Birdwatching travel guide, including top birdwatching destinations, tips for birdwatching and when to go
Birds are the ultimate travellers. And something about their power of flight and their seasonal wanderings screams freedom and stirs the nomad in us all. No wonder, then, that the RSPB reckons some three million adults go birdwatching in the UK every year.
The best thing about birds is their sheer ubiquity. You’ll find birds in every environment: griffon vultures riding updrafts in the Himalaya; dune larks foraging in the sandy emptiness of the Namib Desert; golden eagles soaring in Scottish skies. Open your back door and you’ll discover that even the average suburban garden offers an impressive spectrum of species.
Birds put on some of the world’s greatest natural spectacles. Some of the most incredible avian gatherings include the lake-loving flamingo flocks of Africa’s Rift Valley and the Bolivian Highlands, and the ‘Black Sun’ displays of roosting starlings on Denmark’s Wadden Sea or England’s Somerset Levels.
For avid enthusiasts, specialist bird-watching trips are offered all over the world, lead by experienced guides who will help you track down and identify the local avi-fauna. Many trips cater to seasoned ‘world listers’, who like to tick off species and might rack up 450 or more in a fortnight.
But birding locations don’t have to be exotic. With birds found pretty much everywhere, any car park, station platform or hotel window can produce the goods. And a spot of birdwatching can add an extra dimension to any trip.
For example, to a birder, the Algarve means azure-winged magpies; Mallorca means Balearic shearwaters. A Barcelona city break offers hoopoes while a cross-Channel ferry could produce a wandering skua. Scotland and northern England can mean anything from adorable puffins to golden eagles.
You don’t need any equipment to get started with birdwatching, although a pair of binoculars that are comfortable to hold and wear around your neck will be useful. To identify what you’ve spotted, consult an illustrated field guide or download one of the many available smartphone apps.
Birds can enliven any travel experience – whether you’re looking for them or not. And it’s surprising what else you’ll notice once you start paying them attention – simply because birdwatching requires you to stop, listen and focus on your surroundings.
Marvel at the dazzling avian abundance in the world’s largest wetland. The late dry season (Jul-Sept) draws countless water birds – ibis, egrets, jabirus, skimmers, snail kites – to the shrinking pools. Add local hummingbirds, toucans and macaws for a veritable pageant.
Seabird colonies are noisy, smelly and spectacular. And some of the best can be found on the cliffs of St Kilda and the Orkneys. Kittiwakes, guillemots and gannets cram onto narrow ledges, while puffins dodge marauding skuas. Visit April-June; cliffs are empty after July.
Flamingos flock to the soda lakes of Kenya and Tanzania (including Nakuru, Bogoria, Magadi and Natron), turning the caustic waters pink. Peak concentrations can exceed one million birds. Breeding takes place on Lake Natron October-December.
The bugling, dancing courtship displays of red-crowned cranes, performed amid the snows of Hokkaido, is one of the world’s most bewitching winter wildlife spectacles, while the island’s frozen lakes host gatherings of Steller’s sea eagles. Peak viewing is January-March.
Arrive early morning at a favourite riverbank ‘clay lick’ in the reserves of Manu or Tambopata to see hundreds of macaws – including scarlet, blue-and-yellow and red-and-green species – flock for their daily fix of mineral salts. The birds commute in waves from the forest.
Emperor penguins, the world’s largest, breed in huge colonies around the Ross Ice Shelf during the dark, hostile mid-winter; watch as they trek back to the sea (Dec-Jan). You can also see Adélies, gentoos and other penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula.
NZ may not have the world’s longest bird list but it has more than its fair share of the weird and wonderful, including flightless oddities such as kiwi, takahe and kakapo. Visit protected islands, such as Tiritiri Matangi, to see these endemics.