What if you were given a free holiday every month for a year! Where would you go and what would you see? Here is the second in a series of Wish List: A Year of Birding Travel. Today’s entry is by Chris Lotz:
This blog reveals how I would make my 2015 a perfect birding year if I was perfectly free to travel the world, i.e. if I did not sometimes have to do office work! Each month is peak birding season somewhere on our massive planet. What I have done here is chosen my current favorite birding destinations for each month – sometimes based more on where I have been recently (and am thus currently most excited about!) than on any objective consideration. Next year, my choice for each month might be different. But the countries mentioned here are at their peaks for birding during the months indicated, for various reasons, e.g. the season the birds are in breeding plumage or singing and displaying territorially, or simply the country’s dry season.
January: Central America – for endemics and culture:
After enjoying the family holidays, I’d head to Central America as soon as possible. Costa Rica is always a fabulous choice but why not consider the even better (but relatively “off the beaten track”) Panama? Guatemala is also a more poorly-known but brilliant choice, and is a destination where you can combine fabulous birding (including the magnificent Pink-headed Warbler, Ocellated Turkey, Horned Guan and other dazzlers) with culture (notably at Tikal).
February: Colombia, the most bird-rich nation on earth
If you don’t find yourself lingering in Central America for months (for example on the megatour run by Birding Ecotours), then it is most certainly worthwhile heading to nearby Colombia, just across the Panama Canal in South America proper. No country on earth has more bird species than Colombia, although similar-sized Peru trails only marginally behind, and Ecuador (considering its size) is actually even richer per square mile. If you don’t manage to fit in Colombia now in February, then I suggest instead doing Peru between May and August – it’s a similarly diverse country with some of the most fabulous species on the planet.
March: Cuba – for Caribbean specialties and wood-warblers
It’s time to visit the Caribbean, once again a short flight away! Cuba is my first choice because the 1950’s American cars and generally quaint atmosphere won’t last much longer, the smallest bird on the planet (Cuban Bee Hummingbird) lurks here along with a truly excellent list of other endemics, the culture and history is incredible including all the beautiful old 16th century Spanish architecture, and the snorkelling (which can be done during the heat of the day when not birding, right from the shore without taking a boat) is among the best in the world: it’s like swimming in a giant tropical fish tank. Cuba is brilliant for a large number of single-island endemics along with wider Caribbean specials. And Cuba (as well as all the other sites mentioned for January to March) is also full of overwintering North American migrant warblers: Cuba is in fact a good place to find some of the more difficult ones like Swainson’s Warbler, Cape May Warbler and a plethora of others.
Please don’t forget the other Caribbean islands – all of them have lots of endemics, so a bit of island hopping is called for – important ones for endemics are Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Saint Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago. Most of these have more of a Caribbean/Floridian feel, but Trinidad & Tobago are so close to Venezuela that this two-island nation also has its fair share of South American species such as typically continental genera of hummingbirds and manikins.
April: Texas or Tennessee – for wood-warbler migration
While you’re still close to the States, this is a perfect time to head up to Texas to see the wood-warblers arriving home on American soil. Wood-warblers should not be taken for granted. This incredible family is the main reason I usually visit North America, since nowhere else besides the States can you see so many species of this dazzlingly-colored family of birds – no continent besides North America has more of them and they truly do come in all shades of blue, orange, red, yellow, white, green, chestnut and more. South Texas is one of the best places to see them in April, especially if you manage to locate a migrant “fallout”. Otherwise, the Appalachians (for example, Tennessee), being brilliant and perhaps underrated (see ) and of course the Black Swamp of Ohio – and Point Pelee across the border in Canada, are better in late April through May as the birds get closer to their breeding grounds of the temperate north.
May: Northern Europe and Taiwan for Formosa endemics
This is a tough month because many American birders choose to stay home throughout May to enjoy the best birding extravaganza on their own continent, while enjoying beautiful spring weather. But, it’s also the best time to be in so many parts of the vast Northern Hemisphere land masses; May would indeed be a good month to have a clone so you can be in more than one place at the same time! How about Finland, perhaps followed by a flight to mainland China? Or, time permitting, I suggest flying from Europe to Taiwan in late May, where you might catch Fairy Pitta, Black-faced Spoonbill (not the best time of the year for this particular bird, but I did see a single one on my May 2013 tour there) and all the wonderful Formosan island endemics.
June:Mainland China for pheasants, ground-tits, and more
Mainland China or Mongolia are both good choices (although of course Alaska and many other places would also work!). I’m often biased towards countries I’ve been to recently, hence mentioning China first. Anyway, June is an idyllic time to be high up on the northern (inland) side of the mighty Himalayas in Sichuan and up into the Tibetan Plateau, where Black-necked Cranes and Ground-tits lurk. Here, you can also find the world’s most spectacular pheasants, such as Golden Pheasant, Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, various spectacular “eared” pheasants, plus a host of other incredible Oriental families such as Yuhinas, Parrotbills, Scimitar-babblers, Wren-babblers and more. Sichuan has the best food, even better than Indian food (OK, well, if you like spicy meals!), and is wonderfully empty (from humans, not from beautiful trees and open spaces) and remote compared to other parts of China. China is even bigger than the States though, so even spending 6 weeks there and doing all three Chinese tours offered by Birding Ecotours leaves big parts of the country unexplored.
July: Uganda – for primates and turacos
This month, I strongly recommend that you get to Uganda. This is the vast African continent’s richest birding country, with over 1000 species in a really compact area. Semliki Impenetrable National Park is often regarded as the very best birding forest in Africa! This site boasts over 20 bird species endemic to the Albertine Rift (the western branch of the more famous Great Rift Valley), the most desirable being the rare and genetically unique African Green Broadbill. Mountain Gorillas also lurk here, and in fact even on just a 12-day Uganda tour we frequently see 13 other primate species as well. We find Chimpanzees at Kibale Forest, which is also probably the world’s most reliable site for the beautiful Green-breasted Pitta. Ruwenzori Turaco and a host of other turacos including the monstrous Great Blue Turaco, Shoebill, Red-faced Barbet, and hundreds of other birds await you in Uganda, the beautiful “Pearl of Africa”. If you have 18 instead of 12 days, you’ll have time to look for all the arid area birds as well, in addition to Africa’s big mammals such as Lion, Leopard and Elephant.
August: Pacific Islands – for pittas and birds of paradise
It’s time to visit the large, endemic-rich islands between mainland Asia and Australia – exciting! Starting in Malaysia, Borneo is one of the must-see islands of our wonderful planet, and is a great place for seeing tropical south-east Asian birds as well as a suite of endemics, and of course Orang-utan. Moving to Indonesia, two essential islands on any birder’s radar are Sulawesi and Halmahera for some of Asia’s most spectacular birds – such as Ivory-breasted Pitta and Wallace’s Standardwing. Closer to Australia but also within Indonesia, I then suggest going to West Papua which is regarded as safer than the more often-visited Papua New Guinea (PNG). And West Papua has even more of the spectacular endemics such as Jewel-babblers, Birds of Paradise and Paradise Kingfishers than the eastern side of the island.
September: Australia – for reasons that go without saying
The southern spring from September through November is a great time to bird Australia. Be warned, of course, that this is a giant country, but we do a manageable-length tour focusing on Eastern Australia, with extensions to the spectacular Uluru which of course gives access to desert birds, and to the other-worldly Tasmania. I don’t think anyone needs much convincing that Australia as a whole is a critical part of any serious birder’s career….
October: Madagascar – for an entirely unique set of ecosystems
Bizarrely, Madagascar has far fewer bird species than any other large tropical landmass. The entire island has less than 300 bird species, which is remarkably low. This is likely explained by the fact that it has been isolated for so many aeons, and only more recently now eventually finds itself close to the African mainland – as it has been drifting gradually towards Africa. Is it really worth birding here, then, with so few birds?! Most definitely! With over 100 Malagasy endemics, any birder who has not yet visited Madagascar will be guaranteed of finding a long list of life-birds. And these include some of the world’s most dazzling birds, including 5 Ground-rollers, 15 Vangas, 3 Mesites and many other groups that have no relatives outside of Madagascar! With five entire families that are endemic, it’s a not-to-be-missed birding country. The endemic mammal and plant families and weird and wonderful “creepy-crawlies” are also a big draw – lemurs, tenrecs, Didiera, Giraffe-necked Weevil, Tomato Frog and over half the world’s chameleons including the biggest and smallest ones – need I say more?
November: Namibia for great wildlife photography
Namibia is a great choice. It’s one of Africa’s best countries for wildlife photography, and its open area birds are generally easy to find. And Namibia has a lot of range-restricted bird species shared only with southern Angola. Etosha National Park is one of Africa’s greatest game parks. Stunningly scenic desert mountains of the impressive Namib Escarpment are a great place for finding localized birds. All in all, Namibia is an incredibly beautiful and safe country in which to see and photograph Africa’s big mammals and stacks of birds. On our trips, we also pop into neighbouring Botswana to see the Okavango bird specials, plus we also visit the nearby Victoria Falls, one of the planet’s most spectacular waterfalls.
December: Antarctica for penguins and albatrosses
Antarctica, the last continent of the year! I suggest joining a trip in which Emperor Penguins are looked for – many tours don’t even try for the world’s largest penguin. Like Australia, it’s not really worth trying to persuade you that Antarctica is amazing – so many people also see an Antarctic cruise as “the wildlife trip of a life-time”.