Biodiversity Hot Spots are Boosted by Birding

Ecotourism Plays a Protective Role in Endangered Places

The world’s biodiversity hot spots are often, unsurprisingly, birding meccas. After all, birders are keenly interested in seeing novel species, and biodiverse places by definition are home to unique plants and animals.

What may be less obvious is how important ecotourism is to preserving ‘biodiversity hot spots’, a term coined by ecologist Norman Meyers more than 30 years ago. He defined it in an article for the journal Nature: “Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions.”

Biodiversity Hotspots

An area must be both irreplaceable and under threat to be listed among the 36 biodiversity hot spots identified by Conservation International, a global non-profit whose mission it is to help preserve them. More precisely, a biodiversity hot spot must have more than 1,500 endemic plant species, making it unique, and its territory must be degraded to 30 percent or less of its original range, making it endangered.

So while Yellowstone National Park is ecologically irreplaceable, home to 300 bird species and majestic herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn and the wolves, bears, and cougars that hunt them, it is not endangered. Under federal protection since 1872, Yellowstone “is one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth,” according to the National Park Service. (Just two spots remain on our spring Yellowstone tours, on the June 1-8 departure.)

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

By contrast, the Madrean Sky Islands we visit on our three Monsoon Madness tours in August fit the biodiversity hot spot definition perfectly. We have chances to see many range-restricted species on these tours, including Mexican Chickadee, Elegant Trogon, Montezuma Quail, and Whiskered Screech Owl, among many others. They occupy the Sky Islands’ varied habitats: from desert floor to scrubland, oak and, finally, in the highest elevations, Douglas Fir and Apache Pine. As marvelous as they are today, the Madrean Pine-Oak forests now cover just 14 percent of what they once did, whittled away by development and agriculture. Though marvels remain, much was lost. Great flocks of Thick-billed Parrot were once common in the southwestern US, but were hunted to extirpation in 1938, when the last individual was spotted in lonely flight over the Chiricahua Mountains. It is now endangered in its remaining redoubts in northern Mexico.

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

Biodiversity Hotspots: Brazil

The Pantanal region of Brazil, which we visit twice this year, is sandwiched between two biodiversity hot spots: the vast tropical savannas of the Cerrado and the dwindling Atlantic Forests. Both support apex predators like Harpy Eagle, Giant Otter and Jaguar, which require huge territories in the treetops, rivers and countryside, respectively. But both the Cerrado and Atlantic Forests are threatened by agricultural and urban development, fragmenting their territories and making them vulnerable to hunting and reprisals by ranchers.

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

Biodiversity Hotspots: Africa

Eight biodiversity hot spots are found in Africa, including the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa we visit Sept. 28 – Oct. 12, our tour timed for one of the most jaw-dropping wildflower explosions anywhere in the world. More than 9,000 plant species call this small piece of real estate home, 69 percent of them endemics. The birds that co-evolved with this plant community are equally stunning, like the Cape Sugarbird and Protea Canary.

We also visit three of the thirteen African countries – Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya – that are part of a large but not-contiguous Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot. The opportunity to trek in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see endangered populations of Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee is one of the highlights of our Uganda tours, along with opportunities to see the iconic African Shoebill, whose prehistoric visage, 5-foot-tall frame and machine-gun bill-clattering greeting make them both unmistakable and unforgettable. This hotspot is incredibly important because its lush forests play an important role in providing fresh water to eastern Africa. But it is also a very poor region, which puts the trees at threat for commercial logging and for use as firewood.

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

Why is Biodiversity So Important?

Biodiversity brings richness to our lives (and our life lists) of course, but it is also economically important well beyond the sales of binoculars, spotting scopes and hiking poles. Healthy environments deliver what scientists call ‘ecosystem services’, and they do it far more cheaply and elegantly than the man-made alternatives. Thriving populations of birds, bees and bats pollinate crops; mangrove swamps and coral reefs offer flood protection and, along with swamps, bogs and fens, water purification services, to name just a few examples.

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

Complex Ecosystems Depend on Apex Predators

It can be difficult to explain to a farmer whose cattle is being picked off by big cats that shooting them can lead to bigger problems, but an ecosystem that loses its apex predators gets out of whack very quickly. Unchecked by hunters, herbivore populations soon swell, with the potential to encroach on croplands. Meanwhile, scavenger species like vultures, Wild Dog and hyenas, which rely on the scraps from hunters, are also threatened with population crash. Likewise in the Patanal, healthy Jaguar populations keep crop-menacing peccaries in check. So when farmers bait these hooved “skunk pigs” with poison, they may inadvertently kill off allies in their fight when jaguars and other cats like ocelot and puma feed on the poison-tainted carcasses.

Payments for Peacekeeping

One of the ways that governments and non-profits try to preserve biodiversity hot spots is to pay farmers when they lose crops or livestock to wild animals. Likewise, ecotourism has a vital role to play. When money flows into communities, we hold up our end of the ecotourism bargain, showing locals that natural resources will be worth more to them alive and thriving than they will hunted for meat or the pet trade, or in the case of forests, cut down for fuel or to make way for farming.

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

Responsible and sustainable tourism is even more important in the face of other more intractable threats, like climate change. A warming, less predictable planet has already initiated a shift in the ranges of many plants and animals, with the potential to drive them from protected parks to less welcoming places already occupied, or where habitats are substantially more degraded.

COVID-19 Ecotourism Lessons

If there was any doubt about the importance of ecotourism to protecting biodiversity hot spots and wild animals in general, it was dispelled by COVID-19. Tourism ground to a halt for more than a year, putting pressure on what are, in many cases, very poor communities whose people who do the tracking, porting, cooking and guiding on which tourism companies like ours rely.

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

Shutting out not just the binocular set, but trophy hunters who pay big bucks to hunt in not-protected areas, the lockdown was devastating to wildlife protection, as The Economist detailed in “Pandemic is a Gift to Poachers in Africa.

While doing our best to stay afloat during COVID lockdowns, Naturalist Journeys and our clients raised substantial sums of money to help sustain our partners in places like Uganda and Trinidad and Tobago when we couldn’t send them business-as-usual.

One modest example was a decision by our founder, Peg Abbott, to send small monthly stipends to our guides in Trinidad and Tobago to keep them out birding even without guests, asking them to submit eBird checklists. It’s possible they found more birds than they would have, because they didn’t have to stop and show clients where to look!

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

But now that we have vaccines, and travel has become more manageable, we are getting out there again, and we hope you will feel comfortable doing so too. Because there is no substitute for the financial and emotional support that ecotourists bring to the protection of precious and endangered places, and the birds, animals and people who call them home.

Love on the Wing: Bird Courtship and Mating Rituals Signal Spring

An earnest warbling from a barely-budded tree and dry grasses passed between bills are two of the most common bird courtship and mating rituals to herald spring.

Springtime is now in the Northern Hemisphere, and migratory flyways around the globe are already bumper-to-bumper with birds making their way to breeding grounds. There, alongside local residents, they will deploy a staggering array of courtship strategies to help them snag a mate.

North American Flyways

  • Pacific
  • Central
  • Mississippi
  • Atlantic

Photo Credit: USGS

Bird Courtship Strategies

Some birds are practical, offering berries, insects or seeds to a potential partner as evidence they can support a family. Others build a speculative nest — sometimes quite an elaborate one — to proffer to their partner a turnkey home. Other birds are far more focused on the flash, growing out elaborate plumage, singing, dancing, and launching elaborate aerial acrobatics.

Six Categories of Bird Mating Rituals

Scientists have identified six principal categories of bird courtship and mating rituals: singing, dancing, displays, building, feeding and allopreening, or mutual grooming. In this blog we will look at each bird courtship category and give examples, using birds we see on our tours. Starting with the most obvious and simple, many birds sing or call to attract a mate:

Singing as a Mating Ritual

One of the first things we notice as the quiet of winter gives way to spring is birdsong, which often serves the double duty of staking a territorial claim and advertising to a mate. Many warblers, including the Black-throated Green Warbler, demonstrate different songs for different audiences, one they sing when males are on their territory and another when they are single and notice females are nearby. Hear the different songs here on All About Birds.

  • Dark-eyed Junco can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours
  • Fox Sparrow can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours
  • can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours
  • Lazuli Bunting can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.
  • Magnolia Warbler can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.
  • Olive-sided Flycatcher can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.
  • White-crowned Sparrow can be seen on our Oregon birding and nature tours.

Birdsong is often thought of as “a guy thing,” associated in popular culture with males crooning and females swooning. But female songbirds are getting a new look — and listen. Scientists at the Female Birdsong Project are enlisting birder citizen-scientists to help them document female singers. Female song was once thought unique to tropical species, where pairs often co-defend territory year round. But many temperate species females, as it turns out, may have been singing all along and had their songs ascribed to males, as Audubon notes in “Female Cerulean Warblers Chirp Away at Birdsong Stereotypes.”

Our two Oregon tours are a great place to see and hear warblers and other birds, since more than 275 species nest there, according to the state’s most recent breeding bird atlas.

Naturalist Journeys’ Upcoming Oregon Tours

Both of these Oregon tours are guided by Steve Shunk, our Northwest US bird (and woodpecker!) expert. Steve took all of the songbird photos in the gallery above.

Dancing as Bird Courtship

Not all songbirds sing (nor are all singing birds songbirds). Ravens, for example, and Cedar Waxwings make vocalizations and are physiologically capable of song. But like your shy friend at karaoke, they just don’t sing. Scientists theorize that the Cedar Waxwing once had a song, but lost it because it was no longer necessary. A sociable rather than territorial bird, Cedar Waxwings often travel as a group in search of berry-laden trees. That means males have no reason to ‘sing out loud, sing out strong’ to attract a mate. Instead they initiate a hopping treetop dance with a female of their in-group, often proffering a love token — a berry or an insect, for example — that the two will pass between them in a bonding exercise. When she responds to his offering in turn, he knows he’s onto something.

Cedar Waxwings, passing a berry. Photo Credit: Alan Rice via Wikimedia Commons

There are many birds who court by dancing, including the spectacular two-stepping of the Western Grebe, which may be seen (though they are unlikely to be courting then) on our Oregon tours. Western Grebes may also be seen on a new tour this year: Washington Coastal Birding and Nature with guide Steve Shunk August 18-25.

Western Grebes bonding through dance. Video Credit: devra via Wikimedia Commons

Displays

When the dancing is more or less one-sided, with the female sitting in wallflower judgement, it is considered a display. For example, watch these Blue-backed Manakin, which we have chances to see on our Trinidad and Tobago and our Guyana tours, dance in a wild, all-male conga line to try and win the girl:

Blue-backed Manakin display. Video Credit: Renato Spiritus via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie chickens and grouse also compete for a mate via dance-off, gathering early on spring mornings on nature’s dance floor, a ‘lek’ that they return to year after year. Prairie grouse mating rituals also include whooping, drumming their feet, and booming sounds made through the inflation of air sacs in their chests or neck. Meanwhile, drab female hens sit and take it all in, until one of the dancers impresses her enough to take for a mate.

Greater Sage Grouse ‘booming’. Video Credit: BLM of Oregon and Washington via Creative Commons

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the showiest birds are often the ‘players’ of the avian world; those least likely to stick around and help raise their young, according to Cornell’s All About Birds. Birds of Paradise, the many spectacular species we see on our Papua New Guinea tours and peacocks are all guilty as charged. Peahens often form a mutual aid society after their mates strut away to hypnotize other females, cooperatively raising their peachick young.

Not all displays are so elaborate. Some may simply involve breeding plumage, or the striking of a pose.

  • Gray Hornbill may be seen on our Tanzania Tours.

Allopreening

For the birds whose love language is touch, allopreening, or the preening of other birds, is how they establish and maintain bonds. The obvious example here is lovebirds! Rosy-faced Lovebirds, which we see on our Namibia tours, were named for this canoodling behavior. Birds preen themselves to keep their feathers in flying form and to remove mites and debris. They preen one another as pair bonding, and among highly territorial species, to remind one other they are friend not foe. Macaws and parrots may be found gently nibbling their mates’ heads and bills on our South American, Central American, and South Texas tours.

  • Rosy-Faced Lovebirds may be seen on Naturalist Journeys' Africa tours

Building Bird Courtship

“If she doesn’t find you handsome, she should at least find you handy,” the old saying goes. And many birds build speculative nests — sometimes several nests — and try to lure in the ladies with turnkey real estate. Cape Weavers, which we often see on our South Africa tours, are among the most impressive of all builders, though Sociable Weavers build apartment complexes with multiple rooms for each couple, insulated interior rooms for cool nights and exterior ones for hot days.

Video Credit: Vassia Atanassova via Wikimedia Commons

Bowerbirds, also of Papua New Guinea and Australia, build elaborate nests on the ground and strew them with flowers and food and other love tokens to help lure a mate.

Regent Bowerbird arranging the furniture for a potential mate. Photo Credit: Bowerbirdaus via Wikimedia Commons

Food Offerings

Who doesn’t like a nice meal they didn’t have to forage themselves? Among the most pragmatic of love tokens, food is mate-bait for many species. Some birds drop the food near the female as if they were delivery drivers dropping off pizza. Others place the food directly into the female’s bill, showing that they know what to do once the chicks are hatched.

eBird Breeding Codes

Witnessing bird courtship and mating rituals is fascinating, whether you are on a migration birding and nature tour, or just doing some backyard birding. But did you know that eBird has a special set of codes for noting this avian courtship and the resulting nests and young?

They are:

  • NY Nest with Young (Confirmed) — Nest with young seen or heard.
  • NE Nest with Eggs (Confirmed) — Nest with eggs.
  • FS Carrying Fecal Sac (Confirmed) — Adult carrying fecal sac.
  • FY Feeding Young (Confirmed) — Adult feeding young that have left the nest, but are not yet flying and independent (for some projects should not be used with raptors, terns, and other species that may move many miles from the nest site; often supersedes FL).
  • CF Carrying Food (Confirmed) — Adult carrying food for young (for some projects should not be used for corvids, raptors, terns, and certain other species that regularly carry food for courtship or other purposes).
  • FL Recently Fledged Young (Confirmed) — Recently fledged or downy young observed while still dependent upon adults.
  • ON Occupied Nest (Confirmed) — Occupied nest presumed by parent entering and remaining, exchanging incubation duties, etc.
  • UN Used Nest (enter 0 if no birds seen) (Confirmed) — Nest is present, but not active. Use only if you are certain of the species that built the nest.
  • DD Distraction Display (Confirmed) — Distraction display, including feigning injury.
  • NB Nest Building (Confirmed/Probable) —  Nest building at apparent nest site (should not be used for certain wrens, and other species that build dummy nests; see code “B” below for these species).
  • CN Carrying Nesting Material (Confirmed/Probable) — Adult carrying nesting material; nest site not

For more information about how to use the codes, here is a link. Happy birding!

Desert Birds are Marvels of Adaptation

The big banana-like beak of the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and its long fringe of “eyelash” feathers are not just defining characteristics of this iconic African species; they are adaptations, deployed by desert birds to battle climates others find inhospitable.

Desert Birds of Namibia

  • Southern Yellow-bill Hornbill are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Southern Yellow-bill Hornbill are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • the range of Southern Yellow-bill Hornbill in southern Africa.
  • sociable weavers are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • The Secretary Bird are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • The Secretary Bird are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Freckled Nightjar are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Gray's Lark are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
  • Sociable Weavers are camoflauged in dun

We see many hornbills and other desert birds and arid-land birds on our trips that include Namibia:

Ultimate Namibia-Botswana Combo: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes

July 23 – August 15, 2022

Grand Namibia: Birds, Wildlife & Landscapes

October 13 – 25, 2022

Every desert has birds, even when it has little else, as British explorer John Philby saw for himself in 1932 crossing the Arabian Desert by camel train. Setting off with an increasingly disgruntled crew and 32 camels in the midst of a 30-year drought, the only plants the search party found were dead. Yet somehow, there were animals still calling the desert home, among them many Hoopoe Larks, according to The Ohio State University researchers who study adaptations of desert birds.

Larks are one of the most common desert birds, and ecologists study them closely to see how they prevail in such austere conditions, including “intense solar radiation; extreme air temperatures; low relative humidity; scant, unpredictable rainfall; and meager primary productivity,” as the OSU researchers wrote in “Physiological Adaptation in Desert Birds,” published in 2005 by the journal BioScience.

“For inhabitants of these environments, food supplies and drinking water can be scarce. In such extreme habitats, there may be strong selection pressures on the physiological attributes of animals that live there, especially adjustments that minimize rates of energy expenditure or water loss, or that enhance tolerance of high body temperature,” the researchers wrote.

Dune Lark can be found on Naturalist Journeys' birding and wildlife tours to Namibia
An artful Dune Lark, a Namibia endemic. Photo Credit: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Consider the Dune Lark, a Namibia endemic we have chances to see, which deploys a three-part survival secret recipe. It’s one part “pre-adaptations,” shared by most birds, like having a naturally high body temperature and being able to fly to get water. Dune Lark also help themselves behaviorally by nesting on dry stream beds, which serve as unobstructed flight corridors, reducing energy output. Finally, unusual subcutaneous fat deposits in the sun-facing part of their wings are believed to represent physiological adaptation to arid conditions, reducing evapotranspiration to retain precious water.  

But the lark family is just one among a rich variety of desert and adjacent arid-land birds displaying a staggering array of adaptations. Many, naturally, are focused on conserving water or regulating temperature – and not just heat, but cold, since deserts demonstrate dramatic temperature shifts between day and night.

Coffee, tea and birders go together. Photo Credit, Peg Abbott

Behavioral adaptations dictate the pace of our tours, as we go out early to catch diurnal birds at their most active, at dawn and dusk, resting like they do during the hottest part of the day. But the physiological adaptations of desert birds are perhaps the most fascinating.

Coming back to the charismatic hornbills, they are able to shed heat by dilating the vascular structure beneath their hard keratin bills, whose large surface area offloads unwanted body heat like a radiator. This adaptation reduces their need to open their bills and pant, an evapotranspirative cooling method which by definition squanders precious water resources.

Other adaptations address different environmental conditions, like their feathered “eyelashes” which, according to some theories, help keep things out of their eyes, including blowing sand or glaring sun.

Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Ground Hornbill, which we see on the Botswana portion of the Namibia-Botswana tour. Photo Credit: George Bakken

In a further nesting adaptation that is part behavioral and part physiological, the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill female dens up with the chicks, walling its developing family off from the sun and nighttime chill. Typically starting with an existing hole or crevice in rocks or a tree, the hornbill pair line it with nesting material.

They then work together using an ‘adobe’ made of food scraps, excrement and whatever mud the male can find and bring back to help seal in the brooding female. They leave a “feed us” sized hole that the male hornbill pokes food through and the female, waste.

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill investigate a nesting site in Botswana. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Protected or imprisoned, depending on your viewpoint, the female has the capacity to voluntarily shed her flight and tail feathers to make movement easier on their now-feathered carpet. She will slowly regrow them before emerging with the chicks.

  • spurfowl in namibia and zaire

Hartlaub’s Spurfowl has devolved its titular fighting mechanism, preferring to conserve precious resources by hiding from predators between rocks in the granite outcrops where it nests. Its spurs are little more than bumps now.

Another African desert bird, the Freckled Nightjar, has evolved a high tolerance to both heat and cold. They manage to survive surface temperatures on their rocky outcrop nesting grounds of up to 60 C/140 F, and yet, in the colder winter months, can also enter torpor, a form of short-term hibernation that conserves energy, warming back up to an animated state with sufficient sunshine. Like other desert birds and nightjars, in times of great heat, they may engage in “gular flapping” behavior, fluttering throat skin with their bills mostly closed to help offload heat.

Rosy-faced Lovebirds are among the desert birds we see on our Namibia tours.
Rosy-faced Lovebird is a species threatened by the pet trade. In fact, escapees have colonized desert areas near Phoenix. Photo Credit: Charles J. Sharp

One of the most sought-after birds in Namibia is the Rosy-faced Lovebird, which inhabits arid-land areas that are flying distance to water sources. These short-tailed parrots charm with their namesake canoodling and have been known to opportunistically try to “get a room” inside the massive apartment-complex nests of the Sociable Weaver.

They thereby hitch a ride on the weavers’ behavioral adaptation to beat the heat. They build multi-chambered suites that are an upgrade from the studio apartments most birds use, with interior rooms used for warm nighttime roosting and exterior rooms providing mostly shade.

Sociable Weaver nests may be quite large and we see them on our Namibia and Botswana Naturalist Journeys birding and wildlife tours
Sociable Weaver nests may be quite large. Photo Credit: Sonse via Wikimedia Commons

Though we don’t see them on our Arizona tours, there is a sizable feral Rosy-faced Lovebird population outside of Phoenix, having moved from wild to pet to wild again. Failing to find Sociable Weaver apartment complexes in the Wild West, they continue to seek out existing nests made by other birds, like the cavity nests made by Gila Woodpecker and other desert bird species in Saguaro, Barrel, and other cacti.

Arizona Desert Birds

  • Gila Woodpeckers feature in Naturalist Journeys tours in Arizona

Native desert birds, each with their own clever adaptations, are plentiful on our two spring and three fall tours of Southern Arizona.  

The Greater Roadrunner has some things in common with the Secretary Bird, both snake-hunters capable of flight but preferring to walk or run after prey, up to 20 mph in the Greater Roadrunner’s case. That’s roughly half the top speed of their coyote predators, with flight as a solid escape plan in reserve. Like some marine species, roadrunners are able to excrete salt through glands in the nose, because passing salt requires substantial water. A roadrunner also uses its dark skin to help regulate temperature, spreading its wings and fluffing its feathers to expose this ‘solar panel’ when they want to invite the warmth of the sun, and re-covering it like a parasol, when they’ve had enough.

Costa’s Hummingbird, one of the world’s smaller hummingbirds at just over 3.5 inches, can, like the Freckled Nightjar, enter torpor, greatly slowing its heartbeat and maintaining a lower body temperature. During torpor, a Costa’s heart beats just 50 times per minute, a fraction of the 500–900 times it beats while active, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds.

We may also see tiny Elf Owl on our Arizona tours, nesting in tree hollows and other cavities to stay warm during cooler nights. The Cactus Wren will often nest in the branches of a Cholla cactus, taking its spiny defense for its own against predators not small enough to slip past them.

  • Elf Owl are among the birds and animals we may see on our Arizona birding and nature tours.

To decide whether desert Africa is the right journey to the continent for you, we have written a guide for how to choose a birding tour to Africa.

And of course, our travel planners are always happy to talk with you about any of our tours! Email us at travel@naturalistjourneys.com or call 866-900-1146.

A Pantanal Panoply: The ‘Big Five’ of Brazil Birds and Mammals

Brazil is the most biodiverse country on the planet, home to some 20 percent of all species on Earth. Which is why coming up with a top five Brazilian birds and top five Brazilian mammals was no easy feat – even narrowing our scope down to the Pantanal, the focus of our three 2022 tours to Brazil.

Ten times the size of the Everglades, the Pantanal is the size of Washington State (though it’s still dwarfed inside Brazil, a country even larger than the lower 48 US states). The world’s largest wetland, it is incredibly important to the survival of many species.

  • brazil birding and mammals are abundant in the Pantanal

Five Brazilian Mammals

  • Jaguar is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Giant Otter is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • The Maned Wolf is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • The South American Tapir is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • The Giant Anteater is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals

Jaguar

Some 2,000 jaguars call the Pantanal home, which is the highest density of these marvelous big cats anywhere in the world. (Brazil is thought to be home to some 85,000 jaguars, about half of the jaguars in the world.)

Jaguar are among the species you will see on our Brazil birding and nature tours.
Jaguars love water! Photo Credit Bernard DuPont via Wikimedia Commons

Jaguars adore water, which helps explain their presence in the Pantanal. Their spotted yellow-orange fur should be a warning sign to prey species. Incredibly powerful jaws allow jaguars to bite right through skulls and sink their teeth through the rough hides of Yacaré Caiman, a favorite meal. Our expert local guides give us great chances to see these water-loving cats, and we set aside one full day to find them.

Maned Wolf

Despite its name, this largest canid of South America is neither fox nor wolf, but the only member of the genus Chrysocyon. It evolved to hunt in tall savannah grass, which helps explain its 3-foot-tall frame and reddish coat. It is able to blend in with and be tall enough to see over vegetation.

We may smell Maned Wolf before we see it, as its urine has a powerful skunk-like aroma. A solitary hunter when it does eat meat, the Maned Wolf is an omnivore, and a fruit-lover! As much as half of its diet is fruits and vegetables, and it has a particular taste for lobeira, a fruit that in Portuguese means “fruit of the wolf.”

Giant Anteater

  • giant anteater may be seen on Brazil Birding and Brazil Mammal tours

Although they are kin to sloths, the Giant Anteater can move much more quickly! They are ant-eating machines, with powerful claws to rip into ant and termite mounds and a two-foot tongue covered with barbs to help them retrieve up to 30,000 insects a day! Anteaters can be considered conservationists, though, because they only feed for a few minutes at each mound before moving on rather than decimating any one colony. We often see these majestic creatures during both our Brazil and our Guyana tours.

Giant Otter

Giant otters can be found cavorting in family groups. Photo Credit: Bernard DuPont via Wikimedia Commons

When we see Giant Otter, it’s common to see them as a family group, cavorting and splashing, as 6-foot-long, 75-pound adults will do! Giant animals like Giant Otter need giant and pristine riverine territories, where they are often among the most significant predators. Great news arrived in 2021 when a solitary Giant Otter was spotted in Argentina for the first time in 30 years, in El Impenetrable National Park. Giant Otter are far more common in the Amazon River basin and its tributaries, including Brazil’s Pantanal. With webbed feet, water-repellant fur and ability to close their nostrils and ears underwater, these weasel-family wonders are always a joy to see in the wild.

Brazilian Tapir

The Tapir’s snout is an overgrown upper lip with prehensile qualities! Photo Credit: Vauxford via Wikimedia Commons

To those of us who didn’t grow up seeing Tapirs on a regular basis, the mind grapples with what animal it most closely resembles. Many different ones spring to mind: a pig, a rhinocerous, a little elephant, a small horse. Thought to have remained more or less the same for tens of million years, the Brazilian Tapir is well adapted to its herbivorious function. A 500-800 pound adult can easily eat 75 pounds of food every day, using its prehensile snout to strip leaves and fruit from branches. Following our Pantanal theme, they are a water-loving species, who wallow in mud and even dive to eat aquatic plants. Most closely related to horses and rhinocerous, their cubs have camoflauged fur!

Five Brazilian Birds

  • Helmeted Manakin is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Hyacinth Macaws is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Greater Rhea is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Harpy Eagle is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals
  • Toco Toucan is among the most exciting Brazil birds and mammals

Harpy Eagle

Harpy Eagle is among the Brazilian Birds and Brazilian Mammals you may see on a Naturalist Journeys Tour
Harpy Eagle. Photo Credit: Jonathan Wilkins

Even for birders who don’t care about checklists, the Harpy Eagle is one of the most sought-after species on any birding and nature tour in their rapidly-shrinking range. Brazil still has enough continguous wild territory to support this massive and powerful raptor that one of the most famous of all “listers,” Carl Linnaeus himself, put into a class of its own. The Greek “harpies” were composite creatures with the body of a vulture and the face of a woman with the job of ferrying the dead to Hades. We have good chances to see Harpy Eagle in both Brazil and in Guyana.

Greater Rhea

Greater Rhea is among the Brazilian birds and Brazilian Mammals found on our tours.
Greater Rhea. Photo Credit: Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

Five subspecies of Greater Rhea come together in the Pantanal region we visit. Flightless and long-legged, this bird is well adapted to savannah. Nearly 5 foot tall and 60 pounds, they are a quiet species, using their voices almost exclusively during mating season, when they also use their rather long wings in courtship displays. Greater Rhea have an unusual breeding system, where the males are sedentary nest tenders of eggs laid by many different females. Females are serially polyandrous, traveling about to mate with different males, and once each egg is laid near her mate’s nest (he inspects and then rolls it in, with as many as 70 others) she moves on to find another partner.

Hyacinth Macaw

Hyacinth Macaws. Photo Credit: Bernard DuPont via Wikimedia Commons

At the other end of the devotion spectrum, the Hyacinth Macaw is said to mate for life. The world’s largest parrot, it is stunning to see flying in the wild, with a four-foot ultramarine blue wingspan, offset with accents of gold at the eye and hooked bill. Nuts, seeds, fruit and insects make up its diet and they roost in groups. On our Brazil birding trips, we often see these sociable creatures flying overhead, especially in the morning and near roosting time.

Toco Toucan

Toco Toucan. Photo Credit: Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

Toco Toucan is one of the most striking birds found anywhere in the world, and its massive bill performs many functions. It’s used to collect and process fruit (which is more than can be said for the Fruit Loops mascot it inspired). But the bill is also useful in crunching up frogs and snails, and intimidating and fending off nest-robbing predators. But the bill has another important function. Like an elephant’s ears, a Toco Toucan’s bill is used to regulate heat and is lined with blood vessels. At night, when temperatures are lower, the Toco Toucan can be seen to tuck its bill under a wing before sleep.

Helmeted Manakin

Helmeted Manakin. Photo Credit: Dario Sanches via Wikimedia Commons

Helmeted Manakin are sexually dimorphous to the nth degree! Females and juveniles are very boring indeed compared with the male Helmeted Manakin’s sleek glossy black plumage, crowned with a red crest. We often see these birds while “on safari” at Aguapé Lodge, sometimes in exciting mixed-species flocks. During the height of the fruiting season, Helmeted Manakin are very choosy eaters, shifting to the understory to eat less perfect fruit only when circumstances require. In the dry season, when there is less fruit, they have been observed eating insects in Brazil.

Of course, these are just a handful of the many hundreds of species we may see on any given Brazil birding and mammal adventure. To get more of a flavor, read a species list or two and read the trip reports that show what past guests have seen on our journeys.

Pre-Tour and Post-Tour Extensions

The pre- and post-tour extensions in Brazil further expand the many wonderful species you have an opportunity to see!

Brazil birds and Brazil mammals are often seen by boat! Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

Itatiaia National Park Pre-tour Extension

Itatiaia National Park. Photo Credit: Augusto Alves via Wikimedia Commons

Itatiaia was Brazil’s first National Park and shelters an incredible variety of birds, including Black Hawk-Eagle, Dusky-legged Guan, Slaty-breasted Wood-Rail, Giant Snipe, White-throated Hummingbird, Brazilian Ruby, Frilled Coquette, Black-breasted Plover-Crest, Saffron Toucanet, Yellow-fronted and Robust Woodpeckers, Wing-banded Hornero, White-browed Foliage-gleaner, Itatiaia Thistletail, Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Giant and Large-tailed Antshrikes, White-bibbed and Rufous-tailed Antbirds, Fork-tailed Pygmy-tyrant, Southern Antpipit, Velvety Black-tyrant, Pin-tailed Manakin, Eastern Slaty Thrush, Red-ruffed Fruitcrow, Black-and-Gold Cotinga, Brassy-breasted and Gilt-edged Tanagers, and Sharpbill.

For more details, read all about this 5-Day, 4-Night extension.

Chapada Post-tour Extension

Chapada dos Guimaraes. Photo Credit: Carlos Souto via Wikimedia Commons

Located 65 km northeast of Cuiaba, Chapada dos Guimaraes is a unique destination in the Cerrado, the Brazilian Savanna, a transition zone between the Cerrado and the Amazon, giving you the chance to see the Cerrado’s avian highlights like Small-billed Tinamou, Red-legged Seriema, Scaled Dove, Horned Sungem, Blue-tufted Starthroat, White-eared Puffbird, Rusty-backed and Large-billed Antwren, Rufous-winged Antshrike, Band-tailed and Fiery-capped Manakin, Curl-crested Jay, and White-rumped Tanager. Wow!

Read more about this 4-day, 3-night extension.

What Does Your Dream Africa Birding and Nature Tour Look, Sound, and Feel LIke?

From Lodges to Landscapes to Length, Building a Bucket List Africa Trip Depends on You

Imagining yourself in Africa is the way most journeys to the continent begin. Train your binoculars on a hunting Lion pride from the back of an open-air Landcruiser, come over a rise to greet a herd of Elephant. Return visitors anticipate the excitement of wild nighttime sounds just outside a canvas tent, of Elephants shuffling by, or Hyenas calling on the prowl.

Kenya wildlife safari, binoculars and telephotos up!

“The questions people ask me before they’ve been to Africa and after they’ve been are totally different,” Naturalist Journeys founder Peg Abbott said.

Whether you’re weighing bucket-list alternatives for a first venture or as an Africa veteran looking for that next wildness adrenaline rush, we have ideas for you. Read on to compare and contrast our carefully crafted Africa birding and nature tours, keeping in mind that if you’re flying to Africa from the US, you want to make the most of your investment. (Not to mention, once you start to experience Africa birding and nature, the lure to return will be strong, no matter how long you stay.)

Massai Mara Elephants. Photo Credit: Peg Abbott

East Africa or Southern Africa?

“People often tell me ‘I am only going to Africa once, so should I go to East Africa or Southern Africa?” said Peg Abbott, Naturalist Journeys founder and guide. “Keep in mind, once you go to Africa you’re going to want to go back.” If that is not possible, you want to hit it right.

“Second, consider this, that question is the equivalent of saying I’m only going to come to the U.S. one time, should I go to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon? They are very different experiences, and you should absolutely do them both,” she said.

Comparing Our Africa Trips (and the Competition’s)

There are many lenses you could train on our Africa Birding and Nature tour options: landscapes, lodgings, birds and animals, and of course, length and cost. But before we dive into each of those categories below, a word from Peg about how our tours contrast with our competition – because our guests are savvy travelers.

“Our Africa tours are aimed at people who want to learn the wildlife and birds in detail, to spend time taking photos and really absorbing place,” Peg said. By contrast, one of our competitors offers a 15-day, 3-country tour, with only 5 days in each country.

We can’t bear to move that fast! Skipping from place to place like that doesn’t allow for spending two to three nights at each stop of our mobile tented camp safaris, for example, which is always our goal.

“We like to let people settle in and experience first-hand Africa’s richness. To hear the sounds of the night,” Peg said.

“We have a LOT of facetime with these animals, so anyone with a camera or binoculars is going to be very happy,” she said.

  • Leopards are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Elephants are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Cape Buffalo are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • bat-eared foxes are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • A mixed herd of Wildebeest and Zebra are always an exciting find on an Africa birding and nature tour
  • lioness kills are part of an Africa birding and nature tour

Landscapes

Great wildlife viewing can be found in all of the tours we offer in Africa, but the feel of place can be quite different. To latch on to the Yellowstone/Grand Canyon analogy, southern Africa is more like the desert Southwest in the US, warm and arid, though much flatter, while eastern Africa is more temperate, green and with both grasslands and mountains – not unlike Montana and Wyoming. 

  • Lions in Moremi, Botswana are part of your Africa birding and nature adventure.
  • Kenya is an old guard of the Africa birding and nature destinations.
  • Hippos in Uganda.
  • Rhino in Tanzania are part of an exciting Africa birding and nature tour
  • Amboselli is a wonderful stop on our Africa birding and nature tours
  • Elephants are a required element of Africa birding and nature tours

East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda

East Africa offers a more temperate climate than one might expect near the equator, supporting massive herds of animals like the famed Wildebeest that migrate with seasonal rains between Kenya and Tanzania. (Our Kenya safari is perfectly timed so we are at the Maasai Mara at the peak of Wildebeest migration.) Mountains and forests add to the diversity of flora and fauna we encounter. Uganda is a very lushly forested country, supporting some of the last rare and endangered Mountain Gorilla in the world.

Southern Africa: Botswana, Namibia and South Africa

Namibia and Botswana are home to the Namib and Kalahari deserts, respectively. Great wildlife viewing abounds here, as arid conditions concentrate animals at lakes, deltas and watering holes. The Okavango Delta and Chobe River in Botswana and the world-famous watering holes in Etosha National Park in Namibia make for reliable and spectacular wildlife viewing (and occasional excitement as predator and prey are brought together.) South Africa stands on its own, anchored at the southern terminus of the continent. It offers much more landscape diversity between its coast and its famous wildflower-strewn Cederberg or Drakensburg Mountains. South Africa is HUGE and contains a wide variety of ecoregions including grassland, bushveld, semi-desert, savannah, and riparian areas. South Africa’s Western Cape is more botanically diverse than the richest tropical rainforest in South America, including the Amazon, offering unique plant species in the fynbos biome and the animals and insects that rely on it.

  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda are part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • East African Crowned Cranes is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Kori Bustard is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Africa Paradise Flycatcher is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Lilac-breasted Roller is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Mountain Gorilla in Uganda is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Hartlaubs Spurfowl is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Violet-eared Waxbill is part of an Africa birding and nature tour
  • Baboons are part of an Africa birding and nature tour

Africa Birding Diversity/Animal Encounters

 “The mammal viewing is equally compelling,” Peg said, in eastern and southern Africa destinations, with Uganda’s Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee trekking an optional added bonus. Not for the faint of heart (or the bum of knee) these encounters offer a stunning and emotional payoff at the end of your trek. Guests sometimes encounter Gorilla after as little as an hour of hiking with our guides and porters, but four or five hours of hiking would not be unusual.

Bird diversity, on the other hand, is going to be significantly higher in East Africa or South Africa because of the greater variety of habitat types. If going for the most birds: choose Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. 

One of the reasons we scheduled our shorter Botswana trip to pair with Namibia (and put the two together in our Ultimate Namibia-Botswana combo) is to enrich birding options. Botswana is landlocked, so adding Namibia brings in coastal and arid-land birds. Visitors to the Botswana Namibia tour have the opportunity to see in the neighborhood of 270 amazing birds, while those on the Kenya-Uganda trip can easily see more than 400!

Here are the most recent species lists from each country:

Botswana  • Kenya Trip Report  • South Africa  • Tanzania  • Uganda  • Namibia

Lodging/Movement Between Parks

Our tour lodging is ALWAYS selected with seeing the animals in mind. Where can we go that maximizes our opportunities to see wildlife in a safe and eco-friendly way? That said, there are differences between countries in what lodging is available to us based on factors like the maturity of their ecotourism facilities. 

  • Selinda Bush Camp
  • Tanzania Lodges are a wonderful respite during our Africa birding and nature tours
  • Uganda accommodations are a wonderful part of our Africa birding and nature tours there

Kenya is the old guard of African wildlife safaris and that’s apparent from its lodge selections, many of which harken back to a British colonial time in style and in their not-yet-updated but absolutely charming facilities. Movement between parks in Kenya can involve highway travel to get the maximum diversity, whereas in Tanzania, once you enter the park system, it’s possible to go from park to park without emerging into the outside world (though you stay solidly in savannah.) 

Built in a different era than Kenya’s, Tanzania’s lodges tend to be big resort-style properties; big enough for large buses to roll in. We’ve worked hard to find some smaller safari camps like the one we visit at the apex of Wildebeest migration at their calving grounds in Ndutu.  

“There are a lot of lodges in Tanzania that are luxury and high end but not particularly well situated – we don’t typically go to these,” Peg said. “We pick our trips by the wildlife, not so they will have a bathroom the size of one’s living room.”

Botswana’s facilities are new, idyllic for ambiance, and they tend to be smaller, Peg said, many with no more than a 35-person capacity. Botswana made a choice for low-volume, higher cost visitation – it’s a place to spoil yourself and immerse. South Africa travelers demand trendy atmospheric lodges, resulting in their well-deserved reputation for extravagant safari options and local dining specialties.

At the other end of the maturity spectrum from Kenya, Uganda is a newbie and an up-and-comer. Uganda has the old colonial facilities but they went dormant in many years of unrest. Post Idi Amin’s military dictatorship, from 1980 a new page was turned. “There’s a real upbeat feel to Uganda’s nature and its ecotourism,” Peg said. “The roads get better and there are new facilities every time we go back. The quality of guides and their training is astonishing. ”

  • guides and porters in Uganda Africa birding and nature tour

Length/Cost

While all of Naturalist Journeys’ tours are centered on birds and wildlife, you can find a range of experiences. A two week South Africa tour, for example, can be viewed as a sampler: a toe-dipping option with a bit of everything for the Africa-curious. It includes a three-night safari in Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s crown jewels, wonderful food and wine in glorious Cape Town, a trip to experience endemic fynbos wildflowers, and comfortable but exciting birding in varied habitats. For some people, it feels more like pampering than “Out of Africa.” It’s also more budget-friendly than many of our other Africa trips, because we aren’t spending as much time in national parks. When you are comparing different companies’ offerings, look at how many days of your trip are inside national parks. That’s where the animals are, admission fees pay for their conservation and that’s a big driver of Africa tour costs –rightfully so!  

Our shorter Uganda trip is also less expensive at 9 days and 8 nights, it’s meant to be paired with our Kenya tour but also to fit into other travel plans. We can facilitate add-ons to your journey. We recommend time in Cape Town or a few days in Victoria Falls.

  • Victoria falls should be added to any Africa birding and nature safari

At the other end of this spectrum, our 23-night, 24-day Namibia-Botswana Combo will really leave you feeling the re-entry to your not-Africa life. Living the true safari life in mobile tented camps, staying as close to wildlife as possible, our guests find this a truly immersive, life-changing, bucket-list trip with Greg Smith, one of our most experienced guides. Ultimate Botswana with company owner Peg Abbott is just that – limit of six or seven clients, and more depth in one country than one can imagine.

In between on the spectrum our various Africa tours feature safari game drives and mobile tented camp experiences offering great looks at wildlife and birds. All of them transport you into the other world that Africa is.

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!