All posts by Naturalist Journeys

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.

And before you go, click the link below to get instant access to trip announcements and the latest birding news!

Naturalist Journeys Email List

Don’t Put Off Guyana Travel For Wild, Unspoiled Birding and Nature

Guyana travel offers a lush, tropical paradise where Naturalist Journeys guests often see 300-plus species during the course of our 13-Day, 12-Night tours.

One of the last truly untamed places on Earth, this South American jewel is home to some 800 birds and more than 1,100 animals, many requiring enormous unspoiled territories, like the Harpy Eagle, Giant River Otter, and Giant Anteater.

  • Guyana travel offers great opportunities to see Giant Anteater
  • Guyana travel offers opportunties to see Giant River otters

Geologically ancient, Guyana is part of the 1.7 million-year-old “Guiana Shield,” along with neighboring Suriname, French Guiana, and parts of Venezuela and Brazil. Some 1,000 bird species call this region home, nearly 8 percent of which are endemics. Some of our most sought-after species in Guyana are the colorful Guianan Cock-of-the-rock, whose mating dances we may see and the costumed Hoatzin, whose spectacular plumage is hard to forget.

  • Guyana Birding offers opportuntiies to see the Guianan Cock of the Rock

Nearly 90 percent of the country’s inhabitants live in the capital, Georgetown, where we bird the coast and its famed botanical gardens. We fly over rather than drive the country’s single mostly-unpaved two-lane highway to the interior. There, our ecolodges are run by Amerindians sustainably preserving their ancient way of life and guiding our guests to its wild secrets. 

Along the way, we land the plane to admire Kaieteur Falls, the tallest single-drop waterfall of the world, which you’ve only never heard of because it is only accessible by bush plane. Though Venezuela’s Angel Falls is greater in total height, its filamentous drop occurs by stages, whereas Kaieteur is a single massive, thundering cascade up to 100 meters wide, created as the Potaro River makes a sheer drop of 228 meters—nearly five times the height of Niagara Falls.

Kaieteur Falls. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Guyana travel, at least up to this point, is a bit on the adventurous side, said Dave Mehlman, who is leading the second of three small-group tours we have scheduled for 2022, which have a maximum of 8 guests:

In the ecolodges, our meals consist of wonderful native cuisine that is the definition of fresh and hyperlocal and made in time-honored tradition. Our lodging is rustic but comfortable.

Those who choose to wait to visit may find a more luxe form of Guyana travel in the future, but it will never be less crowded, more wild, more biodiverse, or more magical. 

“Now is a good time to visit for birders who want to get in on the ground floor of a new birding destination,” said Dave, who has led tours for Naturalist Journeys for several years here.

“Unlike Costa Rica, or some of the more developed birding destinations, you don’t have to contend with large groups of international tourists,” Dave said. “We are often one of just a few tour groups in the entire country.”

Our tours are designed to visit as many of its pristine habitats as are accessible to humans:

  • In the rainforest, we frequently find mixed-species flocks of up to 50 types of birds feeding together, associated with army ant swarms or fruiting trees, occupying different layers of the canopy.  Ant-birds, ant-wrens and ant-thrushes cover the ground. One layer up, woodcreepers mine the trunks, one layer above them, flycatchers and tanagers flit about in the understory, topped with canopy birds sometimes close enough to see with a scope. “It’s mind-boggling, really,” Dave said.
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Guianan Antbird
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Guianan toucanet
  • Savannah wetlands offer the prospect of three massive stork species, the Jabiru, Maguari Stork and Wood Stork, and also highly localized flycatchers like the Bearded Tachuri and the White-headed Marsh Tyrant. It’s here we often see the charismatic Giant Anteater.
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Jabiru, a giant stork
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Jabiru, a giant stork
  • Guyana travel offers the opportunity to see Jabiru with Wood storks
  • Guyana Travel offers the opportunity to see Maguari Stork. Photo Credit: Lip Kee Yap via Wikimedia Commons
  • Guyana travel offers opportunities to see White-headed Marsh Tyrant
  • We often spot cotingas, swifts, hawks and perching birds as we walk along the main road, which creates an edge vantage point back into the forest.
  • Guyana travel offers opportunities to see Pompadour Cotinga
  • Guyana travel offers opportunities to see Capuchinbird and other species

And if none of these natural wonders convinces you the time is now for Guyana travel, recent developments have added some uncertainty to the future of this wild place. 

Large oil discoveries off the coast of Guyana portend change to the country’s economy and lead to development.

“That is going to change the country as it has in virtually every country in the world where oil has been discovered,” Dave said. “Whether that’s for good or bad remains to be seen.”

Colonized by the British, Guyana is the only South American country with English as its official language, and culturally is more like Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean than its neighbors. The Brits relinquished the territory in 1966, but left a few things behind. Guyanans still drive on the left, play cricket, and boast a spectacular rum tradition.

Because it is English speaking, it is the easiest of the three Guianan Shield countries to navigate, Dave said.

“Guyana travel has a lot to offer in terms of birds and birding,” he said. “I have traveled extensively in South America, and I can tell you there really isn’t another place like it.”

  • Guyana travel offers looks at Jaguar
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Jaguarundi
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Margay
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Ocelot
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Oncilla
  • Guyana travel offers looks at Puma

Because there is so much wild and contiguous forest, six species of wild cats call Guyana home (though they are furtive, nocturnal, and we would be very lucky to spot them.) You’ve heard of Jaguar, Puma and Ocelot, but what about Jaguarundi, Ocilla and Margay? Another reminder just how much new there is to see with Guyana travel!

Join Naturalist Journeys’ Southeast Alaska Cruise To Glacier Bay JULY 2 – 9, 2022 For Unrivaled Natural Beauty

Peg Abbott guides our intimate small-ship cruise to Southeast Alaska’s Northern Passages

Guided by Naturalist Journeys’ founder Peg Abbott, our July 2-9 Southeast Alaska Cruise to Glacier Bay will be an intimate experience on a well-appointed ship that holds just 36 passengers! Built for close encounters with some of the most charismatic animals found anywhere in North America, the Safari Explorer is designed to go where mega cruise ships simply can’t.

Charting our path amid Southeast Alaska’s island archipelago, we are all but certain to see Humpback Whales, Orcas, Sea Lions and seals, seabirds, shorebirds and many other species.

On the 2021 dates of this cruise, Peg Abbott’s group were mesmerized by cooperative bubble feeding by Humpback Whales that she described this way in the trip report:

“This fine evening was one we will all have indelibly inked into our brains, full of beauty and wonder…We entered what was described as “whale soup”, an area of so much concentrated food that multiple Humpback Whales converged there. It would not be an exaggeration to say we saw over thirty to forty individuals surrounding the boat, with some at very close range, and others in the distance. Fish were boiling to the surface, and we could see streams of them moving and glittering in the light, at times looking like a river. We could see whale blows erupt like small geysers, often six or seven in a small area, some distant and some close, often in an alignment so you’d take in ten or twelve at one time.”

In addition to our small, fully vaccinated group and crew, our ship, the Safari Explorer also carries kayaks and skiffs, which we use to get into even more shallow waters closer to shore. Our ship is equipped with a wonderful feature that allows guests to get into and out of their kayaks on the ship.

  • Naturalist Journeys' Uncruise Alaska guests staying high and dry into and out of their kayaks on the ship's stern

Moving closer to shore, we are able to take in animals that roam or frequent the shoreline, including seabirds, shorebirds and mammals such as Grizzly Bears, which our 2021 guests did see this year from a skiff!

Some of the wonders are on and not off the ship! Cocktails and wine are included along with the spectacular food that awaits our guests.

Here, written by your Southeast Alaska tour guide and Naturalist Journeys Founder Peg Abbott, are some reasons why cruising is a wonderful way to travel:

Why Cruise with Naturalist Journeys?

Cruising is convenient. There’s a magic to unpacking once and  having everything taken care of. All you have to do is immerse  in the experience. But there is so much more to it! It’s simply  the best way to experience destinations that can’t be seen as  well by land.  

Our Naturalist Journeys Cruise to Southeast Alaska includes kayaks!

Cruising takes you to magical coastal landscapes. These  landscapes have shaped and transformed vibrant cultures for  centuries, and they are key to so many dynamic species of  wildlife. For birders, a trip along a coastline affords plentiful  seabirds and access to far-away places where stunning species  reside.  

This fresh and briny kelp tasting was a hit!

Cruising makes you feel so free. Casting off is something to be  celebrated! You participate in true expedition exploring. Our  cruises are chosen for the experience, and aboard the ship  we work hard to make you as comfortable and catered to as  possible. But for us, it’s really about seeing the places that we  cruise through—nature’s star performers of flora, fauna, and  landscape.  

Cruising lets you be you. You can be super social and have a  great time at night in the lounge trading stories, playing music,  and savoring great meals. Or, you can find a quiet spot on  the ship to cozy up with a book, or perhaps even work on your photography with an onboard expert.  

Our carefully chosen partners are masters at the logistics  of making the most of your time on land and at sea, where  experts give lectures to prepare for the next exciting landing. 

I invite you to join us to discover places that are simply Better by Boat! 

Peg Abbott

NATURALIST JOURNEYS’ ALABAMA GUIDES ARE NOTORIOUS FOR WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Ben Raines Minds the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Andrew Haffenden Watches Over Dauphin Island

Our guests at this week’s Shorebird School with Andrew Haffenden had the great honor of cruising the lush Mobile-Tensaw Delta with local naturalist, author and filmmaker Ben Raines, whose just-published wildlife conservation book is called Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System.

During our four-plus-hour river cruise, Ben’s deep knowledge about all things Alabama was outshone only by his folksy charm. An environmental reporter for twenty years in this state, his wildlife conservation bona fides are deeply rooted and home grown.

As we moved from one swampy natural wonder to another, part speed boat thrill ride part trolling motor, Ben told us just how special and how diverse the Mobile-Tensaw watershed is. 

  • It leads the US in average rainfall: 77 inches per year, 22 more than Seattle.
  • Its 450 species of freshwater fish lead all states, representing a third of all freshwater fish species in the US. 
  • Ranging from the Appalachian foothills in the northern part of the state to Mobile Bay, it is easily #1 in aquatic diversity among states, with new species being discovered all the time.

Ben harvested nutty American Lotus seeds for us, and buds of not-yet-uncurled leaves we are told will cook down like mustard greens. We lucked into a Mayfly hatch, which attracted a mobbing mixed flock of some 30 Prothonotary and Yellow Warblers. We saw colorful insects, wildflowers, fish and many birds. Ben also showed us a honey tree, a hollow tree trunk whose opening was ringed with bees. Locals used to hunt for honey trees and cut one down as a group, with each family taking home some of the sweet cache.

  • Yellow Warblers benefit from wildlife conservation efforts
  • eating Lotus seeds as Wildlife Conservation
  • This bryozoan helps with wildlife conservation acting as a filter feeder and clarifying water
  • Wildlife conservation and grasshoppers might mix
  • Our guests help support wildlife conservation
  • wildlife conservation covers plants, like this pea native to Alabama

Besides being an excellent boat captain, Ben is also a respected historian who personally discovered the burnt and scuttled wreckage of the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the US, the ‘Clotilda’, as he documents in “The Last Slave Ship.” He also produced “The Underwater Forest,” a documentary about a 60,000-year-old submerged Cypress forest discovered off the coast of Alabama in 2004, just after Hurricane Ivan. 

Suffice it to say we felt fortunate to have him as our expert local guide for the day.

But it wasn’t just dumb luck that brought us to Ben’s boat. It was his wildlife conservation connection with “professor” and guide Andrew Haffenden, who finishes up teaching Shorebird School today. 

An Australian native who moved to Alabama in 2012, Andrew was briefly internationally famous along with Ben in 2018. Drew, while performing nesting surveys for Alabama Audubon, discovered a horrifying spectacle that Ben wrote about on Alabama.com:

“Beachgoers playing volleyball on a small island at the mouth of Mobile Bay perpetrated a horrific crime in recent weeks, likely killing hundreds of tiny Least Terns.

The volleyballers even stacked dozens of eggs stolen from nests in a pile to bake in the sun.”

Photo Credit: Andrew Haffenden

Laying their grape-sized eggs on scrapes in the sand in dense colonies, Least Terns spend most of their time trying to keep their eggs cool, Andrew said, standing above them to shade them, and periodically dunking their belly feathers to help with evapotranspirative cooling.

So when the volleyballers scooped up all the eggs and put them in a pile, the chicks might have had a higher survival rate if they’d just played among the nests. At least there might have been some shade. Because of onlookers and partiers, other nests not on the court also suffered, Andrew said, when parents weren’t able to get to their nests and tend them.

It became a “teachable moment,” for locals, especially after the story spread around the globe, migrating as far as China, Andrew said. Ever since word got out, beachgoers have been by and large very compliant with signs and string-and-stake “fences” volunteers erect to protect breeding birds. 

Since moving to Alabama in 2012, Andrew has helped collect nesting data for Least Tern, Snowy Plover, American Oystercatcher and Black Skimmer. For more than 9 years he’s been recording banding data on Piping and Snowy Plovers. His data, combined with others,’ convinced Audubon to designate Dauphin Island an “Important Bird Area.”

Audubon already operated a sanctuary on Dauphin Island, which is actually an archipelago of barrier beach islands that is well-known as a “migrant trap” in the spring. The first land that birds see after taking off in the Yucatan, it often records 25-plus warbler species during spring migration. 

Our don’t-miss Dauphin Island Spring Migration trip with Andrew Haffenden is April 10-15, 2022.

But you don’t have to wait until next year to bird the Gulf Coast with Andrew. This year he’s leading our Louisiana Yellow Rails and Birding Festival Oct. 27 to Nov. 1, one of the only places you’ll have a chance of seeing up to 6 species of reclusive rails in one location. And that includes the Black Rail, a bird so rarely seen that some people say that it’s a myth!

Clapper Rail. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

Costa Rica Tourism is Both Astounding and Easy

All the Biodiversity and Less Travel Hassle

Next tours: Costa Rica Birding and Nature Jan. 5-12 and Feb. 9-16 with Pacific Coast Extension; and Southern Costa Rica Feb. 21-March 3

One of the most delightful and enduring drivers of Costa Rica tourism is the country’s astonishing variety of natural habitats, which host a rich biodiversity of plants, animals and insects. At least 5 percent of all known species found on the planet live in Costa Rica, on just .03 percent of Earth’s real estate.

  • Costa Rica tourism depends on a safe neighborhood
  • Costa Rica tourism in a country the size of W. Virginia

With both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, two mountain ranges arching into its spine, highlands and valleys, white water and cloud forests, volcanoes and dry forests it’s little wonder that more than 800 species of birds have found a niche there to call home, along with 208 mammal species, 50,000 insect species, and 2,000 orchids!

  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica tourism brings you close to a Red-Eyed Tree Frog
  • Costa Rica tourism may bring you a Volcano Hummingbird.

Even at our relaxed and comfortable pace, the country’s diversity and compact size makes it easy to visit many habitats here, an endeavor made even easier by Costa Rica tourism’s leadership. Nearly a quarter of the country’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 guide Carlos Sanchez, 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.”

Costa Rica tourism means ecolodges
The aerial tram at Tapirus Lodge brings us easy canopy birding!

Costa Rica offers visitors far less friction than many other countries. The tap water is good and you don’t need a converter to use the electrical outlets, Carlos said. 

“People find they can instantly relax and focus on the birds and not have to worry about anything else.”

Our guests also get the benefit of our deep roots in the country. We have worked for more than 30 years with the same wonderful local partner.

The fact that Costa Rica is relatively small – West Virginia is a bit bigger – makes it so much easier getting from birding the rainforest canopy by aerial tram near coastal Limon to being serenaded by howler monkeys from a lowland boat safari close to the Nicaraguan border, to exploring the majesty of the Tenorio Volcano to gliding through the rain forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Thanks to the magic of Costa Rica tourism, we’re able to do all of those things while maintaining a relaxed pace.

Birding the edge of La Selva Rainforest.

We have six additional tours with four other itineraries currently scheduled to Costa Rica, which is one of the most popular tourism destinations we visit, for obvious reasons! 

From guide Carlos, here are just a few examples of the birds we expect to see in each area of the October trip, as early migrating raptors and songbirds may be seen moving south:

Highlands

Here we can expect to see Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Golden-browed Chlorophonia and Resplendent Quetzal. Revered by the Maya, the Resplendent Quetzal is considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the Western Hemisphere.

Caribbean Foothills

Here we may see Snowcap Hummingbird, technicolor tanagers, including Emerald, Golden-hooded and Black-and-yellow Tanagers, along with the Black-Crested Coquette, an impish and unforgettable hummingbird.

Carribean Lowlands

Here we can expect to see Snowy Cotinga, Chestnut-Collared Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Black-Throated Trogon, among others, Carlos said.

“What’s so wonderful about birding in a place like Costa Rica, is that even going up in elevation 1000 or 2000 feet will produce an entirely different set of birds,” Carlos said.

Costa Rica Tourism = Gorgeous Ecolodges

Just like the surfers flock to Tamarindo Beach, and the ladies who spa hit Tabacon, we will find different birds congregating near each of the four inviting ecolodges on our Oct. 6-15 Costa Rica’s Carribean Side tour:

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

Our Christmas in Costa Rica trip Dec. 22 – Dec. 29 includes visits to the Tapirus Lodge and also local favorite ecolodges Hotel La Quinta Sariquipi and Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve and Spa.

  • Costa Rica means ecolodges
  • Costa Rica means ecolodges

Our three “classic” Costa Rica tours, Jan. 5-12, Feb. 9-16, and March 3-10 include stays at Savegre Mountain Lodge, Rancho Naturalista and SarapiquiS Rainforest Lodge.

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

These three trips offer a post-tour extension to the Pacific Coast, with stays at La Ensanada Lodge and Villa Lapas Lodge.

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

Carlos highly recommends that “serious birders” book the extension, because it produces dramatic birding every day, and visits a niche area of dryland forest in Costa Rica. Here we see birds found nowhere else in the country, including Streaked-backed and Spot-breasted Oriole, Banded Wren and Black-headed Trogon. Birders may also see Double-striped Thick-knee, Scarlet Macaw, White-Throated Magpie-Jay, Turquoise-browed Motmot and the huge, bill-rattling Jabiru, a stork with up to a 9-foot wingspan and the tallest flying bird in North America.

A Jabiru in flight is a thing to behold!

“This extension really adds so much to their trip,” Carlos said of the Pacific Coast 5-day, 4-night post-tour extension, which includes both a boat tour and a tractor tour of a working farm. “Sunsets there are so amazing, we see a wide spectrum of birds, and it’s really relaxed and easy birding.”

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

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

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

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

Pam Davis, International Travel Agent Superstar

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

International Travel Agents Will Get You Into AND Out of Africa

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

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

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

An Expert Ticketing Agent

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

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

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

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

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

Change is Now a Constant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration courtesy of Birdlife.org

Bird Migration Excites Our European Tours

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

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

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

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

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

Bonelli’s Eagle. Photo Credit: Johnathan Meyrav

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

Sardinian Warbler, Photo Credit: P. Marques

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

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

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

Spain Birding and Nature in Andalusia Sept. 3-15

White-Headed Duck. Photo Credit: Carlos Sanchez

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

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

Black Woodpecker. Photo Credit: George Gorman

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

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

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

Portugal Nature and Birding Oct. 2-14

Eurasian Hoopoe. Photo Credit: George Bakken

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Travel Is Hot; International Getting Warmer

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

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

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

Guided US Travel Has Its Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturalist Journeys’ Guests Are Vaccinated

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

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

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

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

Completely isolated from hunting pressure and with little-to-no fear of humans, Galapagos wildlife can sometimes seem to be hamming it up for your attention in plain, nearby view. In fact, if there was ever a place where nature photography can be had without lugging around a heavy telephoto, it’s the Galapagos Islands.

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

As we move among rugged black “new” islands of the volcanic island chain and the soil-, plant- and animal-colonized “old” ones, we swim and/or snorkel among colorful fish, and sometimes dolphins, turtles or even penguins, whose frenzied fishing swirls the schools. A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz provides context and history to the conservation of this most magical place.

February Galapagos Cruise and Pre- and Post- Extensions

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

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

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

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

Wildlife experiences: Anhinga Trail at Dawn

Anhinga by Carlos Sanchez
Anhinga by Carlos Sanchez

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

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

Great Egret by Carlos Sanchez
Great Egret by Carlos Sanchez

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

Barred Owl by Carlos Sanchez
Barred Owl by Carlos Sanchez

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

Purple Gallinule by Carlos Sanchez
Purple Gallinule by Carlos Sanchez

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

Roseate Spoonbill by Carlos Sanchez
Roseate Spoonbill by Carlos Sanchez

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

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

American Crocodile by Carlos Sanchez
American Crocodile by Carlos Sanchez

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