Travel Hack: Make Every Trip a Birding Trip

Though all of our travels can’t be focused on birding, we can make the best of business and family trips we find ourselves on. Below, Guest Blogger Tara O’Leary offers a few travel tip…how to increase your odds of seeing more birds on any trip, even those that have nothing to do with birds.

Author Tara O'Leary found this lovely tower remnant, what she calls "Rapunzel's Tower," in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Author Tara O’Leary found this lovely tower remnant, what she calls “Rapunzel’s Tower,” in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Many years ago, before I called myself a birder, or even understood what a birder was, I worked for an airline. I had a small pair of binoculars that I took with me to look at birds I might see during my travels. They were not the best optics and the layovers were too sahort to go far afield looking for birds, so I was mostly limited to birding around airports and hotels. I didn’t realize it then, but I was trying to make my work travel into birding travel. That was a long time ago, and since those days, I have upgraded my binoculars and taken a fair number of organized birding tours. Nothing compares to going on a birding tour with a professional guide, but even without their expertise, you can still increase your odds of seeing more birds.

I still travel widely with my husband and while our primary purpose is often unrelated to birds, birds are always on my agenda, in some way. Through a willingness to ask and the generosity of others, I’ve managed to make a lot of ordinary trips into a birding trip!

So how can you work the right angles to see more birds when you travel?

Advance preparation is key.

Take binoculars, of course, and get a field guide for the area where you are going and study it well in advance. In addition, solicit the help of other birders. If someone you know has been there, ask them for help. Most birders are eager to help and share what they know. Even some professional nature guides are generous with what they know, as long as you are respectful of their time (they are even more generous when you are or plan to be a customer!).

Before I went to Morocco on a culinary tour, I contacted Adrian Binns of Wildside Nature Tours for advice because I knew he was a specialist on the birds of Morocco. He told me which field guides were best, and asked for my itinerary, so that he would know where I was going and could tell me which birds to be looking for at each location. His information proved to be more helpful than I could have imagined as the tour went from city to the mountains to the beach. I never would have known to look for a Spotless Starling while visiting Essouira without his insider information.

The Morocco Tour was with Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures, my first experience with that company. When Peggy discovered my love of birding, she made every effort to make birding opportunities available to me. At each lodge, she got me rooms that maximized the chances of seeing birds, including a room at Kasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains that I called Rapunzel’s Tower (pictured above). I could climb a ladder to the rooftop each morning and watch birds in every direction. That perch was all possible because Peggy knew I loved looking at birds and she thought it would be a marvelous place to observe them. By all means, it was!

View from Rapunzels Tower by Tara O'Leary

View from Rapunzels Tower by Tara O’Leary

Choosing to travel with Peggy was fortuitous, and because it was such a great experience, I planned another trip with her to India. Prior to departure, I contacted Keith Barnes of Tropical Birding for advice. He was very helpful, and the best piece of advice he gave me was to ask tuk tuk drivers to show me owls. He said they always know where to find owls, and I ended up seeing many as a result. And not only drivers! Once the staff at a small inn heard I liked owls, I was taken to see the same owl by several of the hotel staff. I would no sooner return to my lunch when I would be approached by yet another employee offering to show me the same poor owl! I eventually had to tell them I was most grateful, but had seen the owl already.

In India, Peggy planned a specific bird outing for me before the culinary tour started, which got my birding off to a strong start. During the culinary portion of the tour, she did all she could to help me out. Peggy introduced me to one of the lodge owners of Sharpura Bargh, because she knew he was a birder, and he was able to direct me to the locations where I was most likely to find birds on the property. He told me about a bustard that should be easy to find if I went past the marsh into the field beyond. I did go look, but I quickly discovered it was bathing time for the local villagers in the marsh, so I decided not to walk past that area to pursue the bird. An important lesson is letting some birds go. It would have been a fabulous bird to see, but rather than get frustrated, I accepted that it wouldn’t be part of my birding experience.

At a tented camp at Chhatra Sagar, Peggy arranged for the bird loving owners to take a group on a birding walk. Other tour participants had become interested in my birding activity, so it was fun to involve them. We walked with a guide and a porter that carried a spotting scope and cold water for the group. At the end of our walk, we arrived back at camp and we were met with a tray of beautiful and refreshing drinks. Birding in style! Safe to say, it wouldn’t have happened if Peggy hadn’t known it was a special interest of mine.

A family trip can challenge your personal birding mission, but with a little compromise everyone can be happy. On a trip to Hawaii with my husband, there were so many birds I hoped to see, but he’s not a birder. We had limited time so we agreed to spend one day pursuing our different interests. While he was cycling all over the island, I took my guidebook to looked for birds. While out hiking I was fortunate to run into a bird photographer who helped identify many of the unfamiliar but spectacular Hawaiian birds. At the end of the day, my husband and I were both thrilled to have spent time doing what we enjoyed, rather than dragging each other around doing something that wasn’t of interest to the other.

So to quickly recap: If your travel plans don’t involve a birding itinerary, don’t give up on the possibility of finding birds. Prepare ahead of time by studying the field guide. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people for advice and help, whether it be a professional bird guide, a tour leader, or locals. Accept that the bird list won’t be like one you get on a professionally guided bird tour. When you find you have left a lot of birds unidentified, just remember, you can always go back to that location on a birding tour.

What better excuse for more travel?