A Human Voice: International Travel Agents Give Aid and Comfort To the Adventurous

Naturalist Journeys’ Expert Pam Davis Has Connections and Savvy KAYAK Can’t Touch

It was December, and Naturalist Journeys guests had just returned from an epic Antarctic cruise to the port of Ushuaia, Argentina to find their airline on strike, putting return trips and holiday plans in jeopardy. But our unflappable international travel agent Pam Davis saved the day, busing our guests across the border to Chile and sending them home on a different airline.

Stories like these are what keep international travel agents in demand many decades after the demise of their profession was first incorrectly forecast.

Pam Davis, International Travel Agent Superstar

Pam helps our guests book travel into and out of smaller, out-of-the-way birding and nature hotspots and provides support in cases of unexpected turbulence.

International Travel Agents Will Get You Into AND Out of Africa

Pam’s expertise in Africa is one reason we felt super comfortable spontaneously putting together a new Combo Uganda-Kenya tour Sept. 5-25, 2021. We moved quickly to take advantage of the fabulous wildlife sightings being reported this year by safari game drives after a year of little tourist pressure. In a bit of a COVID silver lining, guests who book this Africa trip may experience the best wildlife viewing in recent years and for many years to come.

Our new safari combo takes in the best of both countries: the Kenyan wildebeest migration on the Masaai Mara and the wonderful gorillas, birds and other wildlife found in Uganda’s pristine forests and mountains. 

We are able to confidently say “Don’t let getting there stop you from going there,” because we know Pam has deep experience, knowledge and most importantly, a genuine desire to make things happen. We are happy to pay her ticketing fees to help our guests make their way to the tour start in Entebbe, Uganda, and to depart out of Nairobi, Kenya. (We also pay Pam’s ticketing fees for any international tours in excess of $5,000.)

An Expert Ticketing Agent

With more than 40 years of experience in travel, Pam can sleuth out fares to out-of-the-way locations when other people can’t. And her service doesn’t stop once the ticket is issued. She supports our guests through whatever changes the travel gods might throw at them.

If a flight is unexpectedly canceled, she is automatically notified, and she immediately begins solving the problem. We’ve had guests flying in the air when their connection is canceled, and before they touch down and find out about it, Pam has already sent them a re-booking notice. 

Through new technologies, namely the internet, people can book their own airfares to major airports through KAYAK.com and other aggregator sites. That slice of the travel agency business is long gone, like the hand-written airline tickets and the simple computation of fares that were standard in the industry when Pam first joined it in 1978.

There were just two ticket prices at that time, she says, “a one way fare, and round trip was 80 percent of two one ways.”

Now that ticketing is computerized and sales more diffuse, she said, “on any given airplane there might be 40 or 50 different fares that people paid.”

Change is Now a Constant

And the complexity doesn’t stop with ticketing. Flight schedules used to be reasonably stable, changing maybe once a month. Now they change nearly daily. There has been additional volatility with COVID vaccination and quarantine restrictions. As a result, International tour operators like us and travel agents like Pam spend a lot of their day keeping on top of unfolding events so our guests don’t have to.

“We are looking up the information every time someone asks a question,” she said. “Things are changing that often.”

Pam is gratified that she is starting to get travel requests from the 20- and 30-year-old children of her longtime clients, who have seen the magic worked by international travel agents and crave the comfort of a familiar voice on the phone when they’re far from home.

That support is taking up to three times as much effort these days, Pam said.

“It used to be there was one transaction and then they’d get to go on their trip,” she said. ”Now people will make a plan and rebook it and rebook it again,” she said.

Undeterred by obstacles, though, people seem determined to get out and start seeing the world again.

“Everyone wants to get the heck out of town,” said Pam, who is herself a frequent and adventurous traveler. “We’re all tired of being locked up.”

For the Long Lens Set, Major Bird Migrations Magnify European Tours for Fall

Cooler temperatures and fewer crowds make fall an ideal time for anyone booking European tours. But monumental bird migrations magnify the draw for those of us hauling long lenses and bags of binoculars. 

Guests joining Naturalist Journeys for three upcoming European tours will experience two of Earth’s eight major bird migration “flyways,” getting great looks at distinctive sets of birds coming and going to different places. 

Our Spanish Birding and Nature Sept. 3-15 and Portugal Nature and Birding Oct. 2-14 follow the East Atlantic flyway, the bird superhighway between Scandanavia and West Africa. With connecting avian flights from Siberia to the Middle East and Central Africa, our Sept. 16-25 Romania and Bulgaria Birding and Nature Tour traces the Black Sea-Mediterranean flyway. All three European tours offer ample cultural and culinary delights alongside these rich birding and nature experiences.

Illustration courtesy of Birdlife.org

Bird Migration Excites Our European Tours

Times of mass bird migration add further mystery and delight for birders already far from home on our European tours. As Carlos Sanchez, guide to our Spanish Birding and Nature Tour puts it: “You can walk the exact same paths at the same time of day and experience a very different set of birds. It’s really an exciting time of the year.”

From the birds’ own perspective, migration is a risky business, but a risk that one in five birds takes, according to BirdLife International, the world’s largest conservation partnership. As there are more than 10,000 bird species on the planet, some 2,000 of them elect to live in more than one place, summering and wintering, expanding their horizons for finding food, shelter and a place to raise their young.

Our guests enjoy delights like this beautiful example of Spanish tapas: soft cheese, Iberico ham and a crispy fried artichoke. Photo Credit: Guide Carlos Sanchez

Birds also embark on European tours, spending summers in Scandinavia and winters in Spain, Morocco and parts further south along the Eastern Atlantic Flyaway.

Some fly during the daytime, using the updraft of thermals, including the many species of Eagle we expect to see in Spain: Bonelli’s, Golden, Short-Toed and Spanish Imperial. In all, some 20 species of raptors can be found doing this daytime drift, hugging the coastlines and the mountains during spring and fall migration.

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Credit: Johnathan Meyrav

Meanwhile, smaller birds will often make their journeys at night, to avoid predators, heat and dehydration, including the Common Whitethroat and other songbirds, which must cross the ever-larger Sahara desert to get to their winter homes. More of them will die trying to make that crossing than in the entirety of their 6-month winter residence in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to data from Birdlife.org. The conservation organization warns that climate change will make these transits “increasingly arduous.”

Sardinian Warbler, Photo Credit: P. Marques

The rapid loss and degradation of habitat along these bird migration flyways is one of the most significant challenges these birds face — particularly the ones that travel the furthest, like Arctic Terns, which travel from pole to pole. The unintended consequences of something as simple as a changed business model can be devastating, as with the abandonment of many European and North African saltpans — manmade structures created to harvest salt from the sea relied upon by many migrating bird species for transitory habitat.

Protecting habitat along these vast areas is a major focus for BirdLife.org and their many conservation partners. The identification and protection of Important Bird Areas is a major part of what they do.

Here’s a bit more tour-specific information about the bird species, migratory and endemic, you might expect to see:

Spain Birding and Nature in Andalusia Sept. 3-15

White-Headed Duck. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

On this trip, we explore one of the largest and most important wetlands in Europe, Doñana National Park, and experience its rich diversity of water birds, including Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Squacco Heron, and Collared Pratincole. As noted earlier, as many as 20 raptors may be seen on this trip. Our tour is also timed for the movement of songbirds.

Romania-Bulgaria Black Sea Coast Migration Sept. 16-25

Black Woodpecker. Photo Credit: George Gorman

We spend the first half of the tour in the Dobrudja region shared with both Bulgaria and Romania, exploring shallow brackish lagoons, sandy beaches, freshwater marshes and reed beds. Species we should see include Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, Pygmy Cormorant, Red-footed Falcon, and Whiskered and White-winged Terns.

We visit the only steppe habitat in the European Union and home to a rich variety of nesting grassland birds such as Pied and Black-eared Wheatears, Calandra and Greater Short-toed Larks, and Long-legged Buzzard.

We end on the southern coast of Bulgaria, exploring the wetlands around Bourgas and the broad-leaved forests of the Strandzha Hills. We may see Syrian, White-backed, Lesser Spotted, and Black woodpeckers with guide Gerard Gorman, whose celebrated book “Woodpeckers of the World” is considered the definitive work on woodpecker species.

Portugal Nature and Birding Oct. 2-14

Eurasian Hoopoe. Photo Credit: George Bakken

Less-well-known to birders, Portugal hosts many of the most sought-after species such as Great Bustard, Azure-winged Magpie, Great-spotted Cuckoo, and Booted Eagle, as well as iconic European species such as Eurasian Hoopoe and Common Kingfisher.

Fall migration extends from August into early November; our timing on this Portugal birding tour is great for arriving waders, waterbirds, and raptors. By October temperatures in the vast and arid Alentejo are cooling down and every day brings overwintering species in from northern latitudes. Coastal and sea birding from the coast while in the Algarve is exceptional, with far fewer birders and crowds. Over 20,000 water-birds winter regularly.

Guided US Nature Tourism is Gateway Travel for the Post-COVID Era

Perks Include: Remote Locations, Outdoor Activities, Vaccine Requirements and No Overpriced Rental Cars!

As we emerge, vaccinated, from our COVID caves, stir-crazy has fused with FOMO (fear of missing out) to drive a serious uptick in demand for US travel and tourism.

In a classic case of pent-up demand, 77 percent of US travelers plan to take a trip in the next few months, according to tourism market researcher Destination Analysts, which has been conducting a large long term study of travel sentiment since March of 2020, when the pandemic struck. But international travel is still a no-go for some 56 percent of those surveyed, with just 10 fearless percent declaring this IS the year for bucket-list international travel.

US Travel Is Hot; International Getting Warmer

Sentiment may shift, thanks to an overdue development last week, when the U.S. State Department added some nuance to its April near-blanket warnings against travel to more than 80 percent of the world’s countries. The agency downgraded dozens of countries to less severe travel cautions, including countries we have pending trips to this year, including Spain, Portugal, Romania and Bulgaria, Panama, Ecuador, Guyana and our Amazon River Cruise via Peru. We’re hopeful that Costa Rica will soon have its travel warning right-sized as well!

But while travelers ponder international destinations, we, too, feel a strong sentiment in the direction of US travel and tourism, with our guests lining up for US trips with vaccine requirements. (We added vaccine requirements earlier this year for all trips, effective July 1, 2021.)

We have been gratified to sell out many US trips and continue to add several more in 2021, responding to the needs of travelers who are raring to get out there — just not TOO far out there.

Guided US Travel Has Its Benefits

The benefits are many to guided US nature and birding tours:

  • It’s a low-density activity in a remote outdoors location.
  • Vaccine requirements allow you to relax around your fellow travelers.
  • We’re now traveling in smaller vehicles rather than vans. 
  • You don’t have to worry about renting a vehicle on your own, which has become significantly more pricey post-lockdown — and that is if you can find an affordable rental car!

Our recently added US birding and nature trips (with vaccine requirements) include:

  • Aug. 22-27, Shorebird School at Alabama’s Dauphin Island, which also includes a private boat tour of “Alabama’s Amazon,” the deeply biodiverse Mobile-Tensaw Delta. 
  • Nov 1-9, South Texas Birding and Nature with extra time in the Rio Grande Valley, timed to lead into the 26th Annual Rio Grande Birding Festival in Harlingen, TX, which starts Nov. 10. 
  • November, TBA, Louisiana Yellow Rails and Rice, birding the rice harvest with guide Andrew Haffenden. Email us at travel@naturalistjourneys.com for more details — this one is so new we are still putting it together!
  • Dec. 4-10, give yourself the gift of California Birding Wine Country, in Lodi’s historic Wine and Roses Hotel, featuring some of the best cuisine in Central California. We bird premiere National Wildlife Refuges and sip wines in lush gardens and elegant tasting rooms.
  • US travel to Alabama's Dauphin Island brings you to Shorebird School with Andrew Haffenden
  • Our US travel to Shorebird School includes a private boat tour of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta
  • US travel to Mobile, AL may turn up a White-Topped Pitcher Plant
  • Our US travel to Lodi, CA is based at the Wine and Roses Hotel
  • US travel to California may turn up a Long-eared Owl.
  • US Travel to South Texas may turn up whooping cranes in November.
  • US travel to Louisiana may turn up Yellow Rails, shy birds and infrequent fliers, come out to glean during the Louisiana rice harvest.

Vaccinated Cruises are Sailing in 2021 (including OUR Nov. 7-14 Cruise to the Galapagos Islands)

Cruises are back, baby, big AND small—at least if you’re vaccinated.

In momentous travel news this week, the CDC signed off on a June comeback for Celebrity Cruises, with the cruise line requiring all guests 16 and older to be vaccinated to leave U.S. ports.

At the much smaller, much more intimate end of the spectrum, Naturalist Journeys intends to set sail on our Nov. 7-14 cruise to the Galapagos Islands. We still have a few cabins available for vaccinated travelers. We’ve chartered the small, well-appointed yacht, perfect for an intimate voyage for travelers with common interests. 

Naturalist Journeys’ Guests Are Vaccinated

Since all of Naturalist Journeys’ guests must show proof of vaccination starting July 1, our yacht cruise of the best islands in the Galapagos archipelago will also be a vaccinated cruise, and not just our guests and crew! By mid-June, the Galapagos is expected to be the first fully-vaccinated province in Ecuador and in South America, thanks to a joint government-tourism industry campaign supported by our tour partner, Ecoventura. 

Our crew, local residents and our guests won’t have to focus on COVID-19 and can instead train their sights on Blue-Footed Boobies, Marine Iguanas, Giant Tortoises and Darwin’s finches.

See Giant Tortoise on one of Naturalist Journeys' vaccinated cruises to the Galapagos Islands
Giant Tortoises greet us the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz. Photo by Bud Ferguson.

In short, if you are itching to travel internationally in 2021 and the Galapagos Islands have been on your bucket list or re-visit list, this is your year!

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.

Up-close photography is easy on our vaccinated cruises to the Galapagos birds you could see on Naturalist Journeys' vaccinated cruises
No telephoto needed for these not-so-shy birds. Photo by Ed Pembleton

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.

February Galapagos Cruise and Pre- and Post- Extensions

In early 2022, we have another of our vaccinated cruises to the Galapagos, Feb. 6-13. If vaccination progress is a straight line, it is perhaps more likely that the pre- and post- extensions to this trip will be available at this later date. Arrive in Quito Feb. 4 to join a high-altitude visit to Antisana Ecological Reserve in search of Andean Condor and many other spectacular endemics and make sure you’re in place and don’t “miss the boat.” We have for many years run the post-Galapagos four night extension to the Mindo area, to the delight of guests who revel in its amazing mix of species and habits viewed in just a short period of time. We bird cloud forests, montane forests and drier forests, where we discover species of the Choco Region.

We Have a Few Cabins Left on Amazon River Cruise Nov. 12-20

A Horned Screamer is one bird you may see on Naturalist Journeys' vaccinated cruises in the Amazon
Horned Screamer. Photo Credit: Naturalist Journeys’ founder Peg Abbott.

Pending the lifting of COVID restrictions, our Nov 12-20 Amazon River Cruise is another bucket list tour on the radar of serious birders and general nature lovers alike. Some 450 species of bird, 13 kinds of primates, 130 species of reptiles and amphibians and 120 species of mammals have been found in the areas we cruise in luxury on the Zafiro, a vessel especially designed for wildlife exploration in comfort. Excursion boats take us ever deeper into one of the wildest, richest places left on Earth.

Wildlife experiences: Anhinga Trail at Dawn

Anhinga by Carlos Sanchez
Anhinga by Carlos Sanchez

Every year from around January through the end of March, Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park comes alive as water levels throughout the park drop and force birds to concentrate around more permanent water sources. Guide Carlos Sanchez takes us through this Florida spectacle.

Well known to tourists who visit the trail by the thousands every year to see their first wild alligators, the site is generally passed off by the serious birder as having little potential of seeing something truly special—just close views of herons, egrets, and ibis. I challenge that false notion and welcome those to visit Anhinga Trail in late winter and see one of the great wildlife spectacles of Florida.

Great Egret by Carlos Sanchez
Great Egret by Carlos Sanchez

A late winter dawn at Anhinga Trail is truly a feast for the senses if one arrives under the cover of night and waits patiently for the sun to rise.  The air can either feel damp and musky or cool and crisp, depending on the strength of cold fronts working their way down the peninsula.  Along the trail, the barking duets of Barred Owl and whistled trills of Eastern Screech-Owl slowly diminish and give way to the wailing rattles of Limpkin and raspy notes of King Rail as sunrise draws closer. Suddenly, the entire trail system comes alive as birds begin their day. Hundreds of both Glossy and White Ibis commute overhead, along with Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, and Black and Turkey Vultures. A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, over a thousand strong, fly overhead in several waves towards their feeding grounds. Snail Kite may also be spotted leaving their roosts near this trail during this time of year. While all these birds are commuting to their feeding grounds, Black-crowned Night-Herons change shifts, barking out their ‘quoks’ as they head to their roosting areas.

Barred Owl by Carlos Sanchez
Barred Owl by Carlos Sanchez

On the ground, downy white Anhinga chicks beg for a meal of fish from their parents only a few feet from the boardwalk, always nervous Belted Kingfishers rattle and chase each other to establish who gets the best fishing spots for the day, and gaudily colored Purple Gallinules furtively peck at green tidbits in areas of thicker vegetation. If one listens carefully, one can also hear the metallic chinks of wintering Northern Waterthrush and the soft whinny of Sora.

Purple Gallinule by Carlos Sanchez
Purple Gallinule by Carlos Sanchez

Various smaller bird species which are not seen easily later in the day also make an appearance at the break of dawn, and and as February turns into March, their singing becomes more incessant and forms a significant part in the wetland dawn chorus — White-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Carolina Wren, and Northern Cardinal.

Roseate Spoonbill by Carlos Sanchez
Roseate Spoonbill by Carlos Sanchez

By around 8 AM, I usually head back to my car not only because the bulk of the morning activity is over but also before the throngs of tourists take over, causing the birds to retreat further into the marsh. However, this brief burst of activity sets the tone for the rest of the birding day in the Everglades or southern Miami-Dade as how can one not be impressed by the sheer number and variety of wetland birds as a birder? The experience is also bittersweet, as I have often been told that Anhinga Trail used to be much better, that there used to be far more birds, and that such dawn spectacles are only a shadow of what they once were. Regardless, it is still freshwater wetland birding in Florida at its best.

If you would like to make a trip to southern Florida in search of Caribbean specialties, exotics, or visit the Everglades, please consider our Naturalist Journeys tour in January 2021: South Florida: Everglades & More!

American Crocodile by Carlos Sanchez
American Crocodile by Carlos Sanchez

Carlos Sanchez sits on the board of the Tropical Audubon Society, is a regular contributor to the birding blog 10,000 Birds, and leads local tours through his company, EcoAvian Tours. He has also been a resident guide at lodges in both Ecuador and Brazil.

Your Most Influential Birding Books

Last month we asked you to share some of your most influential birding books—here are a few favorite books that got you hooked!

Dozen Birding Hot Spots by Roger Tory Peterson
Dozen Birding Hot Spots by Roger Tory Peterson

PEG ABBOTT

  1. The Complete Birder, Jack Connor, 1988. This birding book transformed my birding from watching and matching to a field guide to the art of comparative study between species. It helped me pace myself for careful study of shorebirds and even gave me hope for gulls. A gem still relevant today.
  2. Roger Tory Peterson’s Dozen Birding Hotspots, George Harrison, 1976. This publication came two years post high-school graduation for me and I was already birding from escapades in my first car, a Plymouth Duster my parents had passed on to me. I immediately pointed it to the first hotspot I explored, Cave Creek Canyon. I said right then, someday I am going to live here (I do now). I got to all of the hotspots and many more but it gave me my first map and sense of urgency to get out and see these premier places.
Birding on Borrowed Time by Phoebe Snetsinger
Birding on Borrowed Time by Phoebe Snetsinger

PAT LUEDERS

  1. Birding on Borrowed Time. When Phoebe Snetsinger died, my local paper did a front page story about her. I discovered she lived only two blocks from me, so I read her biography, Birding on Borrowed Time, discovering there was a hobby of birding all over the world.
  2. Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway inspired me to learn about, and chase, birds throughout the U.S.

Because of these two books, I enrolled in a Beginning Birders class at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins
Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins

KEITH HANSEN

Undoubtedly the two birding books that initially inspired me at the start were:

  1. Golden Guide to Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins, artwork by Arthur Singer
  2. The four volume set by William Leon Dawson to the Birds of California.
Birds of North America by Eliot Porter
Birds of North America by Eliot Porter

GREG SMITH

  1. From William Leon Dawson’s account for Bufflehead in Birds of California: “We would cuddle him in our arms, and stroke his puffy cheeks and rainbow hue, or give a playful tweak to his saucy little nose. But he does not immediately reciprocate our desire to fondle him…”.
  2. And then there is Eliot Porter’s Birds of North America: A Personal Selection, a birding book that instilled in me all the ethical and positive feelings generated by my photography of the world of natural history.
Parrots of the World by Joseph M. Forshaw
Parrots of the World by Joseph M. Forshaw

CARLOS SANCHEZ

  1. Golden Guide to the Birds of North America— Chandler S. Robbins, Herbert S. Zim, Bertel Brunn— 1966: This is the classic field guide that introduced many in the United States to the birds of North America, and I studied the copy at my elementary school endlessly. I was especially interested in artwork and sketching at the time, and I would often practice by copying individual birds from the book onto blank pieces of paper.
  2. Parrots of the World— Joseph Michael Forshaw— 1977: This is a beautiful birding book full of information and scientific illustrations on every single known parrot species, my favorite group of birds. I eventually even got to go to Bowra Station in Queensland, Australia in 2009 to visit the very same place where Forshaw made a lot of his observations on parrots!
The Observer's Book of Birds by S. Vere Benson
The Observer’s Book of Birds by S. Vere Benson

GERARD GORMAN

  1. The Observer’s Book of Birds by S. Vere Benson (any Brits of a certain age reading this will know it). It was one in a series (with Birds Eggs, Butterflies, Trees, Fungi, Horses, Dogs, Postage Stamps, etc., etc.). An absolute little pocket-sized gem, with paintings of every bird in Britain and succinct texts. I devoured that book. I still have it.
  2. My Year with the Woodpeckers by Heinz Sielmann. This birding book made a huge impression on me. It was first published in 1959 (before I was born!). It mainly tells the story of how Sielmann, a German zoologist and film-maker, filmed INSIDE the tree cavity nests of woodpeckers. I got the book after watching him interviewed on TV and seeing his black-and-white film of nesting woodpeckers on a BBC nature program. It was incredible stuff, he was the first to do it and, compared to today, with very basic equipment.
A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey by William J. Boyle, Jr.
A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey by William J. Boyle, Jr.

RICK WEIMAN

  1. Birds of North America field guide (Golden Press). I was a biology major at Rutgers College (before it was a University) and in 1981 I enrolled in an Ornithology course taught by Dr. Charles Leck (who unbeknownst to me was also the State Ornithologist for New Jersey). The Golden field guide was one of the birding books we had to purchase and using this guide we had to learn 150 birds for the course including their orders, families, and Latin names. This book and Dr. Leck started me on my birding path and has led to all of the wonderful places I’ve been and many of friends I’ve met since that share my passion.
  2. A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey by William (Bill) J. Boyle, Jr. When I began birding after college this was the birding book I purchased to help me explore NJ in search of birds. It was my bible and my road map and I still use it today. The book lists all of the author’s best birding spots in NJ with maps, directions, and times of year certain species may be present. It is in this book I first read about the wonders of Cape May, a place I have visited many times since in the spring and fall. Trips to Cape May led me to NJ Audubon and the wonderful people at the Cape May Bird Observatory. I soon joined CMBO’s World Series of birding century run teams and learned from birders like Pat & clay Sutton and David Sibley (yes, that David Sibley) who worked at CMBO way back then. Years later I joined the NJ Audubon “Wandering Tattlers” team made up of board members and corporate sponsors (that’s how I punched my ticket) and our leader every year was none other than Bill Boyle. Bill and I still keep in touch, and his book really was a huge part of my discovering what an awesome state I live in for both people, nature, and birds.
Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair
Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair

BOB MEINKE

Although I’ve essentially been a biologist since I was eight years old—probably from the day I returned to our family campsite with a 50-inch Bull Snake draped across my shoulders, scaring my poor mother witless—my appreciation for birding developed in fits and starts. Not surprisingly, my hotly anticipated career in herpetology never materialized, and I ultimately spent much of my youth in the Mojave Desert peering through a hand lens, honing what would eventually become a professional interest in plant taxonomy. But still not limiting myself to botany at that point, I wanted to know the names of everything I ran across, and not just the wildflowers. What lizard was that, and that dragonfly, and by the way, what were those pale little birds that blended in so well under the creosote bushes?

They were Horned Larks, I learned, though not from a book or a field guide, but a simple pamphlet handed out by the National Park Service at Lake Mead. But the seed was planted. Years went by, I was now teaching at Oregon State, and I continued to flirt with a passing interest in birding—a Pileated Woodpecker here, a Clark’s Nutcracker there. Fate had to intervene it seemed, and in 1994, as I was organizing a research trip to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, I came across a publication by Alfred Bailey entitled Birds of Arctic Alaska (published 1948). How it ended up stacked near the floristic manuals and plant presses we were loading up for Prudhoe is a mystery, but there it was, so I tossed it in my rucksack. 

Travel from Oregon to Deadhorse took a full day, and with time to kill I flipped open Bailey’s book, which detailed an expedition he took to the Arctic coast in the early 1920s. Just where I was going!  And so many birds I’d never heard of!  And I’d probably have time to look for them, since it was summer—when it never got dark! Why the book resonated with me so much I’ll never know, but I spent as much time on that trip birding as I did stooped over our tundra research plots. By the time we got back, my interest in birding was no longer passing.

The deal was sealed in 1998 when I first went to Africa. Again, botany took the lead, as we were primarily going to photograph the wide array of spectacular geopyhtes (i.e., bulb-bearing plants) that South Africa is famous for. But I didn’t leave without bringing along Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair, et al. And if I envisioned myself a serious birder before, my interest shifted to another level as we traveled through South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana.  

Although an identification guide, and completely different than Bailey’s book, Birds of Southern Africa was (and still is) beautifully put together, and was the key to making the most of a very memorable trip. It was the first of many international birding books for me, and I still remember it as the one that got me hooked on ecotravel.

This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich

DODIE LOGUE

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez and This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich. Both books are broad scope portraits of place, but also the minutia of daily life in these places. Both contain gorgeous writing and language, emotion, and much to think about. The Inuit have 23 words for Ice!

Song and Garden Birds of North America by National Geographic Society
Song and Garden Birds of North America by National Geographic Society

SHARON GUENTHER

Like most of the guides, The Golden Guide by Zim, et al, was my first birding book and remains my favorite. Years ago National Geographic published a 2-volume Birds of North America – one volume with song and garden birds, and the other with raptors and shore/sea birds. Both volumes contained these little vinyl records with bird songs and calls that I listened to constantly to learn more about birds. I wish I still had them but they got lost somewhere in my many moves.

We asked and you responded! Here are some of our Naturalist Journeys client’s most influential birding books:

Louisiana Birds by George Lowery
Louisiana Birds by George H. Lowery

When I was in junior high in the early 1960s, I had to pick a project from our science textbook.  I chose identifying all the birds on the school grounds.  Our school ground was not very bird friendly, so I changed the area to our rural yard and fields.  Thank goodness, our school library had a copy of Louisiana Birds by George H. Lowery, Jr. 

There was no Internet, no public library, and no money to buy a bird guide.  Lowery’s book started me on a lifelong journey of birding.  I was delighted when the third edition was printed in 1974 so that I could own a copy of that wonderful book.  I have a shelf of birding books, but I still pull out the Louisiana Birds to read the historical account of one species or another.

Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, Eastern version
I got my hands on my mom’s copy at a very early age (about two) —
interpreting the silhouette page as a dot-to-dot puzzle!  I took up
birding seriously at age 10, and had this book pretty well memorized by adulthood. Too bad I can’t still do that now.

In my teenage years, I was introduced to the Western U.S. That first
evening, camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, I couldn’t identify any of the amazing birds, and quickly realized I needed a different book.  I still have the tattered Peterson Western guide that we bought the next morning.

Of course, our shelves now contain piles of books about birds from
around the world.  I hope we will be able to resume traveling, and
birding, in new countries soon.

Birds of the West Indies by James Bond
Birds of the West Indies by James Bond

Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds which has been my constant birding companion since I got hooked on birding in the mid-1970s.  I’m also a book collector, so as exciting to me as spotting a great life bird is finding a great bird book: my ultimate find was a pristine 1934 first edition of Peterson’s guide, which I found on a 3/$1.00 table at a library sale twenty-five years ago.

My first international field guide was James Bond’s Birds of the West Indies.  (Ian Fleming was a birder, and named his character after the author.)

A Pocket Guide to Birds by Allan Cruickshank
A Pocket Guide to Birds by Allan Cruickshank

A Pocket Guide to Birds by Allan Cruickshank. My mother’s best friend, and my surrogate mother, who introduced me to birding as an 8-year old, was Helen Cruickshank’s sister, and an ardent amateur naturalist herself.  I vividly recall Allan’s escapades following birds to all sorts of unlikely heights, armed only with his giant box camera and an indomitable spirit. He autographed my 1954 copy (I was 10). I was, and am, hooked. The book, with Helen’s photographs, is probably now out of print, but it will always be current for me. 


Brazil’s Pantanal: A birding spectacle

Carlos Sanchez describes his experience from visits to Brazil’s birding and wildlife spectacle, The Pantanal. Carlos sits on the board of the Tropical Audubon Society. He is a regular contributor to the birding blog 10,000 Birds, and leads local tours through his company, EcoAvian Tours. He’s also a former resident guide at lodges in both Ecuador and Brazil.

Jabiru in the Pantanal
Jabiru by Peg Abbott

The Pantanal is a vast, seasonally flooded wetland. The largest in the world and in the southwest corner of the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil. Among birders, wildlife photographers, and nature enthusiasts, it is renowned for its incredible concentrations of birds at the end of the dry season. During this time, the fish get trapped in the shrinking pools of water. This attracts hordes of herons, egrets, storks, and other wetland species. The star of such huge concentrations is the massive Jabiru. The Jabiru towers over a diverse collection of South American waterbirds such as Sunbittern, Plumbeous Ibis, and Southern Screamer. Raptors such as Savanna Hawk, Snail Kite, and Black-collared Hawk, and up to five species of kingfisher also join the bonanza. It truly is one of the world’s great birding spectacles.

Green Kingfisher Pantanal
Green Kingfisher by Delsa Anderl

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to be able to visit the Pantanal before my guiding stint at Cristalino Lodge. It was my first of several subsequent visits over the years, but a first time visit to a place always seems to be the most impactful. I quickly learned that everything I had ever read about the Pantanal was true — this was truly a birder’s paradise. Everything was easy to see and easy to photograph. Did you miss that perfectly perched Snail Kite or Green Ibis? Not to worry. There were always more just around the corner. The Pantanal was the type of place where ‘there is always more of everything’ seemed to be a recurring theme.

Red-legged Seriema Pantanal
Red-legged Seriema, Naturalist Journeys Stock

The Pantanal hosts a mosaic of forest islands and riverside forest. Home to an interesting assemblage of regional endemics such as Mato Grosso Antbird, White-lored Spinetail, and Pale-crested Woodpecker. It is in this habitat in which most of the near-endemic Pantanal specialties occur. Because of its excellent gallery forest and proximity to the southern portion of the Transpantaneira Highway. The Transpantaneira highway transects the northern Pantanal, starting from the town of Pocone down to Porto Jofre. I chose to stay at SouthWild Pantanal which is formerly the Pantanal Wildlife Center. A lodge that features as the grand finale to Naturalist Journey’s tour to the area.

I must mention one thing, dawn in the Pantanal is spectacular. Warm golden-yellow hues shoot through the trees and across the landscape. This quickly wakes up with the calls and movements of thousands of birds. Days started just outside the lodge, watching the commuting birds. Keeping a special eye out for Golden-collared Macaw! The feeders hosted Toco Toucan and Red-crested Cardinals, stars of the show. Joined by a supporting cast of blackbirds, pigeons, doves, aracaris, and others.

Once the birds settled down for the morning, I explored the forest interior. Consistently practicing my Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl imitation to draw in flocks containing Rufous Casiornis, Masked Gnatcatcher, and more. In the afternoon, I took a boat trip, the shores were teaming with birds and caiman. Ending the day with Band-tailed Nighthawks feeding over the river. It is easy to see over a hundred species in a day in the Pantanal without ever using a motorized vehicle — such is the bounty of the Pantanal.

Red-crested Cardinal Pantanal
Red-crested Cardinal, Naturalist Journeys Stock

With a pre-dawn start down the Transpantaneira Highway, it took up until noon to finally reach Porto Jofre. Such was the quality of the birding to be had along the road here. Unlike the more northerly segment of the highway, the southern Transpantaneira crosses much wetter, much more open wetlands that many species seem to prefer.

As I was driving, I quickly noticed a red light among the reeds near the side of the road and stopped. A Scarlet-headed Blackbird, only one of two birds seen on the trip. The open fields along the way had multiple bizarre Southern Screamer and elegant Maguari Stork. The patches of forest here are excellent for Fawn-breasted Wren. They can only be seen in this part of the Pantanal. As one drives south, the wooden bridges become increasingly rickety (with one of the long ones twisted sideways). Crossing them was like taking a leap of faith each time.

Halfway between SouthWild Pantanal and the northern terminus of the Transpantaneira, Pousada Alegre offers slightly more affordable lodging set within a working cattle ranch. A great opportunity to see Brazilian Tapir. Although birding here did not revolve around specific target species, it was still highly enjoyable and it was the only place where I saw Red-billed Scythebill. For the first time ever, I went birding by horseback, to get deeper into the wetlands. It was certainly not great for seeing small birds, but in the Pantanal where many of the birds are large and conspicuous, this method certainly works. Plus it was fun! I will never forget the experience of rolling out of bed, walking down a couple miles and back, and having breakfast at around 8:00 AM with a day list already over 100 species.

Giant Anteater Pantanal
Giant Anteater, Naturalist Journeys Stock

Pousada Piuval was the last stop of my trip in this glorious wetland, located north of the start of the Transpantaneira. Here, the landscape is not seasonally flooded for as long as points further in the south. Termite mounds are conspicuous. Many species more typical of the cerrado scrub-grasslands to the north and east are common, including Red-legged Seriema, Greater Rhea, Gilded Flicker, and more. It is one of the best places in Brazil to see White-fronted Woodpecker – a specialty more typical of the Chaco of Paraguay and Argentina –occuring in small numbers at Pousada Piuval. Giant Anteater, arguably one of the world’s most incredible mammals, ambles along in certain paddocks in the early morning. Always a special sighting!

Hyacinth Macaw Pantanal
Hyacinth macaw pair by Greg Smith

Alas, it was over too soon. My last sunset in the Pantanal was spent admiring a pair of Hyacinth Macaw. They are the largest parrot in the Western Hemisphere and one of Brazil’s great conservation success stories. It was a great way to end this part of my trip.

See Jabiru, Giant Anteater, and more on our Brazil Birding & Nature Naturalist Journeys tours in 2021.

Naturalist Journeys is pleased to offer birding and nature tours to all seven continents. Start planning your next adventure.

www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146 | travel@naturalistjourneys.com

some of America’s avian treasures

North America is home to many amazing bird species, including several which require a special effort to see and appreciate. These avian treasures also invite one to sites that are unique within the United States—the climate, vegetation, and landscapes all add context and heighten the experience of seeing one’s first Elegant Trogon or Painted Bunting. So let’s look at this sampler, shall we?

Rosy-finch
Rosy-finch, Naturalist Journeys stock photo

ROSY-FINCHES Breeding only above tree line on windswept and desolate rock faces (or equally austere habitats on the Aleutians), the three American Rosy-Finches (Gray-crowned, Black, and Brown-capped) are extreme environment specialists that are endemic to North America. In the summer, they are the highest altitude breeding songbird in North America. Their nests often overlook snowfields in the highest mountains, gathering along the edges of melting snowbanks to feed on freshly uncovered seeds and insects. In autumn and winter, they descend these high ridges to avoid the worst of the high winds and blowing snow—sometimes to feeders such as Sandia Crest in New Mexico, where there is a long ongoing study on these fascinatingly tough avian treasures.

See Rosy-Finches and more avian treasures on our New Mexico Nature & Culture Naturalist Journeys tour.

Painted Bunting by Carlos J Sanchez
Painted Bunting by Carlos J Sanchez

PAINTED BUNTING There are few birds in the world with such a dramatic combination of blue, green, and red colors as the Painted Bunting. In fact, its French name nonpareil means “without an equal,” and its Cuban name mariposa means butterfly. Only in their second fall do the males achieve their spectacular plumage. These colorful songbirds occur in two populations, a western one, which winters in Mexico and Central America and an eastern one, which winters in South Florida and Cuba. In winter, they occur in rank thickets and woodland edges where they feed mostly on seeds. Due to their beauty and warbling song, poachers trap these buntings in South Florida for an illegal local cage-bird trade.

See Painted Bunting and more avian treasures on our South Florida: Everglades & More Naturalist Journeys tour.

Elegant Trogon by Homer Gardin
Elegant Trogon by Homer Gardin

ELEGANT TROGON Trogons and quetzals are an ancient, colorful bird family that occurs in forests and other wooded habitats from the American tropics to Africa to Southeast Asia. The word Trogon, from the Greek meaning “gnawer,” refers to their hooked, serrated bills used to eat large insects and fruit—as well as gnaw on the rotting wood of old woodpecker cavities to reuse as nesting sites. The exquisite Elegant Trogon, mostly a Mexican species of the Sierra Madre, is the only member of this tropical bird family to range north into Southeast Arizona – the only trogon species in the United States and often considered “the most sought after bird in Arizona.”

See an Elegant Trogon and more avian treasures on our Southeast Arizona Sky Island Spring Sampler Naturalist Journeys tour.

Green Jay by Delsa Anderl
Green Jay by Delsa Anderl

GREEN JAY Bright and sociable, Green Jays are a joy to watch as they move around wooded habitats in tight family flocks in search of large insects, seed, and fruit. Occurring primarily in two disjunct populations (one in Mexico and the other in the Andes), these jays are common residents in South Texas where they are steadily spreading northward. These birds are unusual in that parents retain non-breeding jays fledged from the previous year to help with territorial defense but do not assist as helpers-at-the-nest.

See Green Jays and more avian treasures on our South Texas Birding & Nature Naturalist Journeys tour.

Naturalist Journeys is pleased to offer birding and nature tours to all seven continents. Start planning your next adventure.

www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146 | travel@naturalistjourneys.com

What Was Your Spark Bird?

A few weeks ago we asked our guides what their spark bird was … and what fun was to read their responses. We sent out a newsletter to our clients so they could read about our guides’ spark birds and asked clients to send us theirs. What a fun response! Take a read below to learn about our guides’ spark birds and the spark birds that got our clients hooked on birding. 

OUR GUIDES’ SPARK BIRDS

Indigo Bunting, spark bird, Naturalist Journeys
Indigo Bunting by Doug Greenburg

INDIGO BUNTING
“My spark bird was an Indigo Bunting. I was in high school, working two days a week on an internship at a local nature center my senior year. I was engrossed in spring wildflowers and in working on pressing the latest discoveries when my friend burst in and says, you MUST come out and see this!  She pointed up and my bins connected with this turquoise gem, throwing his head up in song from the pitched roof of our historic schoolhouse. I was convinced and have been birding avidly ever since.”
Peg Abbott

Green Woodpecker, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Green Woodpecker by Pieter Verheij Photography

GREEN WOODPECKER
“The (Eurasian) Green Woodpecker was probably the first that got me really hooked. I was on a school trip, aged 9 I think, to the county of Cheshire in mid England (UK) to a big stately home. There were big gardens, parkland with deer, well-groomed lawns. You’ve see those places in TV shows where the lords and ladies sip tea! Anyway, during the lunch break I sneaked off with a pal of mine to try to get close to the deer, we ignored the ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign and crossed a lawn.

Suddenly a green-coloured bird shot up from the grass, making loud alarm calls as it bounded away before landed again on the grass not on the trees. I had never seen one before but I knew what it was: Green Woodpecker; I looked it up later at home and read that it is ‘often terrestrial and eats ants.’ Wow, a woodpecker that spends most of its time on the ground. I was hooked.”
Gerard Gorman

Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys, Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing by Steve Buckingham

CEDAR WAXWING
“A single Cedar Waxwing.

For a young boy, growing up in the magical woodlands of Maryland, it began with a single waxwing.

Exploring forest next to home, my older brother Rob gathered a wealth of information and experience for his Boy Scout “Bird Merit Badge.” I was always one barefooted step behind him. With his quick keen eyes, and accurate directions, he revealed wondrous beauty to me.

Fresh morning air, slight humidity, spring 1969. Above, a canopy of mixed deciduous hardwoods, below, a lush and diverse under story, found us immersed in what we delighted in the most. DISCOVERY!

Suddenly, there before us, calmly perched, a single Cedar Waxwing. Confiding, exquisitely plumaged, well-tailored, regal. Through my astonished eyes I felt nothing could have been more beautiful. Beholding this gift, dappled in soft sunlight, I stood motionless, gazing at a creature that would have an immense impact upon my life, forever. It was unfathomable to me that anything so exotic existed outside of a book, a zoo, or a jungle, but there it was, gazing back through black mascara bordered by fawn blush.

I made its acquaintance realizing its every subtlety. The appointment of color, the adornment of “wax” droplets on the tips of the wing feathers and an expressive crest crowning the bird, held my undivided attention. From that point on I only wanted to see more.

And so it has been, for my entire life.”
Keith Hansen

American Goldfinch, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
American Goldfinch by Michael Murphy, courtesy Unsplash

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH
“My spark bird was a Goldfinch. I was out running and a flock of breeding plumage American Goldfinch flew across my path, landing in a small tree. I thought, as many non-birders do, we have canaries in our area? That’s when I started looking at birds differently.”
Pat Lueders

Eastern Phoebe, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Eastern Phoebe by Hugh Simmons Photography

EASTERN PHOEBE
“Which bird got me hooked on birding? So hard to say, since nature drew me in at a very young age. I quickly learned to identify most of the common backyard birds one would find in South Florida from Anhinga to White Ibis. I did not “rediscover” birding until right after college, after walking to a local park and seeing an Eastern Phoebe perched on a fence. The thrill of seeing something I had studied in a book beforehand, researching and learning about it, then seeing it in the flesh—well, I was hooked again!”
Carlos Sanchez

Yellow-throated Vireo, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Yellow-throated Vireo by Carlos Sanchez

YELLOW-THROATED VIREO
“I had been birding (far beyond my general enthusiasm for the whole of the natural history world…) for just over a year with Jim, who had recently moved to the Central Coast of California.  Jim got me into looking at birds, the smaller birds, you know, the ones way up at the tops of the trees.  And with all the vagrant traps on our patch of the coast, we were having a blast finding all sort of migrants that fall, including an exceptional nice mix of vagrants. 

Jim had invited a number of friends from the Central Valley to join us on the coast and bird some of our favorite vagrant hotspots on 3 October, 1981, the peak of fall migration.  So early that morning we met Keith Hansen, his brother Rob, Dawn, Gary and others and started north from Morro Bay.  Most all of us were in our twenties, and the energy was palpable.  

And it was that energy that made it one of the most memorable days of birding for me.  Along with hordes of western migrants, we had a sublime group of eastern vagrants at every stop that morning.  But the bird of the day that gave us all a lot of “Green Valley grins” was that Yellow-throated Vireo at Pico Creek, just glistening in the bright, early morning sun…”
Greg Smith

Black-capped Chickadee, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Black-capped Chickadee by Doug Greenburg

BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE
“My spark bird, the bird that got me hooked on birding: Probably the Black-capped Chickadee. When I was a teenager my dad would take me hunting and I’d tag along, not so much for the hunting part but because I liked to be in the woods and spend time with my father. I remember one cold morning being in a tree stand waiting for a deer to walk by and being surrounded by silence and then …. chickadees. They were landing on branches all around me and even on the railing of the tree stand.

Since then I seem to have a magical connection with them. I’ve pished them in close many times, had them answer my chickadee call, and even had one land on my hand and try to pull a hair out of my knuckle. They are in New Jersey all winter and always bring a smile to my face when they land on my feeders.”
Rick Weiman

Cedar Waxwing, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Cedar Waxwing by John Duncan, courtesy Unsplash

CEDAR WAXWING
Woody describes his first spark bird in his blog post on Conservation Catalyst

“Long ago, a Midwestern boy was assigned patrol duty at his elementary school. His crossing was the farthest one from the school in a peaceful area overhung by crabapple trees. One fall morning during a lull in crossing activity, he noticed birds moving through one of the Crabapple trees. Upon closer investigation, he saw a dozen gorgeous yellow and brown-cast birds with crested heads and brilliant red and yellow accents feeding on crabapples. The birds seemed tame.

Early the next morning, he rode his bike to his crossing and found several trees swarming with even more of these birds. He got to within ten feet of them as they feasted on crabapples. He stood transfixed for an hour.

After returning home, the boy searched through the family bird book and found the birds he had been seeing close up and by the dozen. They were Cedar Waxwing.

There was something intoxicating about all of this. Later in life, he discovered that because the birds were eating over-ripe crabapples, they were indeed intoxicated. This made them tame.

This boy has been watching and studying birds ever since. As you may have guessed by now, this boy was me.”
Woody Wheeler

OUR CLIENTS’ SPARK BIRDS

We’ve kept our clients’ spark bird stories anonymous for their privacy.

American Redstart by Doug Greenberg

AMERICAN REDSTART
“The spark bird for me was a disaster. I was in my pre-teens and living in Chicago in the old community of Pullman and had ridden my bike to what was known as the dump. It was actually an industrial land fill in the wetlands and prairie areas near Lake Calumet on Chicago’s far south side. While wandering about I spied a bird on the shore of a small pond. So I did what kids do, I threw stone at it. I hit it. And killed it. I was devastated and fascinated by the beautiful animal I had destroyed. It was either a Mourning Dove or Killdeer. I can’t recall. But I never threw another stone at another bird. My deed haunted me.

But then an epiphany occurred for me. A few years later while working on a landscaping project in a well-tended yard in a well-tended residential neighborhood the world of birds opened up for me in the flash of a Redstart darting amongst shrubbery right in front of my nose. WOW. What was that. Where can I find a book? Holy cow, I wanted more. I was hooked. But it sure was an odd situation being the only birder in a 1950s big city blue collar high school.”

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Black-crowned Night-Heron by Sandy Sorkin

NIGHT HERON
“When I was in grad school at UNC, my boyfriend taught me about birding. I wasn’t hooked yet though. I couldn’t even tell you the first birds I observed. But then we took the long drive to the Everglades. At the first pond, there was an immature night heron. After identifying it on my own (with a field guide of course!), I was hooked. I mean, really … that red eye!”

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Peg Abbott

RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD
“I guide here in the DC area and my spark bird is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I was the gardener at our school and I wanted them to come over the roof of the school and into the courtyard. I planted Bee Balm in a large 4×4 bed, then set a feeder with fresh sugar water in a red-colored dish-like feeder. I kept it clean. They came early much to my joy and I got a video of the bird scaffolding from the Beech tree to the feeder. I set up a presentation in power point for the after-school kids and talked about how scientists found out how they fly.

We still don’t know how they hover. Physics students from UC Davis were having a break on the patio at the school when they saw some Hummingbirds and wanted to know the physics of their flight.  They made an experiment and they filmed it. The middle schoolers were fascinated. They were happy to see that we had hummingbirds coming to the school. It was a treat. I will always be surprised by these tiny but mighty birds.”

Pileated Woodpecker, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Pileated Woodpecker, courtesy Unsplash

PILEATED WOODPECKER
“My ‘spark’ to birding (never heard that one before) was many years ago, as a young teenager, early 1970s, when an older family friend, in upstate New York … who knew Roger Tory Peterson (too bad I never met him!) took me out for birding in the summer, Catskills, wee hours … and my first Pileated Woodpecker, so spectacularly beautiful, that was it, I was hooked … birding ever since, in a fun way, even now easy to do in Virginia, without any crowds!”

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher by Doug Greenburg

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER
“I grew up with a father who was an avid amateur ornithologist so (by osmosis?) I was pretty familiar with common birds of Massachusetts and was accustomed to noticing birds even though I was hardly a birder. In my early 40s I was sitting on our deck in the mountains of North Carolina with my leg propped up as I recovered from minor surgery. I noticed a small active bird in the shrubbery in front of me.

With nothing better to do I went and got binoculars and eventually identified the bird as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I was quite surprised that I had never even heard of this bird, let alone seen one before. Right there in my yard was a bird that was new to me! That got me wondering what else might be around and things took off from that.”

Baltimore Oriole, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Baltimore Oriole by Doug Greenburg

BALTIMORE ORIOLE
“My father was a birder. It didn’t catch on with me right away (I was really into snakes earlier). Then in the spring of 1953 a pair of Baltimore Orioles built a nest in the willow tree in our backyard. I had seen pictures of them but never expected to see them in person. After all, they were Baltimore Orioles, and we lived in Massachusetts. I was thrilled to have such colorful birds nesting in our backyard. From then on I started looking through field guides, and I was hooked!”

Immature Bald Eagle, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Immature Bald Eagle by Bob Hill

BALD EAGLE
“When I was in college, I was home for Christmas break. I was invited by a family friend to attend the Christmas Bird Count in Butte County, California. I had never been particularly interested in birds but I thought, what the heck, I didn’t have anything better to do. I figured I would just go for half a day. However, I couldn’t believe how fun it was and loved the whole day.

A couple of days later, I got to go birdwatching again with the trip leader, Eleanor Pugh, who was a pretty renowned California birder. We went to the Oroville Forebay, and she spotted a raptor in a tree and set up her scope. She looked through it and said, ‘I’ll let you all look at the bird and see if you can figure it out.’ Lo and behold, it was a mature Bald Eagle. We all got a great look at it, and then it took off and flew right over our heads.

This was a transformational experience for me. Not only did I become a lifelong birder, but I suddenly knew I cared deeply about the environment. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew I wanted to make a difference. I became a land use planner and helped implement the Coastal Act in Sonoma County.”

Red-shouldered Hawk, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Red-shouldered Hawks by Sandy Sorkin

RED-SHOULDERED HAWK
“A Red-shouldered Hawk—seen on a vacation to Florida in 1993, in a state park in the center of the state. It was at face height, about 15 feet away, observing me and not afraid. So beautiful. I had no idea what it was. After the trip I asked a client of mine who birded with her husband, what it might have been. From her suggestions, the Red-shouldered Hawk was the right bird.

I told my husband, I really liked looking at birds, and I want to keep doing it. We found the Audubon Society online, and by good fortune, the San Fernando Valley chapter was very active with 10 field trips every month. We started coming on the field trips, standing next to someone with more experience, and in a few months we were totally into birding. My husband at first felt that it was going to be an activity for old ladies, but when he came to a field trip, he saw it was about 50% men, and they were typically competitive like men in most sports. BTW, we were both in our early 50s already.”

Cedar Waxwing, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Cedar Waxwings by Gary Bendig, courtesy Unsplash

CEDAR WAXWING
“So, what is it about Cedar Waxwings? Two guides said they were their spark bird, and I smiled when I read that, because they were my spark bird at a very young age. Whole flocks of them used to descend on the toyon bushes of our Southern California house. They were magnificent, albeit a little reckless if they ate berries that had fermented on the bushes!”

Wood Duck, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Wood Duck by Doug Greenburg

WOOD DUCK
“My spark bird was a Wood Duck. I was running past a small pond in the Berkshire in Massachusetts when I noticed a family. That was it—I was off and traveling the world.”

Scarlet Tanager, Spark Bird, Naturalist Journeys
Scarlet Tanager by Doug Greenburg

SCARLET TANAGER
“Seen from our boat on the dappled creek shore was a bird that caught my attention. It was a gorgeous deep red, with jet black wings. Searching my memory banks for its identification was no help so soon thereafter I bought a field guide. The first of many, many, many books and a now 30 year avocation feeding, watching, traveling, and learning about birds.”

Naturalist Journeys is pleased to offer birding and nature tours to all seven continents. Start planning your next adventure.

www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146 | travel@naturalistjourneys.com

7 Highlights of our Colorado Birding Tour to zapata ranch

Long-eared Owl by Greg Smith

Read on for 7 highlights from Naturalist Journeys‘ Colorado birding tour and a letter from Ted Floyd, editor of Birding magazine.

Hello, Bird & Nature Lovers.

What a spring it has been—the strangest and most unsettling of my life, and perhaps yours too. Last month, I had plans to be at the Medano–Zapata Ranch. Mid-March is a magical time of year at the ranch, when the long winter is finally coming to an end. It’s when Sandhill Cranes fill the skies, when Mountain Bluebirds pause on every fencepost; when Cinnamon Teals and rare Mexican Ducks poke about the cold, clear waters of the region; when Sagebrush Sparrows and Sage Thrashers proclaim from the rabbitbrush and greasewood; and when Long-eared Owls sing their spooky songs from the quiet woods just beyond the ranch headquarters.

Mountain Bluebird by Hugh Simmons Photography

I didn’t get to experience any of that this year, but I know it’s happening right now—and I long to get back to “The Valley,” as it is simply known. The San Luis Valley, straddling the Colorado–New Mexico border, is immense, the size of the state of New Jersey. It is a land of superlatives, of 14,000–ft. summits, but also of vast wetlands and endless desert. And it is, strangely and unjustly, unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Even many Coloradans are only dimly aware of its existence.

At this writing, it’s impossible for me—it’s impossible for anybody—to say when The Valley will be open again for the business of nature tourism. I sure hope it’s sometime this summer, and that’s because my favorite time of year in The Valley—sorry, March—is the summer. The cranes are gone by then, but everything else is there: the bluebirds and teals and owls and so much more: gloriously green Lewis’s Woodpeckers…enchanting Snowy Plovers…busybody flocks of White-faced Ibises…Black Swifts blasting out of waterfalls… And a fantastic diversity of butterflies, beetles, and other arthropods.

Lewis’s Woodpecker by Steve Wolfe

The folks at Naturalist Journeys and the Medano–Zapata Ranch, acting out of both caution and practicality, have decided to reschedule our Colorado birding tour for June 13 – 20, 2021. The Valley is wonderfully alive at that time of year, with breeding bird activity at a peak, the days not too hot, and the evenings pleasantly cool. We are already in touch with the various experts who will join us in the field for special visits to private and restricted sites.

I’m disappointed that we won’t be spending time together this year, but I can say that I’m already excited about the prospect of doing so in the year following. I’m so looking forward to learning and exploring together with all of you! In the meantime, feel free to reach out to me with questions about observing and enjoying nature in The Valley. Email is best; you may contact me at tfloyd@aba.org. For questions about logistics and scheduling for our Colorado birding tour, be in touch with Naturalist Journeys. We’ll be seeing you—sooner or later!

Sincerely yours,

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine

THE NATURE CONSERVANCY’S ZAPATA RANCH: 7 HIGHLIGHTS YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS ON OUR COLORADO BIRDING TOUR

colorado birding tour
Rock Wren by Sandy Sorkin

1. Visiting the rugged, isolated, and beautiful John James Canyon is always a treat on our Colorado birding tour. Birds of rocky country like Black-throated Sparrow and Rock Wren can be found throughout the basalt hillsides, as well as two rare species of butterflies, rattlesnake, and the hearty Pronghorn.

colorado birding tour
Bird Conservancy of the Rockies banding a Black Swift by Madeline Jorden

2. No trip to the ranch is complete without a visit to Zapata Falls. Hidden inside a great rock chamber lies the roaring 25-foot waterfall, where we witness swifts bursting through the water at dawn. The parking lot offers a sweeping view of the entire San Luis Valley and the short walk to the falls is a riot of sound and color with tanagers, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, and warblers.

colorado birding tour
Snowy Plover by Greg Smith

3. Blanca wetlands is a key stopover for migrating water birds and a visit to the wetlands offers wonderful close-up opportunities to see American Avocet, Snowy Plovers, and others. Here, we have the special opportunity to hear from local biologists about all of the great work they are doing.

colorado birding tour
Golden Eagle by Greg Smith

4. For dashing western raptors like Prairie Falcon and Golden Eagle, a trip to Hell’s Gate formation is not to be missed on our Colorado birding tour. We usually spot Bighorn Sheep here (in fact, we’ve actually never missed them)!

Colorado birding tour
Wranglers on the ranch by Matt Delorme

5. Those hungry for more adventure can lace up their boots and join the ranch crew to explore areas of The Nature Conservancy’s Zapata Ranch, accessible only by horseback. Atop sure-footed ranch horses, we travel through cool grassy meadows teeming with life and down dusty gulches checkered with Coyote dens.

Dinner at the ranch by Madeline Jorden

6. Far from typical ranch fare, the food alone is worth the trip. A bounty of fresh local produce, ranch-raised meats, home baked breads, and heavenly desserts are thoughtfully prepared each day by the ranch’s excellent dining staff. While we take our lunch to-go, breakfast and dinner are a feast in the lodge’s great dining room, surrounded by panoramic windows. From our morning coffee to our evening cocktail, we admire browsing Mule Deer and follow the sun as it rises over the Sangre de Cristos and sets over the San Juan range.

Wild Bison pasture on the Zapata Ranch by Chris Haag

7. Of course, the ranch itself is the main attraction! With Great Sand Dunes National Park as our backdrop, it is magical walking out among the rabbitbrush and greasewood and see and hear specially adapted birds like Sagebrush Sparrow and Sage Thrasher, or to witness the ranch’s wild Bison herd and their spring calves as they wallow and bellow in the summer sun. Making the sprawling, magnificent ranch our home for the week is certainly the cherry on top of our unforgettable Colorado birding tour. 

Take a look at some of our recent blog posts!