Marvel at Japanese Snow Monkeys and Red-crowned Cranes on this Japan Birding and Nature Tour
Cranes have long been considered a symbol of good fortune in Japan, and not just the famous dancing Red-crowned Cranes that, along with this island nation’s charismatic hot-spring-loving Snow Monkeys, helped to inspire our Winter 2023 Japan Birding and Nature Tour Jan. 9 – 22.
As every Japanese school child knows, the meticulous labor of folding 1000 origami paper cranes is said to grant the folder one heartfelt wish. So how did cranes become a symbol for good luck and so deeply ingrained in the Japanese imagination?
It all starts with the Japanese climate, which is in a word, wet, with average annual precipitation nearly double the world average. Monsoons, typhoons and heavy winter snowfalls contribute moisture to marshy alluvial plains, ecologically rich wetlands reinforced by the widespread planting of rice fields. All combined, it is tremendously beneficial habitat for cranes and other waterfowl.
We expect to see many species of crane on this tour, including the Siberian population of Sandhill Crane, a species well-loved by US birdwatchers. We will see many White-naped and Hooded Cranes, which make up the majority of the 15,000 cranes that overwinter in Japan.
But the show-stoppers and the trip-inspirers are without question the Red-crowned Cranes, which we travel to see in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago. Once endangered but now common, we promise great looks at these impressive and dramatic birds.
Red-Crowned Cranes may stand more than 5 feet tall, with 8-plus feet wide wingspans, which helps explain why they loom so large in the cultural imagination, a dominant recurring symbol in Japanese, Chinese and Korean painting, sculpture and ceramics. In addition to good luck, Red-crowned Cranes symbolize longevity and fidelity. It is said that they live 1,000 years and mate for life, though only half of this conventional wisdom is verifiable.
By visiting in the winter rather than the nesting season, we get the best of both worlds. They would be territorial and thus spread out during breeding, but congregate more gregariously during the time of our visit. Fortunately for us, the Red-crowned Crane’s ostentatious dance display is not confined to the breeding season and happens year-round to reinforce pair bonding. So, we may have the opportunity to witness Red-crowned Cranes’ mirrored dancing, which is normally preceded by a series of mutual calls, heads tipped back with bills towards the sky.
There are other treasures to be had in Hokkaido; other species who brave the wintry cold, including the largest species of owl, Blakiston’s Fish Owl, with larger females topping out at around 10 pounds! If we are very fortunate indeed, we may see Blakiston’s feeding in a neighboring pond or river as we enjoy a nighttime outdoor soak in the thermal waters at our onsen, a traditional hot springs resort.
Moving from the marshy lowlands to the Japanese Alps, we find the other centerpiece of this Japanese Birding and Nature tour: Japanese Snow Monkeys, the northernmost non-human primate population in the world.
If you are asking yourself ‘What are monkeys doing living in the snow?’ sometimes it seems this troupe of macaques are asking themselves the same thing as they huddle together for warmth in snowy treetops, and park themselves over naturally occurring thermal vents on the forest floor. Their third method of staying warm has led to the most iconic photos of the Snow Monkey troupe: soaking in the hot springs that villagers of Jigokudani constructed especially for them.
On our one-mile hike to take in the Japanese Snow Monkey’s antics, we may see Coal, Varied, Willow, and Japanese Tits, Goldcrest, and Eurasian Siskin. We also take in Zenkoji Temple, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Japan, on this leg of the tour. Japanese architecture and cuisine are delightful sidelights to the productive birding and nature we will find in Japan, with the Red-crowned Crane and Japanese Snow Monkey viewing taking center stage.
Your guide for this tour is Bryan Shirley, who lived for three years in Japan in his early 20s and fell in love with its nature and culture. He has been returning to bird and to guide ever since. To learn more about this 15-day, 14-night Japan Birding and Nature tour Jan. 9 – 22, 2023, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at 866-900-1146.
World Migratory Bird Day is a global campaign dedicated to introducing the public to migratory birds and ways to conserve them. This year’s goal is to reduce the impact of light pollution on migratory birds. To commemorate this day, here is a list of 5 Naturalist Journeys guided nature tours where you’ll surely find migrating birds.
Maine’s Monhegan Island
September 9 – 16, 2022 & September 17 – 24, 2022
Experience the joy of fall migration from Maine’s beloved Monhegan Island, a natural migration hotspot! Migrating birds flying south can get off track and find themselves at dawn out at sea. Once they correct, the almost two-mile-long island is a magnet, a patch of green where they can land for food and shelter.
This privately-owned island welcomes birders to enjoy its 350 acres of trails protected by a local conservation organization.
Notable Species: American Redstart, Northern Parula, Swainson’s Thrush, and over 25 species of warbler!
South Texas: Fall Migration!
October 9 – 16, 2022
As one of the greatest birding destinations in the United States, South Texas boasts over two dozen tropical bird species that spill across the border. During our October tour, we arrive at the height of the fall migration of raptors and other neotropical species.
Fall migration in Portugal runs from August into early November and our timing on this birding tour is perfect for arriving waders, waterbirds, and raptors. Enjoy refreshing temperatures, stunning cultural sites, delicious meals, and a wide array of coastal species.
Algarve, Portugal is a notable stop on this trip and is a region rich in protected wetland areas and migrating birds. and is situated on a major fly-way for migrants from Africa. Birding stops here will include the complex network of canals, saline flats and salt pans of the Castro Marim Nature Reserve and the Tavira area of Ria Formosa Natural Park.
Notable Species: Black Stork, Griffin Vulture, Spotted Flycatcher, Great-spotted Cuckoo
Veracruz, Mexico: River of Raptors & More
October 15 – 26, 2022
Our exciting Mexico birding tour to Veracruz, known as the migration crossroads of the Americas, explores the intersection of diverse biological realms, and sites of historical encounters between peoples of the old and new worlds. Not only will you get the chance to explore the world-renowned Veracruz River of Raptors, the largest hawk migration site on the planet, but you’ll find yourself at a major migration pathway for passerines, butterflies, and dragonflies.
Each fall, Veracruz hosts 4-6 million migrating raptors on their way to their winter dwellings. This includes 200,000 Mississippi Kites, which is nearly the entire world population!
Notable Species: Broad-winged Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Black Vulture
Platte River Cranes
March 12 – 18, 2023 & March 19 – 25, 2023
Each year, half a million Sandhill Cranes descend upon Nebraska’s Platte River. By March, nearly 80% of the world’s population crowds a 150-mile stretch of the river, creating a migration spectacle that is simply mind-boggling to witness. This is the largest gathering of cranes anywhere in the world!
As the state of Nebraska proudly claims, “Some people regard Nebraska as a place you cross on the way to a more interesting place. About a million sandhill cranes disagree.”
There are so many interesting facts about hummingbirds that, compounded into their tiny flying forms, hummingbirds inspire poetic descriptions like this one from John James Audubon himself, who called them “the greatest ornaments of the gardens and forests. Such in most cases is the brilliancy of their plumage, that I am unable to find apt objects of comparison unless I resort to the most brilliant gems and the richest metals.”
Facts about Hummingbirds: Size is Relative
Their diminutive size is probably the most obvious trait shared among the 330+ species of the family Trochilidae, whose most close relative is the swifts. Tiny Bee Hummingbird is the smallest, less than two ounces and found only in Cuba. The largest, the Giant Hummingbird, can weigh up to 12 times as much, and is found in the Andes, along with the Sword-billed Hummingbird, whose own size claim to fame is being the only bird with a bill longer than its body. Both can be found on our Northern Peru and Peru: Cusco to Mánu National Park tours:
Hummingbirds are a favorite of most birders, but they are particularly enthralling to our guests from Europe and Asia, who must travel to the Western Hemisphere to see them. Africa’s sunbirds, nectar-loving birds adapted to local flora, are often described as the hummingbirds of the Eastern Hemisphere.
Other location-based facts about hummingbirds:
US birders enjoy 17 nesting species of hummingbird
Half of all hummingbird species are concentrated in a belt near the equator
Some hummingbirds are wide-ranging, like the White-necked Jacobin, though you do have to leave the US to see it. We often see this species on our Belize tours, two upcoming. The October trip is one day longer, but you can see the value in traveling in the “green season” by comparison.
Other hummingbirds are endemics, their ranges almost as diminutive as the birds themselves. The gorgeous Violet-capped Hummingbird is not widespread even inside Panama and a tiny sliver of Colombia contiguous with the Darién, a wilderness that flourishes between the two countries and benefits from a car-free break here in the Pan-American Highway.
We have chances to see Violet-capped on our upcoming tour to the Darién:
Picking up on Audubon’s description of hummingbirds, the Gilded Hummingbird and Glitter-throated Emerald call to mind “the most brilliant gems and the richest metals.” Both can be seen on our Brazil’s Pantanal tours:
To get a richer selection of hummingbirds, it’s advisable to choose the pre- and post-tour extensions, where our 2019 guests also saw Black Jacobin, Scale-throated Hermit, Black-eared Fairy, Frilled Coquette, Brazilian Ruby, Violet-capped Woodnymph, White-throated, and Versicoloured Emerald!
Hummingbirds in the US: Arizona and Texas
As we noted above, 17 hummingbirds regularly nest in the US, as far north as Alaska, where birders delight in the Rufous Hummingbird, possibly because there are no other hummingbirds to chase off the feeders! (Elsewhere, birders and other hummingbirds might find them more aggressive than adorable.) Our US tours to Texas and Arizona turn up the highest variety of hummingbirds, and we make sure to see as many as we can!
We have three Monsoon Madness tours upcoming in Arizona, host to the highest diversity of hummingbirds of any US state. On our August 2021 tour, we saw a full dozen hummingbirds, including two our guests selected as the co-birds of the trip, the Violet-crowned and the Lucifer.
The Lucifer Hummingbird is also found on our Texas tours, including the upcoming and popular South Texas: Fall Migration October 9 – 16, $2,390 from McAllen, TX.
A Rainbow of Hummingbirds
Rainbows are a great analogy for talking about the colors of hummingbirds, because tricky light refraction across their feathers is the reason that hummingbirds can look dull one moment and catch fire the next. Consider these two photos of the aforementioned adorable/aggressive Rufous Hummingbird:
Though many hummingbirds flash at the gorget, the show-stopping Crimson Topaz takes an all-over approach to its irridescence.
Crimson Topaz is a Guianan Shield regional endemic that we have chances to see on our upcoming Guyana: Unspoiled Wilderness October 13 – 25. We also have chances in Guyana to see Tufted Coquette, which is one of the features of our trips to Trinidad and Tobago, a popular independent birding venture destination, where it must compete with Scarlet Ibis for bird of the trip!
Perhaps the flirtiest of all the coquettes, however, is the Rufous-crested Coquette, an unforgettable species, which we have chances to see on two of our Panama trips:
Snowcap Hummingbird also has a beautiful noggin, though far less adorned than the Rufous-crested. We often see this beauty on our Costa Rica: Carribean Side tour, which is Oct. 13-23 this year.
Sounds Beyond Humming!
Our short ‘facts about hummingbirds’ blog wouldn’t be complete without touching on these birds’ namesake characteristic.
As anyone who has spent anytime sitting near an over-subscribed feeder will notice, the humming of hummingbirds is much more varied than the same word used to describe the monotone of a plugged-in refrigerator. Some of their humming comes from rapid wingbeats, ranging from a dozen wingbeats per second for Giant Hummingbird to 80 per second by the record-holding Amethyst Woodstar, which we have chances to see in Peru and Brazil.
But hummingbirds also make other noises, including signature sounds made with their tail feathers, and territorial ‘chip’ calls. A few of them even sing!
Where there are more species in competition, birds are more likely to have more complex vocalizations. The Mexican Violetear (formerly known as the Green Violetear, split into Mexican and Lesser Violetear in 2016) is one of those hummingbirds on the chatty side. We have great chances to see (and often first hear) Mexican Violetear on our two upcoming Oaxaca: Birds, Culture and Crafts tours. One of the things guests love about this trip is it includes beach time/time on the coast.
Oaxaca: Birds, Culture and Crafts August 1 – 9 (9-day, 8-night) $3790, from Oaxaca City
Oaxaca: Birds Culture and Crafts October 17 – 28, (12-day, 11-night) $4490, from Oaxaca City
If you are looking for specific hummingbirds, or want to know which hummingbirds may be seen on our tours, please check out the wealth of information available on our trip reports page! Though many of our tours feature a rich variety of hummingbirds, through our Independent Birding Ventures we design tours based on what you want to see. Do you want a trip that maximizes hummingbirds? Sign up for Northern Peru Endemics, or let us design a hummingbird-rich trip for your group!
We feel for the partners of birders who don’t (yet?) share their avian passion. That is one reason we offer many wildlife safaris and cruises each year, creating fascinating trips that are bigger than birding.
We have seen many bird-curious partners and friends converted by these trips over the years, which is, of course, gratifying. But for others, these more generalist wildlife safaris and nature cruises are simply a great opportunity to travel together with more to see and do than non-stop birding. That said, be advised that we are a birding company and there is a significant amount of birding on ALL our tours.
All of our African safaris, our Brazil Pantanal tours and our Panama: Introduction to Biodiversity trips are definitely bigger than birding! Spectacular and charismatic wildlife and gorgeous landscapes are hallmarks of all of these tours. Photos are probably the best and easiest way to show what you will see, so below are short slideshows from each of our tours with space available.
Our South Africa tour, which includes time enjoying the wines and culinary delights of Cape Town and substantial time enjoying one of the world’s most spectacular wildflower explosions, has already sold out for 2022. But watch this space for 2023 dates for a prime example of a ‘bigger than birding trip’ that is also a wonderful introductory trip to Africa!
We wrote a blog earlier this year about how to choose an African safari that is right for you, with many of Naturalist Journeys’ founder Peg Abbott’s insights. Below enjoy some of the sights available on our upcoming African safaris.
Landscape Photography: Ultimate Namibia-Botswana Tour
This trip would be perfect for a photographer who is interested in dramatic landscapes to accompany the wonderful wildlife viewing that characterizes all of our safaris. Along our route we witness massive red dunes, fanciful granite outcrops, isolated, iconic inselbergs, colonial Swakopmund on the scenic coast, and world-renowned Etosha National Park.
Gorilla Trekking, Chimpanzees & Other Primates: Uganda
On both of our Uganda tours, guests have the option of adding on treks to interact with endangered Mountain Gorilla and on the July tour, Chimpanzee. Our optional Gorilla trekking is in Bwindi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is home to approximately half of the world’s endangered population of Mountain Gorillas. This vast reserve offers arguably the most productive montane forest birding in Africa and supports 23 of Uganda’s 24 Albertine Rift endemic bird species.
Be aware: Gorilla trekking is not for the faint of heart (or the bum of knee), though these encounters offer a stunning and emotional payoff at the end of your trek. Guests sometimes encounter Gorilla after as little as an hour of hiking with our guides and porters, but four or five hours of hiking would not be unusual.
Our Chimpanzee trekking is in Kibale National Park, the single best safari destination for Chimpanzee tracking in East Africa, home to an estimated 1450 individuals. This park contains one of the loveliest and most varied tracts of all tropical forests in Uganda and hosts 13 species of primates in total. It is also home to the rare L’hoest’s Monkey and East Africa’s largest population of the threatened Red Colobus Monkey. Other primates that you may see include the Black-and-white Colobus, Blue Monkey, Grey-cheeked Mangabey, Red-tailed Monkey, Olive Baboon, Bush Baby, and Potto.
This year’s Panama: Introduction to Tropical Biodiversity Oct. 1-9, is guided by charismatic Ph.D couple Howard Topoff and Carol Simon, who deliver informative and entertaining presentations on a wide variety of tropical biodiversity topics nearly every day on this tour.
Lodging is at the world-famous Canopy Tower, surrounded by the lowland tropical forests of Soberania National Park, and the fabulous Canopy Lodge, in the picturesque foothills of El Valle de Anton, both perfect locations for exploring tropical ecosystems.
Among the non-birding highlights in Panama:
Watch Geoffroy’s Tamarin, Mantled Howler, and Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth in the surrounding forests
Spend time at the Summit Botanical Gardens, which houses more than 100 non-releasable animals — a great way to study many species difficult to see in the wild
Explore by boat on Gatun Lake, looking for Lesser Capybara, West Indian Manatee, and more
Enjoy an afternoon at the Panama Canal, learning its history and watching cargo ships go through the locks
Learn about the herps that live in Panama’s forests during a presentation by guide Carol Simon called “Poisonous Reptiles and Amphibians of the Rain Forest” and also get a bat presentation!
Visit Cerro Gaital to learn more about the butterflies of the region, from the large Blue Morpho to the pretty little Passion Vine butterflies
Cruises: Bigger than Birding
Our cruises to the Galápagos Islands and Alaska’s Northern Passages in particular are wonderful options for new birders, the birding-curious and friends and partners of birders.
Built for close encounters with some of the most charismatic animals found anywhere in North America, the Safari Explorer is designed to go where mega cruise ships simply can’t.
Charting our path amid Southeast Alaska’s island archipelago, we are all but certain to see Humpback Whales, Orcas, Sea Lions and seals, seabirds, shorebirds and many other species, including Grizzly Bear!
Completely isolated from hunting pressure and with little-to-no fear of humans, Galapagos wildlife can sometimes seem to be hamming it up for your attention in plain, nearby view. In fact, if there was ever a place where nature photography can be had without lugging around a heavy telephoto, it’s the Galapagos Islands.
As we move among rugged black “new” islands of the volcanic island chain and the soil-, plant- and animal-colonized “old” ones, we swim and/or snorkel among colorful fish, and sometimes dolphins, turtles or even penguins, whose frenzied fishing swirls the schools. A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz provides context and history to the conservation of this most magical place.
Safaris, Cruises, and Private Tours
For the non-birder, the new birder and the birding curious, Naturalist Journeys Wildlife Safaris and Cruises are all fabulous choices. In addition, you can take further control of your adventures by booking any of our tours with a group of friends as a private tour! We can also plan an Invdependent Birding Venture around whatever it is you want to see!
Ecotourism Plays a Protective Role in Endangered Places
The world’s biodiversity hot spots are often, unsurprisingly, birding meccas. After all, birders are keenly interested in seeing novel species, and biodiverse places by definition are home to unique plants and animals.
What may be less obvious is how important ecotourism is to preserving ‘biodiversity hot spots’, a term coined by ecologist Norman Meyers more than 30 years ago. He defined it in an article for the journal Nature: “Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions.”
An area must be both irreplaceable and under threat to be listed among the 36 biodiversity hot spots identified by Conservation International, a global non-profit whose mission it is to help preserve them. More precisely, a biodiversity hot spot must have more than 1,500 endemic plant species, making it unique, and its territory must be degraded to 30 percent or less of its original range, making it endangered.
So while Yellowstone National Park is ecologically irreplaceable, home to 300 bird species and majestic herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn and the wolves, bears, and cougars that hunt them, it is not endangered. Under federal protection since 1872, Yellowstone “is one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth,” according to the National Park Service. (Just two spots remain on our spring Yellowstone tours, on the June 1-8 departure.)
By contrast, the Madrean Sky Islands we visit on our three Monsoon Madness tours in August fit the biodiversity hot spot definition perfectly. We have chances to see many range-restricted species on these tours, including Mexican Chickadee, Elegant Trogon, Montezuma Quail, and Whiskered Screech Owl, among many others. They occupy the Sky Islands’ varied habitats: from desert floor to scrubland, oak and, finally, in the highest elevations, Douglas Fir and Apache Pine. As marvelous as they are today, the Madrean Pine-Oak forests now cover just 14 percent of what they once did, whittled away by development and agriculture. Though marvels remain, much was lost. Great flocks of Thick-billed Parrot were once common in the southwestern US, but were hunted to extirpation in 1938, when the last individual was spotted in lonely flight over the Chiricahua Mountains. It is now endangered in its remaining redoubts in northern Mexico.
Biodiversity Hotspots: Brazil
The Pantanal region of Brazil, which we visit twice this year, is sandwiched between two biodiversity hot spots: the vast tropical savannas of the Cerrado and the dwindling Atlantic Forests. Both support apex predators like Harpy Eagle, Giant Otter and Jaguar, which require huge territories in the treetops, rivers and countryside, respectively. But both the Cerrado and Atlantic Forests are threatened by agricultural and urban development, fragmenting their territories and making them vulnerable to hunting and reprisals by ranchers.
Biodiversity Hotspots: Africa
Eight biodiversity hot spots are found in Africa, including the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa we visit Sept. 28 – Oct. 12, our tour timed for one of the most jaw-dropping wildflower explosions anywhere in the world. More than 9,000 plant species call this small piece of real estate home, 69 percent of them endemics. The birds that co-evolved with this plant community are equally stunning, like the Cape Sugarbird and Protea Canary.
We also visit three of the thirteen African countries – Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya – that are part of a large but not-contiguous Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot. The opportunity to trek in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see endangered populations of Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee is one of the highlights of our Uganda tours, along with opportunities to see the iconic African Shoebill, whose prehistoric visage, 5-foot-tall frame and machine-gun bill-clattering greeting make them both unmistakable and unforgettable. This hotspot is incredibly important because its lush forests play an important role in providing fresh water to eastern Africa. But it is also a very poor region, which puts the trees at threat for commercial logging and for use as firewood.
Why is Biodiversity So Important?
Biodiversity brings richness to our lives (and our life lists) of course, but it is also economically important well beyond the sales of binoculars, spotting scopes and hiking poles. Healthy environments deliver what scientists call ‘ecosystem services’, and they do it far more cheaply and elegantly than the man-made alternatives. Thriving populations of birds, bees and bats pollinate crops; mangrove swamps and coral reefs offer flood protection and, along with swamps, bogs and fens, water purification services, to name just a few examples.
Complex Ecosystems Depend on Apex Predators
It can be difficult to explain to a farmer whose cattle is being picked off by big cats that shooting them can lead to bigger problems, but an ecosystem that loses its apex predators gets out of whack very quickly. Unchecked by hunters, herbivore populations soon swell, with the potential to encroach on croplands. Meanwhile, scavenger species like vultures, Wild Dog and hyenas, which rely on the scraps from hunters, are also threatened with population crash. Likewise in the Patanal, healthy Jaguar populations keep crop-menacing peccaries in check. So when farmers bait these hooved “skunk pigs” with poison, they may inadvertently kill off allies in their fight when jaguars and other cats like ocelot and puma feed on the poison-tainted carcasses.
Payments for Peacekeeping
One of the ways that governments and non-profits try to preserve biodiversity hot spots is to pay farmers when they lose crops or livestock to wild animals. Likewise, ecotourism has a vital role to play. When money flows into communities, we hold up our end of the ecotourism bargain, showing locals that natural resources will be worth more to them alive and thriving than they will hunted for meat or the pet trade, or in the case of forests, cut down for fuel or to make way for farming.
Responsible and sustainable tourism is even more important in the face of other more intractable threats, like climate change. A warming, less predictable planet has already initiated a shift in the ranges of many plants and animals, with the potential to drive them from protected parks to less welcoming places already occupied, or where habitats are substantially more degraded.
COVID-19 Ecotourism Lessons
If there was any doubt about the importance of ecotourism to protecting biodiversity hot spots and wild animals in general, it was dispelled by COVID-19. Tourism ground to a halt for more than a year, putting pressure on what are, in many cases, very poor communities whose people who do the tracking, porting, cooking and guiding on which tourism companies like ours rely.
Shutting out not just the binocular set, but trophy hunters who pay big bucks to hunt in not-protected areas, the lockdown was devastating to wildlife protection, as The Economist detailed in “Pandemic is a Gift to Poachers in Africa.”
While doing our best to stay afloat during COVID lockdowns, Naturalist Journeys and our clients raised substantial sums of money to help sustain our partners in places like Uganda and Trinidad and Tobago when we couldn’t send them business-as-usual.
One modest example was a decision by our founder, Peg Abbott, to send small monthly stipends to our guides in Trinidad and Tobago to keep them out birding even without guests, asking them to submit eBird checklists. It’s possible they found more birds than they would have, because they didn’t have to stop and show clients where to look!
But now that we have vaccines, and travel has become more manageable, we are getting out there again, and we hope you will feel comfortable doing so too. Because there is no substitute for the financial and emotional support that ecotourists bring to the protection of precious and endangered places, and the birds, animals and people who call them home.
An earnest warbling from a barely-budded tree and dry grasses passed between bills are two of the most common bird courtship and mating rituals to herald spring.
Springtime is now in the Northern Hemisphere, and migratory flyways around the globe are already bumper-to-bumper with birds making their way to breeding grounds. There, alongside local residents, they will deploy a staggering array of courtship strategies to help them snag a mate.
North American Flyways
Photo Credit: USGS
Bird Courtship Strategies
Some birds are practical, offering berries, insects or seeds to a potential partner as evidence they can support a family. Others build a speculative nest — sometimes quite an elaborate one — to proffer to their partner a turnkey home. Other birds are far more focused on the flash, growing out elaborate plumage, singing, dancing, and launching elaborate aerial acrobatics.
Six Categories of Bird Mating Rituals
Scientists have identified six principal categories of bird courtship and mating rituals: singing, dancing, displays, building, feeding and allopreening, or mutual grooming. In this blog we will look at each bird courtship category and give examples, using birds we see on our tours. Starting with the most obvious and simple, many birds sing or call to attract a mate:
Singing as a Mating Ritual
One of the first things we notice as the quiet of winter gives way to spring is birdsong, which often serves the double duty of staking a territorial claim and advertising to a mate. Many warblers, including the Black-throated Green Warbler, demonstrate different songs for different audiences, one they sing when males are on their territory and another when they are single and notice females are nearby. Hear the different songs here on All About Birds.
Birdsong is often thought of as “a guy thing,” associated in popular culture with males crooning and females swooning. But female songbirds are getting a new look — and listen. Scientists at the Female Birdsong Project are enlisting birder citizen-scientists to help them document female singers. Female song was once thought unique to tropical species, where pairs often co-defend territory year round. But many temperate species females, as it turns out, may have been singing all along and had their songs ascribed to males, as Audubon notes in “Female Cerulean Warblers Chirp Away at Birdsong Stereotypes.”
Both of these Oregon tours are guided by Steve Shunk, our Northwest US bird (and woodpecker!) expert. Steve took all of the songbird photos in the gallery above.
Dancing as Bird Courtship
Not all songbirds sing (nor are all singing birds songbirds). Ravens, for example, and Cedar Waxwings make vocalizations and are physiologically capable of song. But like your shy friend at karaoke, they just don’t sing. Scientists theorize that the Cedar Waxwing once had a song, but lost it because it was no longer necessary. A sociable rather than territorial bird, Cedar Waxwings often travel as a group in search of berry-laden trees. That means males have no reason to ‘sing out loud, sing out strong’ to attract a mate. Instead they initiate a hopping treetop dance with a female of their in-group, often proffering a love token — a berry or an insect, for example — that the two will pass between them in a bonding exercise. When she responds to his offering in turn, he knows he’s onto something.
There are many birds who court by dancing, including the spectacular two-stepping of the Western Grebe, which may be seen (though they are unlikely to be courting then) on our Oregon tours. Western Grebes may also be seen on a new tour this year: Washington Coastal Birding and Nature with guide Steve Shunk August 18-25.
When the dancing is more or less one-sided, with the female sitting in wallflower judgement, it is considered a display. For example, watch these Blue-backed Manakin, which we have chances to see on our Trinidad and Tobago and our Guyana tours, dance in a wild, all-male conga line to try and win the girl:
Prairie chickens and grouse also compete for a mate via dance-off, gathering early on spring mornings on nature’s dance floor, a ‘lek’ that they return to year after year. Prairie grousemating rituals also include whooping, drumming their feet, and booming sounds made through the inflation of air sacs in their chests or neck. Meanwhile, drab female hens sit and take it all in, until one of the dancers impresses her enough to take for a mate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the showiest birds are often the ‘players’ of the avian world; those least likely to stick around and help raise their young, according to Cornell’s All About Birds. Birds of Paradise, the many spectacular species we see on our Papua New Guinea tours and peacocks are all guilty as charged. Peahens often form a mutual aid society after their mates strut away to hypnotize other females, cooperatively raising their peachick young.
Not all displays are so elaborate. Some may simply involve breeding plumage, or the striking of a pose.
For the birds whose love language is touch, allopreening, or the preening of other birds, is how they establish and maintain bonds. The obvious example here is lovebirds! Rosy-faced Lovebirds, which we see on our Namibia tours, were named for this canoodling behavior. Birds preen themselves to keep their feathers in flying form and to remove mites and debris. They preen one another as pair bonding, and among highly territorial species, to remind one other they are friend not foe. Macaws and parrots may be found gently nibbling their mates’ heads and bills on our South American, Central American, and South Texas tours.
Building Bird Courtship
“If she doesn’t find you handsome, she should at least find you handy,” the old saying goes. And many birds build speculative nests — sometimes several nests — and try to lure in the ladies with turnkey real estate. Cape Weavers, which we often see on our South Africa tours, are among the most impressive of all builders, though Sociable Weavers build apartment complexes with multiple rooms for each couple, insulated interior rooms for cool nights and exterior ones for hot days.
Bowerbirds, also of Papua New Guinea and Australia, build elaborate nests on the ground and strew them with flowers and food and other love tokens to help lure a mate.
Who doesn’t like a nice meal they didn’t have to forage themselves? Among the most pragmatic of love tokens, food is mate-bait for many species. Some birds drop the food near the female as if they were delivery drivers dropping off pizza. Others place the food directly into the female’s bill, showing that they know what to do once the chicks are hatched.
eBird Breeding Codes
Witnessing bird courtship and mating rituals is fascinating, whether you are on a migration birding and nature tour, or just doing some backyard birding. But did you know that eBird has a special set of codes for noting this avian courtship and the resulting nests and young?
NY Nest with Young (Confirmed) — Nest with young seen or heard.
FY Feeding Young (Confirmed) — Adult feeding young that have left the nest, but are not yet flying and independent (for some projects should not be used with raptors, terns, and other species that may move many miles from the nest site; often supersedes FL).
CF Carrying Food (Confirmed) — Adult carrying food for young (for some projects should not be used for corvids, raptors, terns, and certain other species that regularly carry food for courtship or other purposes).
FL Recently Fledged Young (Confirmed) — Recently fledged or downy young observed while still dependent upon adults.
ON Occupied Nest (Confirmed) — Occupied nest presumed by parent entering and remaining, exchanging incubation duties, etc.
UN Used Nest (enter 0 if no birds seen) (Confirmed) — Nest is present, but not active. Use only if you are certain of the species that built the nest.
DD Distraction Display (Confirmed) — Distraction display, including feigning injury.
NB Nest Building (Confirmed/Probable) — Nest building at apparent nest site (should not be used for certain wrens, and other species that build dummy nests; see code “B” below for these species).
CN Carrying Nesting Material (Confirmed/Probable) — Adult carrying nesting material; nest site not
For more information about how to use the codes, here is a link. Happy birding!
The big banana-like beak of the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and its long fringe of “eyelash” feathers are not just defining characteristics of this iconic African species; they are adaptations, deployed by desert birds to battle climates others find inhospitable.
Every desert has birds, even when it has little else, as British explorer John Philby saw for himself in 1932 crossing the Arabian Desert by camel train. Setting off with an increasingly disgruntled crew and 32 camels in the midst of a 30-year drought, the only plants the search party found were dead. Yet somehow, there were animals still calling the desert home, among them many Hoopoe Larks, according to The Ohio State University researchers who study adaptations of desert birds.
Larks are one of the most common desert birds, and ecologists study them closely to see how they prevail in such austere conditions, including “intense solar radiation; extreme air temperatures; low relative humidity; scant, unpredictable rainfall; and meager primary productivity,” as the OSU researchers wrote in “Physiological Adaptation in Desert Birds,” published in 2005 by the journal BioScience.
“For inhabitants of these environments, food supplies and drinking water can be scarce. In such extreme habitats, there may be strong selection pressures on the physiological attributes of animals that live there, especially adjustments that minimize rates of energy expenditure or water loss, or that enhance tolerance of high body temperature,” the researchers wrote.
Consider the Dune Lark, a Namibia endemic we have chances to see, which deploys a three-part survival secret recipe. It’s one part “pre-adaptations,” shared by most birds, like having a naturally high body temperature and being able to fly to get water. Dune Lark also help themselves behaviorally by nesting on dry stream beds, which serve as unobstructed flight corridors, reducing energy output. Finally, unusual subcutaneous fat deposits in the sun-facing part of their wings are believed to represent physiological adaptation to arid conditions, reducing evapotranspiration to retain precious water.
But the lark family is just one among a rich variety of desert and adjacent arid-land birds displaying a staggering array of adaptations. Many, naturally, are focused on conserving water or regulating temperature – and not just heat, but cold, since deserts demonstrate dramatic temperature shifts between day and night.
Behavioral adaptations dictate the pace of our tours, as we go out early to catch diurnal birds at their most active, at dawn and dusk, resting like they do during the hottest part of the day. But the physiological adaptations of desert birds are perhaps the most fascinating.
Coming back to the charismatic hornbills, they are able to shed heat by dilating the vascular structure beneath their hard keratin bills, whose large surface area offloads unwanted body heat like a radiator. This adaptation reduces their need to open their bills and pant, an evapotranspirative cooling method which by definition squanders precious water resources.
Other adaptations address different environmental conditions, like their feathered “eyelashes” which, according to some theories, help keep things out of their eyes, including blowing sand or glaring sun.
In a further nesting adaptation that is part behavioral and part physiological, the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill female dens up with the chicks, walling its developing family off from the sun and nighttime chill. Typically starting with an existing hole or crevice in rocks or a tree, the hornbill pair line it with nesting material.
They then work together using an ‘adobe’ made of food scraps, excrement and whatever mud the male can find and bring back to help seal in the brooding female. They leave a “feed us” sized hole that the male hornbill pokes food through and the female, waste.
Protected or imprisoned, depending on your viewpoint, the female has the capacity to voluntarily shed her flight and tail feathers to make movement easier on their now-feathered carpet. She will slowly regrow them before emerging with the chicks.
Hartlaub’s Spurfowl has devolved its titular fighting mechanism, preferring to conserve precious resources by hiding from predators between rocks in the granite outcrops where it nests. Its spurs are little more than bumps now.
Another African desert bird, the Freckled Nightjar, has evolved a high tolerance to both heat and cold. They manage to survive surface temperatures on their rocky outcrop nesting grounds of up to 60 C/140 F, and yet, in the colder winter months, can also enter torpor, a form of short-term hibernation that conserves energy, warming back up to an animated state with sufficient sunshine. Like other desert birds and nightjars, in times of great heat, they may engage in “gular flapping” behavior, fluttering throat skin with their bills mostly closed to help offload heat.
One of the most sought-after birds in Namibia is the Rosy-faced Lovebird, which inhabits arid-land areas that are flying distance to water sources. These short-tailed parrots charm with their namesake canoodling and have been known to opportunistically try to “get a room” inside the massive apartment-complex nests of the Sociable Weaver.
They thereby hitch a ride on the weavers’ behavioral adaptation to beat the heat. They build multi-chambered suites that are an upgrade from the studio apartments most birds use, with interior rooms used for warm nighttime roosting and exterior rooms providing mostly shade.
Though we don’t see them on our Arizona tours, there is a sizable feral Rosy-faced Lovebird population outside of Phoenix, having moved from wild to pet to wild again. Failing to find Sociable Weaver apartment complexes in the Wild West, they continue to seek out existing nests made by other birds, like the cavity nests made by Gila Woodpecker and other desert bird species in Saguaro, Barrel, and other cacti.
Arizona Desert Birds
Native desert birds, each with their own clever adaptations, are plentiful on our two spring and three fall tours of Southern Arizona.
The Greater Roadrunner has some things in common with the Secretary Bird, both snake-hunters capable of flight but preferring to walk or run after prey, up to 20 mph in the Greater Roadrunner’s case. That’s roughly half the top speed of their coyote predators, with flight as a solid escape plan in reserve. Like some marine species, roadrunners are able to excrete salt through glands in the nose, because passing salt requires substantial water. A roadrunner also uses its dark skin to help regulate temperature, spreading its wings and fluffing its feathers to expose this ‘solar panel’ when they want to invite the warmth of the sun, and re-covering it like a parasol, when they’ve had enough.
Costa’s Hummingbird, one of the world’s smaller hummingbirds at just over 3.5 inches, can, like the Freckled Nightjar, enter torpor, greatly slowing its heartbeat and maintaining a lower body temperature. During torpor, a Costa’s heart beats just 50 times per minute, a fraction of the 500–900 times it beats while active, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds.
We may also see tiny Elf Owl on our Arizona tours, nesting in tree hollows and other cavities to stay warm during cooler nights. The Cactus Wren will often nest in the branches of a Cholla cactus, taking its spiny defense for its own against predators not small enough to slip past them.
Brazil is the most biodiverse country on the planet, home to some 20 percent of all species on Earth. Which is why coming up with a top five Brazilian birds and top five Brazilian mammals was no easy feat – even narrowing our scope down to the Pantanal, the focus of our three 2022 tours to Brazil.
Ten times the size of the Everglades, the Pantanal is the size of Washington State (though it’s still dwarfed inside Brazil, a country even larger than the lower 48 US states). The world’s largest wetland, it is incredibly important to the survival of many species.
Five Brazilian Mammals
Some 2,000 jaguars call the Pantanal home, which is the highest density of these marvelous big cats anywhere in the world. (Brazil is thought to be home to some 85,000 jaguars, about half of the jaguars in the world.)
Jaguars adore water, which helps explain their presence in the Pantanal. Their spotted yellow-orange fur should be a warning sign to prey species. Incredibly powerful jaws allow jaguars to bite right through skulls and sink their teeth through the rough hides of Yacaré Caiman, a favorite meal. Our expert local guides give us great chances to see these water-loving cats, and we set aside one full day to find them.
Despite its name, this largest canid of South America is neither fox nor wolf, but the only member of the genus Chrysocyon. It evolved to hunt in tall savannah grass, which helps explain its 3-foot-tall frame and reddish coat. It is able to blend in with and be tall enough to see over vegetation.
We may smell Maned Wolf before we see it, as its urine has a powerful skunk-like aroma. A solitary hunter when it does eat meat, the Maned Wolf is an omnivore, and a fruit-lover! As much as half of its diet is fruits and vegetables, and it has a particular taste for lobeira, a fruit that in Portuguese means “fruit of the wolf.”
Although they are kin to sloths, the Giant Anteater can move much more quickly! They are ant-eating machines, with powerful claws to rip into ant and termite mounds and a two-foot tongue covered with barbs to help them retrieve up to 30,000 insects a day! Anteaters can be considered conservationists, though, because they only feed for a few minutes at each mound before moving on rather than decimating any one colony. We often see these majestic creatures during both our Brazil and our Guyana tours.
When we see Giant Otter, it’s common to see them as a family group, cavorting and splashing, as 6-foot-long, 75-pound adults will do! Giant animals like Giant Otter need giant and pristine riverine territories, where they are often among the most significant predators. Great news arrived in 2021 when a solitary Giant Otter was spotted in Argentina for the first time in 30 years, in El Impenetrable National Park. Giant Otter are far more common in the Amazon River basin and its tributaries, including Brazil’s Pantanal. With webbed feet, water-repellant fur and ability to close their nostrils and ears underwater, these weasel-family wonders are always a joy to see in the wild.
To those of us who didn’t grow up seeing Tapirs on a regular basis, the mind grapples with what animal it most closely resembles. Many different ones spring to mind: a pig, a rhinocerous, a little elephant, a small horse. Thought to have remained more or less the same for tens of million years, the Brazilian Tapir is well adapted to its herbivorious function. A 500-800 pound adult can easily eat 75 pounds of food every day, using its prehensile snout to strip leaves and fruit from branches. Following our Pantanal theme, they are a water-loving species, who wallow in mud and even dive to eat aquatic plants. Most closely related to horses and rhinocerous, their cubs have camoflauged fur!
Five Brazilian Birds
Even for birders who don’t care about checklists, the Harpy Eagle is one of the most sought-after species on any birding and nature tour in their rapidly-shrinking range. Brazil still has enough continguous wild territory to support this massive and powerful raptor that one of the most famous of all “listers,” Carl Linnaeus himself, put into a class of its own. The Greek “harpies” were composite creatures with the body of a vulture and the face of a woman with the job of ferrying the dead to Hades. We have good chances to see Harpy Eagle in both Brazil and in Guyana.
Five subspecies of Greater Rhea come together in the Pantanal region we visit. Flightless and long-legged, this bird is well adapted to savannah. Nearly 5 foot tall and 60 pounds, they are a quiet species, using their voices almost exclusively during mating season, when they also use their rather long wings in courtship displays. Greater Rhea have an unusual breeding system, where the males are sedentary nest tenders of eggs laid by many different females. Females are serially polyandrous, traveling about to mate with different males, and once each egg is laid near her mate’s nest (he inspects and then rolls it in, with as many as 70 others) she moves on to find another partner.
At the other end of the devotion spectrum, the Hyacinth Macaw is said to mate for life. The world’s largest parrot, it is stunning to see flying in the wild, with a four-foot ultramarine blue wingspan, offset with accents of gold at the eye and hooked bill. Nuts, seeds, fruit and insects make up its diet and they roost in groups. On our Brazil birding trips, we often see these sociable creatures flying overhead, especially in the morning and near roosting time.
Toco Toucan is one of the most striking birds found anywhere in the world, and its massive bill performs many functions. It’s used to collect and process fruit (which is more than can be said for the Fruit Loops mascot it inspired). But the bill is also useful in crunching up frogs and snails, and intimidating and fending off nest-robbing predators. But the bill has another important function. Like an elephant’s ears, a Toco Toucan’s bill is used to regulate heat and is lined with blood vessels. At night, when temperatures are lower, the Toco Toucan can be seen to tuck its bill under a wing before sleep.
Helmeted Manakin are sexually dimorphous to the nth degree! Females and juveniles are very boring indeed compared with the male Helmeted Manakin’s sleek glossy black plumage, crowned with a red crest. We often see these birds while “on safari” at Aguapé Lodge, sometimes in exciting mixed-species flocks. During the height of the fruiting season, Helmeted Manakin are very choosy eaters, shifting to the understory to eat less perfect fruit only when circumstances require. In the dry season, when there is less fruit, they have been observed eating insects in Brazil.
Of course, these are just a handful of the many hundreds of species we may see on any given Brazil birding and mammal adventure. To get more of a flavor, read a species list or two and read the trip reports that show what past guests have seen on our journeys.
Located 65 km northeast of Cuiaba, Chapada dos Guimaraes is a unique destination in the Cerrado, the Brazilian Savanna, a transition zone between the Cerrado and the Amazon, giving you the chance to see the Cerrado’s avian highlights like Small-billed Tinamou, Red-legged Seriema, Scaled Dove, Horned Sungem, Blue-tufted Starthroat, White-eared Puffbird, Rusty-backed and Large-billed Antwren, Rufous-winged Antshrike, Band-tailed and Fiery-capped Manakin, Curl-crested Jay, and White-rumped Tanager. Wow!
From Lodges to Landscapes to Length, Building a Bucket List Africa Trip Depends on You
Imagining yourself in Africa is the way most journeys to the continent begin. Train your binoculars on a hunting Lion pride from the back of an open-air Landcruiser, come over a rise to greet a herd of Elephant. Return visitors anticipate the excitement of wild nighttime sounds just outside a canvas tent, of Elephants shuffling by, or Hyenas calling on the prowl.
“The questions people ask me before they’ve been to Africa and after they’ve been are totally different,” Naturalist Journeys founder Peg Abbott said.
Whether you’re weighing bucket-list alternatives for a first venture or as an Africa veteran looking for that next wildness adrenaline rush, we have ideas for you. Read on to compare and contrast our carefully crafted Africa birding and nature tours, keeping in mind that if you’re flying to Africa from the US, you want to make the most of your investment. (Not to mention, once you start to experience Africa birding and nature, the lure to return will be strong, no matter how long you stay.)
“People often tell me ‘I am only going to Africa once, so should I go to East Africa or Southern Africa?” said Peg Abbott, Naturalist Journeys founder and guide. “Keep in mind, once you go to Africa you’re going to want to go back.” If that is not possible, you want to hit it right.
“Second, consider this, that question is the equivalent of saying I’m only going to come to the U.S. one time, should I go to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon? They are very different experiences, and you should absolutely do them both,” she said.
Comparing Our Africa Trips (and the Competition’s)
There are many lenses you could train on our Africa Birding and Nature tour options: landscapes, lodgings, birds and animals, and of course, length and cost. But before we dive into each of those categories below, a word from Peg about how our tours contrast with our competition – because our guests are savvy travelers.
“Our Africa tours are aimed at people who want to learn the wildlife and birds in detail, to spend time taking photos and really absorbing place,” Peg said. By contrast, one of our competitors offers a 15-day, 3-country tour, with only 5 days in each country.
We can’t bear to move that fast! Skipping from place to place like that doesn’t allow for spending two to three nights at each stop of our mobile tented camp safaris, for example, which is always our goal.
“We like to let people settle in and experience first-hand Africa’s richness. To hear the sounds of the night,” Peg said.
“We have a LOT of facetime with these animals, so anyone with a camera or binoculars is going to be very happy,” she said.
Great wildlife viewing can be found in all of the tours we offer in Africa, but the feel of place can be quite different. To latch on to the Yellowstone/Grand Canyon analogy, southern Africa is more like the desert Southwest in the US, warm and arid, though much flatter, while eastern Africa is more temperate, green and with both grasslands and mountains – not unlike Montana and Wyoming.
East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda
East Africa offers a more temperate climate than one might expect near the equator, supporting massive herds of animals like the famed Wildebeest that migrate with seasonal rains between Kenya and Tanzania. (Our Kenya safari is perfectly timed so we are at the Maasai Mara at the peak of Wildebeest migration.) Mountains and forests add to the diversity of flora and fauna we encounter. Uganda is a very lushly forested country, supporting some of the last rare and endangered Mountain Gorilla in the world.
Southern Africa: Botswana, Namibia and South Africa
Namibia and Botswana are home to the Namib and Kalahari deserts, respectively. Great wildlife viewing abounds here, as arid conditions concentrate animals at lakes, deltas and watering holes. The Okavango Delta and Chobe River in Botswana and the world-famous watering holes in Etosha National Park in Namibia make for reliable and spectacular wildlife viewing (and occasional excitement as predator and prey are brought together.) South Africa stands on its own, anchored at the southern terminus of the continent. It offers much more landscape diversity between its coast and its famous wildflower-strewn Cederberg or Drakensburg Mountains. South Africa is HUGE and contains a wide variety of ecoregions including grassland, bushveld, semi-desert, savannah, and riparian areas. South Africa’s Western Cape is more botanically diverse than the richest tropical rainforest in South America, including the Amazon, offering unique plant species in the fynbos biome and the animals and insects that rely on it.
Africa Birding Diversity/Animal Encounters
“The mammal viewing is equally compelling,” Peg said, in eastern and southern Africa destinations, with Uganda’s Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee trekking an optional added bonus. Not for the faint of heart (or the bum of knee) these encounters offer a stunning and emotional payoff at the end of your trek. Guests sometimes encounter Gorilla after as little as an hour of hiking with our guides and porters, but four or five hours of hiking would not be unusual.
Bird diversity, on the other hand, is going to be significantly higher in East Africa or South Africa because of the greater variety of habitat types. If going for the most birds: choose Kenya, Uganda and South Africa.
One of the reasons we scheduled our shorter Botswana trip to pair with Namibia (and put the two together in our Ultimate Namibia-Botswana combo) is to enrich birding options. Botswana is landlocked, so adding Namibia brings in coastal and arid-land birds. Visitors to the Botswana Namibia tour have the opportunity to see in the neighborhood of 270 amazing birds, while those on the Kenya-Uganda trip can easily see more than 400!
Here are the most recent species lists from each country:
Our tour lodging is ALWAYS selected with seeing the animals in mind. Where can we go that maximizes our opportunities to see wildlife in a safe and eco-friendly way? That said, there are differences between countries in what lodging is available to us based on factors like the maturity of their ecotourism facilities.
Kenya is the old guard of African wildlife safaris and that’s apparent from its lodge selections, many of which harken back to a British colonial time in style and in their not-yet-updated but absolutely charming facilities. Movement between parks in Kenya can involve highway travel to get the maximum diversity, whereas in Tanzania, once you enter the park system, it’s possible to go from park to park without emerging into the outside world (though you stay solidly in savannah.)
Built in a different era than Kenya’s, Tanzania’s lodges tend to be big resort-style properties; big enough for large buses to roll in. We’ve worked hard to find some smaller safari camps like the one we visit at the apex of Wildebeest migration at their calving grounds in Ndutu.
“There are a lot of lodges in Tanzania that are luxury and high end but not particularly well situated – we don’t typically go to these,” Peg said. “We pick our trips by the wildlife, not so they will have a bathroom the size of one’s living room.”
Botswana’s facilities are new, idyllic for ambiance, and they tend to be smaller, Peg said, many with no more than a 35-person capacity. Botswana made a choice for low-volume, higher cost visitation – it’s a place to spoil yourself and immerse. South Africa travelers demand trendy atmospheric lodges, resulting in their well-deserved reputation for extravagant safari options and local dining specialties.
At the other end of the maturity spectrum from Kenya, Uganda is a newbie and an up-and-comer. Uganda has the old colonial facilities but they went dormant in many years of unrest. Post Idi Amin’s military dictatorship, from 1980 a new page was turned. “There’s a real upbeat feel to Uganda’s nature and its ecotourism,” Peg said. “The roads get better and there are new facilities every time we go back. The quality of guides and their training is astonishing. ”
While all of Naturalist Journeys’ tours are centered on birds and wildlife, you can find a range of experiences. A two week South Africa tour, for example, can be viewed as a sampler: a toe-dipping option with a bit of everything for the Africa-curious. It includes a three-night safari in Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s crown jewels, wonderful food and wine in glorious Cape Town, a trip to experience endemic fynbos wildflowers, and comfortable but exciting birding in varied habitats. For some people, it feels more like pampering than “Out of Africa.” It’s also more budget-friendly than many of our other Africa trips, because we aren’t spending as much time in national parks. When you are comparing different companies’ offerings, look at how many days of your trip are inside national parks. That’s where the animals are, admission fees pay for their conservation and that’s a big driver of Africa tour costs –rightfully so!
Our shorter Uganda trip is also less expensive at 9 days and 8 nights, it’s meant to be paired with our Kenya tour but also to fit into other travel plans. We can facilitate add-ons to your journey. We recommend time in Cape Town or a few days in Victoria Falls.
At the other end of this spectrum, our 23-night, 24-day Namibia-Botswana Combo will really leave you feeling the re-entry to your not-Africa life. Living the true safari life in mobile tented camps, staying as close to wildlife as possible, our guests find this a truly immersive, life-changing, bucket-list trip with Greg Smith, one of our most experienced guides. Ultimate Botswana with company owner Peg Abbott is just that – limit of six or seven clients, and more depth in one country than one can imagine.
In between on the spectrum our various Africa tours feature safari game drives and mobile tented camp experiences offering great looks at wildlife and birds. All of them transport you into the other world that Africa is.
Why Go to Africa in 2022?
Even though Africa is back open to tourism, the number of visitors is sharply down from pre-pandemic levels. For cautious but intrepid travelers, visiting Africa in 2022 offers an opportunity to view animals and wildlife that have not been exposed to high levels of safari pressure for more than two years.
“The lull will be brief,” Peg said. “Once the world opens back up there will be a huge push to get back here. We went in 2021, we plan to be there in 2022. After all you’ve lost, you deserve to go to Africa and have the most amazing trip of your life.”
Below are our Africa trips listed chronologically with costs and guides. If you want to get a good feel for a trip, read the most recent trip report, which we’ve also linked below.
Northeast Tobago Earns Valuable ‘Man and the Biosphere’ Recognition
In 1776, back when the US colonists were still beefing with King George III, Tobago gave birth to the modern conservation movement with the founding of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, the oldest tropical rainforest reserve in the world.
Tracing Tobago’s mountainous spine, the nearly 9,800-acre rainforest reserve is one of many jewels we visit on our tours to Trinidad and Tobago.
Main Ridge is an important piece of a large area in Northeast Tobago that UNESCO described as “a rare largely intact Caribbean Island Ridge-to-Ocean ecosystem,” when it granted it “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” status in 2020.
“By joining the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, the community aims to revitalize cultural and spiritual bonds between people and nature and boost the preservation of this fragile and remarkable human and natural landscape,” UNESCO wrote in its declaration.
The recognition should help dollars flow into these twin island nations and help them to recover from the 16-month COVID lockdown, UNESCO noted in the declaration. Trinidad ended its lockdown in November, and visitors have begun to flow back into the islands, supporting ecotourism destinations like the ones we visit.
“Some of the expected benefits to Trinidad and Tobago include the generation of sustainable green and blue economic activities beyond tourism, including fisheries, agriculture, cultural heritage promotion, scientific research and education, among others,” the declaration said.
Fifteen communities and 10,000 people live inside the massive terrestrial and marine reserve, which envisions them working sustainably to develop Tobago while preserving its biodiversity.
Of course nature tourists, and especially birders, knew all about Trinidad and Tobago’s wonders well before the UNESCO biosphere designation. Naturalist Journeys guests have been coming to Trinidad and Tobago for decades, and we’ve long worked with trusted local partners to explore areas inside the new biosphere boundaries, including a half-day visit to the Main Ridge Forest Reserve.
We also visit the marine portion of the UNESCO nature reserve, which encircles Little Tobago. On a glass-bottomed boat tour our guests can look down at colorful reef fish and up, to discover awesome pelagics like the Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-billed Tropicbird among many others.
As Caribbean Islands saw forests clear cut for sugarcane plantations during the colonial period, in 1776, Main Ridge was set aside “for the purpose of attracting frequent showers of rain upon which the fertility of lands in these climates doth entirely depend.”
It was the culmination of an 11-year lobbying campaign by a member of the British Parliament, Soame Jenyns, who was influenced by the work of English scientist Stephen Hales linking rainfall and forests. (The reason he suggested it was to preserve the fresh-watersheds of Great Britain’s own colonial-era plantations.)
The protection of Main Ridge was sadly an outlier. Only 10 percent of Caribbean forests remain intact, noted UNESCO in its biosphere reserve designation.
Although Trinidad and Tobago is one of the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean, its tourism sector is much smaller and less developed than its neighbors. The hope and the expectation is that the UNESCO nature reserve designation will help focus more investment not just in sustainable tourism, but in diversified industries that are compatible with protecting biodiversity.
The pandemic-driven closure of the Asa Wright Nature Centre in January of 2021 was a big blow to the tourism sector on the islands, and one that required Naturalist Journeys founder Peg Abbott to work hard to re-create our tours there.
As she wrote in a recent social media post:
“When it all fell apart, I realized I had a deep bond to place, the magic of two twin islands, a piece of South America on the one Trinidad, and the Caribbean on the other, Tobago.
“I picked up with amazing people that I’ve worked with for seven years, and we picked up the bones and we put it back together…we have survived, and we have carried on, and we offer a great post Asa Wright experience.”
One of those partners she wrote about is longtime guide Jason Radix who speaks below about the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, and discusses some of the wonderful birds we will see there.
Our Adventures in Nature, Birding, and Ecotourism www.naturalistjourneys.com