five favourite birding sites

We’re newcomers to birding. Of course we have always noticed the unknown and unusual birds we encountered in our travels. However, it was during our year in Latin America that we started to pay closer attention to our feathered friends. It helped that our wandering that year took us into the rainforests of the Amazon, down to Patagonia, across the water to the Galapagos Islands, and to both coasts of Costa Rica. That might also explain why these locations are among our favourite places for bird watching.

King Penguins near the Strait of Magellan.

Number 5. Patagonia (Chile and Argentina)

Quite frankly, we include Patagonia because we saw two of our favourite birds here: penguins and flamingos.  On Tierra del Fuego, Chile, we crawled along a sandy ridge to get close, but not too close, to watch a small group of King Penguins hanging out in the grass near the water. We also saw hundreds of Greater Flamingos gathered in a lake on the island, it’s quite something to see them in flight. Later we watched penguins congregating along the beach on Isla Martillo in the Beagle channel near Ushuaia, Argentina. Mostly Megellanic penguins except for a goofy Gentoo penguin that popped up out of the water and seemed to stagger around perhaps feeling a bit of place. [Watch them here!]

Unknown Amazon eagle about to grab lunch.

Number 4: Amazon (Brazil)

We managed to visit three regions of the Amazon River – the basin in Ecuador, the mouth of the river in Brazil, and the area where the Amazon and Negro rivers merge, 1500 km inland. All featured lots of birds, but the rainforest upriver from the junction at Manaus yielded the greatest variety of birds. We travelled into the rainforest by boat and on foot to see numerous species of parrots, herons, kingfishers, and egrets, along with the wattled Jicana, whistling ducks, grey-necked cormorants, Caracara hawks, Anhinga, Hoatzin, and the orange-fronted yellow finch, just to name a few. We also got bit by fire ants and stung by tiny gold bees!

Blue-footed booby showing off the blue!

Number 3: Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)

This will surprise no one! There is an almost overwhelming richness of wildlife here, including large colonies of birds such as the Wavy Albatross and frigatebirds. We also saw Galapagos penguins and flamingos, and you know by now how we feel about that! We toured around the islands by boat, regularly landing to hike into areas and islands that are entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation and observation. We came across brown pelicans, blue-footed, red-footed, and Nasca boobys, brown noddys, finches, various herons and gulls, smooth-billed anis, red-billed tropic birds, a short-eared owl.

Marabou storks scavenge for food, sometimes fighting with vultures over carcasses.

Number 2: The Serengeti (Tanzania)

The Serengeti is a vast open gravelly plain, with rivers and lakes scattered here and there that provide the large animals with water to drink and a place to cool off. In or near the water is where you also will find the birds, although often just one or in a small group. What they lacked in number they made up for in their sometimes very wild appearance. Vultures, secretary birds, Kori Bustads, ostriches, superb starlings, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed cranes, Mariboo storks, and blue herons. Also have to mention nearby Mangara national park and the thousands of flamingos feeding in shallow water of Lake Mangara. 

One of many keel-billed toucans that dropped by to say hello.

Number 1: Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica)

The truth is, there are birds all over Costa Rica. It is hard to single out one national park or conservation area for special mention. We have been in the country four times and have hiked into the Monteverde Cloud Forest, walked along both coastlines, and got up before dawn to see a Resplendent Quetzal in the rainforests near San Gerardo de dota. But it was our repeat visits to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast that ended up being quite remarkable for birding. There was a variety of shrubs near the small house we were staying in and trees all around. Every morning over coffee we would watch different birds perch nearby, eat bugs, berries or tree fruit, hang out, and eventually fly away. We enjoyed seeing keel-billed toucans, black-necked Aracaris, black-cheeked woodpeckers, social flycatchers, long-tailed hermit hummingbirds, blue-grey tanagers, streak-headed woodpeckers, blue-black Grassquits, and those are just the ones we were able to identify. In the “neighbourhood” we also spotted brown pelicans, whimbels, frigatebirds, kingfishers, and the exquisitely named Montezuma Oropendola.

Penguins enjoy snow in Calgary

It’s a bit of a shock to the system to leave the wet but moderate west coast and land in the thick of a winter blizzard in Calgary. The snow wasn’t just coming down hard, it was being blasted horizontally across the prairie by high winds – fortunately I could see the bus stop from just inside the airport doors and only had to brave the sub-zero chill for a moment. But what is it with Calgary bus drivers, keeping the buses hotter than an oven, and here I am bundled in every piece of winter clothing I own!

There are two inexpensive ways to get downtown from the airport – the regular #100 bus that takes a wide drive around the perimeter of the airport to eventually connect visitors with the C-Train for access to the downtown core for only $3; or the #300, an $8 bus that runs directly to downtown via several major hotels. I rejected the five buck money grab and took the 45-minute scenic route.

I was in Calgary for some meetings, so Deborah stayed home this trip. Just as well, because although the blizzard ended the next day, temperatures dropped to 20 below for the rest of my time in Cowtown. That didn’t stop me from slipping over to the Calgary Zoo, just a few minutes east on the C-Train. I saw a bit on the Rick Mercer television show a few weeks ago that featured the relatively new penguin compound, and after seeing so many penguins in the wild over 2012, I was already missing the funny little flightless wonders.

Regular admission for adults is a whopping $22 – but flashing my Hostelling International membership card cut the price in half. It was a very cold and quiet day and I headed straight for Penguin Plunge, an indoor/outdoor exhibition space that on the weekends and during the summer attracts thousands of people a day who wait up to 90 minutes in order to spend 15 minutes inside with the manufactured rock formations and glass-walled swimming areas. Oh yeah, and four kinds of penguins: King, Gentoo, Humboldt (which we saw in Chile and Argentina) and Rockhoppers, from a couple of small islands off the coast of Chile that we did not get to.

I had the place almost to myself; only a couple of other visitors passed through while I studied my new friends, all of us watched carefully by volunteers eager to talk about their little charges. Once in a while there is some chatter from the Humboldts or a howl from a King as they walk around. When they dive into the water, they glide at hide speed despite their sometime clumsy on-land waddle. The ever-curious Rockhoppers really do hop from rock to rock.

One of the volunteers told me some of the King penguins came from a zoo in Texas, which meant that when they got to Calgary, they experienced snow for the first time and quite enjoyed it, and now stay outside in the snow most of the day. The Gentoos also like the snow, while the Humboldts prefer the slightly warmer inside area.

The Calgary Zoo covers a lot of ground, and while most of the outdoor areas were closed due to the snow and cold, most of the large indoor areas were busy with birds and animals from around the world – finally got to see an Andean condor, and although the enclosure was quite large, I felt bad it was not free to soar high among the mountains of Peru. That’s the problem with zoos and why I mostly avoid them, so I’m conflicted around recommending everyone go see Penguin Plunge on a cold weekday when you can have the place to yourself.

by the way, whenever I’m heading for Calgary, I book a dorm room bed at Hostelling International city centre for $29 per night, which includes bedding and towels, free breakfast with pancakes, muffins, and bananas, free WiFi, and free coffee or tea all day. Amazingly, its only two blocks from the east edge of downtown and the City Hall C-Train station. Not even Hotwire can offer a better deal.

One more bit of travel advice: bus #300 direct from downtown back to the airport is only $3, and it gets you there in less than 30 minutes. That’s more like it.

Gentoo penguins in the snow outside

Gentoo penguins in the snow outside

King penguin

King penguin standing tall

Gentoo pengion

Gentoo pengion

Rockhopper penguin

Rockhopper penguin

Humboldt penguins

Humboldt penguins up in the rocks

Indoor penguin pool

Indoor penguin pool