Our Perfect Birding Year by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller


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 the series Wish List: A Year of Birding Travel. Today’s entry is by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller:

Hawk Owl Estonia

This Hawk Owl was photographed in Estonia, one of Alan and Ruth’s favorite European destinations

Well, some would say we’ve been lucky enough to have had that already. In 2008 we spent a whole year birding around the globe to set a new world-record for the highest number of bird species recorded in a single year. A truly wonderful, life-changing experience which left us with a total of 4,341 bird species, and no money in the bank, but that’s another story. Though do feel free to check out www.thebiggesttwitch.com to find out more – or better still, buy the book to read all about it!

But that was a very specific year with a very specific purpose, and above all it was very fast-paced to pack in as many birds as possible. If we had a year to spend enjoying the most exciting bird and wildlife experiences in our opinion, it might look quite different, and it would certainly be spent at a much more relaxing pace to make sure we packed in as much enjoyment as possible.

We’ll start with a couple of assumptions. Firstly, we have an unlimited budget. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to go wild by only traveling first class and always staying in the most luxurious accommodation, but it does mean that our choices are based purely on the possible birds and wildlife, not based on financial considerations.

Secondly, we can travel however we want to. Again, that doesn’t mean that we’ll have a private helicopter at our disposal – though that would be nice! – but we’ll assume that we can get wherever we need to go.

So now we’ve got the ground rules out of the way, let’s get traveling! We’ve chosen our destinations on the basis of where we think is the best place to be each month, based on our own personal experience over the years of enjoying birds and wildlife around the world.

January: Arizona or Japan

Not being based in the States, Arizona would be a fantastic place for us to start our perfect year: cool nights, hot days, fantastic landscapes and great birds. What more could we ask for? Sandhill Crane, Anna’s, Costa’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Gambel’s Quail, Lewis’ and Gila Woodpeckers, Curve-billed Thrasher, Cactus Wren, Crested Caracara, Vermilion Flycatcher and Upland Plover are just a few of the mouth-watering candidates for your bird list. And you’re birding against a backdrop of dramatic dry canyons or vast cactus-covered desert with a clear azure-blue sky overhead, and always the chance of an encounter with a mountain lion. Heaven!

Or for something completely different, perhaps we would head to Japan to enjoy the unforgettable spectacle of magnificent Steller’s Sea-Eagles gathering on the ice flows and squabbling over scraps of fish, their huge hooked bills glowing like orange beacons against the ice.

February: Sri Lanka

Blue Magpie in palm

Blue Magpie

We describe Sri Lanka as a bit like India with the volume turned down; the landscapes are dramatic, the birds and other wildlife exciting, the people are friendly and engaging, but it is less of a full assault on all your senses – the perfect introduction to birding in this area of the globe.

The teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean hosts an exciting range of endemic species, and February is the perfect time to visit. In 10 days spent exploring mostly the south, we saw a total of 247 species including all the endemics such as Blue Magpie, Ceylon Junglefowl, Redfaced Malkoha, Serendibs Scops-Owl and Chestnut-backed Owlet. If mammals are more your thing, this is the perfect destination to enjoy a close encounter with Sri Lankan elephant or perhaps a leopard, or catch up with reptiles such as monitor lizard or star tortoise. Sri Lanka has also become well-known in recent years as a destination to encounter the mighty blue whale offshore. Birdlist for our trip Feb 2011.

March: Spain

Male Great Bustard displaying

Great Bustard displaying

Mid to late March is the perfect time to visit Spain, a European destination offering an exciting range of locations. Whether you head south to the Coto Doñana or stay further north in the relatively unexplored area of Extremadura, you’ll enjoy fantastic birds. Nothing can quite prepare you for the spectacle of a male Great Bustard in full display as a brown turkey-like bird turns into a complete foam bath in order to impress the ladies! It’s a paradise for raptor-enthusiasts, with endemic Spanish Imperial Eagles alongside a host of vultures, eagles and falcons. Here’s a link to our latest trip and our photo blog from this tour. But don’t take just our word for it, here’s a link to Laura’s piece on Extremadura.

April: Texas coast

If it’s April, it’s gotta be Texas! There’s nowhere quite like High Island in Texas for enjoying new world warbler migration. For us, the chance to get up close and personal with a mouth-watering array of jewels such as Prothonotary Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler is unmissable and the additional colour from Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Roseate Spoonbill really has us in the pink!

May: North Wales or Norfolk

Black Grouse © The Biggest Twitch

Black Grouse

Sometimes there’s just no place like home, and we believe that the North Wales coast at this time of peak spring migration takes a lot of beating. With our resident birds as well as migrating species on passage, exploring our wonderful mountains, forests, rivers and coastline will give you a myriad of exciting birds in beautiful countryside. And, contrary to popular belief, it even stops raining in Wales at this time of year too! From lekking Black Grouse on the moors to Pied Flycatchers in the woodlands and Atlantic Puffins on the coast, North Wales really has it all at this time of year. Check out our guided trips!

Or if you can’t make North Wales, then the north Norfolk coast on the eastern seaboard of the United Kingdom is another fantastic place to visit now, with its wild coastal marshes and network of nature reserves just heaving with birds such as Pied Avocet, Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Bearded Reedling and an array of scarce migrants. Quaint little villages of homely stone cottages and cosy historic inns, picturesque harbours and creeks bristling with small sailing boats and huge open skies complete the picture. We offer guided tours here as well.

June: Varanger Fjord, Norway

Atlantic Puffin on hillside

Atlantic Puffin

Early June is the prime time to visit Varanger Fjord in northern Norway. High up above the Arctic Circle, a visit to this dramatic tundra coastline will allow you to enjoy the best of the spring arrivals before the last of the wintering species have headed north into the high Arctic. Breeding Long-tailed and Arctic Skuas (Jaegers), seabirds such as Common and Brunnich’s Guillemots (Murres), Razorbills, Puffins, Bluethroats, Lapland Buntings (Longspurs) as well as Steller’s Eider and King Eider are all possible here at this time of year, and it’s a good place for spotting cetaceans too, such as Orcas and White-sided Atlantic Dolphins, while all around wild flowers are spreading a colourful blanket across the meadows. Don’t leave it later into the summer to visit though, unless you particularly like being bitten by midges! Here’s a link to our blog about this region.

July: The Pantanal, Brazil

The Pantanal, a vast seasonal wetland, gets our unanimous Biggest Twitch vote for our favourite wildlife destination in the whole world, so that gives you an idea of just how good it is. As the floodwaters recede, the wildlife congregates around the remaining water, giving you unprecedented views of exciting birds and mammals: Hyacinth Macaw, Common Potoo, Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, Chequered Woodpecker, Nacunda Nighthawk and Plumbeous Ibis are all possibles to get a birder salivating with anticipation. The supporting cast of jaguar, ocelot, crab-eating fox, giant anteater, capybara, caiman and anaconda are surely enough to put the Pantanal at the top of every wildlife-lover’s bucket list.

August: Namibia

Coming a close second to the Pantanal, this is another of our favourite destinations. There are few countries where you can experience so much unspoiled natural landscape, and such a variety of habitat too: sand-dunes at Deadvlei and Sossusvlei, the harsh but beautiful Skeleton coast, the vast open plains of the Kalahari Desert, the bizarre boulders piled up like giant doughnuts at Spitzkoppe, the savannah grasslands of Etosha. And all this is teeming with wildlife, including Dune Lark, Whitetailed Shrike, Hartlaub’s Francolin, Ruppell’s Bustard, thousands of Greater Flamigoes, and in Etosha, close encounter with the Big Five mammals, which you can enjoy pretty much all to yourself. In fact, once you visit, you’ll never want to leave.

September: Estonia

Gray Partridge looks over its shoulder

Gray Partridge

Autumn migration is kicking in, in countries like Estonia in Eastern Europe. This is the place to come to witness migration on an incredible scale. Thousands of ducks, geese and cranes use these wetlands as their last feeding and roosting grounds before their final migration to their wintering sites, and at this time of year you can expect to see plenty of raptors, finches, thrushes and more, as well as special forest species such as woodpeckers and forest grouse. There’s also the added excitement of the possibility of an eastern rarity or two dropping in and even the chance of some charismatic mammals such as wild boar, raccoon dog, elk and bear. Check out our Estonia guided tour here.

October: Australia

Well, a year wouldn’t be complete without a trip Down Under, would it? There’s so much to see here that you could easily take the whole month and more to explore it all. Get away from it all on the west coast, Perth is said to be the remotest city in the whole world, or really escape the crowds by exploring the red heart of the Outback, though don’t expect to have the sunset at Uluru all to yourself. This must-see experience attracts plenty of visitors. The east coast offers a variety of beautiful landscapes and exciting wildlife too numerous to list, and don’t forget to take time to see Tasmania too. Even if you see nothing else, you’ll never forget your first kangaroo and koala!

November: India

This is another massive destination and different aspects of this fascinating sub-continent will appeal to different travellers. Our favourite area is the more remote north-eastern corner, where thanks to our excellent local contacts, we have been privileged to explore the little-visited Mishmi Hills and Nagaland. Within a few miles of the Chinese border, birding up in the snow-covered mountains will reward you with such gems as Blood Pheasant, Grandala, Snow Pigeon, Snow Partridge and Himalayan Monal, not to mention the relatively recently-discovered Bugun Liocichla. In fact, we’re planning a return visit in 2015 to enjoy more of these superb birds.

December: Ecuador

Located right on the equator, Ecuador is a country that can in theory be visited at any time of year. But having once experienced the Ecuadorian New Year’s celebrations, it’s something we’d recommend including in your trip if possible. But beware, once you have opened the Pandora’s box of Ecuadorian birding, you may never want to visit anywhere else. There are few countries that can offer so many stupendous, mind-blowingly wonderful birds packed into a small country with such a diverse range of landscapes encompassing the Andes mountains, Amazon rainforest, coastal
lowlands and the Galapagos islands. Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Andean Condor, Blue-footed Booby, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Choco Toucan – how do you pick just a handful of birds from the 1600 or so species in the field guide. In fact, if we had to spend the entire year in just one country, we’d probably choose Ecuador, and we still wouldn’t run out of exciting wildlife to enjoy.

So that’s our perfect year of birds and other wildlife. What would yours look like?


Check out previous Wish List posts:

A Perfect Birding Year by Chris Lotz
Wish List: A Year of Birding Travel by Keith Betton

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