Owl Prowls in the USA

Your guide presses a finger to her closed lips and the adventure begins. You follow her in silence as she leads your group into a dark forest that seems like the setting for a fairytale. Moonlight slips through tree branches, illuminating a path. When a shape shifts among the shadows, you stop to stare. Your guide calls into the dark, making. She makes a series of whistled hoots that speed up, like a dropped ball settling on the ground.


Your guide calls a second time. Again, silence.

When your guide makes another series of hoots, this time there is an answer in the forest. Moving from shadows into the moonlight, a bird appears. Its wings flap with a brushing sound so subtle you aren’t certain you heard it. The owl glides in total silence and lands on a branch above you. Suddenly, the benefit of exploring the wilderness with a guide becomes clear. This moment, curated by expert naturalists with a keen understanding of the ecosystem around them, is unforgettable.

You will recall the large eyes blinking among the branches. You will remember how these inhabitants of a dark world were illuminated by the guide’s spotlight, their bodies glowing as they glided past you and vanished. Whenever you glimpse a forest at night, you will know it is filled with life that stirs when the sun disappears. You will listen for owls, and you may even call back to them.

An Evolved Species

Evolution has equipped owls with fascinating adaptations. Velvety feathers with serrated leading edges enable silent flight, minimizing turbulence and dampening noise. Owls can swivel their heads up to 270 degrees, a feat facilitated by their unique neck structure with extra vertebrae and ample blood vessels. The forward-facing orientation of their eyes provides powerful binocular vision, giving owls exceptional depth perception for hunting.

Owls’ hearing abilities are equally extraordinary. The strategic placement of ear openings at different heights allows sounds to reach each ear at slightly different times, aiding in precise prey localization. The circular arrangement of feathers that forms an owl’s facial disc funnels sound to the bird’s ears, enabling the hunter to detect subtle movements. An owl knows when a mouse is sneaking through grass or a vole is tunneling beneath the snow.

Owl Prowls in the United States

Those lucky enough to experience an owl prowl report feeling intensely alive and closely connected to nature. Fortunately, you don’t need to travel far to find awe-inspiring owls. 

The United States is home to 19 owl species, each among the most magnificent birds on Earth. Prowling for them, whether in deserts of the Southwest during spring or in snow-buried boreal forests in winter, provides a fulfilling adventure not far from home.

Owling in Southeast Arizona

Many Naturalist Journeys’ travelers have enjoyed superb owling. Take for example the Southeast Arizona: Spring Sky Island Sampler Tour. In May of 2023, the group encountered a whopping seven owl species. During nighttime owl prowls, the group spotted a Whiskered Screech-Owl, while Western Screech-Owls hooted their bouncing ball song.

A spotlight illuminated a ghostly Barn Owl hunting over a field. In a sycamore tree, the group observed a Northern Pygmy-Owl, featuring false eyespots that confuse prey and predators alike. Spotted Owls were heard and seen roosting. Baby Great Horned Owls, near fledgling, jostled in a nest cavity in Portal, where Naturalist Journeys has its headquarters. Finally, the group was treated to great views of the world’s smallest owl, a raptor no larger than a sparrow, the Elf Owl

Naturalist Journeys hosts guided tours in Southeast Arizona all throughout the year. Discover the bustle of spring migration, a rainbow of hummingbirds, wintering Sandhill Cranes and even a pair of resident Elegant Trogon along the way. And, of course, owls galore!

Learn more about Arizona’s Sky Islands here.

Minnesota’s Winter Wonderland

In February of 2025, participants on the inaugural Minnesota: Winter Owling Tour will search for Snowy, Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Boreal Owls. 

During these winter owl prowls, you can look for Snowy Owls, their pale plumage camouflaging their bodies. Their feathered feet are like fluffy slippers that insulate their skin from cold snow. 

The Great Gray Owl that haunts the forests of the north is among the world’s largest owls by wingspan and body length, but weighs a mere two and a half pounds. Though this owl seems like a big ball of feathers, its powerful body can punch through hard-packed snow to snatch prey. 

The Northern Hawk Owl is another impressive hunter of boreal forests. It has a distinctly long tail and behaves more like a hawk than an owl. While perched atop solitary trees in daylight, this predator can sight prey up to a half mile away. 

The elusive Boreal Owl is also a sit-and-wait predator that hunts from perches. But it listens at night for creatures scurrying on bare forest floor beneath trees and tunneling through snow. This small owl with a square head peers through giant yellow eyes into the dark.    

Endless Opportunities

Optional owl prowls add intrigue to several other US tours. From seeking a Great Gray Owl in Yellowstone National Park, to searching for Great Horned Owls on a Kansas tallgrass prairie, to prowling the ponderosa pine forests of South Dakota’s Black Hills, venturing into the night world can be as exciting as traveling to an unknown country.

The nocturnal wilderness awaits, and the owls are calling.

Brazil’s Pantanal: Big Cats & Unparalleled Birding

Imagine a wilderness so vast that no signs of civilization can be seen or heard. Lakes shimmer among grasslands and savannas, and rivers meander through forest corridors. This is Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. 

The wilderness that surrounds you seems timeless and immense. You lose track of how long you’ve been in the boat, searching the shores. As you gaze into rustling grass, you recall the camouflaged coat of an ocelot that you saw the previous night. The armored body of a caiman glides through waterways as you scan for jaguars stalking among the grasses, their spotted coats blending with dappled sunlight. A thrum of wingbeats snags your attention as cormorants, herons and egrets take flight. You see the scarlet flash of a Jabiru Stork.

A capybara shuffles down a mud bank into the river and paddles its pig-shaped body with webbed feet. This is the world’s largest rodent—and one of the jaguar’s favorite prey. You lean over the edge of the boat, peering deeper into the shadows on land, your eyes locking on every subtle movement.

A True South American Safari

Recounting all of the natural wonders that you may encounter on a Pantanal tour in Brazil requires more than a blog post—it would take a book.

To start, ten times the size of the Everglades, the Pantanal sprawls from western Brazil into Bolivia and Paraguay. The Pantanal is like an enormous body with many organs, all of them united by the pulse of the Paraguay River and its tributaries. Here, the power of the Pantanal lies in its yearly rhythm of drought and flood. Seasonal rains force rivers to overflow their banks, revitalizing the parched plains, painting the landscape vibrant hues of green and blue. As the lifeblood of water courses through the Pantanal, a maze of lagoons and marshes form. When the rains stop and the floodwaters recede, the region dries. Fertile grasslands remain, leaving a feast for scores of hungry herbivores. These plant-eaters provide food for one of the world’s most elusive and charismatic carnivores: the jaguar. 

This apex predator, one of the world’s largest cats, is the star of the show. But the Pantanal is much more than the jaguar. Naturalist Journeys has created a South American safari that encompasses all that Brazil’s Pantanal has to offer. Search for iconic species like jaguar, tapir and giant anteater and explore the weave of ecological connections in the tapestry of this wetland ecosystem. 

Traveling with a Naturalist Journeys Guide

Naturalist Journeys combines outstanding lead guides with local experts to showcase the remarkable biodiversity of this region to travelers with insatiable curiosity. The success of past Pantanal tours at seeing wildlife and birds has been phenomenal. For many travelers, a glimpse of a single jaguar can be the highlight of a lifetime spent searching the world for rare wildlife. In 2017, a Naturalist Journeys’ group saw seven.

Naturalist Journeys’ guide and accomplished big carnivore expert, Wes Larson recounts his time on tour in 2023:

“We had simply incredible luck with mammals on our trip, particularly with jaguar sightings, and we had fantastic luck with jaguars hunting along the river, as well as a couple really special sightings away from the river. We had TWENTY Giant Anteater sightings, which has to be a new record, and some of our group got a great look at the smaller Southern Tamandua as well.”

Subsequently, birds are abundant on these South American safaris. Tours of Brazil’s Pantanal, when combined with an Atlantic Forest pre-extension, have recorded as many as 334 bird species.

Stay Among Locals

The Pantanal’s significance extends beyond the myriad species it supports. This wetland is a natural water purifier, filtering pollutants and safeguarding downstream ecosystems. It serves as an important carbon sink, absorbing greenhouse gasses and mitigating climate change. The Pantanal also nurtures local communities who have lived with its seasonal rhythms for generations. 

Accommodations on Brazil’s Pantanal tours immerse travelers in a local way of life—you stay on cattle ranches, for instance. These working ranches have comfortable accommodations for guests and surrounding habitat with abundant wildlife. 

After a successful safari day in the Brazilian sun, you can relax in the afternoon shade beneath ranch trees. Sip a cool drink as you watch a cobalt blue Hyacinth Macaw, the world’s largest parrot, crack open palm nuts. On the ranch grounds you might add more birds to your life list, which could include species like Greater Rhea, Toco Toucan, and Helmeted Manakin. Or you might opt to just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of so many birds and other animals new to you but common to this bounteous region.

Naturalist Journeys offers several tours to the Pantanal each year. Click the links below to learn more and experience a truly wild haven at the heart of South America.    

Brazil’s Pantanal: Jaguars! And More…

Our 2024 Departures:

July 3 – 13, 2024 w/ Greg Smith

Aug 10 – 24, 2024 w/ Mason Flint

Sept 9 – 19, 2024 w/ Wes Larson

Oct 7 – 17, 2024 w/ Dave Mehlman

Green Season: The Secret Jewel of Central America

Steam rises from the sun-warmed earth. A rainstorm just ended as suddenly as it started. Parrots fly above the forest canopy, winging their way across a sky that turned cerulean after being rinsed by rain. The thunder of a waterfall blends with a howler monkey’s roar. Butterflies drift between blooms that sweeten the air, and dragonflies zoom from pool to pool. The wet skin of a frog gleams in the sunlight. It’s Green Season in Central America, wildlife is everywhere, and crowds are nowhere to be found. 

From May through November, during what’s known as Green Season in Central America, landscapes are lush. Travelers tend to avoid the region during this rainy time of year—but birds and other wildlife certainly don’t. Natural beauty in this “off-season” may be more abundant and photogenic than during popular travel months. Also, the reduced demand lowers travel costs, making this emerald gem of a season even more alluring.  

Let’s debunk some myths and delve into why Green Season is the perfect time to explore the natural riches of Central America.

Green Season Myth #1: It’s all rain, all the time.

The Green Season does see more rain than the dry months. But mornings are often clear, with clouds building in the afternoon. It rains most days in Green Season, but rain rarely falls all day. Instead of continuous downpours, bursts of rain tend to give way to sun-flooded skies. The lush colors and shifting light offer welcome relief from the dust and glare of the dry season—and provide ideal conditions for photographers.

The moods of your photos in Green Season may change from moment to moment. Swirling mist wraps its tendrils around trees. Then sunlight filters through a cloud, creating a golden glow that permeates the forest. When a window of clear weather opens, you capture an image of a Scarlet Macaw, its colors crisp against the blue sky.

If you dream of photographing verdant rainforests and cascading waterfalls, Green Season will delight you. Imagine standing in the cool air left by a rain shower, aiming your lens at a toucan or motmot. Clouds drape across distant mountains, and a rainbow arches over flower-strewn trees to meet the sparkling sea.

In the evening, while sitting on the veranda of your lodge, you watch lightning lash the jungle. The flickering bolts illuminate bats. The next morning dawns clear, and birds outside your window wake you. 

Green Season Myth #2: Birds are scarce.

You may miss some winter migrants during Green Season. However, the impressive diversity of resident birds in this region will be on full display. When rain awakens plants from their dusty slumber, they produce greenery, flowers and fruit. Insects like beetles, katydids and butterflies take advantage of the burgeoning plants, drawing birds into view as they feast on this bounty. 

The most satisfying way to experience the biodiversity of Central America is to be there when rain nourishes the region, bringing the tropical landscape to a full and flourishing life. Iconic resident birds—from the Lesson’s Motmot in Belize to the Yellow-throated Toucan in Costa Rica to the Golden-collared Manakin in Panama—will be there with you to celebrate the renewal brought by rain.

  • Sunrise
  • Fiery-throated Hummingbird
  • Lamanai Ruins
  • Keel-billed Toucan

A Hidden Benefit

Traveling during Green Season isn’t just about seeking the natural beauty of Central America and finding budget-friendly deals. It’s about supporting communities. The rainy months offer an opportunity to experience vibrant cultures, engage with locals and savor the spirit of Central America. You’ll enjoy a relaxed atmosphere free of crowds, while also bolstering the region’s vitally important ecotourism economy.

Renowned biologist E.O. Wilson stated, “Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.”

For people in Central America to preserve the natural wealth of their rainforests, they must be able to make a sustainable living. When you choose to travel in the off-season, you boost businesses when they need it most and help local people thrive year-round, contributing to a promising future for rainforest protection. This hidden benefit makes the secret gem of Central American travel shine especially bright.

Upcoming Green Season tours:

Panama: Three Great Lodges | July 6 – 18, 2024 | $5590

Summer in Costa Rica | July 17 – 24, 2024 | $3390

Belize: Green Season | July 20 – 27, 2024 | $3390

Birders Love Toucans, Aracaris & Toucanets

See the Rainbow Family Ramphastidae on tours to Central & South America!

With showstopping bills and a rainbow of feathers, it’s not surprising that cereal pitchmen chose for a mascot the Toco Toucan, one of 43 unforgettable members in the Ramphastidae family. From toucans to aracaris to toucanets, these brilliant birds are always guest-favorite sightings in their Central and South American ranges.

Toucans, Aracari & Toucanets are favorites of Central American and South American Birding
Keel-Billed Toucans are widespread, and have been spotted on our tours in Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama. Photo by Peg Abbott

Let’s take a closer look at this showy family, and where you can find them on upcoming tours! Five genera of birds make up the toucan family: typical toucans (8), mountain toucans (4), aracari (14), green toucanets (11) and dichromatic toucanets (6).

  • Many-banded Aracari
  • Aracari, Toucans & Toucanets are favorites of Central American and South American Birding
  • Spot-billed toucanet
  • Aracari, Toucans & Toucanets are favorites of Central American and South American Birding

These fruit-loving neotropicals are incredibly distinctive. Forest-dwellers that don’t migrate and spend most of their time perching, they have short wings, necks and tails, creating a compact body with powerful legs. But their most distinctive characteristic by far has to be that bill!

  • Aracari, Toucans & Toucanets are favorites of Central American and South American Birding
  • Collared Aracari in flight by Daniel O'Brien
  • Aracari, Toucans & Toucanets are favorites of Central American and South American Birding

Bring the Bills 

As useful as they are showy, a toucan’s bill can stretch up to four times the length of their heads. Though male toucans sometimes ‘fence’ for dominance with their bills or use them in defense of their nests,  they are more a tool for feeding than fighting. Made of hollow keratin, their length may play some role in attracting a mate, perhaps because longer bills are better for gathering fruit and delivering a meal to young in the nest cavity — a signal they would be good providers.

toucan beak structure
Toucan beak structure, Lainepalmer17. via Wikimedia Commons

Breeding and Nesting

Toucans are cavity nesters, but they must hunt for naturally occurring hollows, or those made by woodpeckers or other animals, because their bills are not well-suited to excavation. Monogamous during mating season and laying one to five eggs depending on the species, both parents help incubate the eggs and care for the altricial chicks for eight or more weeks before they fledge. They won’t begin breeding their own chicks for three to four years.

a toucan at the nest
A Red-breasted Toucan at nest. Photo by Renato Machado via Wikimedia Commons. Red-breasted Toucans have been seen on our Brazil tours.

What’s that Sound?

Toucans are also NOISY. Even though they are among the world’s larger and more colorful birds, in dense rainforest there is a good chance you will hear a toucan before you see it, and it might even frighten you! Sounding more like a mammal than most birds, toucans have a grunting, almost barking call, that some say sounds like a frog. The word ‘toucan’ is said to be an imitation of a typical call, and this Toco Toucan call does sounds like the word ‘toucan’ in places! Mountain toucans are said to have a braying call, like a donkey, like this call of the Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan. In addition to vocalizing, many toucans have a variety of clattering sounds they make with those enormous bills, clacking upper and lower mandibles together, tapping their bills on branches or rattling their tongue against their closed bills — a bit like a maraca!

Biggest and Smallest

Nearly two feet in length, the gorgeous Toco Toucan is the largest member of the family, and always a guest-favorite bird on our Brazil’s Pantanal: Jaguars! & More tours, also seen on our tours to Guyana. Toco is also the heaviest toucan, weighing nearly two pounds. The smallest toucan by length is the Tawny-Tufted Toucanet, at 12.5 inches. The lightest, at just 3.4 ounces, is the Lettered Aracari, named for the squiggly markings on its bill, resembling writing, has been seen on our tours to Peru.

Lettered Aracari is a member of the Toucan family
Lettered Aracari has been seen on our tours to Peru. Photo by Eric Gropp via Wikimedia Commons


Forming loose flocks of up to two-dozen birds, sociable toucans are found throughout Central and South America, and also in Mexico. Colombia and Brazil are home to the most species, (20), with Peru (19) and Ecuador (17) not far behind!

Here are some images of our favorite toucans, aracaris and toucanets, and where they can be spotted on our tours!


  • White-throated Toucans
  • Choco Toucan in Ecuador
  • Yellow-throated Toucan by Greg Smith
  • Channel-billed toucan


  • Aracari, Toucans & Toucanets are favorites of Central American and South American Birding
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Guianan toucanet


  • Aracari, Toucans & Toucanets are favorites of Central American and South American Birding

Toucans of South America

Argentina (Five Species)

Bolivia (Fourteen Species)

Brazil (Twenty Species)

Colombia (Twenty Species)

Ecuador (Seventeen Species)

Guyana (Eight Species)

Peru (Nineteen Species)

Toucans Possible on Central American Tours

Belize (Three Species)

Costa Rica (Six Species)

Guatemala (Three Species)

Honduras (Five Species)

Panama (Seven Species)

Julie Fannon’s Five Favorite Things About our Baja, Mexico Sea of Cortez Cruise

Baja Mexico Bounty: Wildlife Discovery in the Sea of Cortez
February 10 – 17, 2024 | $6500 – $7100 w/Kelly Vandenheuvel
Trip Report | Species List

Text and Photos by Julie Fannon

It has been five months now since Matt and I took a much-needed couple’s trip to Baja, Mexico for Naturalist Journeys Sea of Cortez cruise, a one-week choose-your-own-adventure with opportunities for birding, beachcombing, kayaking, whale-watching, snorkeling and just sitting on a beautiful beach with a book.

Baja Mexico hss amazing snorkeling!
Julie and Matt snorkeled at every opportunity! Others took skiffs and kayaked, took scenic hikes or just relaxed.
  • baja mexico has beautiful beaches and hikeable hills
  • baja mexico babes
  • our Baja Mexico craft

Looking ahead to our 2024 tour, I wanted to share my five top highlights from this trip, next departing Feb. 10 —17, perfect timing for a balmy mid-winter getaway to the warm clear skies and waters of this desert oasis in Baja Mexico’s Gulf of California.

  • baja mexico reef looks like cozumel reef
  • baja mexico has many healthy reefs

1. Snorkeling

Snorkeling has to be at the top of my list because we did it nearly every day, and it was delightful and dazzling every time we slipped on our wetsuits and masks! Snorkeling in Baja Mexico proved to be simply amazing, with large schools of big and bright tropical fish … it felt like you were snorkeling in an aquarium: massive puffer fish, Sergeant Majors, tiny day-glow blue fish, King Angelfish, eels, spiny lobster and starfish all appeared amid the healthy corals. On one excursion we even saw an octopus and a massive Panamic Green Moray eel!

  • a baja mexico sunset is a glorious thing
  • In Baja Mexico, we often set off in zodiacs from the beach
  • baja mexico has amazing sunsets

2. Beachcombing & Stunning Starscapes

The sand between our toes and the clear skies above reminded us how lucky we were not to be shoveling snow in Iowa in February! It was rejuvenating to walk along with the shorebirds, collecting shells or just listening to soft surf sounds with gulls calling overhead. The perpetually clear skies were a delight both day and night, basking in the rays or soaking up the stars, which are exceptionally brilliant in this dark skies area. 

3. Whale Watching Cruise

We saw our first whales breaching and blowing from the bus, and we continued to see Humpbacks and Gray Whales throughout the tour, most dramatically and close up during our Gray Whale watching tour by boat in Magdalena Bay. We were absolutely WOWed for nearly two hours with multiple whales, perhaps 10 in total, and the very most curious baby who kept approaching our boats, nudging them with its nose, scratching its back underneath, spraying quite a few of us in the face and generally putting on the most amazing show. We could not have asked for more!

  • Riding burros in baja mexico
  • a view of baja from a burro
  • baja mexico burro

4. Scenic Burro Ride

Leaving in two groups of early-risers and mid-morning, we enjoyed a scenic hour-and-a-half burro ride to take in the scenic views, look for birds and break out our cameras! Our loop trail climbed up the mountain and down into a stunning area full of stunted growth, scrubby trees and plenty of arroyos. We rode toward the beach, along the water, and then turned our burros back up and over the mountain. At the top, the view was just spectacular—aquamarine waters, sailboats, and desert studded with giant cardon cactuses, arms lifted to the sky,  made the viewpoint picture perfect. 

Baja Mexico sea lion
Playful Sea Lion in Baha Mexico by Rafael Saldaña

5. Sea Lion Encounter

Decked out in our snorkeling gear, we boated to a nearby rookery at Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto to jump in with a group of frolicking sea lions, who were just as curious about us as we were about them. We were immediately greeted by curious sea lion pups, who nibbled on wetsuits and hands and hair, while others rocketed around us. An added highlight for some of the group was snorkeling through a tunnel in the island and coming out above a reef that was absolutely breathtaking. The corals and fishes were animated and electric in color and we all wanted to spend more time just floating above the wonder.

*6. Amazing Baja Mexico Cuisine

If I were to name a sixth highlight, it would definitely be the delightful chef-prepared meals, which were fresh, healthy, full of local flavor and such appreciated sustenance during our hard-playing days of sand and surf.)

baja mexico cuisine at its best
Fresh local cuisine was the perfect fuel for our days.

If you don’t have your February warm-weather getaway planned, this is one of the most delightful and relaxing tours we offer and I recommend it wholeheartedly..Join us!

Meet Kelly Vandenheuvel, your Baja Mexico Guide

in baja mexico, kelly vandenheuvel is your guide

Kelly has worked with Naturalist Journeys for the past ten years. She assists our lead guides on trips to Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Death Valley, the Eastern Sierras, California’s Central Coast, Yosemite National Park, Trinidad/Tobago, and Utah’s National Parks. Kelly enjoys the outdoors, travel, nature, wildlife, and working with people.

Kelly is a licensed wildlife rehabber and educator for Pacific Wildlife Care in San Luis Obispo county, and is a founding member of the organization. She is also the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival Coordinator and Owner/Broker of Central Coast Property Sales. She and her husband Art own a ranch in Cayucos, California where they live with their large menagerie of birds and mammals, both wild and domestic. When not traveling, Art and Kelly welcome guests to find peace and quiet on their ranch B&B.

Sunbirds: ‘Hummingbirds’ of Africa & Asia

Sunbirds are always among our guests’ favorite finds: small, colorful, and often showily iridescent birds that spend much of their time drinking nectar from flowers, adding a backdrop of botanical beauty to sunbird photos taken in the field.

Malachite Sunbirds drink nectar with long tubular tongues
Long tails in Malachite and other sunbirds are attractive to mates but can hinder insect-hawking flight, by Steve Garvie from Dunfermline-Fife Scotland via Creative Commons

Though some sunbirds can hover, they usually perch to feed, but are otherwise so much like hummingbirds that scientists cite the two bird families as an example of “convergent evolution,” where unrelated organisms develop independently in different places to fill the same ecological niche.

  • Olive-backed Sunbirds are beautiful
  • Nepal Sunbirds sometimes hover rather than percy
  • Orange-breasted Sunbirds are adapted to protea

It’s little wonder, then, that sunbirds are often called “Africa’s hummingbirds” or “Asia’s hummingbirds.” (Honeyeaters are Australia’s hummingbirds, another bird family that evolved independently in the nectar-drinking niche. Watch this space for a forthcoming honeyeater blog!) Yet another nectar-drinking group, the sugarbirds, were once classified as sunbirds but now have their own family, Promeropidae, restricted to South Africa, which is a fantastic place to see both families and their interaction with the southern cape’s unique fauna.

South Africa Birding & Wildlife Safari
Sept. 27 — Oct. 11 | $6,490 w/Mason Flint
We call South Africa a “Sampler” tour as it blends birding with botany, witnessing wildflowers of Cape Town’s famous fynbos region and a short “big-five” safari in legendary Kruger National Park. We often find 350 or more bird species in South Africa, which has modern infrastructure and great food and wine, making this a very comfortable as well as birdy journey!

  • Cape Sugarbirds were once classified as Sunbirds
  • Gurney's Sugarbird was once classified as a Sunbird.

Sunbirds, Hummingbirds & Honeyeaters

Sunbirds, Hummingbirds and Honeyeaters all fill the nectar-eating ecological niche, but are unrelated, examples of “convergent evolution”. Image derived from Thais Bastos Zanata research publication.

Sunbirds delight our guests on tours throughout sub-Saharan Africa, in Israel, and in Southeast Asia, just as hummingbirds do on many of our US, Mexico, Central America and South American tours. 

Feeding Behavior

Like hummingbirds, many sunbirds sip nectar from flowers using their long, thin, tubular tongues. But they sometimes take a more aggressive approach, like flowerpiercers, using their sharp down-curved bills to poke holes at the base of less-accessible flowers to release their nectar, a behavior known as “robbing”.

  • Crimson Sunbirds also engage in "robbing"
  • Palestine Sunbirds sometimes engage in robbing behavior

Sunbirds also sometimes eat fruit, seeds, pollen and spiders, also a favorite of the spiderhunters. There are 13 spiderhunters among the 145 species in the bird family Nectariniidae. Spiderhunters are sunbirds’ larger, drabber relatives, forest species concentrated in Southeast Asia that we have chances for in Borneo, India, Bhutan, Thailand and Indonesia.

Little Spiderhunters are cute if a bit drab
Little Spiderhunter drinking sap, by Sasidharanmanekkara via Creative Commons

Co-Evolution with Mutualistic Flower Species

Sunbirds are important pollinators throughout their ranges of flowers that scientists say have evolved to be more attractive to them. Tubular flowers offer nectar in Africa as they do in the US to hummingbirds, but are much more likely to have a sturdy stalk to invite these perching birds. One remarkable example is the Babiana ringens, a South African flower that grows near the ground and shoots up a rat-tail like stalk that’s only function seems to be a perch for Malachite Sunbird, its most important pollinator.  Sunbirds avoid the ground because of snakes and other predators and this flower stem without inflorescence gives them a more inviting perch.

Babiana ringens flowers at ground level to be less inviting to browsing antelope. Sunbirds don’t like to feed on the ground, where there are snakes and other predators, so the flower sends up a flower-less stalk that’s high enough and sturdy enough for sunbirds to land. By Tony Rebelo via Creative Commons.

Other flowers, including proteas of the South African Fynbos biome, have evolved curved tubular flowers that are a lock-and-key match for sunbirds’ downcurved bills.

Orange-breasted Sunbirds have down-curved bills that are a lock-and-key match with South Afirca's Protea species.
Orange-breasted Sunbirds have down-curved bills that are a lock-and-key match with South Afirca’s Protea species. By Greg ‘Slobirder’ Smith.

Males & Females

Sunbirds are strongly sexually dimorphic (again like hummingbirds) with larger males putting on a show to attract mates and defend territory, while females are relatively drab by comparison. After breeding, though, the males of some species molt into an “eclipse” plumage making them look more like females, and less conspicuous to predators.

  • Crimson Sunbirds are colorful, if male
  • Female Crimson Sunbirds are much drabber
  • Purple Sunbirds have an eciipse plumage
  • Purple Sunbirds are glossy purple

Biggest & Smallest Sunbirds

Sunbirds are small, most between 4 and 8 inches in length, with short, rounded wings suitable to short-hop flights from floral perch to perch. Though some species do shift territories to optimize access to food, they tend not to be migratory. The smallest sunbird is the Tiny Sunbird, just under 4 inches and native to Subsaharan Africa, possible to see on our Ghana and Uganda tours. The largest sunbird is the Spectacled Spiderhunter, at 8.7 inches, a possible species on our Thailand and Borneo tours.

Tiny Sunbirds are the World's Smallest
Tiny Sunbird are the world’s smallest, less than 4 inches long, by Francesco Veronesi via Creative Commons

Most Widespread & Endemic Sunbirds

The most widespread sunbird in Asia is the Olive-backed Sunbird, which ranges from southern China to Queensland, Australia. There are many endemic sunbirds, too, particularly in Africa, which is home to the highest number of species. There are five endemic sunbirds in Tanzania, which has the most species of any country, with 51! In South Africa, endemic Orange-breasted Sunbird is an important pollinator for its unique Fynbos flora, predominantly feeding on Erica and Protea species.

Orange-breasted Sunbirds are adapted to protea
Orange-breasted Sunbird perched on a Protea by David Friedman via Creative Commons

Mating & Nesting Behavior

The males of several sunbird species have elongated tails, which scientists say helps them find mates earlier in the breeding season, though females may later regret falling for the flash. Longer tails make it harder for males to maneuver and hawk insects, handicapping them in their co-parenting duties. Both sunbirds and spiderhunters create suspended-pouch nests, a task undertaken by the females, who also incubate the eggs alone. 

  • Sunbirds often build purse-like nests
  • Malachite Sunbirds drink nectar with long tubular tongues

See Sunbirds for Yourself!

Malachite Sunbirds have long tails

Naturalist Journeys Tours with Sunbird Chances

Africa Tours
Tanzania, 51 sunbirds
Uganda, 38 sunbirds
Kenya, 37 sunbirds
Ghana, 23 sunbirds
South Africa, 16 sunbirds
Namibia, 13 sunbirds
Botswana, 8 sunbirds
Madagascar, 2 sunbirds

Asia Tours
Thailand, 14 sunbirds, 8 spiderhunters
Indonesia, 13 sunbirds, 10 spiderhunters
India, 13 sunbirds, 2 spiderhunters
Borneo, 9 sunbirds, 10 spiderhunters
Bhutan, 7 sunbirds, 2 spiderhunters
Taiwan, 3 species

Australasia & Oceania Tours
Papua New Guinea, 2 sunbirds
Australia, 1 sunbird

More Africa Tour Info:

One Spot Left: Southern Tanzania: Wildlife & Birding Safari
September 22 – October 5, 2023 | $10,970 w/Peg Abbott
Peg Abbott designed and leads this tour exploring Tanzania’s wildest and least-traveled terrain, a stronghold for African wildlife species, including predators. A coastal park on the Indian Ocean and isolated mountain ranges with unique flora and fauna add to this special safari’s diversity!

Uganda Highlights: Fabulous Birds & Mammals
November 22 – December 5, 2023 | $6790 w/Andrea Molina & Peg Abbott
Birding in a rich mix of habitats is at the heart of our November tour to Uganda, from the shores of Lake Victoria to the Mabamba Swamp (for Shoebill!) to lush forests skirting the beautiful Virunga Volcanoes. We have chances to see a great mix of birds and mammals, including Chimpanzees and the opportunity, for those who can hike, to see endangered Mountain Gorilla. Uganda’s forests trace the spine of the continent, and we delight in exploring them! We also visit Murchison Falls National Park, where we experience the classic savanna and safari.

One Room Left: Wild West Africa: Ghana Birding Safari (Pairs with Southern Tanzania)
October 7 – 24, 2023 | $6,390 w/Peg Abbott
Brighten your days in a country known for warm hospitality, colorful culture and colorful birds! Travel with Peg to the tropical rainforests of Ghana to experience an exhilarating mix of African birds and mammals. Professional guides committed to conservation show off Ghana’s diverse mix of West African bird specialties, iconic wetland species and classic African wildlife.

The Madrean Sky Islands: Home to Elegant Trogon & Naturalist Journeys

Naturalist Journeys’ Portal, AZ headquarters is in the glorious Chiricahua Mountains, one of sixty ‘sky islands,’ in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. Small mountain ranges marooned by oceans of desert and scrub that lap at their foothills, sky islands are celebrated and studied for their dramatic biodiversity.

Sky Islands Map by US Forest Service

As one ascends 6,000 feet from the Sulphur Springs Valley to 9,795-foot-high Chiricahua Peak, Bark Scorpions, Gila Monsters, rattlesnakes and cactus eventually give way to alpine meadow, Red-faced Warblers and hibernating Black Bear. Somewhere in the middle, a young paddle cactus and a sapling Douglas fir can be found growing side by side.

“The Sky Islands connect two very different mountainous regions, the subtropical Sierra Madre of Mexico and the temperate Rocky Mountains of the United States,”  per the US Forest Service. “The mixing of these southern and northern biotas is truly unique.”

  • In the sky islands, Barn Owl and Roadrunner are neighbors
  • In the sky islands, Barn Owl and Roadrunner are neighbors
  • In the sky islands, Mexican Chickaddee, Barn Owl and Roadrunner are neighbors

Six different habitats converge in the Madrean Sky Islands, with representative plants and animals from the  Sonora and Chihuahua Deserts, the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, the Neotropics of Baja and the Sierra Madres. This intense biodiversity attracts not only birders, but “buggers”, “herpers” and “bat people”.

Climbing from valley floor to mountain peak of the tallest sky islands, there are nine life zones, writes the Sky Island Alliance, a non-profit that aims to protect and restore sky island diversity: “Sonoran Desert scrub, desert grassland, open oak woodland, canyon woodland, pine – oak woodland, pine – oak forest, pine forest, montane fir forest and subalpine forest.”

Illustration by Sky Island Alliance

“They say it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada in an hour,” our founder and lead guide Peg Abbott explained to The New York Times writer Elaine Glusac, who wrote an excellent  Sky Islands birding piece in 2021, featuring both Peg and Carrie!

Elaine came in search of Elegant Trogon, a migrant species often seen on our spring and Monsoon Madness Arizona tours, which she described this way:

“The Elegant Trogon, befitting its name, is clever. One can perch in a tree 10 feet overhead and draw little attention, though it’s come dressed for it, with a striking yellow beak, blush red breast topped with a white collar and metallic green back tapering, like tuxedo tails, to finely barred tail feathers.”

Elegant Trogon are found in Southeast Arizona: A biodiversity hotspo
Elegant Trogon by Peg Abbott

We have two upcoming fall and winter Southeast Arizona trips with chances to see overwintering Elegant Trogon, though many will have moved on to southern wintering grounds.

We often see several species of hummingbird on our fall and winter tours, along with Greater Roadrunner, Vermilion Flycatcher, Verdin, Gambel’s Quail, Pyrrhuloxia, Phainopepla, and other resident species, as we bask in warm sunshine. We are joined by wintering birds from parts north, including many thousands of Sandhill Crane, who also find the weather pleasant!

  • pyrrhuloxia is one of many unusual sky islands birds
  • Gambel's Quail is one of many unusual sky islands birds
  • Phainopepla is one of many unusual sky islands birds
  • Verdin is one of many unusual sky islands birds
  • Sandhill Crane is found in the sky islands

The diversity here goes well beyond birds. White-nosed Coati, Javelina, Pronghorn and Bobcat are commonly photographed on tours here, along with all manner of butterflies, bats, snakes, tortoises and the occasional Black Bear.

  • Coatimundi are found in the sky islands
  • Javelina can be found in the sky islands
  • bobcat are often spotted in the sky islands
  • lizards are common in the sky islands of arizona
  • rattlesnakes are common in the sky islands

Our Sunshine and Saguaros tour Nov. 4 – 9 is a quick winter getaway that enjoys three nights and three great dinners in foodie, cultural Tucson, birding the surrounding Santa Ritas, Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum before moving to Tubac, AZ, our base for exploring Madera and Montosa Canyons.

Saguaros near Tucson by Peg Abbott

Slightly longer, our photo-friendly Nov. 9 – 16 Sky Island Fall Sampler tour, visits both the Huachuca and Chiricachua sky islands, spending two nights at one of our favorite BnB’s the world over, the fabulous Casa de San Pedro. From the hummingbird feeders to the homemade pie buffet to incredibly warm hospitality, it is a cherished stay for birders around the world.

This tour also comes to Portal, Naturalist Journeys’ HQ, spending four nights at Cave Creek Ranch, where our casitas stand among the shadows cast by the imposing, colorful rhyolite cliffs. Portal is known for its dark skies and fabulous night sky viewing, and we make time to look for owls and other night birds.

  • the chiricahuas are sky islands
  • sky islands bnb casa de san pedro is a trear
  • Cave Creek Canyon is in the sky islands
  • Fishook barrel cacti are found in the sky islands

Arizona Highways magazine popularized the term ‘sky islands’ in 1943, when writer Natt N. Dodge called the Chiricahuas a “mountain island in a desert sea.”

But credit for the scientific concept goes to herpetologist Edward Taylor, who made the first reference to biodiverse mountain islands on the Mexican plateau in 1940, at the 8th American Scientific Congress in Washington, D. C.

Other Sky Islands

Since then, the sky islands concept has been extended to other places around the world, where their protection is important to guard biodiversity, including the Chisos Mountains in Texas, which we visit on our Texas Big Bend tours.

Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in Eastern Africa are also sky islands, where one may travel from the tropics to the arctic by climbing in elevation, a trek described as traveling from the equator to the North Pole. Our trips to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania in Eastern Africa are all birdier in part thanks to these forested East Africa reservoirs of diversity.

More Arizona Sky Islands Tour Details:

Arizona: Sunshine & Saguaros | November 4 – 9, 2023 | $2390 w/Peter Burke & Hugh Simmons

Indulge in warm desert days among saguaros as we walk trails in Saguaro National and Catalina State Parks with fine views of the surrounding sky island mountain ranges. Visit desert botanical gardens that hummingbirds frequent and the famed Sonoran Desert Museum. Northwest of the city, visit Santa Cruz Flats, where big agricultural fields create a winter birding hotspot with habitats ranging from turf farms to ponds and fields. We search for Yellow-headed Blackbird, Ferruginous Hawk and Crested Caracara. One section of the flats is a reliable spot to find three species of thrashers: Curve-billed, Bendire’s and with some luck, Le Conte’s.

Enjoy three nights in Tucson on this Southeast Arizona birding tour followed by two nights along the Santa Cruz River south of the city in view of the Santa Rita Mountains. At Madera and Montosa Canyons, Elegant Trogon may overwinter, feeding on fruits and on warm days, large insects. Trails near the artisan town of Tubac are ideal for natural history exploring. This tour makes a nice short getaway, or pairs perfectly with our Arizona Fall Sampler that ventures to Patagonia, the Huachuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, the San Pedro River and Sulphur Springs Valley.

Southeast Arizona: Sky Island Fall Sampler | Photo-Friendly
November 9 – 16, 2023 | $2,890 w/Peter Burke & Hugh Simmons

Southeast Arizona is home terrain for Naturalist Journeys and we’re so excited to share our favorite places. On this year’s fall Southeast Arizona nature tour we’ve invited Hugh Simmons, an accomplished photographer specializing in landscapes, to join us. We plan to set the pace of this one to let you work on photo composition, or simply to marvel at beauty.

Hugh provides photo tips for those that want to improve their skills; you can then practice on fall color landscapes and especially at feeders—brilliant birds. We begin at a fun western-themed hotel in Sonoita to have a chance to explore some beautiful grasslands at sunset and to visit the famous hummingbird feeders at Patagonia. We follow with two nights at the delightful Casa de San Pedro and end with four nights in Cave Creek Canyon at Portal, truly one of the most scenic canyons in the state. This is home turf for guide Peg Abbott and she’s eager to share her beloved terrain. Throughout our travels, we enjoy delicious, catered meals and dining at our favorite local restaurants.

This is not “normal” winter birding. Hummingbirds still linger here at several popular feeder sites—sit awhile and let the birds come to you! Fruiting trees and shrubs attract thrashers, robins and sometimes, rarities, like the Eared Quetzal in the fall of 2020.

Wintering Sandhill Cranes number in the tens of thousands; we watch them fly in at sunset to Whitewater Draw. Sparrows and allies winter in profusion, many from the Great Plains region. Southwestern mammals such as Coati, Javelina and even Ring-tailed Cat can be found. Raptors abound: Red-tailed Hawk of varied color phases, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Peregrine, Merlin and more.

Elegant And Exclusive, the Crane Family has Just 15 Members

Discover 13 Cranes on 5 Continents with Naturalist Journeys in 2023

The crane family tree has just 15 branches, but these elegant, giant, marsh-nesting birds loom large on each of the five continents where they are found.

That’s particularly true in Asia, home to eight crane family species, where crane iconography seems to be everywhere: Cranes can be found flying, dancing and striking a pose on coins and paper money, in paintings, pottery, sculpture and even architecture. Japan, where tens of thousands of cranes overwinter is particularly enamored of cranes.

  • the crane family is an influential one, here appearing on Japan's currency
  • the crane family is regal, here appearing in Emperor Huizong's Palace
  • the crane family is regal, here appearing in Emperor Huizong's Palace

Birds in the Crane Family are Large and Loud

Cranes are exceptional in so many ways. The crane family (Gruidae) is an ancient one, dating back 60 million years. They are among the largest birds, and even the smallest, the Demoiselle Crane, dwarfs most birds at 39 inches. The largest crane family member, the Sarus, tops out at 5’9”, taller than many people in their home range countries of India and Australia. Cranes are also loud, as anyone who has experienced a flock of Sandhill Cranes flying in to roost can confirm. Adult cranes’ bugling or trumpeting call is used for signaling family and flock members more than two miles away. 

Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska’s Platte River by Dave Krueper

Cranes Can Dance When They Want To

Graceful fliers, cranes mate for life and yet continue to court their partners with dance and vocalizations, teaching their young colts to dance at a very young age, even though they won’t mate for several years. Cranes dance not only during courtship, scientists say, but also “when they are excited, frustrated, or just need to release pent-up energy.” 

  • red-crowned cranes are among the most sought after crane family members
  • red-crowned cranes are among the most sought after crane family members

Cranes in Profile

When standing or strutting, their enormous feathered wings are usually gathered into a bustle behind them, which disappears entirely when their wings are busied in flight. Unlike herons, who tuck in their necks when aloft, cranes fly with their elegant necks outstretched, one easy way to tell these large birds apart in silhouette. Another striking crane posture can be seen when pairs are engaged in unison calls, with their heads tipped back, as depicted here in an illustration published by the University of Nebraska:

crane family members have different Unison Call postures
Crane family members have different unison call postures. See key below., University of Nebraska figure.

Crane Habitat (and Most Cranes) are Threatened

Cranes nest in marshy wetlands, a habitat that is rapidly being repurposed worldwide to grow field crops, for aquaculture or for urbanization. So it’s no surprise that most members of the crane family are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable (7 species), endangered (3 species) or critically endangered (1 species). Only four species are designated by IUCN as species of least concern.

Happily, we have chances (some great, some very slim) to see thirteen of the fifteen crane family members on a range of tours throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, all of which contribute directly or indirectly to crane conservation. In this blog, we’ll describe each of the crane family species in turn and describe for you the tours where we hope to find them.

Cranes of Japan – Three Likely, Six Possible Species

We begin with our crane-tastic Japan Birding & Nature Tour, a scenic snowy adventure designed specifically to witness the masses of White-naped and Hooded Crane that overwinter on the Japanese archipelago, along with the star of this tour, Red-crowned Crane.

Cranes in Japan by Peg Abbott
  • White-naped Crane in the crane family Gruidae
  • White-naped Crane in the crane family, Gruidae
  • Hooded Crane in the Crane family Gruidae
  • red-crowned cranes are among the most sought after crane family members

Rare and critically endangered Siberian Crane was unexpected but welcome for our inaugural Japanese tour group in January of 2023. Siberian Crane is the only member of the crane family credited with a true song. Its calls are more flutelike, less a honking or trumpeting.

Our inaugural Japan tour was also pleasantly surprised to see single birds of two other species: Demoiselle and Sandhill Crane, from a Siberian population separate from those we see in North America. One one auspicious day of this tour, our group saw five different crane species!

  • Demoiselle Crane is in the Crane Family Gruidae
  • Siberian Crane in the crane family, Gruidae

Japan Birding & Nature
Nov. 29 – Dec. 15, 2023 & Jan. 7 – 23, 2024 | $7390 w/Guide Bryan Shirley
Inaugural 2023 Trip Report | Species List | Full Itinerary

Japan offers a fantastic array of birding and nature opportunities—from the wintering cranes in Kagoshima to the world-famous Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani and so much more, from birds to gorgeous snowy mountain landscapes, to sublime culinary and cultural delights!

Cranes of Australia: Two Possible Species, Sarus and Brolga

We have good chances to see both of Australia’s two crane species on our Queensland’s Wet Tropics Tour, the Sarus and the Brolga.

  • sarus crane of the crane family gruidae
  • The Brolga is a member of the crane family Gruidae

The Sarus Crane, as noted before, is the tallest crane in the world. Watching this massive crane fly, dance and call in unison with a lifelong partner is spectacular almost beyond words. Two non-migratory groups of Sarus Cranes persist, one in India in addition to those of far Northeast Queensland. We also have a chance for Sarus on our Grand India Tigers & Glorious Birds tour.

The Brolga, though twenty inches shorter than the Sarus, is still an impressive specimen at 49 inches tall. More widespread on this island continent, it is sometimes called the Australian Crane. Also found in New Guinea, its official species name is derived from the indigenous name, burralga.

Australia: Queensland’s Wet Tropics
Aug. 13—22, 2023 & July 7 —16, 2024
Exploring North Queensland and the Daintree Region is legendary among birders, with so many species ranking off the charts for color, beauty and song. This is a lush coastal area that combines mountain, rainforest and ocean birding in Australia’s most fertile area. The driving routes are spectacular and not long, so you have plenty of field time to take it all in. Interspersed with forest and coastal walks are boat trips and an ocean cruise to experience the Great Barrier Reef.

Bhutan: Migratory Black-necked Crane is Possible

Our Bhutan tour has an outside chance to see Black-necked Crane, a migratory species that nests in Tibet. It is 53 inches in height and considered vulnerable due to rapid wetland habitat loss. A sacred bird in Bhutan, it’s the world’s only alpine crane, feeding on dwarf bamboo there in the Phobjikha Valley wetlands, where they overwinter. 

Black-necked crane is in the crane family Gruidae
Black-necked Crane by Candle Tree via Creative Commons

Africa, A Great Continent for Cranes: Four of Six Possible Species on Tours in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Botswana

Six crane species can be found in Africa and we have chances for four of them on our tours: Gray-crowned (South Africa, Uganda, & Kenya); Blue Crane (South Africa & Namibia); Wattled (S. Africa & Botswana) and Common Crane (Morocco and also throughout Europe and on our Israel tour). Demoiselle, which overwinters in North Africa and Black-crowned Crane, the smaller of the two crowned crane species, are unlikely to be spotted on our current Africa tours.

Gray-crowned Crane is part of the crane family Gruidae
Gray-crowned Cranes by Musiime Muramura via Unsplash

Cranes are deeply woven into the fabric of Africa and its folklore. Blue Crane is South Africa’s national bird, earning top billing among 850 avian choices. Many tribes consider the bird sacred, off-limits for hunting, and gather its feathers to award to their bravest tribesmen to wear in their hair.

blue crane is in the crane family Gruidae
Blue Crane by Art Cimento

Uganda’s national bird is the striking Gray-crowned Crane. We may see it on our tours to Uganda and also our Kenya and South Africa tours. It also lives in Zambia. With a stiff crown of golden feathers, black heads, white cheeks and bright red gular sacs, Gray-crowned Crane is regal indeed. But several other things set apart the crowned cranes of Africa:

  • They are the most ancient of crane species, by tens of millions of years.
  • They are the only cranes to roost in trees, enabled by a prehensile hind toe.
  • They have larger clutches than most cranes, hatching as many as 5 eggs.
  • Their striking appearance has made poaching of live birds and eggs for the pet trade one of the species’ biggest threats.

Wattled Cranes: South Africa & Botswana tours

The largest crane in Africa and the tallest flying bird, the Wattled Crane also has a distinctive, (though a bit less regal) appearance. A bumpy featherless face and its namesake dangling flap of chin skin easily distinguish it from other African cranes. Like its closest relatives in the crane family, the Demoiselle and the Blue Crane, the Wattled Crane has prominent secondary wing feathers that, when gathered into its bustle, give the appearance of a down-curved tail. 

Wattled Crane is in the crane family Gruidae
Wattled Crane by Per Arne Slotte via Creative Commons

Wattled Crane often submerges its entire head to dig for plant roots and tubers, and is much more dependent on areas of standing water than other African cranes, putting it at greater threat for habitat loss. Wattled Crane also only fledges one chick on average. Their young take longer to hatch and fledge than other cranes, increasing the species’ vulnerability.

Africa Tours with Crane Family Chances:

Deltas to Dunes: A Namibia-Botswana Safari
Sept. 1 – 19, 2023 | $8990 w/guide Bryan Shirley
See two countries, close geographically but very different, each boasting distinct birds and mammals,  with beautifully divergent landscapes on our Delta to Dunes Safari. The expansive Okavango Delta and stunning red dunes at Sossusvlei are two of the most iconic Africa experiences and the gorgeous backdrop to an unbeatable birding and wildlife safari. 

Grand Uganda: Fabulous Birds & Mammals
July 13 – 29, 2023 | $8290 w/Gerard Gorman

Uganda Highlights: Fabulous Birds & Mammals
Nov. 22 – Dec. 5, 2023 |$6790 w/Andrea Molina & Peg Abbott
Birding in a rich mix of habitats is at the heart of our July and November tours to Uganda, from the shores of Lake Victoria to the Mabamba Swamp (for Shoebill!) to lush forests skirting the beautiful Virunga Volcanoes. We have chances to see a great mix of birds and mammals, including Chimpanzees and the opportunity, for those that can hike, to see endangered Mountain Gorilla. Uganda’s forests trace the spine of the continent and we delight in exploring them! We also visit Murchison Falls National Park, where we experience the classic savanna and safari. 

South Africa: Birding & Wildlife Safari
Sept. 27 – Oct. 11, 2023 | $6490 DBL w/Mason Flint
We call South Africa a “Sampler” tour as it blends birding with botany, witnessing wildflowers of Cape Town’s famous fynbos region and in the mountains of the Drakensberg Escarpment. South Africa has modern infrastructure and great food and wine, making it a very comfortable journey. We often find 350 or more bird species as well as numerous mammals in this mega-biodiversity nation. Experience a short “big-five” safari in legendary Kruger National Park. Sprinkle in the culture, culinary delights and gorgeous Table Mountain-meets-coast delight of Cape Town and it’s time to start looking for flights!

Common Crane: Possible in Africa, Much More Likely on Europe and Israel Tours

Though Eurasian/Common Crane may be seen in northern Africa, we are much more likely to spot it where most of its population lives and breeds: throughout Europe. With an estimated population of 700,000 cranes worldwide, they are among the least threatened members of the crane family. Great news!

Common Crane is in the crane family Gruidae
Common Cranes by Gerard Gorman

We are likely to see Common Crane in 2023 on our Finland-Norway, Austria-Hungary, Romania-Bulgaria and Spain fall migration tours.

Finland & Norway Birding & Nature 
June 3 – 15, 2023 | $6295 from Oulu w/Gerard Gorman
Join us in Finland and Norway as we explore the Scandinavian Arctic’s coastline and boreal forests at the height of spring nesting season.We look for lekking Ruff, Boreal Owl, Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Jay, Black Grouse, Western Capercaillie and so many more!

Birds, Nature & Culture in the Heart of Europe
June 19 – 30, 2023 | $3990 from Vienna w/Gerard Gorman
Get your Sound of Music on with a stroll through Austria’s alpine foothills, meadows and lakeshore before crossing into Hungary’s rolling limestone hills, plains and wet woodlands. We bird a thrilling variety of habitats on this 11-night tour, bookended by the cosmopolitan capitals of Vienna & Budapest. 

Spain Birding & Nature
Sept. 3 — 15, 2023 | $5,490 from Malaga
This fall migration tour is centered Andalusia, whose Strait of Gibraltar is a natural bottleneck for migrant birds headed to Africa. A warm and wonderful place for a fall tour, its landscape is almost tropical, a mixture of palms, stone pines, and subtropical flowering trees. We make time to experience many cultural, architectural, and culinary delights of Spain!

Romania & Bulgaria: Black Sea Coast Migration
Sept. 15 — 25, 2023 | $3,390 from Bucharest w/Gerard Gorman
Timed for peak fall migration on this lesser-explored flyway, we divide our time between the gorgeous Black Sea Coast of two fascinating countries and bird Europe’s only steppe, among many other inland habitats including the wetlands around Bourgas and the broad-leaved woodpecker-rich forests of the Strandzha Hills.

Two Cranes Call the US Home: Sandhill & Whooping

Finally, circling back to the United States, we find two charismatic crane species, one with a thriving population and another endangered but considered in recovery mode.

Sandhill Crane is a member of the crane family, Gruidae
Incoming Sandhill Crane, Bryan Calk

The first, of course, is the Sandhill Crane, whose large and vocal flocks many of us have been privileged to experience flying overhead. Our guests in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas see them while they are overwintering and we have special spring tours to an important staging ground for Sandhills on Nebraska’s Platte River. In their nesting ranges, our Yellowstone National Park guests sometimes get to see young Sandhill Crane families, with doting parents taking their colts for a walk!

Sandhill Cranes are in the crane family Gruidae
Sandhill Crane family out for a walk in Yellowstone National Park by Hugh Simmons.

Whooping Crane, with an estimated population of just 849 birds, is listed as endangered by the IUCN but is one of just five species whose population is considered on the rise, thanks to tremendous conservation efforts. Many dedicated people and organizations have helped bring this bird back from the brink of extinction in 1941, when there were just 15 known birds.

  • Sandhill Cranes are in the crane family Gruidae
  • Whooping Crane is the crane family Gruidae

Our Texas guests have their best chances to see Whooping Crane during winter tours there. Texas native and guide for our South Texas tours Bryan Calk said Mid-November to late-March is the sweet spot.

“I got them on all of my three winter tours, but only by the skin of my teeth on the first one in November, they were our boat captain’s first for the season, super lucky. The March tour will very likely get them too,” he wrote. Whoopers also occasionally turn up on our Platte River tours amidst the Sandhills, and we always feel fortunate to see them!

South Texas Birding & Nature
Dec. 2 —10, 2023 | $2,990 w/Bryan Calk
South Texas is one of the greatest birding destinations in the United States, and for good reason. Due to its proximity to the humid tropics of Mexico, the subtropical woodlands of the Rio Grande Valley boast over two dozen tropical bird species that spill across the border, from chachalacas to pauraques. Here, colorful Great Kiskadee and personable Green Jay mingle with temperate species and nowhere else in the United States.

How You Can Help Protect Cranes

Naturalist Journeys tours help fulfill the promise of ecotourism, demonstrating that protecting wild lands and wildlife is beneficial for local people. We also make contributions that aid conservation in the special places we visit. We currently contribute to the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary and The Crane Trust (of Nebraska). Other worthy organizations that are working to protect cranes worldwide include the International Crane Foundation.

Read more about crane conservation on the IUCN Crane Portal.

Birding Between Borders: Israel Birds, Nature & Culture

A Guest Blog From Guide Emeritus Woody Wheeler

Finally, after a two-year Covid delay, Lori and I were able to take the inaugural Naturalist Journeys: Israel Birds, Nature and Culture with good friends Bill and Denise.

To maximize the opportunity, we added a few days before and after the tour to explore on our own. The combined experience provided an excellent overview of Israel’s natural, geographical, cultural, and historical wonders, which are abundant for a country approximately the size of New Jersey.

  • Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys
  • Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys
  • Sunbird from Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys

Few realize that Israel is an outstanding place for birds. Situated along the Mediterranean Sea between Eurasia to the north and Africa to the south, it is a major corridor for bird migration.

According to Colum McCann in his outstanding novel Apeirogon, “Israel is the world’s second busiest migratory superhighway: at least four hundred different species of birds torrent through, riding different levels in the sky.”

  • Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys Eurasian Hoopoe
  • Long-eared Owl from Naturalist Journeys' Israel Birds, Nature & Culture
  • Stonechat from Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys

We found four “life birds” on our first day in Tel Aviv: Eurasian Hoopoe, White-spectacled Bulbul, Egyptian Goose and Graceful Prinia. On other walks in Tel Aviv, we browsed the extensive open market and the Bauhaus Architectural district. Tel Aviv is a vibrant city that blends the old with the new.

  • Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys includes visits to the Tel Aviv market

On day two, Lori arranged a private Israel bird tour to Caesarea and Haifa. We explored the Roman ruins and seaside retreat of King Herod, a man with a checkered past, who left behind iconic structures in Caesarea, Masada, and the Temple of the Mount. Our day concluded with a spectacular view of the port city of Haifa with the Bahai gardens in the foreground. Bahai is one of four major world religions that consider Israel a holy place. The other three are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys
Photo Credit: Lori Cohen

That evening, we met our amiable group of 12 and received an overview of our upcoming tour: Israel Birds, Nature, and Culture. The tour route followed most of the country’s external borders. We often birded by barbed-wire fences marking the surrounding and sometimes hostile borders of the surrounding countries of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. We also birded in or next to former war zones, including the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Other birding spots included places restored after previously being drained to control malaria.

Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys
Group Photo!

We skipped stones in the Sea of Galilee, watched wild Ibex roam and Griffon Vultures soar near the gravesite of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. We observed thousands of Common Cranes migrating south into the Hula Valley near Lebanon, and floated in the Dead Sea – so relaxing and invigorating!

Dead Sea by Woody Wheeler

Over the 14-day span of this amazing tour, we saw 180 species of birds, including more than 100 “Life Birds” for Lori and me; 13 species of mammals, 13 species of reptiles and amphibians, 8 species of butterflies and a Giant African Mantis. Some of the bird species were in entirely new families for me, including four species of Sand Grouse, eight species of Wheatears, two Cisticolas, One Bulbul, two Reed Warblers, one Bustard, a Thick-knee, Hoopoe, and a Sunbird.

  • Nubian Ibex seen on Israel Birds, Nature & Culture by Naturalist Journeys
  • Sunbird from Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys
  • Greater Hoopoe Lark seen on Israel Birds, Nature & Culture from Naturalist Journeys
  • Gecko on Naturalist Journeys Israel Birds Nature & Culture

Israel’s geology was a surprise highlight. Ein Avdat Canyon, Makhtesh Ramon Crater, The Great Rift Valley and red rock formations of the Arava Desert reminded us of landscapes in the American Southwest. Mt. Hermon with its 9,232-summit in Syria, and its western flanks playing host to Israel’s only ski area, is part of the famous Golan Heights. In contrast to towering Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights, at 1400 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth.

Israel Birds Nature and Culture Tour from Naturalist Journeys
Landscape by Lori Cohen

Jerusalem is a city like no other.  Its sense of history, culture, and religious fervor resonates.  The many who travel there from all over the world openly express their affection for this holy city. 

Walking on the ramparts of the city’s historic wall was an ideal way to review the city’s complex history and enjoy expansive views of the past and present. Mark Twain once noted that Israel has more history and culture packed into a small area than any other place on earth. It also has world-class birding, natural history, geology, and as if all of this were not enough, outstanding food!

Israel book reccomendationsApeirogon by Colum McCann; Birds of the Middle East by Abdulrahman Al-Sirhan, Jens Eriksen, and Richard Porter; Israel – a Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis; The Lemon Tree – An Arab, a Jew, and the heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan.  

Birding Paradise: 5 Colossal Country Checklists & 2 High-Density Hotspots

Colombia is widely acclaimed as a birding paradise, home to 1864 bird species, more than any country on Earth. Its species range from South America’s largest, Andean Condor, soaring on wings 11.5 feet from tip to tip, down to tiny Gorgeted Woodstar, a hummingbird whose stubby wings produce a slow, bumblebee-like flight.

Though geographically smaller than fellow South American countries Brazil and Peru, which also make the “top 5 birdiest countries” list, Colombia beats both out for birds because of its ‘location, location, location.’ Bridging southern Central America and South America proper, Colombia is home to species that live in both regions, and to a stunning 83 birds that live no place else, among them 17 endemic hummingbirds!

  • Colombia is a birding paradise
  • buffy helmetcrest is one of 17 endemic hummingbirds in Colombia, a true birding paradise.
  • Colombia is a birding paradise in part because of topography

Birding Paradise Rankings

Here is how the top 5 ‘birding paradise’ countries rank for total numbers of bird species according to Birdlife International.

  1. Colombia, 1864
  2. Peru, 1861
  3. Brazil, 1816
  4. Indonesia 1722
  5. Ecuador, 1622

Bonus: Two High-Density Hotspots

Having a high number of species is one way to measure “birdiest,” but another is the number of bird species per square mile. Both Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica score in the top 10 for “birdiest countries” by this measure. Tours to both of these countries are so pleasurable because the birding is easy and relaxing, with the potential to see a large number of species without significant travel between spots.

  • Parlatuvier Bay is part of the new UNESCO biosphere reserve in Northeast Tobago
  • Trinidad Ecotourism and the Scarlet Ibis are synonymous
  • Jamaican Tody is one of 200 birds found in this tiny birding paradise

One attribute shared by these ‘birding paradise’ countries is their tropical location. For most plant and animal species, biodiversity is dramatically higher at the equator than at the poles, though there are many competing theories about why this “latitudinal diversity gradient” exists.

All of the top 5 are also large countries. The reason we offer three tours to Colombia because it would be impossible to see all of its impressive birds all on just one trip!

Beyond their tropical ecology and sizeable landmass, each of these ‘birding paradise’ countries has unique geographic and climactic features that support its particular suite of birds.

In this four-part series, we will discuss those factors, digging into what makes each a unique and inviting birding destination. In Part 1 we explore Colombia, in Part 2, Peru and Brazil and Part 3, Indonesia and Ecuador. In Part 4 we discuss Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, “high-density hotspots” that offer easy island birding and an exotic suite of species.

Colombia’s Geographic Diversity

Bridging Central and South America, Colombia is a land of geographic extremes, beginning with northern and western borders defined by extensive coastlines along both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The country is divided north to south by the towering Andes Mountains, descending to savannas and Amazon lowlands in the heavily forested interior. For obvious reasons, birding Colombia is an adventure that invites one to visit and revisit, exploring each birdy area in turn!

Our guide of the year, David Mehlman, encouraged us to bring back birding and nature tours to Colombia, and his enthusiasm for and knowledge of the country places you in very good hands when visiting to this birding paradise. Dave helped us devise the following three routes, and we may well add more in the future!

Colombia Birds & Nature in the Coffee Region

Jan 23 – Feb. 3, 2023 | $5,390 w/guide Dave Mehlman & January 24 – February 2, 2024

This tour explores the famous “Eje Cafetero,” designated by UNESCO as being a World Heritage Landscape and a haven for both coffee drinkers and birds.

Colombia birding paradise comes with Panama food and drink!
Coffee cherries are beautiful! Naturalist Journeys stock

We have easy access to renowned birding areas such as Otún-Quimbaya Flora and Fauna Sanctuary near Santa Rosa (with its famous flocks of Red-ruffed Fruitcrow) and the Rio Blanco Nature Reserve just outside Manizales, with a bird list of over 500 species and a legendary feeding station for antipittas.

  • red-ruffed fruitcrow is one of 1800 species we may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia
  • a brown-banded anpitta is one of 1800 birds you may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia

We also include time at high elevations at the Los Nevados del Ruiz volcano, where we experience permanent snowfields just north of the equator! This unique area of the Central Andes above tree line, covered in a vegetation type called páramo, is the habitat for many rare, unique, and difficult-to-find species. We look here for Buffy Helmetcrest, Andean Siskin, Stout-billed Cinclodes, White-throated Spinetail, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch.

Our hotel here has natural hot springs, which you are welcome to enjoy as a guest if you’re not distracted by the numerous iridescent hummingbirds to be found at the feeders just outside! We naturally sample local coffees, and enjoy a cultural field trip to a coffee farm, and even have one cooking class, learning to make the famous Colombian dish called sancocho.

Colombian Amazon

Aug. 6 – 16, 2023 | $TBD from Bogota w/guide Dave Mehlman

Colombia’s Amazon may be best described from a naturalist’s perspective, as remote, difficult to access, and relatively unexplored by birders until quite recently. This is a magical trip where two of Colombia’s best destinations for birding in the Amazonian ecosystems collide, including the incredible Orinoco basin forest surrounding Puerto Inírida and the gorgeous, mystical Guianan Shield.

  • Fiery Topaz  is one of 1800 birds you may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia
  • Giant River Otter is one of the mammals we may see in the birding paradise of Colombia
  • Turquoise Tanager  is one of 1800 birds you may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia
  • Golden-crowned Spadebill is one of 1800 birds you may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia
  • Collared Puffbird  is one of 1800 birds you may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia
  • Gould's Jewelfront  is one of 1800 birds you may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia
  • a brown-banded anpitta is one of 1800 birds you may see on a Naturalist Journeys birding and nature tour to the birding paradise of colombia

In 2020, our tour operator acquired 200 hectares of land near Puerto Inírida to establish an environmental reserve. This reserve involves the indigenous communities for the conservation of the wildlife that occur there and we are excited to meet these communities who are so involved in a successful ecotourism project.

We may see more than 400 species of birds, some of them considered among the rarest in Colombia. In addition to the bountiful birds we encounter, we are also on the lookout for special mammals like Yellow-handed Titi monkey, Pink River Dolphin, Giant River Otter, and many more!

Colombia Birding and Nature in the Central Andes

Nov. 7 – 18, 2023 | TBD (2022 price was $4690 DBL / $4990 SGL w/guide Dave Mehlman

We explore the terrain of the Central Andes which contains a diverse mix of coffee and other agricultural plantations, natural habitat, small towns, and world-class nature reserves. The birding is excellent with numerous species easily seen as we hike trails and visit bird feeding stations for hummingbirds, tanagers, toucans, motmots, and many more!

This tour includes a break in the middle to explore and experience the legendary “paisa” culture which Medellin and its surrounding department of Antioquia are famous for. We also explore the valley of the Magdalena River, Colombia’s largest, in search of water birds and other species.

We hope to see unique bird species found in few other places such as Yellow-eared Parrot, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Red-bellied Grackle, Golden-headed Quetzal, and manakins, tanagers, and flycatchers too numerous to count!

Next Up in Birding Paradise Part 2: Peru and Brazil

Group birding Bosque Yanahuanca Jaen, Peru. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott