Every time you learn something, you learn there are more things to learn. That’s the thing about discovery—it makes the world bigger, not smaller. With birding, my world has never been bigger. –Karl Mechem, The Inept Birder.
I love this quote from The Inept Birder, a freelance writer from Columbus, Ohio. First, I love what he says about learning and discovery making the world bigger. Secondly, his words help me feel less shy about “birding”. Birdwatching, or birding, is a form of wildlife observation in which the observation of birds is a recreational activity or citizen science. Okay, this sounds noble but birding does get a bad rap. To the uninformed, birding looks boring and eccentric. Furthermore, how does birding relate to travel?
Let’s go learn things about birding and travel……
To my dismay, one of my sons claims total ignorance of the name Audubon. He recently confessed that he thought I was saying Autobahn (a German high speed highway)!! So I will take a minute to introduce John James Audubon (1785-1851), the United States pre-eminent wildlife artist. He is known for his Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints.
National Audubon Society
For the ultimate answers on birding, the National Audubon Society has been the singular authority for over a century. While the name of this iconic group commemorates John James Audubon, he was never involved in the formation of the organization. It was founded in the late 19th century after his death. Today the National Audubon Society functions as a system of grassroots Chapters.
Chapters enable Audubon members and others to meet and share an appreciation of their common interests. They create a culture of conservation in local communities through education and advocacy, focusing on the conservation of birds, other wildlife and conservation of important habitats.–National Audubon Society
So let’s go learn things from Audubon… Their glossy and beautiful website has something for everyone. Birders, environmentalists, travelers, writers, photographers, children, teachers, parents and grandparents can all while away hours in this amazing site. A couple of series’ of articles that captured my attention were:
- Why I’m a Birder with thoughts from a number of unique individuals
- 48 Hours of Birding a series by Karl Mechem who highlights a collection of unusual destinations for birding. His articles meet me at the intersection of birding and travel.
- The Birdest’s Rule of Birding by Nicholas Lund, who blogs at The Birdist
Travel like a Birder, birds are everywhere so always be ready.–Nicholas Lund, The Birdist
Finally, let’s talk about birding travel. The truth is birds are everywhere; cities, highways, forests, beaches, deserts and mountains. Once you start tuning in you will notice birds everywhere. Birdwatching is a form of collecting. New collectors start with the common, “low hanging fruit” of their interest. So for birders that is usually backyard feeders. Gradually they branch out to the more obscure and exoctic.
Travel to your Backyard
Wisconsin, my backyard, is the perfect setting to become a birdwatcher. I live in the most populated region of the state and still host a crowd of birds at my feeders. I am lucky to have a Wild Birds Unlimited close to my home. The staff are informative, friendly and passionate about birds. Even if you never travel any further than your backyard, birding is fascinating. None of these birds are especially rare in Southeastern Wisconsin, and yet every person that sits in my family room is mesmerized by the parade. Filling the feeders and watching for the birds are my grandson’s favorite activity.
Across the state we have wetlands, prairies, deep forests, and thousands of lakes and rivers. All Wisconsinites learn to scan the skies for bald eagles and strain to hear loons across the water. We eagerly await the noisy return of Sandhill cranes every spring. For so many reasons a trip to Wisconsin is a great idea, but birding is really special here. Some of my favorite birding spots are Lapham Peak in Delafield, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside, Horicon Marsh in Horicon, Prairie du Sac on the Wisconsin River.
Travel to your next door State
In my case, next door is Iowa. Birding is tougher in the winter, I am not going to lie. However, there are some winter conditions that create special birding opportunities. Our bald eagles live and breed on the numerous lakes and rivers around Wisconsin. Those waterways freeze over in the winter and eagles travel to the nearest open water. Typically a small area around locks/dams and power plants on the bigger rivers will not completely freeze. The open water is where large groups of eagles will congregate. This year I watched for a slight break in the sub-zero temps and we scooted out to Dubuque, IA for a weekend of eagle watching. Dubuque lent itself well to hot coffee and eagle watching in the morning, interesting street art display for the afternoons and fun craft beer drinking in the evenings.
Travel across the country
To set the story straight, none of these trips below were designed as strictly “birding” trips. Certainly such trips and tours exist and I will take one some day. But for this article I want to show the point that you can add casual birding to any trip or adventure.
Remember….birds are everywhere
Last winter my husband was on a shark diving kick. While I love diving, sharks are not my thing. They are big and grey, so what. To see them you usually end up just sitting on the ocean floor. So while he went diving each morning I headed out to work on my photography. Florida has very different birds from my Wisconsin and even their common species are new to me.
I find everything in California unusual and unique, from the people to the birds. On a trip to Morro Bay we enjoyed sightings of a golden eagle high on the thermals and a parade of pelicans. Directly next to our hotel on the Bay was a heron and cormorant rookery. The very name “rookery” sounds interesting. Dead tree limbs were stacked with noisy and busy birds. I admit this was a little cool and a little creepy all at the same time.
Arizona’s landscape is vast and diverse. A range of elevations creates many unique local climatic conditions. Each of these climate zones is thriving with fascinating birds. Southeastern Arizona specifically tops most birding hotspot lists. Birders travel to this area for the extended warm weather and the promise of elusive bird species. With over a dozen species of hummingbirds, the adorable Gambel’s quail, and the birding holy grail, the Elegant Trogon, Southeastern Arizona is a birding paradise.
The Tucson Audubon Society is an extremely active chapter with field trips, education and conservation activities. They host the hugely popular Southeast Arizona Birding Festival in August draws birders from around the world.
On our last trip to Tucson we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This is a very informative desert zoo with a small aviary. An aviary is not quite like seeing birds in their natural wild habitat, but it is a good place to start learning to recognize the local birds.
Travel across the world
It doesn’t take long before you are dreaming of exotic, far-flung destinations to feed your birding obsession. A simple Google search produces a plethora of tour groups geared to birding. The list ranges from the big players like National Geographic to the small local guides of any given region. I found this article that highlights what it calls the Top 10 of Birding Tour Companies. Destinations include regions such as Central and South America that are teeming with bird varieties to Antarctica with a vast population of a specific unique bird (penguins).
As I stated before, I like to add birding to a more diverse itinerary. My traveling companions don’t usually share my bird addiction. This spring we took a trip to Costa Rica and I treated myself to a day of birding with a local guide.
Costa Rica has become a leading destination for ecotourism and wildlife exploration. The relatively compact country boasts over 11 distinct climate zones, ranging from tropical beaches to cloud forests. After several days on the Pacific coast spotting sloths, monkeys and crocs we headed up into the central mountains. Most visitors visit the “cloud forest” in the Monteverde region. We were much further south, a short day drive out of Playa Dominical took us into the Cordillera de Talamanca mountain range. We definitely found cloud forest and birds.
Savegre Hotel and Natural Reserve
Back at the coast the temps were 90’s with sticky humidity. As we climbed this roller coaster highway the temps steadily dropped and the rain clouds rolled in. My husband, the sun-worshipper, was not so thrilled with this transition but I was enthralled. After our 2 hour white-knuckled drive we pulled into paradise. The Savegre Hotel Natural Reserve and Spa is the Chacon family business. Efrain Chacon discovered the Savegre River Valley in 1954. The family continues to preserve and share their ancestral mountain oasis. The resort is surrounded by virgin rainforest. Almost 20 miles of hiking trails zigzag up through the mountain and along the Rio Savegre. Bird feeders are clustered all over the property.
Our second day at Savegre was my birthday and I indulged myself with a day of guided birding. We started in the misty pre-dawn searching for the quetzales. Savegre is just 5 miles from the Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. This is a bird unique to the tropical climates of Central and South America. They are found in the humid highlands such as this cloud forest in Costa Rica. Thanks to our guide and the preening quetzales we enjoyed quite a show.
Birding with Marino Chacon at Batsu Birding Garden
After the quetzales we headed to the guide’s secret garden. As it turns out my guide was Marino Chacon, one of the family members that runs the resort. He is the resident bird and wildlife expert. He maintains the lovely Batsu Birding and Photography Garden with a magnificent vista over the valley, remote hiking trails and a garden created to attract the birds. This was truly heaven.
In this idyllic spot the hummingbirds whirred around our heads like helicopters. It wasn’t just hummingbirds either. I could sit quietly on the little viewing platform and birds of every species, color and size stopped for a visit. When I booked this little jaunt into the Costa Rica mountains I had no idea how amazing it would be.
I absolutely loved this birding experience and would recommend a trip to visit the beautiful Savegre Hotel and Natural Reserve. Marino gave me a copy his Field Checklist and marked all the birds we had spotted. Now, several months later ,my ability to match species to pictures is compromised. With that in mind let’s look briefly at birding photography
Learning to spot and identify birds is a handful. Equally challenging is learning to handle your DSLR camera. Put the two together and you really elongate the learning curve. Birding as a hobby can really stand alone without the photography. Many birders find checking off an entry in their lifetime bird list satisfying enough. As a matter of fact, I am a non-photographing underwater diver. I am perfectly content with the diving experience without the stress of photography equipment.
However, there is a sense of proof in photographs. The adage of “show don’t tell” entices us into attempting the photography. Bird photography is really tricky. The subject is typically moving, far away and often small. As you can tell by the photos I have shared in this post (all of them my own), I still have a lot to learn.
So go, make your world bigger by learning about birding. At the risk of redundancy, birds are everywhere. Who among us isn’t amazed by the size of a magnificent bald eagle or a tiny hummingbird. Look and listen in your day to day and add a little birding to your next travel itinerary.
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