Trinidad and Tobago Ecotourism GetS a Gold Star with UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Designation

Northeast Tobago Earns Valuable ‘Man and the Biosphere’ Recognition

In 1776, back when the US colonists were still beefing with King George III, Tobago gave birth to the modern conservation movement with the founding of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, the oldest tropical rainforest reserve in the world.

  • Map showing Northeast Tobago, which was named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in October, 2021
  • Parlatuvier Bay is part of the new UNESCO biosphere reserve in Northeast Tobago
  • UNESCO biosphere reserve status protects birds, like these Red-billed Tropicbirds

Tracing Tobago’s mountainous spine, the nearly 9,800-acre rainforest reserve is one of many jewels we visit on our tours to Trinidad and Tobago.

Main Ridge is an important piece of a large area in Northeast Tobago that UNESCO described as “a rare largely intact Caribbean Island Ridge-to-Ocean ecosystem,” when it granted it “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” status in 2020.

“By joining the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, the community aims to revitalize cultural and spiritual bonds between people and nature and boost the preservation of this fragile and remarkable human and natural landscape,” UNESCO wrote in its declaration.

One of now 714 UNESCO Nature Reserves, among Caribbean sites only Guadalupe Island’s reserve is larger.

Dollars flow to UNESCO biosphere reserves

The recognition should help dollars flow into these twin island nations and help them  to recover from the 16-month COVID lockdown, UNESCO noted in the declaration. Trinidad ended its lockdown in November, and visitors have begun to flow back into the islands, supporting ecotourism destinations like the ones we visit.

“Some of the expected benefits to Trinidad and Tobago include the generation of sustainable green and blue economic activities beyond tourism, including fisheries, agriculture, cultural heritage promotion, scientific research and education, among others,” the declaration said.

Fifteen communities and 10,000 people live inside the massive terrestrial and marine reserve, which envisions them working sustainably to develop Tobago while preserving its biodiversity.

The founding of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve is considered the first act of modern conservation, by the British in 1776.

Of course nature tourists, and especially birders, knew all about Trinidad and Tobago’s wonders well before the UNESCO biosphere designation. Naturalist Journeys guests have been coming to Trinidad and Tobago for decades, and we’ve long worked with trusted local partners to explore areas inside the new biosphere boundaries, including a half-day visit to the Main Ridge Forest Reserve.

We also visit the marine portion of the UNESCO nature reserve, which encircles Little Tobago. On a glass-bottomed boat tour our guests can look down at colorful reef fish and up, to discover awesome pelagics like the Magnificent Frigatebird, Red-billed Tropicbird among many others.

As Caribbean Islands saw forests clear cut for sugarcane plantations during the colonial period, in 1776, Main Ridge was set aside “for the purpose of attracting frequent showers of rain upon which the fertility of lands in these climates doth entirely depend.”

It was the culmination of an 11-year lobbying campaign by a member of the British Parliament, Soame Jenyns, who was influenced by the work of English scientist Stephen Hales linking rainfall and forests. (The reason he suggested it was to preserve the fresh-watersheds of Great Britain’s own colonial-era plantations.)

The protection of Main Ridge was sadly an outlier. Only 10 percent of Caribbean forests remain intact, noted UNESCO in its biosphere reserve designation.

Although Trinidad and Tobago is one of the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean, its tourism sector is much smaller and less developed than its neighbors. The hope and the expectation is that the UNESCO nature reserve designation will help focus more investment not just in sustainable tourism, but in diversified industries that are compatible with protecting biodiversity.

The pandemic-driven closure of the Asa Wright Nature Centre in January of 2021 was a big blow to the tourism sector on the islands, and one that required Naturalist Journeys founder Peg Abbott to work hard to re-create our tours there.

As she wrote in a recent social media post:

“When it all fell apart, I realized I had a deep bond to place, the magic of two twin islands, a piece of South America on the one Trinidad, and the Caribbean on the other, Tobago.

“I picked up with amazing people that I’ve worked with for seven years, and we picked up the bones and we put it back together…we have survived, and we have carried on, and we offer a great post Asa Wright experience.”

One of those partners she wrote about is longtime guide Jason Radix who speaks below about the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, and discusses some of the wonderful birds we will see there.

Our Trinidad and Tobago Birding Guides found 237 species in the “Off Season” In eBird Checklist Challenge

The Collaboration with Naturalist Journeys Was a Win-Win-Win!

Our Trinidad and Tobago birding guides found 237 species of birds in the off season during a win-win-win eBird checklist collaboration with Naturalist Journeys that benefits birders everywhere. They submitted 20 eBird checklists representing two dozen birding hotspots throughout the islands.

“We should all be encouraged by this outcome and for the impressive numbers of birds which we now know can be seen during what we generally consider our off season; including dozens of rarities and even a few lifers,” wrote Jason Radix, our longtime lead guide for Tobago, who coordinated the e-Bird checklist project. “This update can now be used as a reference list for future bird watching tours.”

To see what they saw on these unique and gorgeous islands, join one of Naturalist Journeys’ guided group tours to Trinidad and Tobago.

Helping our guides cope with a loss of tourism income was the primary motivation for Naturalist Journeys owner and founder Peg Abbott to create the eBird checklist incentive program. In a COVID-induced lull in ecotourism she paid the guides a modest monthly stipend to keep getting out in the field and to keep their birding skills sharp, while contributing to important citizen science.

It is a bonus that their eBird checklists will be a great encouragement to birders who have begun to return to the just-opened country, as they demonstrate that a great variety of birds continue to proliferate in Trinidad and Tobago, even in what’s considered off-season. The COVID-19 pandemic saw the country shut to tourism for a long 16 months, during which, UNESCO named Northeast Tobago a Man and the Biosphere Reserve, underscoring just how precious it is to biodiversity.

In all, our guides visited more than two-dozen birding hotspots and submitted 20 eBird checklists. 

Surprising them both, our longtime Trinidad and Tobago birding guides actually recorded life birds during the project: Our Tobago expert Jason Radix saw his first Bran-colored Flycatcher, after many years of birding the islands, and Lester Nanan, a third-generation ecotourism pioneer in Trinidad, saw his first Hook-billed Kite.

Their eBird checklists are especially important in the absence of reports from visiting birdwatchers. This bird data drought was observed all over the world, as described recently in the journal Biological Conservation, not only with birds but for all user-dependent collaborative nature data collection.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 followed by stay-at-home orders have definitely affected the quantity and quality of data collected by participants,” according to lead author Wesley Hochachka, a researcher at the Cornell Lab quoted in an article about the study on eBird’s website.

Studying eBird checklist data from New York, Spain, Portugal and California, “​​(o)ne of the biggest changes they noted was in the type of habitat the reports were coming from,” eBird wrote in its piece, Pandemic-related Changes in Birding may have Consequences for eBird Research. “With more people at home, more people reported birds around urban areas…Less common habitats, such as wetlands, may then be under-sampled because restrictions on human travel make it less likely that birdwatchers will go there.”

Our guides not only traveled to wetlands but to all the varied habitats our guests get to experience on our tours in Trinidad and Tobago. Below, enjoy descriptions of those habitats and see galleries representing the many wonderful birds that can be seen even in the “off season” with Trinidad and Tobago birding.

Caroni Swamp

In Caroni National Park, we moor up at a quiet spot in the mangroves to let the sunset show begin. Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Scarlet Ibis cloud the sky as they fly in to roost, an experience you won’t soon forget.

  • Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Scarlet Ibis
  • Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Mask Cardinal
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Common Potoo
Common Potoo. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

Waterloo

The best area for finding shorebirds in Trinidad is the extensive area of tidal mudflats along the west coast—an area locally known as “Waterloo”. We plan our departure time with tides in mind. Of significant interest are birds arriving from mainland South America.

Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Laughing Gull
Laughing Gulls. Photo Credit: Terry Peterson
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Black Skimmer
Black Skimmer. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Solitary Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper. Photo Credit: Terry Peterson
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Tricolored Heron.
Tricolored Heron. Photo Credit: Mike Boyce
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Osprey
Osprey in flight. Photo Credit: Mike Boyce

Nariva Swamp

We bird the swamp formed where the Nariva River reaches the sea; freshwater environments of herbaceous swamp and mangrove swamp forest make for spectacular birding. This is a very full day with many stops and the discovery of species found nowhere else on the island.

Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Savannah Hawk
Savannah Hawks. Photo Credit Peg Abbott
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Yellow-hooded Blackbird.
Yellow-hooded Blackbird. Photo Credit Sandy Sorkin
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Purple Gallinule
Purple Gallinule. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Pied Water Tyrant
Pied Water-Tyrant. Photo Credit: Mike Boyce
Pinnated Bittern. Photo Credit: Dave Ramlal

Yerette

We visit the hummingbird retreat called Yerettê, “Home of the Hummingbird.” Located in the Maracas Valley, this private home and lush garden attracts up to fourteen of the eighteen species of hummingbirds found in Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including White-tailed Sabrewing
White-tailed Sabrewing. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Long-billed Starthroat
Long-billed Starthroat. Photo Credit: Hugh Simmons Photography
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Ruby Topaz.
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Hugh Simmons Photography
Copper-rumped Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Buck Nelson
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Blue-Chinned Sapphire
Blue-chinned Sapphire. Photo Credit: Hugh Simmons Photography

Aripo/Arena Forest

A remnant of a once major lowland habitat, the seasonally-wet Aripo Savannah is surrounded by sugar cane fields. We explore the tropical birds unique to this habitat, as well as the distinctive flora that has adapted to the savannah’s harsh conditions—alternating from wet to dry.

Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Striated Heron.
Striated Heron. Photo Credit: Mike Boyce
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Red-bellied Macaw
Red-bellied Macaw. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Orange-winged Macaw
Orange-winged Macaws (r) with bonus Yellow-crowned Parrot. Photo Credit: Hugh Simmons Photography
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Collared Trogon.
Collared Trogon. Photo Credit: Robert Martinez

Main Ridge Forest Reserve

We visit the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, tracing the spine of Tobago. Founded in 1776 and considered the first forest reserve created for a conservation purpose, it’s a great place to find furtive species.

Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Blue-backed Manakin.
Male (left) and female Blue-backed Manakin. Photo Credit: Mike Boyce
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist includingTrinidad Motmot.
Trinidad Motmot. Photo Credit: Mukesh Ramdass
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Olivaceous Woodcreeper. Photo Credit
Olivaceous Woodcreeper. Photo Credit: Cristina Heins
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including White-tailed Sabrewing
White-tailed Sabrewing. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott
Trinidad and Tobago birding can produce an impressive eBird checklist including Yellow-legged Thrush
Yellow-legged Thrush. Photo Credit: Dave Ramlal

Full List of Birds:

Little Tinamou
Common Ground Dove
Ruddy Ground Dove
White-tipped Dove
Eared Dove
Pale-vented Pigeon
Gray-fronted Dove
Scaled Pigeon
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)
Scaly-naped Pigeon
Ringed Kingfisher
American Pygmy Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Green Heron
Striated Heron
Tricolored Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
White-bearded Manakin
Golden-headed Manakin
Blue-backed Manakin
Striped Cuckoo
Squirrel Cuckoo
Smooth-billed Ani
Greater Ani
Osprey
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
White Hawk
Common Black Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Savanna Hawk
Gray-lined Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Great Black Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Yellow-headed Caracara
Plumbeous Kite
Long-winged Harrier
Apolmado Falcon
Pearl Kite
Crane Hawk
Hook-billed Kite
Black-hawk Eagle
Tropical Pewee
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Olive-striped Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Gray Kingbird
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Yellow-breasted Flycatcher
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Brown-crested Flycatcher
Forest Elaenia
Bran-coloured Flycatcher
Slaty-capped Flycatcher
Spotted Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Euler’s Flycatcher
White-throated Spadebill 
Streaked Flycatcher
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Fuscous Flycatcher
Sulphury Flycatcher
Bran-colored Flycatcher
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Trinidad Motmot
Wilson’s Snipe
Western Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs
Wattled Jacana
Southern Lapwing
Ruddy Turnstone
Willet
Whimbrel
Stilt Sandpiper
Semipalmated Plover
American Golden-Plover
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Sanderling
Black-necked Stilt
Masked Cardinal
American Flamingo
Scarlet Ibis
Hudsonian Godwit
Rufous-vented Chachalaca
White-headed Marsh Tyrant
Pied Water-Tyrant
Green-backed Trogon
Guianan Trogon
Collared Trogon
Magnificent Frigatebird
Brown Pelican
Red-billed Tropicbird
Laughing Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Large-billed Tern
Roseate Tern
Royal Tern
Sandwich Tern
Bridled Tern
Yellow-billed Tern
Common Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Brown Noddy
Brown Booby
Red-footed Booby 
Audubon’s Shearwater
Black Skimmer
Bicolored Conebill
Bananaquit
Blue Dacnis
Turquoise Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Swallow Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Hepatic Tanager
White-lined Tanager
Silver-beaked Tanager
Red-crowned Ant-Tanager
White-shouldered Tanager
Trinidad Euphonia
Violaceous Euphonia
Purple Honeycreeper
Green Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Grassland Yellow-Finch
Saffron Finch
Blue-black Grassquit
Blue-faced Grassquit
Sooty Grassquit
Ruddy-breasted Seedeater
Tricolored Munia 
Common Waxbill
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Red-rumped Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Lilac-tailed Parrotlet
Green-rumped Parrotlet
Orange-winged Parrot
Blue-headed Parrot
Red-bellied Macaw
Bearded Bellbird
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
White-cheeked Pintail
Tropical Mockingbird
White-necked Jacobin
Rufous-breasted Hermit
Green Hermit
Little Hermit
Copper-rumped Hummingbird
White-chested Emerald
Ruby-topaz Hummingbird
Black-throated Mango
Blue-chinned Sapphire
Green-throated Mango
White-tailed Goldenthroat
Gray-breasted Martin
Caribbean Martin
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
White-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow 
Fork-tailed Palm-Swift
Band-rumped Swift
Gray-rumped Swift
Short-tailed Swift
Masked Yellowthroat
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Golden-fronted Greenlet
Scrub Greenlet
Chivi Vireo
Tropical Parula
Golden-crowned Warbler
American Redstart
Yellow Warbler
Long-billed Gnatwren
House Wren
Rufous-breasted Wren
Grayish Saltator
Olivaceous/Blue-gray Saltator
Plain Antvireo
White-bellied Antbird
Black-faced Antthrush
Black-crested Antshrike
Barred Antshrike
White-fringed Antwren
Plain-brown Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Olivaceous Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Channel-billed Toucan
Least Grebe
Anhinga
Limpkin
Pinnated Bittern
Least Bittern
Blue-and-yellow Macaw
Tropical Mockingbird
Cocoa Thrush
White-necked Thrush
Spectacled Thrush
Northern Waterthrush
Yellow-chinned Spinetail
Pale-breasted Spinetail
Striped-breasted Spinetail
Streaked Xenops
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Barn Owl
Sora 
Grey-necked Wood Rail
Yellow-breasted Crake
Red-breasted Meadowlark
Yellow-rumped Cacique
Yellow Oriole
Giant Cowbird
Carib Grackle
Yellow-hooded Blackbird
Shiny Cowbird
Crested Oropendola

10 Reasons to Say ‘Yes!’ to Panama Birding in March 2022

Bridging North and South America with a narrow isthmus of lively jungled real estate, Panama is considered the ultimate neotropical birding destination for many reasons. Here are ten reasons our classic March 21-29 Panama Birding and Nature tour with guide Steve Shunk should be on your wish list for 2022.

1. Location, Location, Location!

We’ve already mentioned the importance of its continent-bridging location to Panama birding success. But our own lodgings at Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge turn “location, location, location” up to 11. If our 9-Day, 8-Night tour were an adventure film, Canopy Tower would play a starring role.

  • Looking out from Canopy Tower is one of the pleasures of Panama birding.
  • canopy tower is a great spot for Panama birding
  • Panama birding is luxurious in Canopy Tower, which puts us into the treetops
  • View from Canopy Tower, a Panama birding delight!
  • Canopy Tower offers wonderful Panama birding!

A lovingly repurposed radar tower inside Soberanía National Park, our unique cylindrical lodgings put us into the treetops, with every curved window offering a view onto lush rainforest and its many furred and feathered inhabitants.

A rooftop observation deck features even more panoramic views of Soberanía’s 55,000 acres, and offers an opportunity to hold binoculars in one hand and a coffee or a cocktail in the other. Ecologically priceless, Soberanía boasts 525 of Panama’s 981 species of birds and 105 mammal species, including both Two and Three-toed Sloths and four species of monkeys we often see scampering or hear howling from our perch.

  • Black-throated Trogon is a target in Panama birding.
  • Panama birding offers chances to see Red-capped Manakin
  • Montezuma Oropendola is a target in Panama birding
  • Geoffroy's Tamarin is a pleasant addition to Panama Birding
  • Howler Monkeys are a by-product of Panama birding.

Canopy Tower is also striking distance from many of Panama’s “hotspot” birding locations, putting us in the middle of the action in yet another way. After four nights in the tower, we move inland and upwards, to Canopy Lodge near El Valle in the central mountains, which is alive with wild activity. From our open-air dining room we see a spectrum of species, including some considered furtive! Before breakfast we often see aracaris, motmots, oropendolas, honeycreepers, and warblers. We luxuriate by being in the middle of the action throughout this tour.

  • Panama birding is as easy as going to your window at Canopy Lodge.
  • Canopy Lodge is one of the best locations for Panama birding
  • Lovely orchids are a byproduct of Panama birding.
  • Seeing Collared Aracari is one of the pleasures of Panama birding

2. Our Timing is Perfect: Spring Migration

This trip is timed for the peak season of Panama birding. Spring migration will be in full swing and we are treated to a parade of warblers and neotropical migratory birds in fresh breeding plumage. While not as concentrated as fall migration, as many as 18 species of raptors will be making their way north, drafting on thermals, concentrating as Panama narrows. What a spectacular show! Hundreds of Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned hawks, in particular, may be spotted in a single day!

  • Panama birding offers looks at Capped Heron.
  • Anhinga sunning is one of the pleasures of Panama birding
  • Panama birding offers the opportunity to see a Snail Kite eating a snail!
  • Christmas Bird Count data show lingering warblers, like this Prothonatary Warbler

3. Hummingbirds on Parade

  • Rufous-crested Coquette, a rare pleasure of Panama birding
  • Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is one of the pleasures of Panama birding
  • Violet-bellied Hummingbird is one of Panama birding's pleasures
  • Violet-capped Hummingbirds are one of the pleasures of Panama birding. Photo Credit: Gail Hampshire
  • Snow-bellied Hummingbirds are one of the pleasures of Panama birding

Central America is a haven for hummingbirds, and the birders who love them, and Panama birding offers some 60 hummingbirds for us to discover! Our lodgings’ feeders and adventures further afield offer plentiful opportunities to create your own photo gallery of these delightful high-energy species!

4. Mixed Flocks

It can be VERY exciting when birds NOT of a feather flock together, layers of varied colors and sounds dividing up close-proximity territories and exploiting co-located food sources and collectively looking out for predators. This is a very common phenomenon in Central American countries like Panama, making for exciting and productive bursts of birding!

Panama birding is an all-hands-on-deck affair when we get into a mixed flock!
Panama birding is an all-hands-on-deck affair when we get into a mixed flock! Photo Credit: Naturalist Journeys Stock

Mixed flocks puzzled scientists for a long time, but now it’s believed that there are leader and follower birds that create this arrangement, with smaller insectivorous birds feeding nearer the treetops hitching a ride with other birds feeding lower in the canopy, taking advantage of their vigilance to predators, letting down their own guards a bit and spending more of their time and energies feeding. Our groups certainly seem to get a jolt of energy when we get into a mixed flock!

5. The Trogon and Motmot Show

Showy is right! Panama birding offers opportunities to see nine members of the trogon family: Black-throated Trogon, Orange-bellied Trogon, Baird’s Trogon, Lattice-tailed Trogon, White-tailed Trogon, Slaty-Tailed Trogon, Collared Trogon, and Gartered Trogon. We also have chances to see several Motmots, who rival the Trogons for colorful display, including those shown in this gallery: Tody, Broad-Billed and Blue-Crowned.

  • Black-throated Trogon are among the many pleasures of Panama birding.
  • Orange-bellied Trogon are among the many pleasures of Panama birding.
  • Blue-Crowned Motmot are among the many pleasures of Panama birding.
  • Broad-billed Motmot are among the many pleasures of Panama birding.
  • Collared Trogon are among the many pleasures of Panama birding.
  • Tody Motmot are among the many pleasures of Panama birding.

6. Night Shift Hijinks

We offer opportunities to seek out Panama birds and animals that work the forest night shift, including Spectacled Owl and mammals like Allen’s Olingo, Woolly Opossum, and Kinkajou, which are often feeding on fruits and flowers. It’s a lot of fun to be under the immense canopy of rainforest trees as the nocturnal wildlife gets active. Our skilled Canopy Tower guides are specialists in finding these mysterious jungle residents!

  • Spectacled Owl are among the night residents we see in Panama birding
  • Kinkajou is a mammal we sometimes see during Panama birding trips

7. Boating Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal

  • Panama birding means the Panama Canal
  • Gatun Lake is a scenic boating tour during our Panama birding adventure
  • A scenic view of the Panama Canal from our Panama birding tour
  • Panama Canal views are part of our Panama birding adventure!

Boating is part of this Panama birding tour as well, as we explore two un-natural wonders: Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal. The largest man-made lake in the world when it was created, Gatun Lake contains the flow of all the rivers within the Panama Canal Watershed to provide water for the operation of the Panama Canal lock system. And of course, it also provides a habitat to a host of species we are eager to see!

8. Beautiful Blooms, Butterflies and Bugs!

  • Panama birding includes flowers and butterflies!
  • Beautiful flowers and Panama birding are a pair!
  • butterflies are a happy byproduct of Panama birding

More than 10,000 plants call Panama home, including many lovely showy orchids and flowers, which attract butterflies, other insects, birds and photographers! So beautiful are the plants on this tour, you might be distracted from your birding….

9. Ants! (And the Birds Who Love Them)

  • Barred Antshrike is one of many ant-loving species on this Panama birding tour
  • Panama birding is sometimes about following the bugs, like these Leafcutter Ants
  • Panama birding offers chances to see white-flanked antwren
  • Bicolored Antbird is one of many ant-loving species we see on this Panama birding and nature tour
  • Pygmy Antwren is one of several ant-loving species we may see on this Panama birding tour
  • Panama birding is sometimes about the ants!
  • Panama birding includes following Army ant swarms

If you’ve spent any time in the tropics, especially in a jungle, you’ve no doubt seen Leafcutter and Army Ants at work! Leafcutter ants in particular are a marvel as they march along, fluttering bits of verdant leaf and colorful flowers on the way back to their mounded nests. Ants are especially interesting to us as they also attract antbirds and antwrens and we are always on the lookout for ants for that reason!

10. Panamanian Coffee and Food!

  • Panama birding comes with Panama food and drink!
  • Panama birding comes with Panama food and drink!
  • Panama birding comes with Panama food and drink!
  • Panama birding comes with Panama food and drink!

One of the most pleasurable experiences of the trip is taking a steaming cup of Panamanian coffee to the observation deck of Canopy Tower and waking up as the forest comes alive around you. We eat many of our meals in view and earshot of the forest as well, enjoying camaraderie and delicious and fresh local foods. There is pleasure aplenty for all of the senses on our March 21-29 Panama Birding and Nature Tour!

TAKE A TIME MACHINE TO VISIT MONTEVERDE COSTA RICA CLOUD FOREST ReservE

Travel Now for a More Intimate Glimpse of an Ecotourism Star

For a limited time, intrepid travelers have the opportunity to go back in time to experience places like the Cloud Forest Reserve of Monteverde Costa Rica, traveling quieter paths and more easily seeing (and hearing) its magnificent natural wonders.

With tourism less than half of pre-pandemic numbers, there’s a window of opportunity in 2022 to more quietly explore and enjoy what made Costa Rica a tourism magnet to begin with while supporting local ecotourism partners.

  • Monteverde Costa Rica birds include the Resplendent Quetzal
  • Monteverde Costa Rica Cloud Forest offers opportunities to see Collared Trogon. Photo Credit: Mike Boyce
  • Monteverde Costa Rica birds include the three-wattled Bellbird
  • Monteverde Reserve Costa Rica

We are extremely excited about our March 15-25 trip to Monteverde, Celeste Mountain & Caño Negro for that very reason.

A lush mountaintop territory bridging the country’s drier Pacific and wetter Caribbean forests, Monteverde Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Before the pandemic temporarily halted travel, some questioned whether throngs of visitors were putting too much pressure on the ecosystem.

These days, so few tourists and tourism dollars are flowing into the area that many of the reserves have changed to an active “GoFundMe” model for supporting conservation, Conde Nast reported in July.

  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges

Consequently, our trips to Costa Rica in 2022 offer what may be a limited opportunity to see Monteverde as it once was, with a higher ratio of Howler Monkeys and Resplendent Quetzals to tourist vans and telephotos.

Guided by Carlos Sanchez, whose deep experience in Costa Rica really shines on this trip, we start on the Pacific side, climb to Monteverde and then bird Caribbean lowlands that border Nicaragua, maximizing our opportunities to see species from multiple biomes.

We begin and end in the lush, gardened, birder-friendly Hotel Bougainvillea in San Jose suburb Heredia, where dozens of species can often be spotted before breakfast. Our Pacific-side birding includes a boat ride to the Guacalillo Mangroves and a trip to one of Costa Rica’s most famous bird reserves: Carara National Park.

Climbing to Monteverde, we stay at Monteverde Mountain Hotel, which sits amongst 15-acres of private forest at 4,500 feet above sea level. We bird several famous reserves, including the Children’s Eternal Forest, Monteverde Cloudforest, Curicancha and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves.

Moving to the glorious Celeste Mountain Lodge on the slopes of the Tenorio & Miravalles Volcanoes, we enjoy both Caribbean and Pacific influences and the species lists from here are truly astounding.

  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges

We descend to the lowest elevation of our trip with one night at Caño Negro Natural Lodge, located inside Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most important biological areas of the country and among the most important wetland areas in the world.

Nearly a quarter of Costa Rica’s landmass is protected by national parks, biological reserves, wildlife refuges or other protected areas, allowing us to travel freely from one natural jewel to another.

“They have ecotourism down to a science,” said Carlos, who has led many trips for Naturalist Journeys to Costa Rica. “Infrastructure is good, the birding is well thought out…people are often surprised just how easy it is to be there.”

Canopy Bridge | PC: Leslie Cross via Unsplash

Fulfilling Ecotourism’s Promise

It has been difficult for our partners on the ground, trying to survive with virtually no tourism in 2020. And just 40 percent of Costa Rica’s tourists returned in the first 11 months of 2021, the country’s tourism ministry reported this week.

In 2020, National Geographic wrote about how devastating the pandemic has been to places like Monteverde, which relies almost exclusively on tourism dollars.

By traveling, we hold up our end of the ecotourism bargain; that locals have as much or more to gain by preserving natural resources as they would by developing them.

In Changing times, The Christmas Bird Count is More Important Than Ever

Audubon Acclaims Guide Carlos Sanchez’s New Homestead Circle as among the most “ornithologically significant” in Florida

Record species counts, four new U.S. birds and enthusiastic participation were among the pleasant surprises in the 2020-2021 Christmas Bird Count data Audubon released this week, especially since last year’s count was nearly canceled because of COVID-19.

“Even with the adjustments needed to do a COVID-safe Christmas Bird Count, pretty much across the hemisphere compilers and participants felt that both the numbers of birds tallied and the array of species found were as high as, if not a bit higher than, average,” Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count wrote in Audubon’s summary of the 121st annual bird census.

Carlos Sanchez’s Homestead, FL Christmas Bird Count Circle drew praise from Audubon this year, though his recorders were spread thinner than this FL tour group!

Despite having 10 percent fewer counts and counters, the 121st Christmas Bird Count turned up 2 million more birds than the previous year’s 42 million. Though fewer in number, volunteers logged more overall hours than in any of the past 10 years.

Generally warmer and more favorable weather attracted and kept volunteers in the field, Audubon wrote in its summary, and because of COVID, birding parties tended to be smaller and more likely on foot than in cars, maximizing opportunities to spot birds.

New species are always a highlight in the data, and it won’t surprise savvy birders to learn the four species novel to the US were found near borders: three in Florida and one in Alaska.

  • Christmas Bird Count data sometimes turns up new species, like this Siberian Accentor, found near Homer, AL
  • Christmas Bird Count data sometimes turns up new species like the Red-Legged Thrush
  • Christmas Bird Count data frequently finds new species, like this Cuban Pewee
  • Christmas Bird Count data is vital to studying populations like this black-faced Grassquit

“The Cuban Pewee and Black-faced Grassquit at Lower Keys – Key Deer N.W.R. in Florida, the Red-legged Thrush at Key West in Florida, and the Siberian Accentor at Homer in Alaska were new species,” Audubon wrote on its annual tally announcement this week.

Christmas Bird Count data is critical for scientists grappling with how bird populations respond to environmental changes, noting where species are moving to or from. Longer-lingering warblers and dramatically more widespread distribution of late hummingbirds were noted in last year’s data, for example.

Conducted every year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 by volunteers throughout the Americas, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has been producing critical scientific data since 1890, when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a bird census to replace the traditional Christmas “side hunt,” a competition for which party of hunters could indiscriminately shoot and kill the most birds and animals.

From a 1905 book “Birds that Hunt and are Hunted,” courtesy of Library of Congress.

Though 250 Christmas Bird Count circles opted out of last year’s count, most citing the pandemic, 43 new birding areas were inaugurated, including one organized by guide Carlos Sanchez in Homestead, FL. Based on inaugural data released this week, Florida Audubon wrote, the southwestern Miami-Dade count “should become one of the most ornithologically significant CBCs in Florida.”

Bridging a gap on the map between the Everglades CBC and the one in Kendall, Homestead “has demonstrated it can produce high counts of individuals with some of the best in the country,” Audubon wrote on its national CBC summaries page. 

“It features oddball wintering populations of Swainson’s Hawk, Lesser Nighthawk, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, and other western species,” Carlos wrote to tell us about his team’s impressive results.

“We are generating these numbers with a rather skeletal crew of 30-35 birders. I believe there are statistically significant wintering populations of many warbler species, some of which are not even being shown on field guide maps right now.”

Christmas Bird Count data is vital to studying bird populations like the one of Homestead, FL
Graphic by Carrie Miller

In fact, a widespread northern movement of birds like White Ibis from the Everglades into Florida city suburbs is the current cover story of Audubon Magazine.

Among the trends the 2020-2021 Christmas Bird Count data continued to support were two related to the milder temperatures: more and more widespread reporting of both hummingbirds and warblers. 

Once counted only by Christmas Bird Count circles in the Gulf Coast and in Florida, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird “is becoming regular on CBCs up the Atlantic Coast as far as the Outer Banks, and this past season was seen on several counts as far north as Virginia and Maryland,” Audubon wrote.

  • Christmas Bird Count data show lingering warblers, like this Yelllow Warbler
  • Christmas Bird Count data show lingering warblers, like this Prothonatary Warbler
  • Christmas Bird Count data are showing lingering and northward movement of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

American Redstart, Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided, Grace’s, Lucy’s, MacGillivray’s, Prothonotary, Tennessee, Worm-eating, and Yellow warblers are now lingering, when in years past they would have vacated North America by the time the count rolled around.

On the less-abundant side of the coin, data showed continued declines in Ruffed Grouse populations.

“Given that in some regions wildlife agencies manage habitat to benefit Ruffed Grouse it is something of a mystery why the decline continues, but this species is naturally cyclical in its populations so hopefully we are at the bottom of the ebb these seasons,” wrote LeBaron, the CBC director.

If you haven’t already, join in a Christmas Bird Count, and sign up here at the Audubon website. Happy “hunting”!

Can we count on you to share your Christmas Bird Count photos and videos?

Christmas Bird Counts are sometimes estimates!
Birding Bosque del Apache, NM in Dec. 2021. Photo Credit: Bryan Calk

We would love it if you would share with us photos or videos from your local circle’s participation in the Christmas Bird Count this year! By email, send them to: carrie@naturalistjourneys.com or tag us in your Instagram posts with #naturalistjourneys or add us to your Facebook posts using @naturalistjourneysllc. Thank you!

Wetlands, Waterfowl, and Wine: Birding in the California Central Valley

The California Central Valley is famous for its gorgeous wetlands filled with various waterfowl and its endless vineyards producing some of the world’s finest wines. As huge fans of this area, Naturalist Journeys crafted the California: Birding Wine Country itinerary from February 5-11. Explore Lodi and stay at the luxury Wine & Roses Hotel while our trusted guide, David Yee, takes you to see some of the most beautiful wildlife habitats in the Central Valley. Here’s a sneak peak of the top ten birds you might see on this trip.

Greater White-fronted Goose

First, this medium-sized goose boasts bright orange legs and a white face and flies in huge flocks at this time of year. Observe them mixed in groups of other species of geese. Additionally, Greater White-fronted Geese thrive in agricultural fields like the famous Central Valley vineyards. 

Ross’s Goose

This “mini” version of the Snow Goose is an adorable sight in the California wetlands. Find Ross’ Geese in huge flocks of other species of geese. 

Cinnamon Teal

The Cinnamon Teal is named for the male’s spice-colored feathers, boasts pops of dusty blue and striking red eyes. Spot these beautiful waterfowl in the wetlands of the California Central Valley!

California Quail

The California Quail is native only to the western coast of North America, they were introduced to other locations including Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Hawaii. The California Quail has a scaly-patterned belly and can be seen running along their brushy habitats. 

Anna’s Hummingbird

This chunky hummingbird is most recognizable by the striking magenta heads found on males. In addition, females share the male’s greenish-gray body. Anna’s Hummingbirds are only found in North America. 

White-faced Ibis

The White-faced Ibis is a striking maroon-colored wader. They gather in flocks and feed in marshy wetlands or agricultural fields. 

Lewis’s Woodpecker

Lewis’s Woodpecker is one of the larger members of the woodpecker family, with pink, silver, and oily green feathers. It is also one of the strangest. Despite its family name, this bird’s flight pattern resembles a crow and foraging methods are like a flycatcher.

Western Bluebird

Another bird native to North America, the Western Bluebird is a beautiful backyard species that thrives in open woodlands. Despite their territorial nature, a large number of nests with youngsters in them are defended by males that did not father them.

Phainopepla

The Phainopepla, named for its slick black feathers, coming from Greek origin meaning “shining robe”. Fun fact: the Phainopepla can eat up to 1,100 mistletoe berries a day!

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Finally, easily recognizable by its strange call, this bird is a North American beauty. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are huge fans of wetlands, especially those sporting cattails. 

To sum up, you don’t want to miss this California Birding Wine Country tour, an immersive guided tour that allows you to bird premier National Wildlife Refuges and witness iconic western species. To find out more about our California trip, visit our website or click the link below: 

 California: Birding Wine Country | February 5-11, 2022 

Ask A Scarlet Ibis: The First Name in Trinidad Ecotourism Was Nanan

Third-Generation Conservation Entrepreneur Lester Nanan is Raising a Fourth!

If there was a poster child—or bird—for Trinidad ecotourism, it would have to be magnificent Scarlet Ibis. Watching thousands of them fly into roost near dusk, transforming treetops from green to red, is the most poignant memory many birders take away from their time in the West Indies.

Scarlet Ibis can be found in Trinidad birding tours

Classic Trinidad and Tobago tours are 10 days and 9 nights of the best Neotropical birding. Upcoming tours with space:
Jan. 10 – 19 
Mar. 7 – 16

Ultimate Trinidad and Tobago tours add one more glorious bird-rich day on each island.
Jan 17 – 28
Jan. 31 – Feb. 11
Feb. 14 – Feb. 25
March 14 – 25
April 4 – 15
April 18 – 29

Now a protected species and Trinidad’s national bird, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Scarlet Ibis were routinely hunted both for meat and for their colorful feathers, which were used to make costumes for Carnival.

Although he would later become their protector and champion, Simon Oudit Nanan was once one of those hunters, his grandson and Naturalist Journeys’ longtime local guide Lester Nanan said.

A part-time farmer on a British-owned sugar plantation in the 1930s, for extra money he would take company executives from England and France to hunt in the massive mangrove swamps in Northeast Trinidad, and other times take their families out on nature cruises to view the birds and wildlife.

“My grandfather figured out that he was taking more people out to view the birds than to hunt the birds,” Lester said. “This is when an aspiration was born.”

Scarlet Ibis owe a lot to the Nanan family, first names in Trinidad ecotourism.
Simon Oudit Nanan (foreground) and Winston Nanan. Photo Credit: Nanan Family Photo

At these times of tourism disruption, it’s important to remember this “aha moment.” The belief that there can be more value in conservation than harvest is what underpins the success of ecotourism-based conservation. That’s why Naturalist Journeys always seeks out conservation-minded local partners (like Lester Nanan for our tours in Trinidad and Jason Radix in Tobago), and why when you travel with us, you can be sure you are supporting sustainability and conservation.

Lester’s grandfather started a petition to protect the swamp, taking care to collect signatures from the influential families he was guiding, which led to the Caroni Swamp being named a national park in 1948, its 14,800 acres protected from development.

  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni
  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni
  • Scarlet Ibis are far from the only birds found in Trinidad ecotourism tours of Caroni

The second generation Trinidad ecotourism pioneer, Winston Nanan, soon found himself drafted when Simon’s birding and nature tour business grew so popular he decided to pull his eldest of 11 children out of school at the age of 11 to help him.

“The passion and love for the Scarlet Ibis was growing, and the environment as well,” Lester said. “They were seeing it through the eyes of the British and themselves.”

When Trinidad gained its independence in 1962, the Scarlet Ibis was chosen as Trinidad’s national bird, and given a prominent place on the country’s coat of arms (alongside Tobago’s national bird, the Rufous-vented Chacalaca) and hunting of the bird became illegal.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Coat of Arms with Scarlet Ibis and Cocorico (Rufous-vented Chacalaca) Photo Credit: Sodacan via Wikimedia Commons.

Rogue poachers continued to hunt the birds, however, and Simon Oudit Nanan was deputized as an honorary game warden and given license to chase hunters out of the swamp. Sadly, his fervent defense of the swamp and the Scarlet Ibis earned him many enemies, Lester said, and he was beaten to death in 1968.

Left to help an ailing mother raise 10 siblings, Winston Nanan would avenge the honor of his father by redoubling efforts to protect the Scarlet Ibis and the Caroni Swamp and to continue what had become a sustainable and profitable business. 

  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.
  • Scarlet Ibis are a target species for Trinidad ecotourism.

He learned everything he could about birds, first documenting every species in Caroni Swamp, then expanding his expertise to Trinidad and Tobago and then far beyond its borders. He transformed himself into a world-renowned self-taught ornithologist, and was invited to lead scientific birding expeditions throughout South and Central America.

Working as a Trinidad ecotourism pitchman, Winston invited photographers and editors from National Geographic to visit Caroni Swamp, resulting in a splashy feature article that put the country and the Scarlet Ibis on the map for world travelers and for other writers and photographers. Some of his own photos were published there.

“Everyone in the world wanted to come to Trinidad to see the Caroni Swamp,” Lester said.

A follow-up article in Smithsonian Magazine kept the frenzy going. 

Winston Nanan was awarded a presidential medal “for 65 years of dedication to conservation in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Just after this Trinidad ecotourism pioneer died, in 2015 at the age of 74, Caroni Swamp was renamed the Winston Nanan Caroni Bird Sanctuary.

Both our Classic and Ultimate Trinidad and Tobago tours visit Caroni in Trinidad. In Tobago we also visit the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, founded in 1776 and celebrated in 2020 by UNESCO as part of a large new “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” for its ecotourism potential.

From the age of 16, Lester said he’s been a part of the family business. He remembers rushing home after school to help his uncles and brothers prepare the boats that ferried tourists to the sunset Scarlet Ibis show.

He went on to pursue an education in electrical engineering, but returned to the family business at the behest of his father. With more than 180 species documented in the swamp, Lester said, it had become a “must-see” stop for birdwatchers both local and international.

He helped Winston build a platform in the trees, where they documented the nesting behavior of the Scarlet Ibis. That experience helped to hook him for good, Lester said.

“I began following in my father’s footsteps.”

Now the managing director of their company, Nanan’s Caroni Bird Sanctuary Tours, “I love showcasing Trinidad and the birdwatching.”

In charge of operations, Lester said he’s shaped the company by transforming customs into formal policies, from safety to naturalist training to implementing COVID-19 protocols to protect guests and try to preserve the business in this time of tourism disruption. 

In 2017, flocks of American Flamingo began arriving in Caroni Swamp, adding to the biodiversity, but were being hunted, Lester said. What’s more, the $1,000 fine for hunting Scarlet Ibis was not sufficient to deter hunters.

  • Scarlet Ibis and American Flamingo are two birds protected by Trinidad ecotourism
  • Scarlet Ibis and American Flamingo are two birds protected by Trinidad ecotourism

Lester and others began lobbying for the Caroni Swamp to be declared an Environmentally Sensitive Area, which would protect all the birds within it. That hasn’t happened yet, but their efforts did yield a significant increase in penalties for hunting the Scarlet Ibis.

In 2018, the penalty was upped to $15,000 (US) and two years in jail per bird.

Lester said he also furthers the company’s ecotourism goals by hiring and rehabilitating former poachers and teaching them the value of conservation, lessons they pass on to others in the community.

“They will now tell their families ‘Don’t hunt this one;’ it’s protected, and I’m making a living out of it,” he said. “It’s part of a community approach to protect the swamp.”

As it has all over the world, COVID-19 cut into tourism in Trinidad, which shut its borders for 16 months before re-opening earlier this year.

To try and boost his business from locals, Lester created COVID-cautious private boat tours with an incentivizing basket of snacks. That went so well, he partnered with a local restaurant to provide three-course meals for families or private small groups, an innovation that has kept the business afloat as it awaits for a quickening from international tourists.

Meanwhile, Lester said he’s busy with another important matter: prepping the fourth generation of Trinidad ecotourism entrepreneurs, this time with a feminine face.

“My girls are already involved in the tours, birdwatching and pointing out species for our guests,” Lester said. “They will be the future of the environment, the swamp, and Trinidad and Tobago.”

This one’s for the adventurers: The Best Birding in Belize

Located on the northeastern coast of Central America, Belize welcomes travelers to enjoy its rich culture, delicious cuisine, and endless opportunities to explore. This diverse country features ancient archeological sites, massive barrier reefs, lush jungle scapes, and winding rivers. Naturalist Journeys offers two unique birding experiences to tour Belize.

During these two different itineraries, you’ll relish in:

Awe-inspiring birding:

With over 590 species of birds, Belize is a naturalist’s paradise! Join our guides and seek out extravagant Neotropical birds and familiar faces over wintering from North America. For example, you may find a Collared Aracari, or even a Barred Antshrike! This country offers extensive biodiversity to add to your life-list, so birding in Belize is a must!

Incredible wildlife:

Our two different itineraries  provide the chance to see the wonders of the rainforest first-hand including monkeys, wild cats, reptiles, and even the chance to spot the mystifying jaguar (ask Jessie about seeing a Jaguar swim across the river at Lamanai).

Enriching time at Maya ruins:

Dive into Belize’s cultural history while we explore ancient cities and other historical monuments—some of the best in all of Mesoamerica! Visiting the Caracol and Lamanai ruins gives us access to  breath-taking remnants of the Maya empire, a must see when traveling this country.

New friends, long-lasting relationships, and unforgettable experiences

The only thing better than an incredible experience is crafting long-lasting relationships with your fellow travelers. By the end of every trip, we are toasting to new friends and unforgettable adventures. Above all, you’re now part of the Naturalist Journeys family.

Between the captivating wildlife and the rich culture, Belize is a bucket list trip that we look forward to each year. So, if you need some help deciding which trip is right for you, here’s a breakdown of your two options. 

Our Classic Belize Trip

True to its name, this trip takes you to the two “classic” or must-see lodges when birding in Belize: Lamanai Outpost and Chan Chich, nestled in reserves and protected forests, and offering varying habitats, Maya ruins, and tasty food. During our Belize Birding & Nature tour, enjoy extended time at each of the two lodges to ease travel and absorb the special attributes that give them such amazing reputations.

We offer two departures this winter: January 15-23 with James P. Smith (click here), and March 23-31 with guide, David Mehlman (click here)

Ultimate Southern Belize

This extended trip was crafted by our owner, Peg Abbott, through years of experience birding in southern Belize. The result is an in-depth birding and natural history experience at a pace that lets you absorb and learn. In addition, we’ve carefully selected FOUR of Belize’s top birding lodges along with local guide, Steve Choco (2017 winner of the National Tour Guide of the Year award) to help us navigate these incredible conservation areas.

We offer three departures this winter: January 27 – February 7 with Bob Meinke (click here), February 23 – March 6 with James P. Smith (click here), and March 2-13 with Pat Lueders (click here).

To learn more about birding in Belize (and our upcoming trips) visit the link below:

Birding in Belize

Lifelong Birders Get Hooked and Never Stop Scanning the Skies

9 Birding Guides Share Their ‘Hook Birds’ and/or ‘Grail Birds’

Countless occupations and industries crash landed during the pandemic. At the same time, hobbies, especially outdoorsy ones like birding, took flight.

Stores ran out of bird feeders, binoculars became a must-have lockdown accessory, and birdseed became a “just in time” essential, bypassing warehouses as fast as companies could mix it, Audubon Magazine reported in its Birdwatching is a Bright Spot in a Pandemic-Stricken Economy on August 06, 2020.

Well before pandemic boredom attracted new birders to the flock, common and colorful backyard birds have routinely drawn new birders in.

Even professional naturalists and birding guides sometimes cite feeder species as the “hook bird” that caused them to start looking up and looking out. 

Today we discover what nine of Naturalist Journeys’ birding guides ID as their hook birds and, their counterpart, “grail birds,” species they would love to add to their life lists someday. 

Steve Shunk

Grail Bird

It was easy for Steve to decide on a grail bird – or rather 21 of them. He has already seen nine of the 30 endangered members of the woodpecker family, Picidae, which also includes wrynecks, and sapsuckers. A resident of gorgeous Sisters, OR,  and a woodpecker expert, Steve designed our popular Oregon’s Woodpecker Wonderland tour. Next year’s tour is May 18-27 and is a can’t miss if you love woodpeckers – or wildflowers, as we saw in the gorgeous photos of this year’s tour. Steve’s Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America, published in 2016, is a definitive reference to the 23 woodpeckers found in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Steve listed a couple of other grail birds as well: 

“My grail birds are Dovekie and Inaccessible Island Rail,” Steve said, “and I am in the process of visiting all the threatened woodpeckers in the world, about 30 species, of which I have only seen nine so far.“

Two of those, the Okinawa and Amami Woodpeckers, Steve saw and photographed in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands!

  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
  • birding guides are the best way to see OKINAWA woodpeckers
  • birding guides are the best way to see Amami woodpeckers
  • birding guides are your best chance of seeing a dovekie
  • Birding guides are your best chance of seeing Inaccessible Island Rail

Hook Bird

“I didn’t really have a hook bird,” Steve said, “although the first bird I remember seeing through binoculars was Steller’s Jay. My real hook birds are woodpeckers.”

A birding guide is the best way to see bird's like Stellar's Jay.
Steller’s Jay. Photo Credit: Carol Comeau

Bryan Calk

Bryan’s Next Trips:

Arizona: Sweetheart Birding Feb. 12-16

South Texas Birding & Nature March 7-15

Southeast Arizona May 1-10

Hook Bird

Bryan Calk grew up loving nature in his Fort Clark Springs, Texas backyard. He became interested in birds around age 10 when 30-40 Painted Buntings captivated him for a full summer as they were visiting his mom’s bird feeders in the yard.

“Who could ignore a bird like that, especially so many of them?”

He was fortunate to be mentored by local birders through his early years and went on to pay it forward at Texas A&M Agri-life Extension Service’s birding program doing public outreach, education, and running his youth birding program, Rio Diablo Birding Camp.

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Painted Bunting.
Painted Buntings. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

Grail Bird

Bryan has many “grail” birds he hopes to see one day, and perhaps at the top of the list is the Pennant-winged Nightjar (nightjars are Bryan’s favorite family of birds). 

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Pennant-Winged Nigthtjar
Perched Pennant-Winged Nightjar.Photo Credit: Nigel Voaden from UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Gallardo 

Hook Bird

Since early childhood Robert has been passionate about the natural world and started collecting butterflies by the age of 11. Robert recalls seeing a male Western Tanager outside the window of his 7th grade biology class in southern California. 

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Western Tanager
Western Tanager. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Grail Bird

Though Robert has seen both the Harpy Eagle and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Panama, he still dreams of seeing them both in eastern Honduras. Robert has the distinction of having created for OTHERS a grail bird, by putting the Ocellated Quail on the world map of bird watching. For many, Ocellated Quail had been considered a species virtually impossible to find, though it can be seen on our tours with Robert to Honduras.

  • Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo
  • birding guides are your best chance of seeing species like Harpy Eagle

Jon Atwood

Hook Bird

Guide John Atwood has been a practicing conservation biologist for over 40 years, with his research focused on bird behavior that informs efforts to conserve habitat. His hook bird was an endemic:

“The Santa Cruz Island Scrub-Jay was probably the bird that really hooked my interest in bird behavior (although Least Tern is a very close second).”

  • birding guides are the best way to see birds like Island Scrub Jay
  • birding guides are the best way to see birds like Least Tern

Grail Bird

Gosh, I don’t know, maybe penguins in Antarctica!

Dodie Logue

Hook Bird

I remember when I was a kid a Snowy Owl showed up in our neighborhood in Lake Elmo, MN. That was my hook. We always had bird feeders up at my childhood home, and binoculars and bird books handy. There was a “bird lady” in the neighborhood I grew up in, Mrs. Lundgren. I loved spending time with her, we would do bird flash-cards, and yard walks where she would help us identify birds.

Snowy Owl. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Grail Bird

 I don’t have a particular grail bird – I like seeing them all, new and repeats.

Pat Lueders

Hook Birds

Having traveled to 49 states, the variety of birds throughout the country attracted my attention.  Early in my career, I became interested in a summer breeder to my neighborhood, the Mississippi Kite.  

Mississippi Kite. Photo Credit: Steve Wolfe

Grail Birds

World-wide, the magical Harpy Eagle was a target bird of mine for many years, and the sighting was finally achieved during a tour I led to Panama Darien, seeing the Harpy Eagle one day and the rarer Crested Eagle the next!  

  • birding guides are the best way to see birds like harpy eagle

Andrew Haffenden 

Our “shorebird school” professor, who lives on Dauphin Island, had this to say about hook and grail birds:

“There was no bird that hooked me into birding generally, but a banded Snowy Plover helped me become a shorebird junkie.”

“I don’t really have a grail bird either…I still get excited at seeing Sanderlings…maybe seeing one of my Piping Plovers that have wintered here for years on its summer breeding ground, with its tiny chicks running around.”

Snowy Plover. Photo Credit: Greg Smith

Gerard Gorman

Hook Bird

Author of 10 books, many about Eurasian woodpeckers, Gerard had this to say about hook and grail birds:

“It’s hard to say what hooked me, I always loved nature, but obviously one or two species in childhood in England. I recall my first Short-eared and Tawny Owls near home in England, I was about 10 years old. Later my first Black Woodpecker, in Hungary, really hooked me, so much so that I later wrote a book about it.”

Gerard’s Woodpeckers of the World, A Complete Guide, published in 2014, is considered the definitive word on the world of woodpeckers, and is part of the Helm Photographic Guides series.

Grail Bird

My grail bird is Okinawa Woodpecker, which is an endangered endemic to the Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. One day I will get there.

Michael Marsden

Hook Bird

“I’m afraid I never had a hook bird – my birding developed from a more general interest in natural history.  But when I was very young, I spent many hours walking and cycling on the moors near my home and was captivated by the calls of the curlews and golden plovers.  Shorebirds and seabirds have always held a special fascination, with Buff-breasted Sandpipers my favorite. I learned American shorebirds in the UK (thanks to the wonders of the Gulf Stream) and was once able to show an American his first Buff-breasted Sandpiper – in England! 

Grail Bird

My grail bird would have to be Eskimo Curlew.

[Editor’s Note: It was much harder to locate images of professional nature guides’ grail birds, particularly in Michael’s case, as he wants to see an Eskimo Curlew, a bird not seen in 55 years and believed by many to be extinct!]

Birding guides are the best way to see birds like Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Photo Credit: Nigel Lallsingh

The Colors of Costa Rica: Experience a tropical Birding Paradise

Between stunning landscapes, endless biodiversity, and top-notch coffee, traveling Costa Rica sits at the top of our must-see list. During our winter destination tours, Naturalist Journeys brings you to this tropical birding paradise. The opportunity to immerse yourself in the country’s abundant wildlife is hard to pass up. These trips provide a chance to taste local cuisine, capture amazing photos, and of course, experience one of the most incredible birding tours on the planet.

Costa Rica contains a whopping 6% of the world’s biodiversity—many species existing nowhere else in the world. This wildlife oasis contains an overwhelming roster of tropical birds including parrots, guans, curassows, hummingbirds, tangers, toucans, and MANY more. One of the perks of our relaxing mornings at various lodges are the feeding stations flooded with local birds. To give you a look into the trips, we came up with a colorful list highlighting some of our favorite finds.

Scarlet Macaw 

Even the slightest glimpse of the Scarlet Macaw will put a smile on your face! We hope to find this stunning parrot soaring across the treetops in groups or pairs.

Orange-collared Manakin 

Known for its bright orange “collar” the Orange-collared Manakin boasts a unique mating call with an electric “snap” and is a delight to watch. We hope to see this bright little bird on lek.

Yellow-throated Toucan

These large, fruit-loving birds are as social as they are beautiful. We had great sightings of  Yellow-throated Toucans flying across the road as well as soaring above our heads on a recent tour.

Green Honeycreeper

While these green beauties stand out in a crowd, they actually use their unique coloring to blend in with the thick rainforest foliage. Needless to say – catching a look of a Green Honeycreeper is always a treat.

Blue Dacnis

We spot this striking blue tanager in the canopies. Although it is common to lay eyes on one of these, its beauty never disappoints.

Purple Gallinule

The Purple Gallinule dazzles with its purple feathers and blue-green wings. It even has a unique talent! This nimble waterbird uses its long, yellow legs to tip-toe across lily pads – a sight worth seeing!

It only seems right to acknowledge the two birds that deserve the award for most colorful. The Fiery-throated Hummingbird features a wide variety of colors resembling an oil-slick rainbow. Wildly designed, the Resplendent Quetzal is found in tropical rainforests ranging from Mexico to Panama and is the subject of various Mesoamerican myths. Its vibrant feathers are unmistakable and on our winter tours, we expect to see the males in full breeding plumage (hello, tail feathers).

Noteworthy Neutrals

Finally, it feels necessary to give our flightless friends some recognition. Although Costa Rica is a tropical birding paradise, there are many sights to be seen. Here are some animals you just might spot on your trip: 

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

The slow-moving Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth is loved by many. Our favorite attribute of this animal is its upturned mouth, giving them a constant smile.

Mantled Howler Monkey

These monkeys are local to South and Central America and known for their loud calls (that can be heard up to three miles away!) and beard-like facial features. While they prefer the rainforest, we spotted several young howlers in someone’s yard on a recent tour. Mantled Howler Monkeys are one of many endangered species in Costa Rica being displaced by habitat destruction—so it is an honor to witness them in the wild.

Whether you’re a seasoned birder, looking to add to your life list, or seeking a perfectly crafted adventure, our Costa Rica birding tour package has something for everyone. Click here to find out more about taking a winter trip to this tropical birding paradise with Naturalist Journeys.

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