5 mins

Mark Carwardine's top 5 birding experiences

Wildlife expert, author and Wanderlust contributor Mark Carwardine reveals his favourite worldwide birdwatching spots


1. Freezing with penguins

Antarctic Peninsula & the South Shetland Islands

"The scale and magnificence of Antarctica has a powerful magnetism: I have been visiting for 20 years – and see no end in sight"

The experience

What? A wildlife-packed adventure in the last great wilderness on earth

Where? The most accessible parts of Antarctica: the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Shetland Islands

How to do it

Most expedition cruise ships leave Ushuaia, southern Argentina, for the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Trips typically last 9-14 nights. Longer trips include the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. The notorious sail across the Drake Passage takes about two days and can be tough but is swiftly forgotten as soon as you reach the protected waterways near the continent. Once there, expect two or three landings or Zodiac cruises every day (depending on the size of ship and the weather).

The largest ships offer cheaper tours but have so many passengers they need to operate a shift system (no more than 100 people are allowed on shore at one time), which means that each passenger has considerably fewer (and shorter) landings. Some are so large than no one goes ashore – they are for cruising only. Large ships are also likely to cause more disruption and could pose a serious threat to passenger safety, given limited resources available in an emergency. The smallest ships offer more space ashore, but take longer to cross the Drake and give a rougher ride. Ships carrying about 100 passengers are the perfect compromise.

Alternatively, it is possible to fly from Punta Arenas in southern Chile to King George Island, in the South Shetlands, for a day trip or to join a ship already there. Admittedly, you avoid the sea crossing, but it’s expensive and you miss out on the real adventure.


2. Rising with the birds

New Mexico: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

"As the sun peeps above the horizon, and the morning mist burns orange, unimaginable numbers of snow geese erupt in an explosion of wings"

The experience

What? A true wildlife spectacle, guaranteed to lift your soul

Where? A watery oasis packed with wildlife, on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico, USA

How to do it

Fly to Albuquerque, in New Mexico, and then drive to Bosque – it takes less than two hours and, ideally, you need a car to get around once there. Hotels and guesthouses are available in Socorro (20 miles away) and the small town of San Antonio (10 miles). There are also two campsites and RV parks within striking distance of the refuge.

The Loop Road is open daily for driving, walking and (seasonally) cycling, from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. It’s a mixture of refuge tracks and gravel. The road starts near the Visitor Centre, which is an excellent source of information on everything from bird counts to unusual recent sightings; in winter, around the centre itself is good for rock squirrels, hispid cotton rats and desert cottontails, as well as Cooper’s hawks and roadrunners. You do have to get up early to see the snow goose spectacle: lie in and you will miss it.


3. Soaring with seabirds


"I’ve been to Iceland more than 70 times – and with all its wildlife, breathtaking scenery, ever-changing light and endless space, it’s magical every time"

The experience

What? Unimaginable numbers of birds (plus whales and other wildlife) in the land of ice and fire

Where? Various hotspots across Iceland, a wild isle in the North Atlantic and the least densely populated country in Europe

How to do it

There is a wide choice of guided tours focusing on the natural history of Iceland. Most concentrate on the coastal areas, with short detours inland, but some drive through the central highlands in specially-converted 4WD high-clearance buses or ‘superjeeps’.
To do it yourself, fly to Keflavík (the international airport, a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík) and hire a car (or take your own car on a ferry). Driving in Iceland is easy and, outside Reykjavík, there is little traffic. Road 1, which circumnavigates the country for about 850 miles, is well signposted and mostly tarmac (although a few sections remain unpaved); ideally you need a week or two to explore properly. Most wildlife hotspots are within easy reach of this road, although many side roads are gravel and so much slower.

Ferries and short flights are needed to access certain locations, such as Grimsey 
and the Westman Islands. There are regular bus services between towns and villages, 
and a variety of day trips from Reykjavík. However, to get off the beaten track and spend quality time with wildlife it is much better to drive.

The standard of accommodation is generally high, and a wide range is available including official campsites. Make reservations as far in advance as possible.


4. Hovering with hummingbirds

Arizona: Huachuca Mountains

"I may spend much of my time with the leviathans of the animal world, but these record-breaking, fast-living little birds always take my breath away"

The experience

What? Being enthralled by as many as 15 different species of hummingbird

Where? High in the mountains of south-eastern Arizona, close to the Mexican border

How to do it

Thousands of hummingbirds descend on Beatty’s Miller Canyon Guest Ranch, near Sierra Vista, every year. There are cabins for rent (each with their own feeders), and limited space for tents and small RVs. Day visitors are welcome (with limited access) for a small fee.

Other good sites in the area include: Ash Canyon, just south of Miller Canyon; Paton’s Hummingbird Haven, on the edge of Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve (most reliable site in the USA for violet-crowned hummingbirds); Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon (crowded at weekends); Madera Kubo Cabins, Madera Canyon (also the best place in the US to see flame-coloured tanagers); Cave Creek Canyon, near Portal in the Chiricahua Mountains (good for burrowing owls and pronghorn); and Ramsey Canyon Preserve.

Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, in Bisbee, allows visitors to watch experts capture, ring, weigh, measure and release hummingbirds as part of a long-term study. 
Or try volunteering for The Hummingbird Monitoring Network.


5. Counting penguins and seals

South Atlantic Ocean: South Georgia

"With 50 million seabirds and more than five million seals crammed onto an island the size of Essex, it’s impossible to exaggerate the sheer wonder of remote and beautiful South Georgia"

The experience

What? Mingling with some of the largest concentrations of wildlife on the planet

Where? The sub-Antarctic island where Shackleton sailed to get help

How to do it

Expedition cruise ships leave Ushuaia, southern Argentina, and combine the Antarctic Peninsula and the Falkland Islands with a few days at South Georgia. There are trips that explore South Georgia exclusively (these often leave from the Falkland Islands, which are just two or three days’ sail away). Visitors are not permitted to stay overnight on the island. Access to some areas are prohibited, including several islets: Cooper Island, off the south-east; Annenkov Island, off the south; and Bird Island, off the north-west.

The south coast faces the prevailing westerly winds and tends to be generally inhospitable. The north coast is more benign, with many safe anchorages. In total, there are about 40 sites along the north coast that can be visited by tourists. These include: Elsehul, Salisbury Plain, King Edward Point, Prion Island, Prince Olav Harbour, Fortuna Bay, Hercules Bay, Leith Harbour, Stromness, Husvik, Drygalski Fjord, Maiviken, Grytviken, Cobblers Cove, Godthul, Ocean Harbour, St. Andrew’s Bay, Moltke Harbour, Will Point, Gold Harbour and Larsen Harbour.

Want your own wildlife experience? These five birdwatching trips have been taken from Mark Carwardine's Ultimate Wildlife Experiences – the complete guide for avid travellers in search of the world's best wildlife.

You can save 20% off both hardback and paperback copies with discount code UWE0812. Find out more here

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