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.

awesome tanzanian safari

We’ve never seen so many big cats. More than 50 lions, cheetahs, and leopards over 6 days. Not to mention scores of elephants, Cape buffalo, and giraffes, and hundreds, probably thousands, of zebra, gazelles, and wildebeests. Oh, and while we’re at it, throw in some jackals, hyenas, scrub hares, mongooses, and countless species of weird and wonderful birds. The Tanzanian “northern circuit” has a lot to offer, and is no poor cousin to Kenya or South Africa when it comes to wildlife viewing.

We were so lucky to have an excellent driver/guide for our Tanzanian safari. Elisante with African Savannah Trekkers took us deep inside Tarangire National Park, along the rim and down across the floor of the massive caldera (crater) within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, out into the vastness of the Serengeti, and over to Manyara Lake National Park to see thousands of flamingos feeding in the lake.

It was very hot and dry, animals were often gathered near rivers and waterholes — with any luck the heavy rains will start in a few days. March and April is a short but important rainy season here. Farmers around Arusha, our launching point, have tilled the soil and are waiting to plant corn and other crops as soon as the rain starts. In the meantime, on safari with the roof up for viewing means within minutes everything inside is covered in a layer of red dust and it is all you can taste. But we so enjoyed the 360 degree view!

Sometimes we would travel for an hour or two across the savannah along dirt tracks, dry grass and solitary trees as far as one could see — and then suddenly, under one of those lone trees would be gathered a family of cheetahs or a pride of lions (including one group of 18 lions and sleeping in the shade except for the rebel sitting in the tree!). Less frequently, someone will have spotted a leopard sleeping in a live or fallen tree, and soon other safari trucks would gather around, everyone hoping the leopard would get up and walk over. Eli was very patient with us; we hung out even after everyone else had given up on one leopard in particular, and sure enough, she stood up, stretched, and walked away for us.

One day out in the Serengeti we came across others watching three young cheetahs resting and playing under a tree not far from the road. In fact there were at least a dozen trucks lined up, but Eli pulled up so that we would have a very clear view of the family; the mom was resting on the other side of the tree. Two of the cheetahs wandered into the middle of all the trucks, but then one seemed to be watching something behind us all. We swung around to see a jackal running parallel to the road and before we knew it the cheetah was dashing up the road ahead of us. We then realized they were chasing a young gazelle and soon all three young cheetahs had joined the chase. Eli quickly repositioned the truck to give us a front row view of the brave little gazelle running back and forth across the road as the cheetahs played cat and mouse with it. Unfortunately, all this commotion attracted the attention of a passing hyena, who dashed past the cheetahs, grabbed the gazelle, and trotted off with lunch.

It was amazing to witness extended families of elephants grazing and drinking water from the river, and so much fun to watch baby elephants playing with each other in the mud. It was awesome to see hundreds and thousands of zebra, gazelles, and wildebeests watching out for each other scattered across the landscape (although we were told the zebras are quite smart, and during migration let the wildebeests cross crocodile-infested waters first!). And so many flamingos!

Save up your shekels and plan now to go on safari in Tanzania, you’ll be glad you did!