Birding Hotspots of a Lifetime
Planning a birding trip? See our recommendations for six birding hotspots around the world that everyone should see.
I need to start with a disclaimer. It’s nearly impossible to pick only six places in the whole world to go birding. And it might be even harder to recommend just one tour company for each place. Birding tourism is really booming. Dozens of companies seem to be popping up, promising you the best vacation of your life, full of jaw-dropping birds.
While I’ve been to only one of these birding hotspots myself (I adore Alaska), I really pulled out all the stops for this story, talking to bird experts and friends from around the country. After much research, I present you with these six great places to go, along with six great companies that can get you there.
If you’re planning a birding adventure, I strongly encourage you to contact some of these companies and see how they might be able to help. Selecting a company to go birding with is much like picking out a new pair of shoes. You can’t go by looks alone; you really have to try them on. I mean, you’re probably looking at spending thousands of dollars for one of these trips. So contact these companies and try them on for size—ask them questions, get their advice, talk to them about what areas you want to visit. Chances are, you’ll figure out the right fit and will soon be on your way to the trip of a lifetime.
It’s easy to see why people call Alaska the last frontier. It truly is a majestic piece of wilderness that has remained largely untouched. Anyone who has been there knows how special it is—and it’s a pretty special place for birds as well.
Many birding trips to Alaska go to Gambell, on the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. (Once you’re this far west, you can actually see Russia if you have clear weather.) You’ll see a wide range of seabirds here like the tufted puffin (top right), as well as many other species, like the spectacled eider, white wagtail, red-necked stint, dusky warbler and hoary redpoll. Beyond Gambell, you’ll find a whole slew of other arctic birds waiting for you.
Yes, Alaska is big (roughly 20 percent the size of the Lower 48), but try to soak up as much as you can while you’re there. From the birds to the other wildlife to the astounding scenery, it will be one of your best trips ever.
CHECK OUT: A company called WINGS pioneered bird travel to Alaska, and many others have followed in its footsteps. WINGS has been around since the 1970s and has a wide range of tours all over the world, including several options with its sister company in the United Kingdom, Sunbird Tours. Its groups are small and the guides are some of the best in the business. Learn more at Wings Birding Tours Worldwide.
There’s some superb birding just over the border. Like Alaska, Canada is rich in untouched wilderness areas, each with its own wildlife. Love owls? You can find a tour devoted just to these special birds. How about a trip specializing in whales and birds, or polar bears and birds? Yep, you can find those, too.
One of the highlights is the Canadian tundra above the Arctic Circle, where you’ll find far northern birds like the yellow-billed loon, the king eider (above) and a wide range of northern owls.
CHECK OUT: Eagle-Eye Tours is a bit smaller than other companies but has exceptional offerings and leaders. Based in Canada, it offers trips all across the country, as well as to Greenland, New Zealand and more. Take a look at the Eagle-Eye Tours website to get a feel for the company and its personalized approach to bird travel.
Tourism in Belize is at an all-time high, and the locals are welcoming birders with open arms. This tiny country (it’s only 170 miles long) has fewer than 300,000 people, and it has managed to preserve enormous sections of habitat for all kinds of wildlife. With nearly 600 species of birds alone, you’ll discover loads you’ve never heard of.
The Belize Audubon Society is the place to start if you want to learn about the country and the birds you’ll find there. It’ll point you toward wildlife sanctuaries that are home to species like the ornate hawk-eagle, the boat-billed heron and the American pygmy kingfisher. And don’t forget to look for tropical birds like the scarlet macaw and the keel-billed toucan, which is the national bird of Belize.
CHECK OUT: Belize is a hot spot, so you’ll find lots of tour companies. Our favorite is Wildside Nature Tours. Owner Kevin Loughlin started Wildside after a trip to Belize more than 20 years ago. The country changed his life, and now he wants to share that passion with others.
Panama Panama is a big tourist destination and, increasingly, a retirement choice for American baby boomers. Still, it values its biodiversity so highly that it has set aside more than a quarter of its land for national parks and refuges.
That and the tropical climate mean that an amazing 900 species of birds spend all or part of the year here. You’ll see all kinds of toucans, puffbirds, hummingbirds, jacamars, woodcreepers, antbirds and more. In fact, it’s easy to spot more than 100 bird species in a single day.
CHECK OUT: Pretty much all bird tour companies go to Panama, but we like the small mom-and-pop operation Cheepers! Birding on a Budget. Owners Cindy and Jim Beckman do all the planning and paperwork and they go on the tours, too. If you check out their website and email an inquiry, you’ll hear back directly from one of them.
South Africa is simply one of the best places in the world to watch wildlife. It’s also known for its wonderful diversity of wildflowers, good food, fine wines and friendly people. You won’t want to miss the “big five” of the savannas—lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo and elephant—but be sure to leave enough time for the country’s 800-plus birds, both coastal and inland.
On a three-week trip, you could easily see 400 to 500 species. Among the many notable ones: rockjumpers, sugarbirds, African penguins, bald ibis, black harriers and orange-breasted sunbirds.
CHECK OUT: If you’re thinking about South Africa, consider the bird tour company based there – Rockjumper Birding Tours. The staff knows the country inside and out, and quite a few other areas as well. Rockjumper does tours all over the world but loves showing people its own backyard.
If you love the water, perhaps a bird cruise is more your style. The Galapagos, formed from volcanic ash and made famous by the explorations of Charles Darwin, are on the bucket list of even some nonbirders. With only about 25,000 people living here, you’ll feel as if you have a little piece of heaven all to yourself.
The diversity of landscape is mind-boggling. Because of the way the islands have developed, there’s land just barely at sea level and then mountains more than 5,000 feet tall. Isabela Island is the largest in the collection at around 62 miles long.
Some of the birds you’re sure to see are penguins, cormorants and the outrageously photogenic blue‑footed booby. Chances are you’ll fly to Ecuador before your trip to the Galapagos. The country boasts some of the best birding in South America, giving you the perfect excuse to add some more species to your life list before or after you tour the Galapagos.
CHECK OUT: Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) is one of the largest and best-known international bird tour companies. Victor Emanuel started the company more than 30 years ago and has earned the respect and admiration of some of the best birders in the world. The company offers so many kinds of tours that you can easily spend hours on its website planning your next adventure.