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Bird Watching Destination Guide: How to choose your next birding destination

Check out our pointers for selecting your future bird watching destinations

In our previous posts about the best places to see birds and bird watch in Europe and the United States, we linked to an Expedition Wildlife guide on selecting your next bird watching destination. While you can still get the full PDF document, we are breaking down each section of the guide in this post. 

The idea behind creating a bird watching destination guide sprung from the mistakes that we’ve made in the past pertaining to selecting a place to go bird watching and not considering all of the components that go into planning such a trip. 

The first time we had traveled somewhere outside of peak bird watching season was on our trip to southern Spain. We knew visiting Doñana National Park and Preserve, one of the premier bird watching destinations in Europe, would be an incredible experience, so when we finally got the time to travel, we knew we had to go! 

Donana National Park Bird Watching

The catch is that our travel window was in early August, when it’s not only unbearably hot in southern Spain, but the marshes and waterways have largely dried up to resemble muddy bogs more than anything and the flocks of birds have found other refuge from the heat. 

We actually asked the host of our hotel in El Rocio, just outside of Doñana, whether we could still easily see flamingos and he actually laughed at us. Silly birders! Clearly we should have known the flamingos would already be gone. Despite years of performing bird surveys and knowing when birds begin to move south in the Northern hemisphere, I still hadn’t thought that one through.

Needless to say, we didn’t see the hordes of birds we initially expected, but we did get to cross some species off of our life lists, including the regal Hoopoe and the colorful European Bee-eater! 

The moral of this story is that depending on the time, the place, your bird watching goals, and your financial situation, you’ll find your bird watching experience to be entirely different as each of those factors change.

A number of components play into how you can choose your next birding destination, and if you’re traveling for the purpose of seeing birds, you’ll want to nail down your bird watching goals. 

Consider the following three points as your prospective bird watching goals:

I. Increase species numbers on your life list

II. See a particularly charismatic bird

III. Experience seeing hundreds or thousands of birds in the same place

Now, these points can overlap with each other, so it’s OK to hope for more than one!

Considerations such as budget and time of year you will be able to travel also play into determining your ideal bird watching destination.

Let’s move on to the first point: Expanding the numbers on your life list

I. Increase species numbers on your life list

Your bird watching life list is a record of all the bird species you’ve physically seen and positively identified. There are also other factors that go into creating your bird life list, such as only marking down birds that are wild and are ethically sought after

Increasing the numbers of birds on your bird life list means spotting birds you’ve never seen or heard before.

To expand outward from your local area, the first step is to get outside and go places you haven’t been! Have you seen all the birds right around your neighborhood, local park, state, etc.? 

There are a number of resources that allow you to obtain a species list of all birds observed in your area, and eBird is one of the best, provided by citizen scientists and researchers all over the world.

Beyond this, you’ll want to go somewhere with a high species diversity. High species diversity locations include bird watching hotspots and migration routes.

Bird Hotspots

The term “hotspot” can mean different things, such as a place to see a specific kind of bird or an ideal place to bird watch irrespective of the diversity present, but in this context we are referring to places where the bird species diversity is high.

There are dozens of birding hotspots around the world. eBird’s hotspot map shows any place where birds can be spotted, however, the markers with the red hues indicate hundreds of different bird species present.

The primary biogeographic region that fosters the largest species diversity is in the tropics along the equator, due to the varied biome structure both vertically and horizontally in the landscape. The location with the highest species diversity is in Central and South America, followed by the African tropics and the IndoMalayan tropics.

The epitome of a bird watching hotspot is Costa Rica, where approximately 1,000 different birds can be seen. The Arenal Observatory and Lodge is a great place to start counting off those bird numbers!

Migratory Routes

Migratory routes or flyways are invisible funnels that birds use during their spring or autumn movement to breeding grounds or overwintering grounds. 

Birding during these time frames and in these migratory routes almost certainly ensures you’ll add numbers to your life list! 

There are bird flyways all around the world, from the tropics to the poles. Positioning yourself during migration in prime spots along these flyways can provide better opportunities for spotting a greater number of birds. 

Check out our post on Top Places to Bird Watch in Europe to see our favorite migration locations in Europe.

There are three world-wide flyway systems

Main bird flyway systems description

II. Seek out charismatic birds

Charismatic birds typically have well-known locations, since, well, they’re charismatic. These bird species generally have some defining characteristic that excites people’s interest in seeing or photographing them. Even non-birders will pay to see especially unique and interesting birds. 

Take the Atlantic Puffin, for example. As travelers make their way to North Atlantic coasts and islands, they’ll often seek out tours and opportunities to stroll among bird-hewn cliffs or risk some serious sea-sickness on a roiling ocean to see these sweet and lively creatures. Their moniker as “clowns of the bird world” has won over the hearts of birders and non-birders alike.

Atlantic Puffin in Flight with Sand Eels

Photo credit: Nathan Rolls Photography

Keep in mind that seeking out birds in this way also means you may need to forfeit the species diversity goal checkbox unless your target bird flocks together during migration along with many other bird species. 

You may also find that these charismatic species can attract more tourists than other locations might (e.g., the Atlantic Puffin), which means busier locales during peak bird viewing times. Our favorite bird watching destination to visit in summertime is Skomer Island, Wales - thousands of puffins and other seabirds call the island home, and it's a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience to see them as the sun sets over the horizon.

More tours and resources will be available for seeing charismatic species since the demand is present, so this does allow more flexibility in actually getting to your designated destination.

III. Experience hordes of birds

Seeing large numbers of birds in the same place is possible during migration, at overwintering sites, and in colony breeding sites, not to mention areas of high species diversity. 

Many individuals of the same species will flock together in spring and autumn as they gear up for winter and breeding season. 

Oases, such as Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, host thousands of birds in wintertime, as they provide ample feeding grounds and protection from predators. There are few experiences more exhilarating for a bird watcher than seeing thousands of birds take off into flight at the same time! 

Snow Geese flock in wintertime at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Colonies, or rookeries, formed during breeding season can also be great places to visit to see hundreds or thousands of birds in their breeding plumage, a phenomenon present mostly in seabirds and wading birds. 

Keep in mind to exhibit ethical practices when watching birds, especially during breeding season, so as not to disturb birds and their breeding habits.

After reviewing everything so far, consider:

What kind of birding experience do you want?

What kinds of birds do you want to see?

When will you be able to take a trip, and does that time frame match with your desired birding experience?

Time of year, as mentioned previously, can be everything when it comes to selecting a bird watching destination. 

Keep in mind that the Northern Hemisphere experiences the opposite season from the Southern Hemisphere during the same time of year. So, for example, summer breeding season in the United States, when birds are vibrant in color and singing loudly to attract mates and defend territories, means that it’s wintertime in Chile, where instead you’ll see birds in non-breeding plumage, they won’t sing as readily, and they will be far and few between.

The next step includes creating a wish list for yourself listing out the places you want to go, the birds you want to see, or both, and the optimal time to visit based on your bird watching goals.

Here's an example of the list I've started for myself:

I’ve always wanted to see hornbills in the wild, and the jungles of Thailand have always called to me, so I put that down on my wish list. Then, I researched the best time of year and the best places in Thailand to see hornbills – it just so happens that even though Thailand is in the northern hemisphere, it is close enough to the equator that seeing birds in December, outside of the main rainy and monsoon season, is best. The likelihood of seeing other kinds of birds in the northern hills of Thailand would be more limited, so I’m sticking to the southern jungles.

It’s also a good idea to get cost estimates for travel from your home base, as well as currency conversion rates and general cost of travel in your destination location, to make sure you can properly prepare for your upcoming trip.

Let us know where you’re planning your next bird watching trip in the comments! 

Happy birding!

Christa and Nathan