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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.)
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
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 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.
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.
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!
Sunbirds, Hummingbirds & Honeyeaters
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“They say it’s like driving from Mexico to Canada in an hour,” our founder and lead guide Peg Abbott explained to TheNew 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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
Africa, A Great Continent for Cranes: Four of Six Possible Species on Tours in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Botswana
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 reccomendations: Apeirogon 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.
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!
Birding Paradise Rankings
Here is how the top 5 ‘birding paradise’ countries rank for total numbers of bird species according to Birdlife International.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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!
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!
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.
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).”
“Eurasian Hoopoe and Eurasian Golden Oriole are also always big hits with groups, and they are fortunately quite widespread across our route.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A tropical butterfly, they are rare in the US, and are named for the metallic markings on their wings.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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