like numbers and how many rare birds people have seen, and people keep lists and all of these sort of things, and, uh, lots of people I know sort of gets down to like, well, how many birds have you seen in a year? How many birds have you seen in your life? I have, I think an anecdote about when my mum was first introduced to my dad and someone goes like, "Oh, careful, he's a twitcher." And she doesn't know what it means and she wonders if maybe it's something to do with drugs or something like that. And then I think there's a line where it's like, oh, and she found out it's something much worse than that because it meant that he was this obsessive bird watcher.

LA: Given this is a travel podcast, if there's someone who's sort of wanting to get into birding and wants to maybe travel somewhere new for the first time and pack a little pair of binoculars and a notebook to see what they can find, what's a place that you would recommend to them?

MA: Well, I think it depends how intense you want the first trip to be. I think a lot of bird watchers, their dream destination is South America basically and the Amazon particularly, just because of the sheer volume of biodiversity. On one of my trips to South America, I think I literally saw like 6, 700 plus species in like a few weeks. That's crazy. But it's also like very stressful in the first day where you rock up and there's like tens of species flying around you.

LA: So, I am actually going to the Amazon on-

MC: Oh, cool.

LA: ... Sunday night. I'm gonna be on a section of the Peruvian part of the Amazon, but what are your tips for bird watching there? What should I pack?

MC: There's so much amazing wildlife in these places, and it's literally, it feels like just stepping out the front door of wherever you're staying, you're seeing amazing things.

For someone who wants to just sort of get into things more generally, I'd say actually you can go pretty much anywhere. I- I mean, that's one of the reasons I love birds actually, is you can pretty much go anywhere and there will be birds there. But I think also just taking the time on holiday to venture out of the city a bit, where there will probably mainly be pigeons, and like finding out just a few of the local species and things like that. And you're gonna see some very cool stuff. Like I've had a few things where I was like literally have maybe 12 to 24 hours on a stopover to going somewhere else, and it's like, you know what, we're not just gonna go to the hotel. We're gonna go out bird watching for like six hours and see if we can see something.

Actually, a lot of places in Africa are fantastic for birding, especially more for beginners, uh, you know, like Kenya and Tanzania and places like that are fantastic.

LA: It's funny that you mention Kenya because I got to go on an incredible trip to the Masai Mara last year and did safari for the first time. First couple of says, like lost my mind over seeing lions and elephants and hippos and all the crazy, crazy animals you get to see there. And then not to say that I got used to them, because I didn't, but once that initial kind of shock passed, I started to notice the birds, and just the sheer number of species. And all with their own personalities, it felt like, and obviously calls. And at night and in the mornings when I'd be lying in bed, it's so loud there, and so much of it was the sound of birds.

MC: Yeah. And I think that's one of the things I think, I think about sometimes, where it's like actually even for someone who doesn't think about birds, doesn't notice birds, it's like imagine going somewhere and then removing all of the birds from that, and there would just be dead silence and the landscape would look so empty.

LA: I feel like so often, outdoors experiences and travel in general can feel impenetrable for a lot of people due to price. And one of the big takeaways I found for your book is your wanting for the bird watching space and community to become accessible to all.

MC: So, I've been running a project for about, ooh, seven years now called Black to Nature, and I set it up essentially as someone who was not white who spent my whole childhood out in the British countryside, and I never saw anyone who looked like me or my mum or my sister or anything like that. And sort of as I got older, I started to realize that, in the UK at least, green spaces seem like they were practically reserved for white middle class people. No one else was getting the opportunity to engage.

And so, I started this project so that I could get more kids and teenagers from Black and Asian backgrounds into the countryside and sort of essentially give more people to have the opportunity to do the thing that I had loved doing so much five, 10 years ago. It was literally all middle aged blokes who had their like little notebooks and they were like checking things off, you know, and all that sort of thing. But in general, I think one of the really lovely things that I've seen is so many people who, again, wouldn't consider themselves bird watchers, but who are getting really into like topography or getting into nature in other sort of tech-based ways. I'm seeing a lot of young people engage in that way.

For me, like going out and going on a walk and seeing what birds I can find, that is my form of self-care. I talk a lot in the book about sort of the mental health aspects of it all, especially in terms of my mom, who, she had very severe bipolar disorder. I talk a lot about like a really difficult period when I was about 10 and like my mom got sectioned and my dad was like really stressed just trying to look after her, and it sort of a bit felt like my parents and I weren't really together in that family unit anymore. And then suddenly, like they're already pre-booked this like really big bird watching adventure before this all happened to like go away for three weeks and do all this traveling and see all these rare birds, and this probably isn't a sensible thing to do, but they just made, well again, looking back was the kind of crazy decision to like haul someone who was very like mentally ill at the time and go bird watching for three weeks.

It was like a really big deal. We're gonna go to the Amazon and all this sort of thing. And then we sort of rolled up and it had just been like the worst journey together. I was like a nightmare child who hadn't slept on this overnight flight. My mom was exhausted. My dad was exhausted. And my mom in particular really struggled for the first few days of the trip. She was physically actually really, really struggling to see the birds, to be able to spot them, which was really unexpected because she'd always been good at that, and it was just like this moment of like, uh, like, God, what have we done?

I think I figured it out as I got older, her brain is just so busy all the time, and like she's always doing so much and thinking so much, and like being forced to slow down in that way and like focus on the birds and you're not doing anything else. There wasn't any wifi any of the places that we were or anything. And it was just like, in terms of like the physical change in her actually was really incredible, but also just on a personal level, I essentially, like I started rebuilding my relationship with my mom, and my dad actually, who was dealing with a lot of like carer's fatigue. And it was just an incredibly important period.

LA: After the break, we hear from Conde Nast Traveler contributor Betsy Andrews about a bird watching trip to Bonaire. And Mya shares what it was like to share a platform with Greta Thunberg.

Betsy Andrews: I bring my binoculars everywhere, so whenever I'm traveling, I have them. And I find birds all over the place. I went to Bonaire last year because I had heard that they were gonna build something called Amodius Tower there. And that tower is connected to an international system that tracks birds. And they're building it there in Bonaire because it's such an important place for bird migration in the northern hemisphere.

So, Bonaire, that's B-O-N-A-I-R-E, is in the Dutch Antilles. It's a leeward island in the Dutch Antilles, and it's pretty far west, so it is west of, say the islands that we think of as the Caribbean. It's very close to Venezuela. Bonaire was first colonized by the Spanish, and they basically cut all the trees down. Now, Bonaire is a bit of a desert island, and there is a rehab center for yellow shouldered parrots there. This is an endangered bird on Bonaire. There's a national park in Bonaire that's- that's sort of like being in the southwest of the United States. I mean, there are cactus there with these big arms and it feels like the desert, and yet it is right next to the ocean.

So, the Spanish created a desert and the Dutch followed them. The Dutch were looking for salt for preserving herring. Well, the salt that the Dutch mined is now mined by the international company Cargill, and there are huge salt flats there, and they're filled with flamingos. And some of those salt flats are blue, some of them are white, some of them are pink, and that depends on the level of salt in them. The pink comes from algae, and then shrimp, and then the flamingos eat that, the algae and the little shrimp, and they turn pink [laughs]. I met baby flamingos at a rehab center, and those baby flamingos were sort of whitish and grayish, but from their diet, they turn bright pink.

So, you know, this human built environment of the salt flats have become this protected area for the flamingos. The flamingos particularly have had a hard time. The thought on that, although it hasn't been yet completely scientifically proven, is that there have been episodes of sargassum. Sargasso is a kind of seaweed that blooms in the Caribbean. And runoff from agriculture, which is putting more, you know, nitrogen and more fertilizer into the oceans, combined with the warmth, increasing warmth of climate change, is creating these great, big sargassum blooms. And there is some connection between that and the problems with survival amongst flamingo babies, and it could be a problem.

MC: By spending a lot of time talking to various nature organizations and things like that, then suddenly people were interested and they did want to have those conversations.

LA: In March 2020, from what I gather, you spoke with Greta Thunberg at the Bristol Youth Strike.

Greta Thunberg: Just look at Bristol as an example. The other week, the plans to build, to expand the Bristol Airport were canceled, and that's thanks to climate activists. And of course, this is far from enough, but it shows that it does actually make a difference. Activism works. So, I'm telling you to act.

LA: What was that experience like, sharing a platform with her in front of so many people? I think there was, what was it, like 40,000 people there?

MC: Yeah, 40 or 50, which, or 60. I don't know, they weren't sure. That was such a crazy day. It doesn't ... For a few reasons. Like I think Greta only announced that she was coming, 'cause Bristol's my local city, and she only announced that she was coming maybe a week before. And so they only contacted me like a few days before, and they're like, "Can you speak?" And I was like, "I mean, yes, but," and I spent like a few days-

LA: No- no pressure, right? Like just [laughs].

MC: No, like has to be perfect. Like I'm, like Greta's coming to Bristol. And it was just such a crazy day, I think for a few reasons. Like just the sheer number of people turned up, it felt like the whole of Bristol had ... Or no, more than that. Like the whole of Bristol was full of people visiting, coming to see her. And it was such a vile day as well. It was absolutely pissing it down rain, and it was the kind of thing where normally on a normal monthly youth strike, they would've really struggled to get people there, and yet tens of thousands of people were showed up. And there was just such an atmosphere in the air.

GT: If you look throughout history, all the great changes have come from the people. We are being betrayed by those in power, and they are failing us, but we will not back down.

MC And it was just one of those moments for me where like afterwards when we're doing the march and stuff, like I felt like I could taste change in the air. It sounds really corny, but like it's genuinely true. And it was just, it was so exciting. And like it was very cool to meet Greta as well. Like I met her a couple times since, but she's just, she's so lovely and so bizarrely down to earth, considering everything. And I remember on that day actually, 'cause I was on the front banner with her, but there were literally, I mean people lining the streets just to see her, just to get a glimpse of her. But also I remember seeing so many little girls dressed up in like the yellow raincoat with the plats and it felt like I was seeing for myself the impact that both she and just youth strikes for climate in general have made on everything, but on the younger generation. It was just such a special day.

LA: I love the idea of all these little girls dressed up in Greta raincoats. That's fantastic [laughs]. Inspired by Mya's tales, I brought binoculars and a microphone along on a recent trip to the Peruvian Amazon.

Thanks, as always, for listening to this episode of Women Who Travel. Next week, a road trip through the Midwest, featuring stops at quirky motels and the experiences of writer, broadcaster and cultural critic Kristen Meinzer. Thank you for listening. I am Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me, as always, on Instagram @LaleHannah. And follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @WomenWhoTravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group. Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.