Few travel moments illicit such a thrill as catching sight of a rare or beautiful bird emerging from its natural habitat. Here are a few of our favourite birdwatching holidays, from pigeons in Mauritius, to birds of paradise in New Guinea.
Live among the birds of prey at Dadia, Greece
As you begin the hour-long walk from Dadia village to the bird hide, griffon vultures circle slowly overhead in the clear sky. According to the local guides accompanying you, nine in the morning is the best time to see the various birds that live around this medieval settlement, 50km from Alexandropolis in northern Greece. It’s best to leave for the hide well before eight though, since as all but two of Europe’s 38 raptor species inhabit these woodlands, you’re bound to get waylaid trying to spot some of them – such as the black vulture and the sea eagle – en route.
To make sure you get there on time you can stay at the ecotourism centre in Dadia, which has simple rooms in single-storey white stone buildings surrounded by forest. It also means that when your eyes aren’t trained on the birds, there’s plenty of time to soak up the gentle pace of life in the neighbouring villages and sample home-cooked meals made by the local women’s co-operative.
For more on ecotours and rates see www.ecoclub.com/dadia.
Enjoy birdwatching at Celestún Biosphere Reserve, Mexico
Bird Island (Isla de Pájaros) in the Yucatán’s Celestún Biosphere Reserve is the venue for one of Mexico’s best-attended bird parties. It rocks the most in winter, when flocks of the main host – the impressive pink American flamingo – come in their droves to this protected wetland. They are joined by numerous other guests – warblers and sandpipers, along with herons, cormorants, great egrets and pelicans.
You’re very welcome to join in the party, though only from a distance. Local boatmen (lancheros) run boat tours from the dock at Celestún through the mangroves to the island. There can be as many as eighteen thousand flamingos congregating at once, but if they’re disturbed then there’s a risk that they will leave this area in search of quieter places.
Just 10km north of Celestún, on the coastal road towards Sisal, is Eco Paraíso Xixim, a small hotel nestled among a vast plantation of coconut palms on a private reserve overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The resort is made up of fifteen spacious, thatched cabañas – for prices, reservations and directions see www.ecoparaiso.com.
Marvel at birds in Trinidad
Bananaquits and chachalacas might sound like trendy cocktails you’d order at a beach resort, but in fact they’re just two of the hundreds of exotic birds native to Trinidad, the most biodiverse of the Caribbean islands. The best place to view the birdlife is from the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a reserve dedicated to wildlife conservation perched in the heights of the spectacular Northern Range. The centre’s graceful terrace, hung with countless feeders, is a regular stop for squirrel cuckoos, toucans and parrots – and the vervain plant by reception attracts a plethora of hummingbirds. Various engaging bird trails have been cut into the surrounding dense rainforest, which you can follow accompanied by naturalist guides.
But it’s not just birders who flock to see what wildlife can be found here. As Trinidad is the southernmost of the West Indies – at its nearest point it is just 11km from Venezuela – its flora and fauna is more typical of South America than the Caribbean. Despite being just 80km long, the island is home to more than two thousand species of flowering plant and over six hundred different butterflies. To really appreciate this diversity it’s worth spending a night or two either in the main house or in one of the simple but comfortable cottages hidden away in the grounds.
For directions, opening hours, admission rates, details of accommodation and birding packages visit www.asawright.org.
See the cock-of-the-rock, Peru
Few birdwatching trips can be as easy as this. Just twenty minutes’ walk from your cabin in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, you’re treated to a daily appearance (at dawn and dusk) of Peru’s national bird – the male cock-of-the-rock – as it performs an elaborate mating dance to attract females, dipping its prominent fan-shaped crested head while extending its wings.
Such a dependable sighting is due in no small part to the conservation status of this elegant bird’s home, the Pampa Hermosa Reserve in the heart of the Peruvian cloud forest, where a ban on tree-felling has meant its numbers are flourishing. The ten cabins at the lodge are built with local materials in the traditional style of the Asháninca jungle tribe. The reserve is also home to a variety of unusual animals from armadillos to porcupines, as well as a 600-year-old cedar tree. If you like wildlife-watching made easy, come to this successful example of where conservation is breeding convenience.
The best time for viewing the cock-of-the-rock is September to November. For details of bus companies and directions by car from San Ramón, prices and reservations see www.pampahermosalodge.com.
Better birdwatching at Kingfisher Ecolodge, Laos
Situated in the fertile northern wetlands of a conservation area in Champasak Province, Kingfisher Ecolodge blends perfectly with the natural environment. Standing high on stilts, its six bungalows’ spiky wooden roofs are enveloped in lush foliage. Each is simply equipped and solar-powered, but their best feature is the enormous glass windows: peering out over the emerald expanse from your little wooden island, the sense of space and distance is almost overwhelming.
Close to the vibrant town of Pakse, the spectacular waterfalls of the Bolaven Plateau and the Khmer ruins of Wat Phou, Kingfisher is a good base for excursions. And with opportunities nearby to go mountain biking and birdwatching, there’s little time to be bored. Although it would be completely understandable if you’d rather tuck into the home-made cakes in the lodge’s restaurant, sit back and soak up the peace and quiet.
Kingfisher Ecolodge can be reached by taxi or public bus from Pakse’s southern bus station (Lak Pet station), around 60km away. For details of accommodation, activities, rates and booking see www.kingfisherecolodge.com.
Spot a giant ibis in Cambodia
With only a hundred breeding pairs left in the world, the giant ibis is a twitcher’s dream sighting. But as the population is confined largely to the wetlands of northern Cambodia, the only realistic prospect of sighting this elusive creature is on a birdwatching tour to the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. At this remote spot, the government and the Sam Veasna Centre (an ecotourism and wildlife conservation body) have established an award-winning programme that aims to link tourism, species preservation and community development harmoniously.
Four-day tours from Siam Reap to Tmatboey, a village within the wildlife sanctuary, are run exclusively through the Centre. Once in the sanctuary visitors are led by guides from the village through wetlands and deciduous forest, all the while on the lookout for the giant ibis or the white-shouldered ibis, which only nests here. A fee is paid to the village conservation fund (which goes towards schools and building fish ponds) only if you spy one of these two birds while out walking with the guides. Rather than limit the amount of funds going to conservation, this provides a clear economic incentive to the villagers – who also provide lodging and meals – to protect their prized asset.
To book a birdwatching trip offered by the Sam Veasna Centre see www.samveasna.org.
See Birds of Paradise in New Guinea
Birds of paradise are the holy grail for birdwatchers, yet most of them live in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, one of the least-explored regions on Earth. Though tourism here is still in its infancy, birdwatching tours are relatively well-established and there are plenty of operators that will take you to reliable spots to see birds of paradise.
Local expert Samuel Kepuknai leads one of the best tours (typically six days) to Kiunga, Ekame and Tabubil in the lush virgin forests of Western Province. His Kiunga nature tours begin in a region known as KM17, where you can see the Greater and Raggianna birds of paradise performing their mating rituals on the same tree. The tour then moves on to several other well-known watching spots in the jungle, such as Frame Bower Bird Hill and the Elevara River – where you take a boat trip to see a variety of other birds, such as the azure kingfisher, great-billed heron and channel-billed cuckoo.
The best time to see the birds displaying is Aug–Sept. For Kiunga Nature Tours call +675 548 1366 or email e[email protected]
Take a trip to the sewage works, Jordan
Jordan is a birder’s paradise. Bang in the middle of the migratory route of millions of birds from Europe, northwest Asia and Africa, you can tick off pages of elusive species by heading to Aqaba, and in particular, to the home of a favourite avian stopover: the Aqaba sewage works. This marshy habitat is proving to be so reliably good for birdwatching that an observatory is being established overlooking the works’ large lagoons; though by exploring on foot around the pools, bushes and trees you will also come across a huge variety of species, including common cranes pausing on migration, pipits, gulls and sedge-warblers…we could go on but you get the drift. Hold your nose and get ticking.
For details of activities and trails, directions, prices and reservations see www.naturetrek.co.uk.
Spot Kiwis at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, New Zealand
The kiwi is New Zealand’s national icon, yet there are few places in the country where you can see this elusive, flightless bird. The remote Stewart Island in the far south is one location where you have a good chance of seeing a kiwi, while Karori Wildlife Sanctuary – just minutes from downtown Wellington – is virtually the only place on the mainland where you’re likely to get a glimpse of one.
The sanctuary is an ambitious project to restore native bush and provide a safe haven for endangered birds. As well as restocking the area with indigenous trees, the sanctuary’s managing trust has introduced the little-spotted kiwi, brown teal, stichbird, kaka bush parrot, North Island robin and tuatara reptile, as well as New Zealand’s only native land mammal – the long-tailed bat.
During the day you can walk along 35km of paths and listen to the kind of birdsong that’s not often heard elsewhere on the mainland. But kiwi are shy, nocturnal creatures, so your best bet if you want to hear their short whistle (and maybe even see one) is to go on a guided night-boat trip, where you can also watch kaka bush parrots feeding, see banks of glow-worms and experience genuine conservation in action.
For prices and admission times see www.sanctuary.org.nz.
See the pink pigeons of Mauritius
As well as its five-star hotels and idyllic sandy beaches, Mauritius is best known for once being the home of the dodo. The extinct flightless bird has bought the island international recognition, but ironically, some of the island’s other endemic species have meanwhile been sliding towards the brink of eradication. Much of the island’s vegetation has been replaced by sugar-cane plantations and sprawling development, and what wildlife remains is under threat.
The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) has for the last twenty years championed the conservation of the island’s flora and fauna. To help raise funds for its work, it organizes guided trips to the small islet reserve of Ile aux Aigrettes, which is home to giant tortoises and the pink pigeon, one of the organization’s success stories. Numbers of this endemic bird have recovered from only ten individuals in the early 1990s to over 360 today, about 75 of which live on Ile aux Aigrettes. Visitors tour the reserve by boat and then go on a guided walk around the island to see the native wildlife, the diversity of which gives an insight into how Mauritius once was.
The two-hour tour (www.ile-aux-aigrettes.com) departs six times a day from the Old Sand Jetty at Pointe Jerome on the southeast coast. MWF also takes on conservation volunteers; see www.mauritian-wildlife.org.