European Birds Can be showier than a Murmuration of Starlings

Perhaps we should blame the poets for European birds’ unfair reputation for being drab and nondescript. After all, Edgar Allen Poe chose the monochromatic Raven to quote, and Percy Shelley wrote ‘To a Skylark’, a “little brown job” if there ever was one.

Maybe these men never got out of the sooty city with a pair of binoculars, because their melancholy might have been lifted by considering a Western Capercaillie, peering at an Atlantic Puffin, or getting off their foggy islands altogether to glimpse a turquoise flash of European Roller, or the rainbow buzz of a European Bee-eater. Many European birds have both character and flash!

Atlantic Puffin by Charles Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

We asked our guides to share with us European birds that guests always love to see there, featuring upcoming tours where you may cross the pond for your own look!

One bird that made all of the lists is the uncommonly beautiful Common Kingfisher, which, true to its name, can be found on all of Naturalist Journeys’ European birding and nature tours. There are 114 species of kingfisher on the planet, and the single kingfishers in European birds column is truly a dazzler!

A Common Kingfisher is among the European birds that Naturalist Journeys' birding and nature tours may see while birding in Europe
A Common Kingfisher with a bite in Italy’s Po River. Photo Credit: Luca Casale via Creative Commons

Another special, water-loving bird widespread on our European birding and nature tours is the Eurasian Spoonbill.

The Eurasian Spoonbillis among the European birds that Naturalist Journeys' birding and nature tours may see while birding in Europe
Eurasian Spoonbill is fguest-favorite feature of many of our European tours. Photo Credit: René Pop

Guide: Gerard Gorman; Tour: Lesvos, Greece: Migration April 22 – 29, 2023

This unpack-once jewel of a tour on the Greek island of Lesvos is one of five guided by one of the most highly regarded birding guides in all of Europe, Gerard Gorman, the author of two birding guides to Europe and seven books about woodpeckers, his personal passion! Our most recent Lesvos, Greece guests added handsome Middle-spotted Woodpecker two times to their species list, along with show-stopping European Bee-Eaters, gregarious birds recorded every day of the tour.

  • European Bee Eaters
  • Middle-spotted Woodpecker  is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Woodchat Shrikes  is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Collared Pratincole  is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Little Owl  is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Other guest favorite birds of this tour included Collared Pratincole, Woodchat Shrike and Little Owl. (Little Owl is believed to be the source of the disinformation that owls are highly intelligent, as Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom, often carried one on her shoulder.)

Guide: Carlos Sanchez; Tour: Spain Birding and Nature, April 24 – May 7, 2023

Spain is strategically situated on one of Europe’s two principal flyways, and this spring migration tour gives great looks at many of the continent’s birds, including Spanish residents, migratory birds that breed in Spain and even northern European species that wintered in Africa and are headed home to pair up and nest.

Asked to share a few guest favorites, Carlos kindly gave us examples from the various legs of the tour:

“European Roller and Great Bustard are always favorites in the steppes (Caceres).”

  • Great Bustard is among the wonderful European birds that birders seek out on birding trips to Europe
  • The European Roller is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

“Eurasian Hoopoe and Eurasian Golden Oriole are also always big hits with groups, and they are fortunately quite widespread across our route.”

  • Eurasian Hoopoe is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Eurasian Golden Oriole is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

“Other guest favorites include Egyptian Vulture and Spanish (Imperial) Eagle at Monfrague, Iberian Magpie in the dehesas. 
White-throated Dipper on clear streams in the Gredos.”

  • Egyptian Vulture is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Iberian Magpie is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Imperial Eagle is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • White-throated Dipper is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Guide: Chris Harbard; Tour: Ireland & Scotland Discovery May 17 – June 2, 2023

This fantastic cruise around the coastline and islands of Ireland and Scotland visits the very best of the British Isles with opportunities to see internationally important seabird colonies, and a wide range of other British and Irish birds as well as other wonderful wildlife. Seabirds don’t tend to be especially colorful, with the exception of Atlantic Puffin, which we hope to see in large numbers. Many are quite striking though, including Northern Gannet, Common Murre and Red-Billed Chough.

  • Atlantic Puffin is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Northern Gannet is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Red-billed Chough is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Northern Gannet is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Your guide for this tour, Chris Harbard, is a well-known British ornithologist who spent 24 years working with the world’s largest bird conservation organization, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Guide: Dave Mehlman; Tour: Iceland Birding and Nature June 13 – 27, 2023

No bird, however striking, will be able to compete with the gorgeous landscape of Iceland, including geysers, grand waterfalls, wildflowers, glaciers, mountains and seacoasts. Bird counts aren’t high here, but there are some great ones, including Atlantic Puffin, Red-throated Loon, Rock Ptarmigan, Eurasian Golden Plover and Red-Necked Phalarope.

  • Red-throated Loon is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Rock Ptarmigan is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • European Golden Plover is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Red-necked Phalarope s one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • White Wagtail is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Atlantic Puffin is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Guide: Gerard Gorman; Tour: Finland – Norway: Birding & Nature June 13 – 15, 2023

Finland and Norway and the next listed tour, share some of the same remarkable birds that migrate along the East Atlantic Flyway. Here are some that will be in both places mid-June, and below find a gallery of those particular to our Austria-Hungary tour. Our guests were delighted with our inaugural tour to Finland-Norway last year, and these birds were among their favorites to land on the species list. The Ruff is only seen on our Finland-Norway tour. The Capercaillie is also seen on our Scottish Highlands and Islands tours, next departure June 9– 21 (and yes, that Scottish Highlands tour features Atlantic Puffin. Who doesn’t love a puffin?)

  • Great Crested Grebe ne of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Bluethroat is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Ruff is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Capercaillie  is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Guide: Gerard Gorman; Tour: Austria–Hungary: Birds, Nature and Culture in the Heart of Europe June 19 – 30, 2023

Our route here takes us from Vienna to Budapest, visiting the many different and wonderful birding habitats in between, and accordingly there is a significant amount of culture on this tour. We also highlight the region’s other wildlife, plants, interesting heritage livestock breeds, and fine historic architecture. We enjoy local foods and even visit an old winery in Hungary! Many of the iconic European species can be seen on this tour. These three guest favorites are only seen on this tour: Red-crested Pochard, Common Cuckoo, and Red-footed Falcon.

  • Red-Footed Falcon
  • Skylark is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Guide: Gerard Gorman; Tour: Romania & Bulgaria: Black Sea Coast Migration Sept. 15 – 24, 2023

This wonderful fall migration tour offers chances to see many of the Eastern European species already mentioned, along with these client favorites that may also be seen on our Austria-Hungary tour: Hawfinch, Black Woodpecker, White-tailed Eagle, Northern Lapwing.

  • Hawfinch is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Black Woodpecker is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Northern Lapwing is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • White-tailed Eagle is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Common Cuckoo is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Guide: Gerard Gorman; Tour: Portugal: Fabulous Birding and Culture Oct. 8 – 19, 2023

Like Spain, Portugal is situated on the East Atlantic flyway, the bird superhighway connecting Scandanavia and West Africa. Many of the birds already mentioned may be seen on this fabulous tour. Dapper Red-legged Partridge and endemic Sardinian Warbler are two of many great reasons to sign onto this culturally rich tour.

  • Sardinian Warbler is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe
  • Red-legged Partridge is one of the most common European birds seen by birders on Naturalist Journeys' guided nature tours in Europe

Charismatic Kingfishers are Beloved BirdS – Just ask a Kookaburra!

Kingfishers are among the most charismatic and distinctive of all the bird families, with large heads and long pointed bills that contrast with their shortish legs and stubby tails. Even beginning US birders can confidently identify the brush-crested red-white-and-blue Belted Kingfisher, whose in-flight, rattling, streamside call is as unmistakable as it is thrilling.

  • The Belted Kingfisher is the kingfisher known to most Americans
  • Green Kingfisher is at the top of its range in Texas and Arizona.
  • kingfishers like this Ringed Kingfisher found on our Texas and Arizona tours are amazing

Belted Kingfisher is widespread in North America and may be seen on most of our Mainland US and Alaska tours. Our Southeast Arizona and Texas tours may see two more species, at the top of their North American ranges: Ringed Kingfisher and Green Kingfisher, who, like the Belted Kingfisher, perch and hunt along streams and rivers for their namesake lunch.

Like many kingfisher species, Green Kingfisher digs long tunnel burrows into stream banks, often rising in height before dropping down to their nests. Tunnel kingfisher nests often become quite befouled, perhaps because taking out the refuse would be such a long trip!

US birders traveling abroad are sometimes surprised to learn there are kingfishers who don’t eat fish at all! There are 114 species of kingfishers, and while they have similar forms, they are diverse and widespread.

Rufous-bellied Kookaburra is a Tree Kingfisher. Photo Credit: Greg Miles via Creative Commons
Rufous-bellied Kookaburra is a Tree Kingfisher. Photo Credit: Greg Miles via Creative Commons.

Tree Kingfishers, sometimes called Wood Kingfishers, live in drier forests where insects and other small prey make up much of their diet. Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea’s charismatic kookaburras are examples of tree kingfishers, which predominate in Asia. The kookaburras are the largest of the kingfishers, ranging from 11 to 17 inches in length.

Our New Zealand guests often see Sacred Kingfisher, which mostly eats invertebrates, crustaceans, and the occasional lizard throughout its wide range in Australasia. Sacred Kingfisher is also seen by our Papua New Guinea guests, but it has a LOT of kingfisher company there. It was just one of eleven kingfishers our guests saw on their last tour there:

Azure, Brown-headed Paradise, Buff-breasted Paradise, Common Paradise, Hook-billed, Little Paradise, Sacred, Shovel-billed and Variable Dwarf Kingfishers, along with Blue-winged and Rufous-winged Kookaburra. You’ll notice some of these have longer tails, more beneficial rudders in the air than they would be in the water.

Kingfishers of Papua New Guinea

  • Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher
  • Spangled Kookaburra by Doug Janson via Creative Commons
  • Brown-headed Paradise Kingfisher by Marksharper1 via Creative Commons
  • Common Paradise Kingfisher by Francesco Veroni via Creative Commons
  • Hook-billed Kingfisher by Francesco Veroni via Creative Commons
  • Blue-winged Kookaburra by Greg Schechter via Creative Commons

Spangled Kookaburra is another species we may see on our Aug. 2 – 15, 2023 birding and nature tour to Papua New Guinea. That trip deserves its ‘Bucket List Birding’ title not just for its impressive suite of kingfishers, but for all the opportunity to see showy bird of paradise and bowerbirds, whose dramatic mating displays are a staple of David Attenborough-esque documentaries about bird behavior.

As one of its national symbols, the kookaburra is most commonly identified with Australia. Guests on our Queensland’s Wet Tropics birding and nature tour Aug. 13 – 22, 2023 there may see Laughing Kookaburra, whose eponymous call is a staple of soundtracks to movies set ‘Down Under’.

Laughing Kookaburra is a national symbol of Australia. Calistemon, via Creative Commons
Laughing Kookaburra looks amused. Photo Credit: Calistemon via Creative Commons

We may also see Blue-winged Kookaburra, which live in groups of up to a dozen individuals in open savannah and tea-tree swamps. Blue-winged Kookaburra is a “cooperative breeder,” meaning a nesting pair may get some help from other birds in its group with feeding and rearing young.

Kingfishers are Colorful Characters

Bright colors and striking patterns are hallmarks of kingfishers, exemplified by uncommonly beautiful Common Kingfisher, widespread in Eurasia and North Africa.

Common Kinfishers can be seen on many of Naturalist Journeys' European tours.
Common Kingfishers can be see on many of our European tours. Photo Credit: Tom Dove

This is always a WOW bird in the binoculars for our guests in Spain, one of whom described it as “an iridescent blue jewel.” Our next Spain trip, the very popular spring migration trip with guide Carlos Sanchez April 24 – May 7, is an excellent opportunity to look for Common Kingfisher, along with all the Africa-wintering European species moving through in great numbers at this time.

Malachite Kingfisher by Peg Abbott
Malachite Kingfisher by Peg Abbott

Another incredibly colorful kingfisher is the Malachite Kingfisher, which has been seen on all of our Africa tours, as it is widespread across the continent. One of the most irridescent of kingfishers, the Malachite’s shine, like a hummingbird’s glowing gorget, is the result of intricate feather structures called melanasomes rather than pigmentation in the feather itself, which accounts for their flash.

Africa is Kingfisher Heaven

Africa is a fabulous place to see kingfishers! Our most recent tour group to Tanzania saw seven kingfisher species, including one of the smallest, at less than five inches, the African Pygmy Kingfisher. Our next Tanzania Birding and Wildlife Safari is Jan. 30 to Feb. 11, 2023.

African Pygmy Kingfisher by Tom Dove
Tiny African Pygmy Kingfisher is less than 5 inches long. Photo Credit: Tom Dove

Our most recent trip to Botswana also saw a half-dozen kingfisher species, including Half-collared, Brown-hooded and Striped Kingfishers working the Chobe River, one of several water sources we visit on safari to encounter concentrations of wildlife, including lions, elephants, antelope and, of course, kingfishers!

  • Half-Collared Kingfisher. Photo Credit: Grancesco Veronesi via Creative Commons
  • Striped Kingfishers are seen in both Tanzania and Botswana
  • Brown-hooded Kingfisher by Derek Keats via Creative Commons

Kingfishers are Ancient

Dating back 40 million years in the fossil record, kingfishers share the suborder Alcidines with the Central America’s todys, who share their stubby tails, and motmots, who took tailfeathers in an entirely different direction. Having a short tail is especially helpful for kingfishers that dive underwater, helping them turn and maneuver with less resistance.

  • kingfishers are in the same family as this Tody Motmot.
  • Kingfishers are in the same family as this Trinidad Motmot

Catch, Kill, THEN Eat

Rather than risk indigestion, kingfishers won’t immediately eat fish that are still wriggling, especially large ones. They will instead either hold its prey until it suffocates or actively kill a fish by bashing it against a tree trunk or rock, as shown in this “Scoop of the Day” mini documentary about the Stork-Billed Kingfisher:

Kingfishers are Also Abundant in Asia

We have chances to see six or more kingfishers fishing in India, during a single cruise of the Sundarbans region on our March 10 – 23 Grand India Tigers & Glorious Birds tour:  Stork-billed, Brown, Little Pied, Black-capped, Common, and Collared Kingfisher. The Peacock is India’s national bird, but its best-selling beer is Kingfisher!

  • Stork-billed Kingfisher can be seen on our India tours. Photo Credit: Dibyendu Ash via Creative Commons
  • Black-Capped Kingfisher

Just north of India, the richly forested Kingdom of Bhutan is home to nine kingfisher species! We are taking an inaugural trip to Bhutan April 10 to 23: Biodiverse Bhutan: Birds, Mammals and Beyond. With luck we will see some of them darting into the many rivers that descend from Himalayan peaks, carving forested valleys.

pied Kingfisher by Annishaikh1990 via Creative Commons
Pied Kingfisher by Annishaikh1990 via Creative Commons

Kingfishers of Japan, Indonesia and Thailand

Among its many wetland species, in Japan we have chances to see up to 7 species and in Thailand, a full dozen. But there is no better Naturalist Journeys tour to see kingfishers than our Sept. 11 – 27, 2023 tour to Indonesia. In fact, you may add as many kingfishers to your life list as any other bird family. More than 50 kingfisher species can be found in Indonesia, including 16 endemics. Just wow!

  • Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher by Ariefrahman via Creative Commons
  • Great-billed Kingfisher by A.S. Kono via Creative Commons
  • Javan Kingfisher by Lip Kee Yap via Creative Commons

Owling is One of the Most Rewarding Reasons to Stay Up Late

Whoo Doesn’t Love an Owl?

Owling, aka owl-watching, is one of many family-based birding specialties, on par with hawk-watching, hummingbirding and kingfishering.

OK, we made up the term kingfishering, but the family Alcedinidae, the kingfishers, is another of the most beloved and “collected” in birding, and the subject of our NEXT blog.

But back to the Strigiformes and owling: the often dimly lit, (and let’s face it, frequently futile) search for nocturnal raptors whoo have captured the imagination (and cut into the sleep) of many an avid birder on vacation or birding tour.

True & Barn Owls: Strigidae & Tytonidae

  • Owling is a family-specific type of birding
  • Owling is a family-specific type of birding

Our Queensland’s Wet Tropics Tour, Aug. 13 – 23, 2023, offers chances to see both the Lesser Sooty Owl and Rufous Owl.

Owls and Owling are Everywhere!

Ranging from 5 to 28 inches in length, owls are found on every continent save Antarctica and for millennia have been inspiring myths and legends of awe, fear and admiration.

Since most owls are either nocturnal or crepuscular, an owling trip is typically launched near dusk, a shot in the dark in more ways than one. Owl unpredictability is one thing that makes owling so satisfying when we do get see them. An owl sighting always feels as though fortune has smiled.

A cooperative Elf Owl is a marvelous thing on a Big Bend, TX tour. Photo Credit: Dave Mehlman

Here’s how guide Hugh Simmons narrated one Elf Owling foray in Texas’s Davis State Park:

“From recent negative reports, our chances of success didn’t seem high, but we managed to be in the right place at exactly the right time and were rewarded by brief views of two owls as they flew out from their daytime roost in a woodpecker hole in a wooden utility post – a very satisfactory end to the day!”

An Elf Owl photographed in Portal, Arizona, by Bettina Arrigoni, licensed through Wikimedia Commons.

We go searching for owls on every one of the six continents they inhabit, and they are always a guest favorite when we do manage to see them. Owls often have large faces, stocky bodies and soft feathers to help muffle their predatory flights. Let’s examine some of the owl characteristics that make them special, traits that can vary widely from species to species and place to place.

Are Owls Super Smart? Or Is It Just the Big Eyes & Glasses?

While there are MANY things to love about owls, their Western reputation for being super-intelligent is probably not deserved.

Spectacled Owl are among the night residents we see in Panama birding
Spectacled Owl. Photo Credit: Jerome Foster.

So while the large, tropical Spectacled Owl we frequently see on our Belize, Mexico and Central American tours may look like it just came back from the library, as a group, owls are considered to have below average intelligence. As fierce and mighty hunters, they more closely match up with their reputations among many Native American tribes as harbingers and bringers of death. Maybe the widespread availability of Owl Cams has influenced our opinion, but reducing owls to a caricature of killing machines seems a bit harsh!

The Wise Owl Myth, Explained

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, reputedly carried a Little Owl on her shoulder, which she said helped her see in the dark and into blind spots, and that association may be how owls came to symbolize wisdom.

Athena and her “Little Owl,” she said helped her to see better. Photo Credit: The MET via Wikimedia Commons.

(Fittingly, we saw Little Owl in Lesvos, Greece on our most recent tour there with guide Gerard Gorman. For your own chance to see Little Owl in its homeland of legend, our Lesvos, Greece: Migration! tour returns in April of 2023.) Photo Credit: Len Worthington via Creative Commons.

Athena’s story checks out in that owls have superior low-light vision and hearing. But if you’re looking for the smartest of birds, those are the social ones, like the corvids and parrots, according to researchers. Frequent interactions may have honed social birds’ wits and enlarged their brains. Corvids also benefit from having “long childhoods,” continuing to live with their parents “in training” for up to four years!

Owls are Loners for Life

Meanwhile, owlets are born helpless and dependent, yet not long after they fledge, just weeks or months later, begin leading solitary lives.

This Spectacled Owlet is unmistakably a juvenile with its plumage! Photo Credit: Rhian Springett via Wikimedia Commons

While many people know that a gathering of owls is called a ‘parliament,’ they are such a lonesome and territorial species that it’s hard to imagine when the term might ever be needed in conversation.

Owls are Hunting Machines

Specialized hunters with massive eyes and highly developed and calibrated ears, owls devote almost two-thirds of their brain’s modest volume to the tasks of seeing and hearing, notes WorldBirds.com, leaving little capacity for learning new things.

Some Owls are Smarter Than Others

Nevertheless, some species do exhibit clever and creative feeding strategies, including the Burrowing Owl, often spotted on our Texas, Arizona and Oregon’s Woodpecker Wonderland tours. They routinely set out bait for their insect prey, including bits of fresh cow pies. When a dung beetle comes by attracted by the smell of lunch, they get eaten, University of Florida researchers say.

Owl Calls: Hoots, Hisses, and Who Cooks for You?

Another ingenious adaptation of the Burrowing Owl is its ability to mimic a rattlesnake’s rattle. The Burrowing Owl exhibits this rattly hiss in states like Arizona and Texas, where it competes for burrows with rattlers, desert tortoises and rodents like kangaroo rats and ground squirrels. Rather than excavating their own homes, Burrowing Owl prefers to steal and defend a burrow, and their snake-y vocal imitations help them do that.

For a more quintessential “hooting” call, the Great Horned Owl is the go-to soundtrack for moviemakers hoping to evoke a night in the woods. Widely distributed in North and South America, we frequently see this lovely owl in Arizona and Brazil, where our next tour to the Pantanal is Oct. 11–21, 2022. There are resident Great Horned Owls at one of our favorite accommodations in the world, the Casa de San Pedro B&B, where we stay on our Southeast Arizona Sky Island Fall Sampler Nov. 3 – 10, 2022.

Great Horned Owl taken on our Brazil’s Pantanal trip by Don Cooper.

One of the most iconic and unmistakable owl calls is “who cooks for you?,” which is what the Barred Owl seems to be saying. A North American owl, we often see Barred Owl on our Oregon and Texas tours. Though they hunt at night, they are more active during the day than many other owl species.

Horned, Long-eared and Short-eared: Not Really Ears!

The feather tufts sported by the Horned, Long-Eared and Short-Eared Owl are often mistaken for ears, though they are not even in the vicinity of their true ears. These articulated tufts on the tops of owls’ heads are believed to be part signaling device, part camouflage. Scientists have observed that Short-eared Owls, which we often see on our Journey to the Galapagos cruise (next departure with space Jan. 15 – 27, 2023), tend to be found in more open areas, like grasslands and near the ocean. Longer-tufted owls, like the Long-eared Owl, which we have chances to see on our Nov. 5 – 11 California Birding and Wine tour, tend to live in forests, where a more exaggerated profile may be needed to distinguish them from denser surrounding foliage.

Real Owl Ears are Hidden, Sometimes Offset and Always Amazing!

If someone who is observant is said to be hawkeyed, someone with keen hearing should be called owl-eared, because owls have BOTH the best low-light vision and hearing of any bird. The flat, disc-like faces are part of its hearing toolkit, directing sound to its true ears, which can be found behind the eyes and beneath their feathers. Many owls have ears that are offset, which they use to triangulate which direction a sound is coming from.

What the Color of Owl Eyes Tells Us

Besides being extremely large and cylindrically shaped so as to best capture light, owl eyes come in a variety of striking colors. The color of an owl’s eye is connected to what time of day they are hunting. The darkest of eyes denotes a night-time hunter, orange eyed-owls tend to be crepuscular —hunting at dusk or dawn — and those with yellow eyes are the diurnal, daytime owls.

To give just one example, yellow-eyed Snowy Owls are daylight hunters. Their soft white feathers provide camouflage and sound-o-flage, helping them sneak up on their prey in broad daylight. Even their feet are covered with feathers, soft slippers to help muffle the incoming threat of sharp talons. We hope to see Snowy Owl on our Alaska tours and our Washington Winter Birding tour, next departure Jan. 20 – 28, 2023.

Snowy Owl feathers even cover their feet to help muffle the sound of their approach. Males and older birds may be all white, while females have more brown mottling. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Largest, Smallest, and Not-That-Quiet

Because they are exceptions, not only in their huge and small size, we’ve saved for last the largest and smallest owls, which share the unusual trait of being uncharacteristically noisy.

The Great Gray Owl is the longest of owl species, averaging up to 28 inches in length. Anyone who has seen this majestic owl, like our Yellowstone National Park guests often do, comes away with a sense of wonder (and some great photos, too! No telephoto needed with a bird this large.)

Great Gray Owl taken on our Yellowstone National Park tour by guest Gary Stone.

But the endangered Blakiston’s Fish-Owl is considered the world’s largest owl, because it us much more massive, with females weighing up to 10 pounds, and because its wingspan, which can surpass 6 feet, is the largest of any owl. We have great opportunities to see this highly range-restricted bird on our Jan 9 – 23, 2023 Japan Birding and Nature tour, along with Red-Crowed Crane and Japanese Snow Monkey. Since Blakiston’s Fish-Owl’s prey is underwater, being silent isn’t as important, which helps explain why their feathers aren’t as soft and downy as owls that hunt mammals.

Owling is a family-specific type of birding
Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Photo Credit: Takashi Muramatsu via Creative Commons.

At the other end of the spectrum, the smallest and arguably the cutest of all owls is the Elf Owl, which is always a treat for our guests on Texas Big Bend & Hill Country tours as well as our Southeast Arizona tours. Standing about 5 inches tall and roosting in tiny stolen cavities, the Elf Owl is very active and very noisy around dusk, when its persistent peeping offers helpful clues to bird guides trying to find them!

Elf Owl are among the birds and animals we may see on our Arizona birding and nature tours.
Elf Owls are cavity nesters, offering them protection from the chill of desert nights. Photo Credit: Woody Wheeler

Elf Owls do have soft feathers on the leading edge of their wings, so they can be quiet when they want to. Though they are desert dwellers, they prefer riparian habitats.

Uganda and Tanzania are very Owly

We have not yet mentioned Africa, which would be a terrible oversight, because the continent has some wonderful owl species. Our Uganda and Tanzania tours in particular are great places to see owls, including Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl which can be seen on both! Our next Uganda tour with space available is Grand Uganda: Fabulous Birds and Mammals, July 15 – 31, 2023. Our next Tanzania Wildlife and Birding Safari tour is Jan. 30 – Feb. 11, 2023.

Owling is a family-specific type of birding
Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl. Photo Credit: Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons.

Honduras Bird and Butterfly Guide Author Robert Gallardo Knows Beautiful Flying Things

He is your double expert guide for Texas Birds & Butterflies Nov. 1 – 9

To say that Robert Gallardo is doing something unprecedented on his little piece of bird-and-butterfly-guide paradise in Emerald Valley, Honduras would be to use the singular when the plural is what’s called for.

Crowning a series of recent triumphs, Robert expects sometime this year to publish with his partner Olivia The Butterflies of Honduras, a volume that represents many firsts in itself. Among those firsts are several new species Robert had a hand in identifying in the past few years, including one he named this year after his mother, Eleanor’s Emesis: a bright orange metalmark with merlot and iron spots.

  • Emesis Eleanorae
  • Bird and Butterfly guide Robert Gallardo named this specimen after his mother.

Robert said he suspected immediately that it was an undiscovered species, and is only one of a handful of people in Central America with enough knowledge to be that confident. He’s on the leading edge of a growing but still exclusive group of naturalists who can claim the title of ‘butterfly guide,’ which is just like being a bird guide, only much, MUCH harder!

Bird and Butterfly guide Robert Gallardo withpartner Olivia
Robert and Olivia Gallardo. The couple lives in Emerald Valley where they protect 50 acres of rich mid-elevation rainforest and are working to install a nature center with their Pro Nature Honduras Foundation.

Quietly fluttering anywhere from ground-hugging flowers to the sky-scraping canopy, butterflies can be quite tiny and hard to locate, which is the first step to identification.

“Once you get your eyes trained to see hummingbirds, the next step is butterflies,” he said. “When you can spot butterflies half an inch across from 100 feet away, then hummingbirds are easy.”

Our Texas Birds and Butterflies guests will enjoy his tips for finding and identifying both kinds of beautiful flying things! Co-guiding this trip is Bryan Calk, a Texas native and a splendid photographer. This is one of the most exciting and well-matched guide pairings all year long.

Texas Birds and Butterflies with guides Robert Gallardo & Bryan Calk

Texas Birds & Butterflies, Guides Robert Gallardo and Bryan Calk

Nov. 1 – 9 | $2,890 from Corpus Christi

Arrive early for Texas Butterfly Festival Oct. 29 – Nov. 1 or stay on for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival Nov. 9 – 13!

“Butterflies are a lot harder than birds,” Robert said, noting that in Honduras there are twice as many butterflies as birds — and they don’t vocalize to help you narrow the identification down.

“It’s like trying to ID the Empidonax flycatchers, multiplied by ten, and only a tenth the size,” he said. “That’s why there are very few specialists in the entire region.”

Butterflying Etiquette

It is a good idea to scan butterflies as quickly as possible for identifying marks, partly because they may fly away, but there’s also a chance a bird or another insect will swoop in and turn it into lunch.

“We’ve seen birds, jumping spiders, and robber flies catch butterflies we are watching,” Robert said. “It’s fun, it’s part of the butterflying experience.”

There is more collecting of specimens in butterflying than there is in modern birding, Robert said, especially when they may be needed to help identify a new species.

The fact that Robert, Olivia and four of their own friends have in the past year discovered and named new butterflies has something to do with how fervent and devoted they are to wandering these wild forests, with a light net and a light heart.

But it also speaks to an environment of less investment in conservation and cataloging of species in Honduras than, say, Costa Rica, which is a darling of international funders who perceive its government as more stable and protective of its environment, Robert said. As a result, there haven’t been as many scientists looking here, so there are more discoveries left to find.

Our butterfly guide for Mexico Monarch Migration is Dave Mehlman

Go to: Mexico Butterflies & Birds w/guide Dave Mehlman Feb. 12 – 19

Born in California, Robert came to Honduras on a Peace Corps mission in 1993, bringing a freshly printed degree from Humboldt State in Natural Resources Planning. When his three-year Peace Corps tour ended, Robert decided to stay on and make his home there. Teaching himself the local flora and fauna, he has become Honduras’s most celebrated expert on both birds and butterflies.

Bird and Butterfly guide Robert Gallardo as a child
Robert’s California boyhood.

Continuing his long list of “firsts,” Robert and Olivia’s Butterflies of Honduras is the first butterfly guide to catalog the more-than-1250 species found there, and the first butterfly guide of its kind to use only images taken within the country rather than bringing in pictures from neighboring countries where they are also seen.

It is also an ambitious butterfly guide in that it is more than pictures and names – every species has a text description and notes. Contemporary butterfly guides written about Costa Rica, for example, only include some of the six butterfly families, omitting the tricky ‘hairstreaks’ and ‘skippers’, which live in the harder-to-observe canopy.

“There is nothing out there like this,” Robert said of his and Olivia’s butterfly guide. “It was quite an undertaking,” he added with a laugh.

butterfly guide and bird guide author Robert Gallardo has Honduras Covered!
His Birds of Honduras has been published in English and Spanish!

Their Foundation Pro-Nature Honduras is currently attempting to raise the $17,500 it will take to do a limited first printing, through the non-profit auspices of The Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation. The expectation is that it will be printed some time this year. Robert used the same fundraising model to produce the Birds of Honduras.

And the butterfly book isn’t even Robert and Olivia’s most ambitious iron in the fire. They are also in the process of developing a 50-acre property in Emerald Valley as a tourist-friendly research center that will double as a center of education and training for ecotourism operators.

Bird and Butterfly guide Robert Gallardo receiving an award
Robert at the Birds of Honduras book launch.

They will offer several butterfly photography tours this year, including one specializing in rare crepuscular (dusk and dawn) butterflies.

Annual Butterfly Festival Expands in 2023

Their Honduran Butterfly Conservation Tour (formerly the Emerald Valley Butterfly Festival) is another “first” as the only one of its kind in Latin America. The upcoming Jan. 5 – 11, 2023 festival will be the fourth annual, and it will be supercharged this year, with teams of international experts flying in to lead festival-goers in exploring Honduras’ Lake Yojoa region, home to some 1,000 butterfly species!

“Quite the big achievement taking into consideration that Costa Rica has not ever been able to pull one off,” Robert said.

One by one as funds are available, they are building upscale cabins that will comfortably house tourists, researchers and students. They’ve already brought enough power to the site to develop a small village.

“Our mission is to promote sustainable tourism and nature tourism, show the people how to sustainably use this finite resource we have been given,” Robert said. “We want to be an example.”

Creature Feature: 6 Butterfly Family Portraits

Learn below about the six butterfly families: The Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae); Brush-Footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae); Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae); Gossamer-Winged Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae); and Skippers (Family Hesperiidae). Photos by Robert Gallardo; info gleaned from ThoughtCo.com, and quotes also attributed to ThoughtCo.com

butterfly guide shows this one as Anastrus meliboea
Anastrus meliboea. Photo Credit: Robert Gallardo

Skippers

Named for their quick, skipping flight, Skippers are different than most butterfly species in that they have robust thoraxes, which make them resemble moths. Their antennae are also hooked at the end, rather than clubbed. Skippers tend toward drab browns or grays, with white or orange markings.

The butterfly guide says this one is a Anteros micon
Anteros micon. Photo Credit Robert Gallardo

Metalmarks

A tropical butterfly, they are rare in the US, and are named for the metallic markings on their wings.

butterfly guide says this one is arcas cypria
Arcas cypria. Photo Credit: Robert Gallardo

Gossamer-winged Butterflies

Small, quick and tricky, this group includes the hairstreaks, blues, and coppers. Hairstreaks live mainly in the tropics, while blues and coppers can be found most often throughout the temperate zones. Small with sheer wings often colorfully streaked.

butterfly guide says this one is Catastica nimbice
Catastica nimbice. Photo Credit: Robert Gallardo

Whites and Sulphurs

Small to medium white and yellow butterflies, often with orange or black markings. They have three pairs of walking legs, unlike the brush-foots, which have shortened front legs. “Most whites and sulphurs have limited ranges, living only where legumes or cruciferous plants grow.”

butterfly guide says this one is Callicore texa
Callicore texa. Photo Credit: Robert Gallardo

Brush-Footed Butterflies

“The brush-footed butterflies comprise the largest family of butterflies, with some 6,000 species described worldwide and just over 200 species in North America. Many members of this family appear to have just two pairs of legs. Take a closer look, however, and you will see the first pair is there, but reduced in size. Brush-foots use these small legs to taste their food. Many of our most common butterflies belong to this group: monarchs and other milkweed butterflies, crescents, checkerspots, peacocks, commas, longwings, admirals, emperors, satyrs, morphos, and others.”

butterfly guide says this one is Neographium thyastes
Neographium thyastes. Photo Credit: Robert Gallardo

Swallowtails

Medium to large butterflies with a large tail-like appendage make up this showy group. “Not all members of the family Papilionidae have this feature. Swallowtails also boast wing colors and patterns that make species identification fairly easy. Though about 600 Papilionidae species live worldwide, less than 40 inhabit North America.”

Naturalist Journeys Guide of the Year, 2021 – 2022 is Dave Mehlman

We are pleased to recognize the outstanding talents and above-and-beyond contributions to our company over the last year. David Mehlman has inspired clients on many wonderful outings! He reminds us of just why we work hard in the office — it’s FUN to empower great guides to do what they do best.

Through this most challenging pandemic year+ we are thrilled to help people connect with nature and discover the wonders of our world firsthand. In keeping with our focus on birding and wildlife, the award year runs from spring to spring.  

For this inaugural, annual award, Dave is the clear winner! He has received the first pick of tours for the next season, and a $2000 grant for continued learning and enrichment. Congratulations Dave. 

Dave (second from right) with guests on the Laguna Meadows Trail in Big Bend. Photo Credit: Naturalist Journeys Stock.

Meet Dave Mehlman

Dave is a naturalist with interests in birds, migration, ecosystems and natural disturbances, plants, and gardening. He holds a PhD from the University of New Mexico. Dave worked for The Nature Conservancy for 25+ years as Director of its Migratory Bird Program. He has published several dozen papers in scientific and popular journals.

How Do We Pick a Guide of the Year?

Fifteen criteria were used to select the Naturalist Journeys Guide of the Year. David was repeatedly strong in each area, from knowledge to demonstrated leadership skills under pressure (In addition to Covid affecting meals and various logistics, he coped with fires closing Big Bend National Park for two days and another fire closing half of the hiking trail at Isle Royale National Park, after rough lake winds delayed their ferry!)

Dave with an award from Partners in Flight, a conservation organization that advances full life-cycle conservation of landbirds in the Americas.

He topped the charts for preparedness, going over each detail with our office meticulously. He mentored new guides and is always timely on sending the office Trip Reports and Species Lists after each tour. He assisted our office with preparation of tour materials when staff numbers were low.

Dave Brought Back Columbia

David brought Colombia back into our calendar with three new routes in the coming year, helping us chart a partnership with a new operator.

He brought real joy to some of our favorite lodges in Belize with a private trip we did for the New Mexico Ornithological Society, and he revived a tour from our past, New Mexico Nature and Culture, adding his special southwestern expertise, as he is based in Albuquerque. Always willing to learn and explore, Dave pioneered time on the Apostle Islands on our Great Lakes series of tours. He posted great live-time social media from his tours. 

And he has many repeat clients! Two trips are coming right up and there is still space for YOU. 

Veracruz, Mexico: River of Raptors & More

Oct. 15 – 26, 2022 | $ 4290 with Dave Mehlman

Hawks a-plenty riding the thermals on their way to parts south hug the coastline of Mexico, and Veracruz has a LOT of coastline. Photo Credit: Dave Mehlman

Veracruz is the site of the largest hawk migration on the planet, with up to 1,000,000 hawks and other passerines riding the thermals in a “River of Raptors” on their way to parts south. We see a spectacular range of other birds here as well, thanks to the dramatic topography that rises from Gulf Coast beaches to rainforest and then cloud forest. We bird them all!

Our guests will enjoy several cultural experiences along with spectacular birding, exploring archeological and cultural areas like the Totonac sites of Cempoala and Quiahuiztlan and the ruins of Hernan Cortez’ first house in the new world, a tour of the renowned Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, with its extensive collection of pre-colonial Mexican artifacts; and a visit to a shade-grown coffee plantation.

New Mexico Nature & Culture

Dec. 4 – 11, 2022 | $ 2690 with Dave Mehlman

Bosque del Apache with migrants. Photo Credit: Bryan Calk

New Mexico is an amazing place: for birds, for sunsets, for iconic Southwest landscapes, plants and animals, for vibrant Pueblo culture and the chance to find unique artistic gifts! That combination makes this New Mexico: Nature and Culture tour the perfect place to spend the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The winter solstice has great significance to Pueblo cultures, and our home bases in Albuquerque and Taos have special events to celebrate this festive time of year. This is also perhaps the best time of the year to avoid crowds eager to bird the varied habitats of Bandelier National Monument and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. We stay at top-rate accommodations full of charm, visit outstanding geological and archeological sites, national monuments, historic trading posts, and modern galleries. Our feedback was fantastic from our inaugural trip last year, which Dave helped to design! You’ll love it.

Dave Mehlman’s “Top Choice” 2023 Trips

January

Colombia: Birding & Nature in the Central Andes, Los Colores & Balandu Jan. 23 – Feb. 3

February

Mexico Butterflies and Birds February 12-19

New Mexico Nature and Culture dates and price TBD

March

Guyana: Unspoiled Wilderness March 19-31

April

Western Panama: Tranquilo Bay April 9-16

Texas’ Big Bend Birding and Wildlife April 24 – May 1

May

Birding Canyon Country: Zion, Bryce Canyon & Grand Canyon National Parks, Southwest Parks May 7-15

June

Iceland June 13-22 

When the Guide of the Year picks a trip, that is a great inside travel tip! These are all fabulous trips. 

Let Asia Amaze You

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.

Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are the centerpieces of this Japan Birding and Nature tour. Photo Credit: Alastair-Rae, via Creative Commons
Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are the centerpieces of this Japan Birding and Nature tour
Japanese Snow Monkeys are the Northernmost non-human primates in the world. Photo Credit: Snow Monkey, 猿蔵, via Creative Commons

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?

origami red-crowned cranes
Origami Cranes. Photo Credit: The Original CTBTO Photostream via Creative Commons.

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.

  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour

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.

  • Demoiselle Crane is cousin to the Red-Crowned Cranes of Japan
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Hooded Cranes are kin to the Red-Crowned Cranes of Japan.
  • White-naped Crane is the more common cousin of the Red-Crowned Crane.

But we also hope to see Common, Siberian and Demoiselle Cranes at the Crane Observation Centre in Izumi, along with many other attractive water birds peeking out from the waving reeds, including Reed, Rustic, Chestnut-eared and Ochre-rumped Buntings. If we are both lucky and good, we may spot a flock of Chinese Penduline-tit, handsome masked songbirds found cavorting with groups of Reed Bunting.

  • Reed Bunting may be seen on Naturalist Journeys' Japan birding and nature tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour

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.

  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour

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.

  • Red-crowned Cranes are on Japanese money.

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.

  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour

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.

  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour

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.  

  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour
  • Dancing Red-crowned Cranes and Japanese Snow Monkeys are highlights of Naturalist Journeys' Japan Birding and Nature Tour

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 travel@naturalistjourneys.com or call us at 866-900-1146.


World Migratory Bird Day: 5 Trips for the Ultimate Migration Experience

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.

Notable Species: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Harris’ Hawk, Hooded Warbler

Portugal: Fabulous Birding & Culture

October 12 – 24, 2022

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.”

Notable Species: Sandhill Crane, Snow Goose, Bufflehead (Winter Resident), Northern Shoveler (Winter Resident)

To find out more about WMBD’s mission and how you can positively influence the lives of thousands of migratinging birds, visit their website:

Fabulous Facts about Hummingbirds: Species from Naturalist Journeys’ Tours

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:

  • Giant is the largest: facts about hummingbirds
  • Sword-billed has the longest bill of any: facts about hummingbirds

Home is the Western Hemisphere

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.

  • Location Facts about Hummingbirds: White-Necked Jacobin is widespread
  • Facts about Hummingbirds: White-Necked Jacobin also has a white tail

They may be seen on many of our Central America and northern South America tours.

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:

Panama and the Wild Darién July 29 – August 5, $2990, from Panama City

Facts about Hummingbirds: Violet-Capped are endemic to Panama and Colombia.
Violet-capped Hummingbirds can only been seen in Panama and Colombia. Photo Credit: Gail Hampshire of Wikimedia Commons

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:

Gilded Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Cláudio Dias Timm via Wikimedia Commons

Brazil Extensions Hummingbirds

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!

  • Black-eared Fairy is adorable, and that is from my great big book of facts about hummingbirds
  • Facts About Hummingbirds: Frilled Coquette is a flirt
  • Facts about Hummingirds: Scale-throated Hummingbird is simultaneously dull and exciting

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.

  • fun fact about hummingbirds: violet-capped are autistic
  • Fun Fact: Lucifer hummingbirds are in league with the devil

Arizona Monsoon Madness, all $2,790, from Tucson:

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:

Rufous Hummingbird. Photo Credits: Carrie Miller (Slide middle arrow to see change.)

Their irridescence comes not from pigmentation but from light-shifting structures called melanosomes. Though other birds have them, including some ducks, the shape of hummingbirds’ melanosomes is unique, as Audubon describes in greater detail in “Hummingbirds Owe Their Shimmer to Microscopic Pancake-Like Structures.”

Though many hummingbirds flash at the gorget, the show-stopping Crimson Topaz takes an all-over approach to its irridescence.

Crimson Topaz. Photo Credit: Aisse Gaertner via Wikimedia Commons

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!

Fun facts about hummingbirds: tufted coquette is cute!
Tufted Coquette. Photo Credit: Richard Wagner

Flouncing Feathers

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:

  • Rufous-crested Coquette, a rare pleasure of Panama birding
  • facts about hummingbirds: rufous-crested coquette is more feather than flash
  • Facts about Hummingbirds: rufous-crested coquette pushes its southern baptist hat back when it's feeding

Max Hummingbirds? Peru

Our Northern Peru guests also saw Rufous-crested Coquette in 2019, along with 50 other hummingbirds! That’s right, 51 species of hummingbird, listed here on the 2019 Northern Peru trip report. Our Peru: Cusco to Mánu National Park guests found 30 hummingbirds, though Rufous-crested Coquette was not among them.

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.

Snowcap. Photo Credit: Michael Woodruff via Creative Commons

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.

Facts about Hummingbirds: the Amethyst Woodstar has the most rapid wingbeat of any hummingbird: 80 beats per second
Amethyst Woodstar, frequently seen in Peru, vocalizes in addition to its namesake humming. Photo Credit: Bob Hill

But hummingbirds also make other noises, including signature sounds made with their tail feathers, and territorial ‘chip’ calls. A few of them even sing!

The Broad-tailed Hummingbird, which we are almost certain to see on our three Arizona Monsoon Madness tours, makes a distinctive metallic sound in flight, which you can hear on this All About Birds page by clicking the audio file labeled ‘display.’

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

Guests saw 15 hummingbirds on that trip in 2021.

Mexican Violetear. Photo Credit: Cephas via Wikimedia Commons

Adding to your Hummingbird Life List

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!

Bigger than Birding: Wildlife Safaris and Cruises for Everyone

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.

Wildlife Safaris

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!

The Cape Floristic Region in South Africa is one of the best birding and wildlife safari destinations!
South Africa’s Western Cape Floristic Region. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

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

Our Ultimate Namibia-Botswana Combo: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes is July 23 – Aug. 15, an unforgettable three week trip!

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.

  • Namibia is a wonderful birding and wildlife safari destination
  • Desert birds feature prominently on Naturalist Journeys Namibia birding and wildlife tours
  • Namib Aloes are part of our birding and wildlife safari to Namibia
  • Oryx against red dunes is one of the things you'll see on Africa birding and wildlife tours with Naturalist Journeys.

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.

  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda, a biodiversity hot spot visited on our birding and wildlife tours.
  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda is part of an Africa birding and wildlife tour
  • Mountain Gorilla are found in the biodiversity hotspot in Uganda known as Afromontane Forest on a Naturalist Journeys birding and wildlife safari

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.

L’hoest’s Monkey may be seen on Naturalist Journeys' birding and wildlife tours to Uganda
L’hoest’s Monkey Photo Credit: Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

Brazil & Pantanal Safari

July’s trip to Brazil is already sold out, but there are still spaces on both our August 2-12 trip and our Oct. 11-21 trips.

We wrote a standalone blog about this wonderful safari to Brazil. Here is a gallery of a few not-birds you might see:

  • Jaguar are residents of Brazil, a biodiversity hot spot, on our birding and wildlife safaris
  • Giant River Otter require huge territories in Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot we visit on our Brazil birding and wildlife safaris
  • Capybara are among the creatures we see we visit on our Brazil birding and wildlife safaris
  • The South American Tapir is among the most exciting Brazil birds and wildlife
  • Maned wolf are amond the creatures we may see we visit on our Brazil birding and wildlife safaris.
  • birding guides are your best chance of seeing species like Harpy Eagle in biodiversity hotspots we visit on our Brazil birding and wildlife safaris

Panama: Introduction to Tropical Biodiversity

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.

  • moths and butterflies will be all up in your visit during a birding and wildlife safari to Panama
  • Goffroy's Tamarin may be seen on our birding and wildlife tours to Panama
  • the Panama Canal is a bonus viewing on our birding and wildlife tours there.

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.

North to Alaska!

Alaska’s Northern Passages and Glacier Bay July 9-15, 2023 has the pleasure of being guided by Naturalist Journeys founder Peg Abbott. We have a standalone blog about this magical Alaska cruise, already sold out for 2022, so look alive if you want to sign up for 2023.

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.

Video from guide Peg Abbott

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!

Grizzly Bear are a not uncommon sight. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Cruise to the Galapagos Islands

Journey to the Galápagos Nov. 6-13, 2022

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.

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!

Biodiversity Hot Spots are Boosted by Birding

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.”

Biodiversity Hotspots

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.)

  • Guided US Nature Travel and Tourism to Yellowtone National Park
  • bison are among the ungulate species you may see in Yellowstone, a biodiversity hot spot
  • Fall is Golden in Greater Yellowstone

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.

  • Coatimundi are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspo
  • Monsoon rainbows are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspo
  • Elegant Trogon are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspo
  • Montezuma Quail are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspot

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.

  • Giant River Otter require huge territories in Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot
  • Jaguar are residents of Brazil, a biodiversity hot spot
  • birding guides are your best chance of seeing species like Harpy Eagle in biodiversity hotspots

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.

  • Shoebill are among the birds we see in Uganda, a biodiversity hotspot
  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda, a biodiversity hot spot visited on our birding and nature tours.

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.

  • Reef systems provide ecosystem services to biodiversity hot spots and many other places

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.

Local communities in special places depend on us! Photo Credit, Peg Abbott

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.

Uganda women birders help to protect biodiversity hot spots
Uganda Women Birders is an organization that trains women for ecotourism careers. Photo credit: Uganda Women Birders

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!

eBird checklist data from our Trinidad and Tobago guides is super useful!
Trinidad and Tobago birders. Photo Credit: Dodie Logue

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.