How to Choose a Birding Tour
There’s a vast array of bird tours available out there. To illustrate this point, Birding Ecotours alone offers a plethora of different trips just to Peru (not to mention all the other destinations). These include:
- 15-day Northern Peru birding trip
- 21-day Northern Peru birding tour
- 16-day Southern Peru birding tour (including Machu Picchu)
- 21-day Central Peru birding trip
- Owls of Northern Peru
- Birds and other wildlife of southern Peru (with Machu Picchu) – by request (please e-mail us for the itinerary email@example.com
- Peru birding photographic tour – by request (please e-mail us for the itinerary)
- Custom-made trips and “tours by request” throughout Peru (please e-mail us)
But then the decision also has to be made whether to bird Peru or Colombia, or, for that matter, is Brazil or Central America not the best bet?
Comprehensive tours versus tours that just sample a particular country
Choosing which birding tour to join depends, of course, largely on what kind of birder you are, and also what your budget is. If your aim is to see all the world’s birds during your life, or to at least try and find 7000 or 8000 bird species, then you will need to bird a very large proportion of the world’s countries. You will also need to make each tour count, covering each country thoroughly without missing too many strategic species on any trip. In this case you need comprehensive tours such as the 21-day Northern Peru birding tour.
You will want to ensure, when you do sign up for such a long trip, that you miss few birds, especially endemic and localized ones. Analyzing trip lists from different bird tour companies is helpful in deciding which tour to purchase.
But if you just want to get a “feel” for the country and see the top birds (but miss others), then you would join the shorter 15-day Northern Peru birding trip.
Our general philosophy as a company, as far as our expressly comprehensive birding tours go (such as the 21-day Northern Peru birding tour or, for that matter, our 18-day Namibia/Botswana/Victoria Falls birding tour), is to find all the important birds but to have an extra day or two, so we don’t have to bird pre-dawn to post-dusk every single day. If another company tries to find everything in 17 days, we make the same trip 18 days, to minimize the risk of missing strategic target species – and, more importantly, to ensure that tour participants are not so tired that they don’t enjoy the trip at all! We also allow time to stop for mammals and other wildlife (while not missing important birds because of these stops).
Our 18-day Namibia/Botswana/Victoria Falls birding tour is a very good example. We ensure getting the remote Kunene River birds, such as Cinderella Waxbill, and we also look for Black-cheeked Lovebird (these two birds are quite often not even tried for on standard Namibia bird tours, but we feel they are very important, highly localized, and very beautiful birds). During the course of this tour we also make sure to stop for each mammal species. We feel that a brilliant bird trip list and finding the time to stop for mammals are not mutually exclusive!
If you prefer a “lite” type of birdwatching tour, closer to a vacation (!), you might choose the 15-day Northern Peru birding tour (which also avoids high altitudes, which not everyone tolerates) rather than the 21-day comprehensive version. Although all birding trips are tiring, these less comprehensive birding tours are for birders who need things to be more easy-going and less tiring. That particular trip still “gets” the most often dreamed-about birds such as Marvelous Spatuletail, though!
If maximizing the number of endemics and other strategic birds you see on a trip is important to you, please note several things
When analyzing trip bird lists and trip reports to decide which company to travel with, it is vital to try and assess the following:
Does the bird get listed if only the tour leader sees the bird? We feel we have completely failed unless the entire group sees the bird well. Thus, time is spent trying to get every participant onto each and every species, well. We only feel we have really succeeded if everyone in the group says “we saw the birds really well and got great views.”
Are heard-only birds listed? Perhaps 90 % of birders only count birds that they have seen, so trip lists need to count only those, or clearly specify which ones were heard only.
Birding photo tours and bird sound-recording tours
For photographers, there are many choices at your disposal, for example:
Join a standard bird tour but note that you will have limited time for photography.
Join a birding photo tour in which the pace of the tour is usually slower; but in this case you may also be missing some birds, since the focus is usually on photogenic species that come to feeders or that can be approached closely enough to get high quality pictures. A lot of birding photo tours also allow time for mammal and scenery photography but are, of course, still focused 70 % or more on birds.
A good number of our private tour participants only count a bird if they photograph it, so we also do trips aimed at finding as many of the specials and endemics as possible for photography. These trips are slightly faster-paced than typical birding photo tours, as the quality of each photo often does not have to be as high. These are listing tours, except that seeing the bird is not enough for these particular clients.
Bird photographers also often join our “Owls of the World” tours, which offer opportunities to photograph some of the world’s most marvelous owls, as well as big mammals and other bird species (for example our southern African owl tour involves a good amount of time in one of Africa’s greatest game parks, Etosha National Park, where we often see cheetah, leopard, lion, and others in addition to the day-roosting owls).
Digiscoping and photography workshops have informal lectures and teaching built in, so if you want to learn about wildlife and bird photography, then it is better to join one of these tours.
For avid bird sound recorders, it’s best to ask the tour company which trips are best.
What about mammals (e.g., African megafauna) or other critters (e.g., all the Madagascan wildlife)?
We have a lot of world listers joining our trips. However, we also get a lot of people who just use birds as an excuse to travel and see the world. Many bird tours are actually very good for both types of people (surprisingly). For example, a serious world lister will be satisfied by the bird list we get on the 18-day Namibia/Botswana/Victoria Falls birding tour. But someone just wanting to see the wildlife of the country can be equally satisfied by this tour, which includes rugged scenery, charismatic birds, and African megafauna (as well as smaller animals!). Sometimes a non-birding spouse joins a birding tour and opts out of early-morning birding and certain other activities.
We also get serious world mammal-listers approaching us, and we have a fantastic collection of tours to serve these people. There are in fact birdwatching/mammal/wildlife/nature photography, etc., tours available for all kinds of people out there.
Some trips, like a lot of African ones, hardly require any walking. However, there are also trips, such as our Comoros and remote Malagasy endemics tour (by request, please e-mail us for the itinerary firstname.lastname@example.org), that do need a very good level of fitness. Please inquire with us before booking a tour to see if it is right for you!
The tour leader/guide
Having the right tour leader/guide can make all the difference for a client’s experience on a trip. Our philosophy is that the guide needs to make sure all participants are enjoying their tour experience, which includes finding difficult bird species (and other wildlife), run the logistics smoothly from lodging to meals, and demonstrate a likeable personality and enthusiasm. We have learned over the years to be amazingly strict about hiring tour leaders, as they have to demonstrate almost super-human people skills and birding skills. Only one or the other simply does not cut it. We invariably find that our guides get followings of people who want to do all the future trips they lead! That is a sign that we have successfully employed the right people!
Group dynamics (set departure tours versus private tours)
Sometimes there are personality clashes within a tour group. To avoid the potential for such issues, some people prefer to gather a group of friends and then ask us to arrange an additional departure (not shown on our website) just for their group (or even to book out an entire tour that is in fact shown on our website). Similarly, sometimes a bird club will book an entire tour or request a custom tour. Finally, singles and couples often request private tours with our guides – this comes with the disadvantage of higher cost.
We offer small group trips on our website (no more than eight, or in a few cases nine, people) which are very popular. Many people particularly enjoy the opportunity to meet and travel with other like-minded people, so they are delighted to join these set departure bird tours.
It’s important to ensure that you are comparing apples with apples when looking at tour prices. As a company we tend to have smaller groups and use a superior level of accommodation (when available). The prices are still generally competitive, but price is not of paramount importance to us, as quality and value for money is what we feel is even more important.
We provide carbon-neutral tours, and we contribute a minimum of 10 % of our annual profits (before owner’s salary) to bird conservation and local communities.
We feel we have succeeded if every bird tour participant gets views like this of all the birds. “Leader-only” birds mean nothing to us. Featured here is a Lesser Roadrunner, about three quarters the size of a “normal” roadrunner, photographed by Carlos Sanchez on our 2014 Honduras birding tour