A Beginner’s Guide to Birding & Travel

It all starts with a flash of colour and a piercing note in the morning air. It’s just after dawn and the rising sun streams its golden rays over the deep greens and blues of the Pacific coastline of Manuel Antonio. Two scarlet macaws, brilliant parrots with red, blue, and yellow wings, glide across the horizon right to left. 

I had come to Costa Rica for the warm sun, cool waters, and dense rainforests full of three-toed sloths, but it’s the birds, like these scarlet macaws, that make my trip truly special. Travelling the world is one of the great pleasures of life. Birding is something that heightens that pleasure. The two are natural pairs, twin passions that help you engage with the world around you. 

The Rise of Birding 

The pandemic supercharged the public’s interest in birding.

Birdwatching, known as birding to enthusiasts, is one of the fastest growing hobbies in North America. If you’ve ever spotted a bird in a local park and looked up which species it is in a nature guide, you’ve technically gone birding. There’s no right way to bird. Simply paying attention to birds is all that is required.  

The pandemic turbocharged the public interest in birding. People were bored during lockdown, so they started to pay attention to all the birds in their local parks and backyards. This attention turned to affection and then to passion. Looking for birds wasn’t just a way to pass time. It became a meaningful way to engage with the natural world. 

Many people share this passion with others, whether in local organizations or online forums. The most popular such tool is eBird, a free, online database managed by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. On eBird, users log bird sightings according to date, species, and location. More than 900,000 people have contributed data to eBird, with 340,700 people contributing data in 2023 alone. 

A Birder’s Essential e-Tools 

The secretary bird is endemic to sub-Saharan Africa and nicknamed the archer of snakes.

Jenna Curtis is Project Co-Leader of eBird and oversees outreach and communications with the eBird community. She’s also an avid birder herself and uses eBird data to discover birds on her travels. “We recently got to take a family trip to Africa,” Jenna explains, “and one of the birds that I really wanted to see was a secretary bird, a tall, long-legged bird, which specializes in stomping on and eating snakes. It’s got this neat, feathered quill-like head. I was just so excited to see it.” In preparation for her trip, Jenna searched for secretary birds in Botswana on eBird and the Explorer tool displayed a heat map of all the sightings in the nation. She could then filter to see the most recent sightings and clusters of the most common sighting areas. 

Merlin is the other most common birding tool available. Also created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Merlin app works in conjunction with eBird data to help you determine what bird you’ve seen in the wild. Merlin walks you through identification based on distinguishing characteristics such as colour and beak and then determines which bird you saw. It can even record audio and help identify birds through calls and songs. Since inception, Merlin has helped 16-million users identify 9,064 individual species of birds. 

Merlin also helps travellers get a general sense of what birds await on a journey to a foreign land. “Say I’m going to Victoria Falls, and I want to know what birds I’m going to find there.” On Merlin, “I can actually explore the birds for that particular location so that when I go there, I know what birds to be on the lookout for and what they look like.” 

Twin Passions of Birding & Travel 

You’ll likely find lilac-breasted rollers in acacia-rich landscapes featuring widely spaced trees, bushy game lands, riverbanks, and cultivated areas. (©Meg Smith)

While passion for birds increased during the pandemic, birding has long been a beloved hobby. BirdNote is a media project that shares facts about birds through various syndicated radio programs and podcasts, while also spearheading conservation efforts. “By telling vivid, sound-rich stories about birds and the challenges they face,” its mission states, “BirdNote inspires listeners to care about the natural world — and take steps to protect it.” 

Dan Moore is Board President of BirdNote. A travel guide and consultant by trade, Dan came to birding relatively recently in 2018, when reading Noah Strycker’s Birding Without Borders inspired him to buy his own pair of binoculars and head out to spot birds in the Pacific Northwest. Travel had lost its excitement for Dan, but birding reignited it: “I was taking for granted the privilege that I had to be out travelling and birding turned that all around. I got more excited to travel again because I was going to see new birds.” 

Dan’s own experiences prove how naturally birding and travel fit together. Birds inspire us to pay attention to the world around us and learn about the natural ecosystems we observe, while travelling takes us to faraway places, which helps us encounter new birds and learn about new ecosystems. Both activities take you outside of yourself and help you engage with the world around you. 

The Birder’s Bucket List 

Birds of paradise are among the world’s rarest birds, such as this Raggiana Bird of Paradise in Papua New Guinea.

One concrete approach that both birders and globetrotters share is list making. Birders call it a life list, travellers a bucket list, but both are the same: a concrete list of all the birds or places one wants to see or explore in their lifetime. Birders want to spot a resplendent quetzal in the cloud forests of Costa Rica or a bird of paradise in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea the same way that travellers want to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or hike the summit of Machu Picchu in Peru. Both passions become a means of organizing one’s life and prioritizing meaningful experiences. 

For both birders and travellers, it’s not just about checking the item off the list, but the accompanying sense of accomplishment and memory making. “Every bird on a list is a memory,” says Jenna Curtis. “It’s an experience. It’s not just that bird; it’s the 10-hour hike and the rain and the food. And the people that you were with. Every bird on a life list is all of those things as well. When you’re able to look at that list, and be able to have those memories that go with it, it’s like a scrapbook, right? It’s a trip down memory lane to be able to do that. It’s so much more than just that checkbox.” 

Birding as a Gateway to the World 

Scarlet macaws always travel as mated pairs, such as these two in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

Searching for birds in other parts of the world also presents the possibility to learn more about the world. Birds are an entry point to the totality of a place and its culture. They’re just one part of the ecosystem, both naturally and culturally. 

“I had work in Italy and I hired a local bird guide there,” says Dan Moore. “And I spent the whole day with him, just me and him. And, of course, I gravitated to many subjects like politics and the economy. I felt like because I spent a whole day with this guy and birds can only cover so much of that day, I ended up learning way more about Italy than I would have if I just rented a car and got out there on my own.” 

Like travel, birding is a means to an end, not an end in itself. “Birds have the power to unite people towards conservation goals and the appreciation of nature,” says Jenna Curtis. “Everything you learn about a bird or see about a bird helps you to appreciate the environment that it’s in, and what makes that place unique.” 

Travel inspires us to expand our thinking and appreciate the variety and diversity of life. Birding inspires us to understand how all the mundane elements of an ecosystem coexist and how important environmental sustainability and conservation are to preserving these beloved environments. Like the burst of red, yellow, and blue on a scarlet macaw against a coastal backdrop, birds can elevate the travel experience and transform it into something that inspires, challenges, and fulfills us.

This article was originally published in No. 33 of Globetrotting Magazine.

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Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom

Globetrotting Editor - You might say that Aren was destined to become a Globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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