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George Armistead is chief network officer at Rockjumper and focused on partnerships, promotion and managing the Rockjumper Bird Conservation Fund. A birder since the age of 9 years old, he has a long history of connecting people with nature through ecotourism and expedition travel. A professional wildlife guide with 20 years of experience, George has led trips to all seven continents. From 2012 to August of 2016, he developed, managed and marketed events for the American Birding Association, served on the ABA's Recording Standards and Ethics Committee, and was an instructor at ABA young birder camps.
He has authored two books on birds including Better Birding: Tips, Tools, and Concepts for the Field (2015, Princeton University Press) and The ABA Field Guide to the Birds of Pennsylvania (2016, Scott & Nix, Inc.). Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he received a masters degree in environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he is an associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and spends much of his free time outdoors, studying birds and nature around the United States and beyond.
How did you get into birding?
I began birding on a family trip to Churchill, Manitoba when I was 9. My Dad is a hardcore birder and a librarian. He has reviewed bird books his whole life, amassing quite a library and under his mentorship and with all his books, I was off like a shot and never looked back. It seems kind of crazy now, but some of the very first birds I remember seeing are Ross’s Gull, Pacific Loon, Smith's Longspur, and Hudsonian Godwit.
What led you to choose a career in tourism?
After completing my masters at the University of Pennsylvania I had thought I would probably go into environmental consulting, but I kept gravitating towards work where I was outdoors and helping to connect people with nature. It was irresistible.
What are your other hobbies and interests?
I’m a big sports fan. Especially of the four major sports in the USA, and I’m a diehard Philadelphia Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and Sixers fans. As a lifelong Philly resident, I love the city which still has so many layers to peel back with great restaurants, museums, nightlife and social opportunities. While outdoors I’m finding myself increasingly fascinated by reptiles. Knowing birds are modern day dinosaurs, I guess it makes sense that herps increasingly attract my attention. More and more I find myself considering trips to try and see snakes, lizards, etc. which my friends find surprising as I am quite terrified of snakes. Fear/fascination thing, I guess.
What do you enjoy most about being on tour?
Probably the first most obvious thing is all the great people you get to meet. Birding is fun, but birdering is fascinating. Another favorite thing is that in ecotourism, we deal in the spectacular. Iguazu Falls, Masai Mara, the Pantanal, Antarctica, the Ngorongoro Crater, the Taj Mahal, are working locations. The things you see….. As a guide, you never lose track of the fact that you are in essence a shepherd, and along the way, there are a great many wonders to behold. Some are big and wondrous, and others are unique and strange, and others may be daily little miracles like cisticolas, canasteros, Phylloscopus warblers, or Zosterops. And as a guide, no job is too small or too big. You can be cleaning up a mess made on a bus or a boat in the morning and dining with high-ranking dignitaries later that night. The range of experience one acquires as a guide is astonishing.
What are your strengths as a tour leader?
I’m happy with my field skills certainly, but I pride myself on my people skills and providing folks with a context for what we see while in the field. And we tend to eat well on these trips, and I’m quite happy, after a nice day afield, at a table full of good food, good drink and good company.
Are you a keen bird photographer?
I enjoy photography and have managed to publish a bit, but am not a polished photographer; more opportunistic and occasionally lucky. Especially love trying to capture birds on the wing, and seabirds are perhaps my favorite of all. Tubenoses rock.
Are you a lister; and if so, which lists are your main focus?
I’ve become a pretty serious eBirder, although this is very hard to do while guiding. But I have gotten really into my Philadelphia list, and I also enjoy working on the yard list at our family farm, and keep my ABA Area list up to date too. Have not gotten around to figuring out my world list yet, but would like to. One rainy day soon….
What are your goals as chief network officer?
Mostly, I want everyone to know how great birding is, and how fulfilling and exciting Rockjumper trips really are. Obviously, we hit the big bucket list destinations, but even the daily birding in lesser-known spots is richly rewarding. And so I focus on partnerships and promotion to get that message out, and this also includes working on the Rockjumper Bird Conservation Fund. We’ve managed to do a lot of good through the RBCF and really want to grow that and continue our goal of supporting bird conservation, research and community engagement.
What is your favourite place/country to guide?
Most of all I like vast open spaces. Oceans, deserts, steppes, the Llanos, and the tundra. I feel most alive in these habitats. I love the feeling of being able to see all the way to the horizon with little evidence of man along the way. Open country birding is thrilling and offers the chance to study some of the best birds groups too, such as raptors, shorebirds, larks, and my favorite of all, seabirds.
What is your advice to people who are traveling with Rockjumper for the first time?
Relax and have fun. We specialize in wildlife adventures, and while birding is a major focus for so many of our trips, it is mostly just a great lens through which to travel and really get to see a foreign land. We see the well-known tourist destinations, but also get into the backcountry, where the birds are, meet the people, smell the earth, taste the food, and really engage a place. Birds are a priority of course, but along the way we see a great many other things, and learn so much more than one does in just about any other kind of travel. I guess what I’m trying to say is, we got you covered.