As I wrote here, for many years I’ve been bitten by the birding bug. And like the three crazy birders in the movie The Big Year, I’ve travelled the world looking for the best places to find new, beautiful and unusual birds — and if possible, photograph them.
I rarely go somewhere just to go birding, but it’s played a part in most of my travel plans for more than a decade. So if you’re wondering where to go birding in the western part of the world, I can give you some good suggestions — places across the Americas where I’ve found great birds, often without really trying, and come home with the photos to prove it. These places go all the way from Canada to the Antarctic, with lots of stops in between.
So whether you want to stay north or go south, there should be a destination that works for you. The kind of birds that interest you most — tropical birds, water birds, raptors, etc. — should figure in your planning. And of course, comfort: some of these destinations allow you to follow your morning bird walk with a beer on the beach. Why not?
Here are some of my favourite places to go birding on this side of the pond:
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta is one of my favourite winter escapes, and part of the reason is that it’s a great place to go birding. Just walking the beach, you can spot a half-dozen types of seabirds, including rarities like brown and blue-footed boobies. And the Pitillal River, which runs through the hotel district, is home to hundreds of species, from white ibises and roseate spoonbills (below) to yellow-winged caciques and summer tanagers.
But just outside town are some real birding hot spots, including Cruz de Huanacaxtle to the north, where you’ll find San Blas jays, lineated woodpeckers and a host of other species. And ride up into the Sierra Madres, toward the old silver town of San Sebastian, and you’ll find higher-elevation birds like trogons, silky flycatchers and beautiful red-headed tanagers.
Point Pelee, Ontario
It took me a long time to get to Point Pelee, but it’s now become a yearly pilgrimage. The reason is simple: it’s one of the greatest bird shows on earth. This small point of land sticking out into Lake Erie is the first landfall for a lot of birds flying north after the winter, and every spring they arrive by the thousands.
If you’re there on the right dates (plan carefully, using the calendar here), the variety of bird species is amazing. There’s a whole checklist of warblers, along with orioles and flycatchers, woodpeckers and gnatcatchers, nighthawks, water birds, wild turkeys … the list goes on. But the stars of the show, especially this past year, are the scarlet tanagers in their breeding colours, so bright they look like neon lights shining through the forest.
The Caribbean slope, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a world hot spot for birding, and most of the attention is centred around the cloud forest of Monteverde. But I actually had better luck birding on the Caribbean side of the country, near the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. Staying at a birders’ resort called Selva Verde, I found myself living with a constant parade of exotic and colourful birds.
The woods surrounding the cabins were alive with groove-billed anis (below), orioles, warblers, aracaris and keel-billed toucans, which flew past in formation. And across the street at the flower garden, brilliant green and red-legged honeycreepers flitted through the bushes. Best of all, at dinner time a Montezuma oropendola (a relative of the oriole known for its long, pendulous nests), hung upside down outside the dining hall to do its weird and wonderful mating call.
Cayo Coco, Cuba
C ayo Coco is one of a chain of islands off the north coast of Cuba. And besides its resorts and white beaches, it’s renowned as a great spot for birders. For one thing, it’s one of the few places in the Americas where a large flock of flamingos can be easily seen and photographed. The flamingos are only the star attraction, though: birds are everywhere. I spotted more than a dozen species on the grounds of my hotel the first day of the trip.
A tour of the surrounding countryside with a local bird guide yielded an embarrassment of riches: 80 species in one day, including most of Cuba’s endemic species — birds that exist only there. We saw brilliant Cuban trogons (above, at right), Cuban todys and vireos, Cuban green woodpeckers, and Cuban blackhawks sitting calmly right by the roadside. There were also good looks at snail kites, reddish egrets, crested caracaras, and my favourite — this too-cute little Cuban pygmy owl.
There were also lot of northern migrants on display, as well, and a one point we pulled up to a fencepost where an eastern meadowlark was holding forth with his incredible song. I loved the way his little black bib fanned up as he sang. (The first song you hear is from the guide’s bird song recording.)
This mountain town near the Costa Rica border is best known as a retirement haven for gringos, but it’s also a good spot for birders — especially birders looking for a resplendent quetzal. I spent years trying to see this bird, a holy grail of the birding world with its bright green plumage and long, flowing tail. And here is where I finally saw and photographed one (below), on a mountain trail.
But the forests and fields of Boquete are also home to hundreds of other species, from tiny silver-throated tanagers and seedeaters to rufous-collared sparrows and caracaras. A walk around the local coffee plantations is a good place to start, but there’s also La Amistad National Park (shared with Costa Rica), right on the edge of town.
Cartagena, on Colombia’s northern coast, has only recently become known as a tourist destination for northerners. But if you like birds, it’s another place that holds some surprises. Just a few blocks from my beach hotel in the Bocagrande district, I found a small marshland where I photographed 10 species in an hour — including unusual ones like southern lapwings (seen here), sanderlings and yellow-crowned night herons.
On a side trip to the nearby city of Santa Marta, a local bird guide drove me up into the mountains in the early morning to see a whole other set of species, from crimson-backed tanagers and golden-fronted greenlets to roadside hawks and a true rarity, a black-backed antshrike. That one excited the guide more than me. But then, I don’t know anyone else who’s seen one — do you?
Huatulco, on Mexico’s south Pacific coast, is one of the country’s newer resort areas, and still under construction. But even if you come to lie on the beach, bring some binoculars: the fields and woods around the resorts are bursting with birds, including some exotic ones you’ve probably never laid eyes on. And the highlands a few miles away are home to even more.
For me, the highlight of the visit was seeing the white-throated magpie jays (below) — kind of like giant blue jays wearing party hats. But there were amazing scissor-tailed flycatchers, flocks of white-fronted parrots, turkey-like West Mexican chachalacas, russet-browed mot-mots, orchard orioles and — a great moment for me — a small flock of painted buntings, one of the world’s most beautiful birds. You can see one at the top of this post.
There are birds everywhere, and the Antarctic is no exception. On a cruise of the South American coast and the Antarctic a few years ago, I saw and photographed an amazing variety of birds, both on land and at sea. There were penguins, which gathered in large colonies in south Chile and the Falklands and swam right up to our ship in the Antarctic. I photographed four species, including a rare shot of a totally white gentoo penguin.
But there was a wealth of other species, too, from the ever-present skuas, which raid other birds’ nests, to Antarctic terns and the amazing Wilson’s storm petrels, dancing across the icy waves to find tiny bits of food. But the most iconic were the graceful, long-winged wandering albatrosses (below), gliding across the wintry grey skies for days on end, making their home on the wind. Truly one of the world’s great sights.
That’s not all the top birding sites in the Americas, of course. There are places like the Florida Everglades, Soberanía National Park near Panama City, and Vera Cruz, Mexico, where millions of birds darken the skies at migration time. But then, I haven’t been everywhere yet. When I do, I’ll give you eight more ideas of where to go birding in this big, bird-filled world.