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?

4 mins

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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