3 mins

The world's best birds

Here's our guide to the showiest, noisiest, weirdest and most wonderful birds on the planet... How many can you tick off?

How many birds on our ticklist have you seen? (Image: Nick Boulos)

Bird-watching ticklist1. Andean cock-of-the-rock

Distinctive characteristics: The males have a fan-shaped crest; brilliant blood-orange plumage; contrasting black-and-grey body – striking and immediately recognisable.

Where to find it: The cloud-forests of the Andes, from Venezuela to Bolivia; national bird of Peru.

Difficulty of spotting: Moderate. The birds congregate in leks – arenas where males display to prospective mates.

Bird-watching ticklist2. Lilac-breasted roller

Distinctive characteristics: Vibrant lilac breast, green heads and iridescent turquoise on wings. Performs an acrobatic flight during courtship, dramatically plummeting while rolling or rocking from side to side.

Where to find it: Woodlands and open brush in East Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Difficulty of spotting: Easy. Often found perching on trees, bushes or fence posts.

Bird-watching ticklist3. Emperor penguin

Distinctive characteristics: The heavyweight of the penguin world – 1m tall and 40kg. The only animals to breed during the winter; males guard over newly laid eggs for around two months while females go in search of food.

Where to find it: Antarctica.

Difficulty of spotting: Difficult, unless you take certain Antarctic cruises that helicopter or fly in to colonies (eg at Snow Hill Island). To see young chicks, visit Nov-Jan. 

Bird-watching ticklist4. Shoebill

Distinctive characteristics: Stork-like in stature (up to 1.5m tall). Intimidating shoe-shaped bill, up to 23cm long. Almost prehistoric looking. Prefer to live alone. Often
stand still for extended periods.

Where to find it: The swamps of central and eastern Africa are a good bet.

Difficulty of spotting: Moderate. Uganda is one of the best places.

Bird-watching ticklist5. Wandering albatross

Distinctive characteristics: Largely white, with black wing tips. The largest wingspan of any living bird (up to 3.5m) and travels vast distances (up to 6,000km in 12 days). Fencing-style courtship display.

Where to find it: Southern Ocean and sub-Antarctic islands.

Difficulty of spotting: Fairly easy if you’re on an Antarctic cruise.

Bird-watching ticklist6. Blue-footed booby

Distinctive characteristics: Brown-white plumage; yellow eyes; vivid blue webbed feet. During mating, males perform a curious ‘dance’, lifting their feet and pointing their heads and wings skywards. ’Booby’ comes from the Spanish bobo (stupid), apt for their  ungainly strut.

Where to find it: The south-west coast of the Americas, from California to Chile, including the Galápagos Islands.

Difficulty of spotting: Easy, especially in the Galápagos.

Bird-watching ticklist7. Andean condor

Distinctive characteristics: Large – typically weigh around 15kg; one of the biggest bird species able to fly. Shiny black plumage; white neck ruff. Roost on cliffs; spend days gliding motionlessly on thermal air currents.

Where to find it: Mountain and coastal regions of South America, from Venezuela to Chile.

Difficulty of spotting: Getting more difficult as numbers crash. Colca Canyon in Peru is famous for them.

8. Superb lyrebird

Distinctive characteristics: Brown songbird. Males have feathered tails, delicate as lace; during courtship he fans it out in a grandiose display. Ability to mimic sounds with amazing accuracy – from car alarms to human voices.

Where to find it: Damp forests or wet woodlands of south-east Australia.

Difficulty of spotting: Moderate. Found on the ground during the day, in trees at night.

Bird-watching ticklist9. Hornbill

Distinctive characteristics: Several species – all typically have dark feathers with bright bills. The large, often casqued, colourful down-curved bill makes them easy to identify.

Where to find it: Forests and scrubland of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Difficulty of spotting: Medium. Best months to see vary by location. In some regions, flocks of up to 200 may gather in the same tree.

Bird-watching ticklist10. Kiwi

Distinctive characteristics: Flightless, pear-shaped bird, similar in size to a chicken. Leathery skin; feathers like hair. The only bird to have nostrils at the end of its beak.

Where to find it: New Zealand, mostly in forests; also found in scrub and grassland.

Difficulty of spotting: Moderate on Stewart Island; hard elsewhere. Few New Zealanders have seen their national bird.

Birdwatching ticklist11. Kakapo

Distinctive characteristics: The heaviest parrot in the world, and also the only flightless one. Mottled, yellow-green plumage. A loud booming call. Nocturnal.

Where to find it: Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) and Anchor Island, New Zealand.

Difficulty of spotting: Hard. Fewer than 150 remain and the islands they inhabit are difficult to visit, especially after the night falls.

Birdwatching ticklist

12. Arctic tern

Distinctive characteristics: Small seabird (up to 40cm long). Black head; pale grey/white plumage; red bill. Famed for biannual 70,000km pole-to-pole migration.

Where to find it: Open waters, rocky shores and icy edges of glaciers at the poles. Found along African and Brazilian coastlines during migration. Breed in the Arctic; some breed as far south as Scotland/northern England.

Difficulty of spotting: Likely on Arctic or Antarctic cruises.

Birdwatching ticklist13. Hyacinth macaw

Distinctive characteristics: The world’s longest parrot – 1m from head to tail. Bright-blue feathers with yellow rings round the beak.

Where to find it: Grasslands and forests of Brazil, eastern Bolivia, northeastern Paraguay.

Difficulty of spotting: Moderate. They’re sadly endangered but are very conspicuous if present. The Pantanal is a good spot.

Birdwatching ticklist14. African fish eagle

Distinctive characteristics: Striking bird of prey – white head, chestnut body, black wings. Hunts by swiftly swooping down on a body of water from a high branch. Distinctive call, which carries for miles – dubbed ‘the voice of Africa’.

Where to find it: Sub-Saharan Africa, typically near rivers and lakes.

Difficulty of spotting: Easy. Look for them perched on dead trees next to lakes.

15. Wilson’s bird-of-paradise

Distinctive characteristics: Spiralling tail feathers and a riotous plumage (yellow cape, red back, turquoise crown, green breast) – one of the planet’s most colourful species. Bizarre display ritual.

Where to find it: Hill forests of the West Papuan islands of Waigeo and Batanta, Indonesia.

Difficulty of spotting: Moderate. Most easily seen in the dry season (May-Oct).

Birdwatching ticklist16. Lesser flamingo

Distinctive characteristics: The smallest species of flamingo (around 90cm) but also the most numerous. Pale pink-and-white plumage; deep-red bill. Gathers in vast flocks of up to tens of thousands.

Where to find it: Eastern, central and southern Africa, particularly Kenya. Also parts of Spain, Asia and Middle East.

Difficulty of spotting: Easy. Found in great numbers on Rift Valley lakes.

Birdwatching ticklist17. Atlantic puffin

Distinctive characteristics: Almost penguin-like. Bright orange feet; white cheeks and chest; colourful bill (which dulls in winter). Return from sea to breed in cliff-side burrows (usually Feb-Aug). Gather in large colonies.

Where to find it: North Atlantic seacoasts and islands, often on rocky cliff tops.

Difficulty of spotting: Easy, in the spring breeding season. During autumn and winter they are at sea.

Birdwatching ticklist18. Hummingbird

Distinctive characteristics: Tiny family of birds. Earns its name from the sound it makes while hovering mid-air – can flap its wings up to 80 times a second. Can also fly right, left, up, down, backwards and even upside down.

Where to find it: Americas. Your best bet is sitting outside a café/lodge that has hung up sugar-water feeders.

Difficulty of spotting: Easy. Hummingbirds appear across a range of habitats.

Birdwatching ticklist19. Resplendent quetzal

Distinctive characteristics: It’s aptly named. Males have elongated, emerald-green tail feathers that are longer than its body; females are less colourful with shorter feathers.

Where to find it: Cloud-forests of Central America, from southern Mexico to western Panama.

Difficulty of spotting: Moderate. The easiest place to find them is probably Costa Rica, especially on fruiting wild avocado trees.

Birdwatching ticklist20. Malachite kingfisher

Distinctive characteristics: Awash with colour – ruby-red beak; metallic-blue upper; violet-hued tail feather. Perches close to water.

Where to find it: In the reeds near the water – where they perch while waiting for a good fishing opportunity – is a reliable spotting point, sub-Saharan Africa.

Difficulty of spotting: Easy. Widespread, though Uganda is particularly good. 

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