BIRDWATCHING WORLDWIDE Your 24-page introduction to the planet’s best birding experiences – plus gear and expert advice to help you spot and photograph the key species in Australia, Latin America & the Caribbean
A world of birds
Don’t think of yourself as a birdwatcher? Think again. You don’t have to be list-obsessed to appreciate our feathered friends, and even the smallest bird can add immeasurably to your travel experience, explains Mike Unwin
A thing as lovely as a tree... Scan Africa’s baobabs for birds – maybe you’ll spot a greater honeyguide (right)
74 Wanderlust April/May 2010
Previous: Michael Melford/Getty. This spread: Danita Delimont/awl-images; Nigel J Dennis/Photoshot
t was just a little brown job. A typical ‘birder’s bird’. But we’d been tramping through the dusty scrub of Zambia’s Kafue National Park since dawn and none of the promised big game had materialised. Anything was worth a look. Besides, it seemed to be inviting the attention, twittering persistently as it hopped ahead of us from branch to branch. Each time we moved closer it fluttered on to the next tree, redoubling its racket until we followed. And so we took up the challenge, leaving the trail to tag along after our avian pied piper. Now game appeared: a family of warthogs bolting through the long grass; a statuesque kudu bull staring from a thicket. But we were on a mission; if we dallied, the twittering rose to a frenzy, urging us onward. After a kilometre or so we reached a large baobab, its swollen trunk splintered by elephants. The bird flitted onto an upper limb and fell abruptly silent. I took a closer look through binoculars. It was starling-sized, with a streaky breast, darkish bib and stubby bill, but otherwise no prominent markings – except the white outer tail feathers that had flashed in flight as it led us along the trail. Then I noticed something else: insects were buzzing around a dark hole in the trunk just a metre from where the bird was perched. And a faint drone emanated from the branches. Bees. Suddenly everything fell into place. This bird was a greater honeyguide and it had led us to the bees’ nest quite deliberately. Our job was simply to climb up and scoop out the prize – then, while we feasted on the honey, the bird would tuck into any scraps and grubs left behind. It’s a time-honoured, >
Birdwatching worldwide < win-win arrangement that works well with honey badgers and has provided sweet sustenance to generations of rural people across Africa. Sadly, though, I’m no honey badger. There was no way I was going to risk life and limb by shinning 4m up a baobab and sticking my arm into a nest of unhappy bees. And so we went on our way, the irate bird venting its displeasure with a paroxysm of twittering in our wake. Next time, according to African folklore, it would lead us to a black mamba.
‘A bird’s power of flight and seasonal wandering stirs the nomad in us all’
Birds on the brain A honeyguide is not the most thrilling bird to look at. But that moment by the baobab had, once again, left me gobsmacked by birds’ extraordinary capacity to spring the unexpected. Of course, birds have always gripped our imaginations. The ancient Egyptians must have been in thrall to them, judging by the 70 or more different species – from wagtails to ostriches – lovingly depicted on their tombs and frescoes. And today birdwatching claims more fans than ever, with the RSPB boasting an astonishing one million members. It’s not hard to pin down the appeal. For a start, birds are easy on the eye: from the dazzling livery of a macaw to the elegance of an avocet. Even your average suburban garden offers an impressive spectrum of form and colour
– and in their biggest gatherings, such as the vast flamingo flocks that paint lakes in Africa’s Rift Valley and Bolivian highlands pink, birds provide some of the world’s greatest natural spectacles. Equally compelling is their behaviour, be it gannets plunging headfirst into a school of mackerel or weavers fashioning their intricate thatched abodes. There is an undeniable drama to their lives – and the more we learn, the more mindboggling these lives become. The humble swift, that emissary of Europe’s summer, is so adapted to its aerial existence that it
World birding – the magnificent seven Humans love large mammals, and will travel the world to see the Big Five or the Great Migration. But it can be just as rewarding – and a whole lot brighter – to see an avian spectacle. The best thing about birds is they’re everywhere – you can be stunned by a winged wonder in your own garden. That said, many birds are just as worth travelling to see as lion or leopard. Here are seven hotspots – the pick of a vast, tuneful, technicoloured crop...
76 Wanderlust April/May 2010
Wetland wonders Brazilian Pantanal
Marvel at the dazzling avian abundance in the world’s largest wetland. The late dry season (JulSept) draws countless water birds – ibis, egrets, jabirus, skimmers, snail kites – to the shrinking pools. Add local hummingbirds, toucans and macaws for a veritable pageant.
feeds, mates and even sleeps on the wing, with newly fledged youngsters remaining airborne for a staggering two years before touching down again. For the traveller, however, the sheer ubiquity of birds is their real trump card. There is simply no environment on the planet where birds have not found a home. Climb the lofty peaks of the Himalayas and you’ll spot griffon vultures riding the updrafts. Trek through the sandy emptiness of the Namib Desert and you’ll find dune larks foraging for wind-blown seeds. Venture
Cliff city Seabirds, Scotland
A high-rise ‘seabird city’ is noisy, smelly and spectacular; some of the best are in our own backyard, notably on St Kilda and the Orkneys. Kittiwakes, guillemots and gannets cram onto narrow ledges, while puffins dodge marauding skuas. Visit April-June; cliffs are empty after July.
Pretty in pink Flamingoes, Great Rift Valley, Africa Flamingoes flock to the soda lakes of Kenya and Tanzania, including Nakuru, Bogoria, Magadi and Natron, turning the caustic waters pink. Peak concentrations can exceed one million. Breeding takes place on Lake Natron October-December.
John Warburton-Lee/awl-images; Dreamstime.com; iStockphoto.com; Neil Farrin/JAI/Corbis
Nature’s greatest spectacles: Scan the waters of Bolivia’s Lake Hedionda for flamingos feeding on the algae-rich waters
into the frozen Antarctic winter and you’ll meet emperor penguins incubating their eggs at 50 below. Birds, after all, are the ultimate travellers. Something about the power of flight and their seasonal wanderings screams freedom and stirs the nomad in us all. That turnstone rooting through the seaweed on your local beach was on the tundra of the Arctic just two weeks ago. Give it another month and it will be skittering through the surf in Senegal. For me, certainly, birds have always embodied the most memorable travel
Winter wonders Cranes & eagles, Japan
The bugling, dancing courtship displays of red-crowned cranes against the snowy backdrop of Hokkaido is one of the world’s most bewitching wildlife spectacles, while the island’s frozen lakes host gatherings of Steller’s sea eagles. Peak viewing is January-March.
experiences. I recall the lammergeier that drifted overhead as I staggered down from the summit of Kilimanjaro, and the waves of little auks that whirred across our bow as we lurched into the teeth of an Arctic gale. And there is surely nothing more evocative of place than birds’ voices: the yelp of a fish eagle is instant Zambezi; the whistle of a screaming piha automatic Amazon. But the locations don’t have to be exotic ones. With birds found pretty much everywhere, any car park, station platform or hotel window can produce
Clay lickin’ good Macaws, Peruvian Amazon
If it’s colour you’re after, arrive early morning at a favourite riverbank ‘clay lick’ in Manu or Tambopata, where hundreds of macaws – including scarlet, blue-and-yellow and redand-green species – flock for their daily fix of mineral salts. The birds commute in waves from the forest.
the goods. Stuck recently on the tarmac of Johannesburg airport, I had notched up crowned plover, cattle egret, sacred ibis, little swift and yellow-billed kite before even setting foot in Arrivals. Even a simple family holiday has its rewards. Take the Mediterranean: to the birder, the Algarve means azure-winged magpies and Mallorca means Balearic shearwaters. A Barcelona city break offers hoopoes while a cross-channel ferry could produce a wandering skua. Writing this from the urban sprawl of England’s south coast I keep an eye on >
Ice trek Penguins, Antarctica
Emperor penguins, the world’s largest, breed in huge colonies around the Ross Ice Shelf during the dark, hostile mid-winter (Apr-Jul). Watch these extraordinary birds as they trek back to the sea (Dec-Jan) – or alongside adélie and gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Island endemics New Zealand
NZ may not have the world’s longest bird list but it has more than its fair share of the weird and wonderful, including such flightless oddities as kiwi, takahe and kakapo, which evolved in glorious isolation. Visit protected islands, such as Tiritiri Matangi, to see these endemics.
Wanderlust April/May 2010 77
Birdwatching worldwide < the window, just in case one of our local peregrines flashes past.
Practicalities So, where to start? The answer, of course, is anywhere. But you can boost your chances with a little preparation and some modest gear. First, you need binoculars. They needn’t be the most expensive or powerful, just a pair that feels comfortable to hold and wear around your neck. A specification of 8x40, or thereabouts, offers a good compromise between size, power and practicality. Always try before you buy. Second, you’ll need a decent book to help identify what you’re seeing –
vigorously. Check out the most promising habitats – whether a hedge behind your cottage or a waterhole at your safari lodge – and keep an eye on them. Birding fieldcraft generally means keeping a low profile – both literally, by keeping your head below the horizon, and by taking simple measures to make yourself inconspicuous, such as standing still, keeping quiet and avoiding loud clothing. But each habitat demands its own approach. When looking over an open vista, such as the sea, savannah or a mountain ridge, keep scanning with your binoculars for anything breaking the skyline. In dense forest, be patient and
preferably one with distribution maps, as well as text and illustrations. Most areas of the world now boast dedicated field guides. Again, choose one that’s practical to carry and doesn’t mind a battering. Illustrations, which can be standardised, are better for ID purposes than photographs. More techno-savvy birders might even want to supplement printed pages with bird ID software on a computer, or even an iPhone app that can also replicate birds’ calls. Otherwise, success comes down to a few basic guidelines. Find out in advance roughly what to expect from your destination. Many species in the book may only occur during certain seasons or be restricted to particular habitats. There’s no point visiting an Icelandic puffin colony in January, say, when the cliffs are deserted and the birds scattered across the Atlantic. The same would go for a South Georgia albatross colony in June. Also, plan your birding time carefully. Early morning sees peak activity, especially during the breeding season, when most species are singing and displaying
78 Wanderlust April/May 2010
wait for birds to come to you: many species get together in mixed feeding parties, and should one of these show up just stay put and enjoy the bonanza. Birding means watching and waiting. This is why hides are so popular. Of course you don’t have to find the birds for yourself. Specialised tour companies offer birding trips to virtually any destination on the planet, with experienced guides who will both track down and identify most of what you will see. Many cater to seasoned ‘world listers’, some of whom will rack up 450 species or more in just a fortnight. But don’t worry if such an intensive approach doesn’t appeal. You don’t need to be an expert: birds can enliven any travel experience, whether you’re looking for them or not. And it’s surprising what else you’ll notice once you start paying them attention – simply because this requires you to stop, listen and focus on your surroundings. Want to see a leopard in Luangwa or an otter in the Outer Hebrides? Hole up in a promising spot, get comfy and start birding. ▪ Mike Unwin has spent much of his life watching, drawing and writing about birds. He is author of the RSPB Guide to Birdwatching (A&C Black, 2008) and Southern African Wildlife (Bradt, 2003).
Nigel Pavitt/awl-images; Dreamstime.com
‘It’s surprising what else you’ll notice once you start paying attention to birds’
All shapes and sizes: The rare shoebill is an impressive, if not pretty, spot on Ugandaâ€™s Lake Albert; the crowned plover is a more delicate specimen
Wanderlust April/May 2010 79
Northern Territory It’s not just huge red rocks and crocs – the birding in Down Under’s Outback arena is enough to get you hot under the collar
Capital (Territory): Darwin Population: 120,000 Language: English, plus many indigenous language groups Time: GMT+9.5 Visas: UK citizens with a full British passport must apply for a free Australian eVisitor, which permits stays of up to three months Money: Australian dollar (A$), currently around A$1.80 to the UK£ Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park
he Northern Territory has a split personality – and that’s what makes it such a hot destination for birdwatching, literally and figuratively. Most visitors Down Under immediately think of NT’s Red Centre: the mighty sandstone monolith of Uluru (Ayers Rock), the bulbous outcrops of Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), Watarrka (Kings Canyon) and the quintessential Outback town, Alice Springs. But the desert also hosts a surprising range of life, from insects and reptiles to the many birds and mammals that feed on them. Up north towards Darwin, the Top End is diﬀerent again, characterised by a steamy summer monsoon (‘The Wet’) and parched winter (‘The Dry’); here, rivers, estuaries, mangrove swamps and billabongs host wetland birds. The Top End alone hosts over 350 species. Throughout the region raptors soar, making NT a prime place to spot harriers, buzzards and eagles. When to go Year-round tropical climate: winter (Apr-Oct) is dry and warm, while summer (Nov-Mar) is hot and humid. Getting there & around Qantas (020 8846 0466, www.qantas. com) and Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) combine to fly daily from Heathrow to Darwin via Singapore. Return fares start from around £800; journey time is around 18 hours. Darwin, Alice Springs and Uluru are also served domestically by airlines including Qantas, Jetstar, Tiger Airways (www.tigerairways. com.au) and Virgin Blue (www.virgin-blue.com.au).
Kakadu National Park
A mere three-hour drive from Darwin, Australia’s largest national park (almost 20,000 sq km; above) boasts a diverse range of habitats and wildlife – more than 280 bird species, including four endemics, plus black wallaroo, quolls, possums, bandicoots and plenty of huge saltwater crocs – as well as fascinating Aboriginal art sites. Habitats: savannah, waterfalls, rivers and floodplains, billabongs, tidal estuaries, tropical woodland and rainforest Look out for: red goshawk; vivid redwinged parrot and rainbow pitta; iconic jabiru (black-necked stork) and brolga – a large crane; stately white-bellied sea eagle; endemic species including the hooded parrot When to visit: the Wet for migrant waders; the Dry to see waders, geese and ducks in their thousands at waterholes
Mary River National Park & Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve About 90km east of Darwin, Mary River is almost a condensed Kakadu, with a similar wilderness feel and many bird species – but few tourists. It also boasts the world’s highest concentration of saltwater crocs – keep your toes clear of the water! Fogg Dam, closer to Darwin, is a paradise for waterbirds and whitebellied sea eagles. Habitats: flood plains, wetlands, river and tropical woodland Look out for: waterbirds, including billed heron, black bittern and azure kingfisher; darter. Gouldian finch, great white goshawk, gull-billed tern When to visit: the Dry, for high concentrations of wetland species gathered at the shrinking waterholes
80 Wanderlust April/May 2010
080-081_Northern Territory_SO.in80 80
Tourism NT (John Henshall; Frank Woerle; Ewen Bell); Dreamstime.com
While you’re there
Aboriginal centres at Uluru and across the region oﬀer insights into traditional ways of life; for an immersive Aboriginal encounter (below), visit a camp in remote Arnhem Land. Those big red rocks in the centre deserve a good spell of time; hike a section of the 223km Larapinta Trail to really get a taste of Outback isolation. Paddle the Katherine River in a kayak for a water-level view of wilderness NT. Darwin is a vibrant city with fascinating recent history, with several relics from the defence against Japanese invasion during the Second World War; take the Ghan train between Darwin and Alice Springs for a unique rail ride.
White-bellied sea eagle
(Haliaeetus leucogaster) Large raptor with a 2m wingspan, grey back, white head and breast Chances of spotting: good – couples pair for life and often return to the same nest Where: the broad waterways and billabongs of Kakadu are fruitful hunting grounds – these eagles are mostly coastal; Fogg Dam is a hotspot during the Dry USP: courtship rituals involve an intricate synchronised dance across the sky
(Grus rubicunda) Tall crane (1.3m high); grey feathers, distinctive red stripe on the back of the head Chances of spotting: excellent – flocks can comprise many thousands of birds, especially at waterholes during the Dry Where: Mary River NP is a hotspot USP: brolgas distract predators from chicks by feigning a broken wing and leading hunters away
Major Mitchell’s cockatoo
(Lophochroa leadbeateri) A beautiful parrot with a delicate pink face and breast, white wings and a vivid red-and-yellow crest Chances of spotting: moderate – reasonable numbers can be spotted in the Red Centre Where: Ormiston Gorge in West MacDonnell NP USP: this subtle-looking bird has a piercing, melancholy yodelling call
(Merops ornatus) Insectivorous bird up to 20cm long; green upper back and wings, blue lower back, red under wings Chances of spotting: good – bee-eaters are common throughout inland regions and migrate north during the southern winter Where: numerous spots throughout the Top End (Keep River NP, Kakadu) and Red Centre USP: the bee-eater rubs caught bees and wasps against its perch to remove the stingers
Djilpin Arts Dancers, Darwin Festival
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
This central desert region is the place to see red kangaroo, thorny devil and dingo; small mammals such as hopping mice and – after rain – water-holding frogs can be spotted among the dunes. Habitats: dunes, scrubby spinifex grass, big red sandstone rocks Look out for: raptors including peregrine and other falcons, especially soaring above Uluru (left); colourful painted (left) finches, galahs and cockatoos; several varieties of honeyeaters; singing wrens (including the variegated fairy-wren) in the dunes When to visit: after rainfall you’ll see wildflowers bursting into bloom, and watch finches, budgerigars and other thirsty birds dipping into rainwater pools Rock Uluru/Ayers
West MacDonnell National Park
This area (right) might look like inhospitable wilderness, but there’s actually a lot of variety: almost 170 bird species call the park home, as well as rare euros (common wallaroo), rock wallabies and the long-tailed dunnart – a tiny, big-eyed, long-nosed marsupial that scampers through the dunes. Habitats: red desert, rugged gorges and cliﬀs, copses of gums and other trees, waterholes – the soaring cliﬀs, waterholes and varied tree species of Ormiston Gorge provide a mesmerising backdrop for wildlife watching (and great bushwalking territory) Look out for: colourful parrots including Major Mitchell’s cockatoo; western bowerbirds scouting for nest material; dusky and striated grass wrens When to visit: Winter rains trigger breeding in many species
Ghost gum, We st MacDonnell National Park
Take a four-day all-inclusive safari around the spectacular Top End from as little as £504pp with Discover the World, and get up close and personal with this special slice of Australian wilderness. Call now on 01737 218 802 or visit www.discover-the-world.co.uk/birds For info and help planning your birdwatching adventure in Australia’s Outback, contact Tourism NT (020 7438 4642, www.australiasoutback.com/birdwatching)
Wanderlust April/May 2010 81
Roaring falls, roaming jaguar, remarkable birdlife – welcome to some of the world’s finest wildlife-watching
Spotter’s ticklist Harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) 2.5m wingspan; double crest of grey head feathers Chances of spotting: reasonable near active nests Where: Iwokrama Forest, Surama Village, Dadanawa Ranch USP: harpies can fly at 80km/h while carrying prey such as monkeys and sloths
Guianan cockof-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola) Males radiantly orange Chances of spotting: very good at courting sites Where: Kaieteur Falls, Iwokrama Forest, Wowetta Village USP: Males battle for females in song and dance competitions For information on birdwatching in Guyana, visit www. guyanabirding.com, www.guyana-tourism.com and www.iwokrama.org
Red siskin (Carduelis cucullata) 10cm long, vermillion plumage; beautiful song with twitters and trills Chances of spotting: good Where: South Rupununi near Dadanawa Ranch, where the South Rupununi Conservation Society protects the rare birds USP: thought nearly extinct in the wild; several thousand discovered in southern Guyana in 2000
Blood-coloured woodpecker (Veniliornis sanguineus) Small woodpecker; name stems from brilliant colour on wings and tail feathers Chances of spotting: very good Where: Abary River, Georgetown Botanical Gardens USP: A Guiana Shield endemic, found only on the narrow coastal strip of the three Guianas To book your birding or nature adventure to Guyana, contact Wilderness Explorers (020 8417 1585, email@example.com, www.wilderness-explorers.com)
Wanderlust April/May 2010 83
FotoNatura; Kevin Loughlin; Mike Weedon; David Fernandes; Chris Collins
nglish-speaking, jungle-covered and stuﬀed with birds, Guyana won’t be a South American secret for long. Pristine rainforest dominates, but the unspoiled wilderness also features mangroves, coastal swamps, Atlantic beaches, tepui (flat-topped mountains) and savannah. Keen birders can tick oﬀ more than 815 species, including 70 Guiana Shield endemics and several rare neotropical families. In the forested interior visit the Iwokrama River Lodge and Atta Rainforest Lodge to see loads of parrots, cotingas and antbirds plus specialities such as white-winged potoo, rufous-winged ground-cuckoo and crimson fruitcrow. Further south, the sprawling Rupununi Savannah hosts 500 species including capuchinbird, Rio Branco antbird and endangered sun parakeet. Jaguars, giant river otters and giant anteaters are bonuses. When to go Guyana’s climate is equatorial: sunny, hot and pleasant year round, with an average temperature of 28˚C. Dry season is September to April. Getting there Delta (0845 600 0950, www.delta.com) flies four times weekly from Heathrow to Georgetown via JFK; return fares for the 18-hour journey start at around £767. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777, www.virginatlantic.com) flies to Barbados to connect with Caribbean Airlines flights to Georgetown via Port of Spain (www.caribbean-airlines.com). Combined return fares start at around £851. Internal transport consists of small planes, boats and taxis/4WDs.
Capital: Georgetown Population: 770,000 Language: English (oﬃcial); Creole, Amerindian dialects, Hindi, Portuguese Time: GMT-4 Visas: Not required by UK nationals Money: Guyana dollar (G$), currently around G$310 to the UK£
Trinidad & Tobago
Caribbean meets South America – and it’s a match made in heaven: a great intro to neo-tropical birding
Spotter’s ticklist Scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber) Trinidad’s national bird grows to 60cm long. Scarlet except for black wingtips Chances of spotting: very good – large numbers nest in Trinidad’s key wetland spots Where: Caroni Swamp – at sunset, watch thousands of birds flap in to roost USP: vibrant colour is from eating red crabs
Tufted coquette (Lophornis ornatus) Tiny (6.6cm long), vividly coloured hummingbird with a red crest and blacktipped, rufous neck plumes Chances of spotting: OK in Trinidad’s forests Where: Asa Wright Nature Centre has over 150 species including over a dozen hummingbirds USP: world’s second-smallest hummingbird For information on the islands call 0800 804 8787, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.gotrinidadandtobago .com
Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) Slender, red-billed seabird with extremely long, slender central tail feathers Chances of spotting: good – they’re fairly common on Tobago’s eastern coast Where: Little Tobago is a sanctuary for seabirds and an excellent spot for diving and snorkelling USP: travels widely – this species has been spotted as far away as Britain
Blue-backed manakin (Chiroxiphia pareola) Small black songbird; red crown, bright-blue back Chances of spotting: good – head to the forests in Tobago’s centre Where: Main Ridge Forest Reserve, the oldest reserve in the Western hemisphere USP: pairs of male birds cooperate in hilarious jumping mating dances MotMot Travel (01327 830918, www.motmottravel.com) is the specialist in holidays to Trinidad and Tobago for nature lovers and birdwatchers.
Wanderlust April/May 2010 85
Michael Melford/Getty; David Lingard; iStockphoto.com; Luiz Claudio Marigo/naturepl.com
outh America in microcosm, these two islands boast a range of habitats – mountain, swamp, coast, rainforest, savannah. More than 400 bird species throng the air above Trinidad alone, while tiny Tobago has over 200 species, with migrants as well as resident and endemic species. Together, the islands represent one of the world’s most densely populated birding destinations. On Trinidad, head for wetlands at Caroni and freshwater Nariva, where howler and capuchin monkeys join macaws and bittern. Mountains host hummingbirds and honey creepers; vultures and hawks are the big species on the plains, along with seed-eaters. Tobago’s key species include blue-backed manakin, swallowtailed hummingbird and red-billed tropicbird. When to go The islands have a sunny tropical climate with an average temperature of 28ºC year round; it’s driest between November and June. Winter sees avian migrants coming from the north; southern migrants arrive in summer. Getting there & around British Airways (0844 493 0787, www.britishairways.com) flies from Gatwick to Tobago twice weekly and to Trinidad five times weekly; flight time 10.5 hours, returns from about £600. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777, www.virgin-atlantic.com) and Monarch Airlines (08719 405040, www. flymonarch.com) fly weekly Gatwick-Tobago. Frequent inter-island flights with Caribbean Airlines (www.caribbean-airlines.com) take 20 minutes and cost US$24 (£15.50) one way. The fast ferry (www.patnt.com) takes 2.5 hours and costs TT$50 (£5) one way.
Capitals: Port of Spain (Trinidad), Scarborough (Tobago) Population: 1.3 million Language: English (oﬃcial); Creole, Hindi and Spanish are also spoken Time: GMT-4 Visas: Not required by UK nationals Money: Trinidad and Tobago dollar (TT$), currently TT$10 to the UK£. The US$ is widely accepted.
Deep Down Under, the landscapes are wild – and the birds and beasts even wilder. Pack your binoculars for a birdwatching bonanza
Capital (State): Hobart Population: 500,000 Language: English Time: GMT+10 (GMT+11 end Oct-end Mar) Visas: UK citizens with a full British passport must apply for a free Australian eVisitor, which permits stays of up to three months Money: Australian dollar (A$), currently around A$1.80 to the UK£
ver 40% of Tasmania, Australia’s only island state, is preserved as National Park and World Heritage Area. It has retained much of its natural beauty, habitats and diversity, and is home to 12 endemic birds and a number of endangered species. Diverse habitats include the white sands and turquoise waters of the Freycinet Peninsula, Cradle Mountain and the cool temperate rainforests of the Tarkine. Some of the 334 islands in the archipelago, such as Bruny, Maria and Flinders Islands, are just a hop away. When to go Spring to autumn (Oct-Mar) is peak birdwatching time, when summer migrants are present and most species breed. In the oﬀ-season (Apr-Sep) Tasmanian endemics are still present and the abundant wildlife is particularly in evidence – but beaches and wilderness areas are largely tourist-free and accommodation is freely available and even better value. Getting there Qantas (020 8846 0466, www.qantas.com) flies daily from London Heathrow to Melbourne and Sydney, to connect with a short flight into Tasmania (total 25 hours; from around £884 return). Tasmania has some of the most experienced birding and wildlife guides in Australia. A fully or partly guided, customised itinerary with a specialist such as Tailor Made Travel introduces most species in a two-week visit. Birding information provided by Dr Tonia Cochran of Inala Nature Tours (www.inalabruny.com.au)
86 Wanderlust April/May 2010
A short drive-and-ferry hop from Hobart, this little known but beautiful national park (below) is in fact two islands joined by an isthmus. Bruny is home to all Tasmania’s endemic birds and a range of other sought-after specialities; over half (150) of the bird species recorded in Tasmania can be found here. It also hosts a large range of mammals such as eastern quoll, possums, white wallabies and pademelons.
Habitats: coastal heathland and shorelines, cool temperate rainforests, tall eucalypt forest and wetlands: a microcosm of Tasmania Look out for: all the endemics, especially forty-spotted pardalote (over half of the total population of this species occurs here); swift parrot, grey goshawk, beautiful firetail When to visit: year round; Oct-Feb is peak birding time
Tourism Tasmania (Garry Moore; Holger Leue; Dan Fellow; Werner Suter; Joe Shemesh; Roger Staples); Dave Watts⁄naturepl.com; graemechapman.com.au
While you’re there
Hiking and Tasmania go hand-inhand, with many multi-day walks for every level of fitness – the Overland Track between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair is legendary. Cycling is also a popular way of getting around, as are self-drive journeys by car or campervan. The state has some of the best trout fishing and golf in the southern hemisphere, and the entire island is rich in convict history – visit Port Arthur for an arresting experience. The food and wine is perhaps the greatest surprise to visitors; a wander around Hobart’s famous Salamanca Market (Saturdays; below) gives a glimpse into why Tasmania is rapidly becoming known as Australia’s gourmet island.
Located in Tasmania’s Central Highlands, this popular destination (main image) is home to a variety of species as well as being a great place to see a range of endemic flora and Gondwana relicts. Habitats: Jurassic dolerite outcrops and glacially carved landscape; cool temperate rainforest Look out for: scrubit, pink robin, Tasmanian scrubwren, Tasmanian devil, black currawong, wombats and a range of amazing flora When to visit: summer months (DecFeb) are warmer, though also busier
Southwest National Park & World Heritage Area
The easiest access to this remote region is by light plane (www.tasair.com.au). The alternative is a six-day walk or access by boat from the west coast! The critically endangered orange-bellied parrot (far right) breeds in this amazing landscape.
(Lathamus discolor) Small (24cm), bright-green parrot; yellow, red and blue on forehead; red around bill, shoulders and under wings. Tail short, pointed, pink-red Chances of spotting: variable, depending on flowering season; endangered Where: diﬀerent areas each year, following flowering eucalypts (particularly blue gum). Hotspots: north and east coasts, Bruny Island USP: large flocks can number over 500
(Pardalotus quadragintus) Small (10cm) species, overall dull olive green with plain forehead, yellow cheeks and white spots on black wings Chances of spotting: getting diﬃcult – the population has crashed – but good in select locations, especially on Bruny Island Where: Bruny and Maria Islands; small populations on the Tasmanian mainland near Bruny Island USP: restricted to one species of eucalyptus; rarest of the Tasmanian endemics; endangered species
(Petroica rodinogaster) Small (12cm) flycatcher; male has bright pink breast, black back and throat Chances of spotting: moderate in wet forest throughout the state Where: Cradle Mountain, Mount Field National Park, Hobart, Bruny Island in rainforest/wet forest USP: this species will often alert you to its presence by its warning ‘tick’ call
(Eudyptula minor) Small (30cm high) dark blue and white penguin Chances of spotting: very good during the breeding season (Sep-Mar) Where: Low Head, Bicheno, Bruny Island. Can be viewed returning to its nesting burrow in the breeding season at several spots around northern and eastern Tasmania; take a guided tour at Bicheno for an insight into the habits of this little bird USP: the smallest penguin in the world!
Habitats: heathland and waterways in a landscape of ancient quartzite rock Look out for: orange-bellied parrot, southern emu-wren, striated fieldwren, beautiful firetail and ground parrot When to visit: breeding season for the orange-bellied parrot is mid Oct-mid Feb
Mount Field National Park
A small but diverse national park (above right), just over an hour’s drive from Hobart. The park boasts beautiful mountain scenery, with waterfalls and some delightful walks. Habitats: cool-temperate rainforest and tree-fern lined streams in the lower areas and alpine species around Lake Dobson. The world’s tallest flowering trees – mountain ash – can be found here, growing to 100m or higher Look out for: a range of wet-forest birds – pink robin, superb lyrebird, green rosella – platypus and giant tree-ferns When to visit: year round; access to alpine areas may be restricted in winter
Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8050, www.tailor-made.co.uk) can put together an itinerary for keen birders visiting the key hotspots as well as the island’s other greatest hits. A 14-day tour of Tasmania, including two days with Inala Nature Tours, costs from £1,999. For more on Tasmania’s wildlife and activities visit www. discovertasmania.co.uk
Wanderlust April/May 2010 87
With astonishing and unique wildlife, this speck in the ocean has plenty of avian action to sink your claws into
Population: 1,400 Language: English (oﬃcial), Chinese, Malay Time: GMT+7 Visas: UK citizens with a full British passport must apply for a free Australian eVisitor, which permits stays of up to three months Money: Australian dollar (A$), currently around A$1.80 to the UK£
ith a national park covering two-thirds of its total area, a unique ecology and a range of endemic species, Christmas Island is a gift for birdwatchers. Lying some 2,300km north-west of Perth, Christmas Island is an Australian territory – but with its tropical climate, interior forest and craggy coast, it’s more Asia than Oz. Populated by a wide range of seabirds – some migrants or vagrants from Asia, others endemic – as well as unique and rare land birds and vivid marine life, it’s well worth the eﬀort to reach. When to go The wet season (Dec-Apr) sees the north-west monsoon; the climate during the rest of the year is tropical, but drier and less humid. In November and December, millions of red land crabs swarm down to the shore to breed. Getting there & around Virgin Blue (www. virginblue.com) flies twice weekly from Perth; return fares for the four-hour flight start at around A$928 (£515). There are also weekly flights from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and services via Cocos (Keeling) Islands; for details see www.christmas.net.au.
Spotter’s ticklist Christmas Island frigatebird (Fregata andrewsii) Large (up to 1m long) black bird with long, narrow wings; male has inflatable red throat sac during courtship (Dec-May) Chances of spotting: good – around 2,400 of the world’s rarest frigatebird nest here Where: shoreline trees; flying overhead USP: display call of male sounds like a police siren – a slow kow-wow-kow-wow, accompanied by a loud rattling of bill
Christmas Island hawk owl (Ninox natalis) Small red-brown owl with white-rufous barred breast Chances of spotting: low – 500 pairs inhabit the plateau and forest; they are sometimes seen hunting around street lights Where: dense woodland thickets – listen for two- or three-note boo-book or book-bookbook at night USP: the male leads singing duets
Golden bosun (Phathon lepturus fulvus) Unique subspecies of the white-tailed tropic bird, with an elegant, trailing tail Chances of spotting: good – several thousand breeding pairs Where: flying over rainforest and Flying Fish Cove USP: the golden bosun is so beloved by the islanders it appears on the flag
Abbott’s booby (Papasula abbotti) World’s rarest booby. Black upper wings and eyemask, white head and breast
Chances of spotting: moderate – only around 3,000 birds remain. Juveniles fledge Dec-Jan Where: spot nests in tall rainforest trees USP: has one of the longest lifespans of any seabird, living up to 40 years For help planning your visit, contact the Christmas Island Tourism Association (www.christmas.net.au)
Wanderlust April/May 2010 91
Erica Harrison; Max Orchard; Ian Montgomery; Parks Australia
Discover the people and places beyond the guidebooks with Wanderlust. Wanderlust is the UK’s leading travel magazine for people whose passion is to get out and explore the world, whether by bike, bus or a simple pair of wellworn boots.
4 issues for £5
For over 16 years we’ve been providing our hallmark mix of inspirational writing and impartial information to get travellers on and oﬀ the beaten track across the planet, illustrated with eye-popping images. Each issue is a feast of ideas and photos, as well as providing detailed practical advice from travel experts. So before you choose your next adventure, take a journey with Wanderlust…
“The most discerning travel magazine this side of Nanga Parbat” Michael Palin
r e f f O l a i r T e v i s u l c x E or £1
f s e u s 4 is
g travel K’s leadin , as U e th f o 4 issues ing! Plus f our your first massive 93% sav y er o jo n e n a c g a memb ive access at’s a in e th b – f Now you 1 o £ ts d exclus e benefi e for only magazin r you can enjoy th to travel shows an erlust.co.uk nd ts ibe free ticke ompetitions at wa a subscr g in d lu c dc 620426 b in Subs Clu all 01753 ontent an c c r ly o n k o .u rr only ibe r.co issues fo trialoﬀe to subscr 4 t t s rs lu r fi e r d u o an s?’ field. receive y it www.w r about u to a is it e v b h e ly u p d o t y c Sim did dire the ‘How cribe via and subs uote ‘BIRDING’ in eq £5. Pleas
Snapping flappers Birds come in a dizzying array of colours, shapes and sizes – perfect photography subjects. Except they fly… Steve Davey helps you see your birding photos take wing
hotographing birds presents a number of unique challenges compared with snapping animals: your subject is often smaller, moves faster and is able to fly, not just run away! You’ll need to get relatively close in order to take bird pictures, so there is no substitute for knowledge of your subject. Often birds will be too nervous to be successfully approached, so your best bet might be to stake out a point and wait for them to arrive – pick the wrong spot and you’ll be unlikely to see anything! Some bird photographers use a portable hide, but this isn’t practical when travelling. Sometimes just finding a quiet spot and keeping still will be enough, especially if you’re near a nesting site or feeding ground. If you are stalking a bird, try not to stand out on a horizon – birds are good at spotting outlines. If you can’t blend in with the background
92 Wanderlust April/May 2010
and have to approach over open ground, keep low to minimise your silhouette. Also, move slowly, but keep your camera ready to shoot in case the bird takes off, presenting a good opportunity for catching them in flight. Water birds are often less skittish; also, because they often need a long run-up to take off, they provide good photo opportunities even if they do start to fly away.
Get geared up With most styles of photography you can take good pictures irrespective of your equipment; however, because birds are often small and difficult to approach, you will generally need to invest in a powerful telephoto lens to ensure your avian subjects fill each photo’s frame. One of the advantages of using a digital SLR (DSLR) is that the size of sensors in most DSLRs effectively add around 50% to the focal length of a lens (though some more
expensive DSLRs have sensors that mimic the crop of 35mm film). This means that a 300mm lens will have the same crop as a 450mm lens, so the subject occupies 50% more of the frame. It is also possible to use a converter that will multiply the focal length of a lens. A 1.5x converter will add 50% to the focal length; a 2x converter will double the focal length. The downside is that you will lose one and two stops of light respectively, so you’ll need to adjust aperture and/or exposure accordingly. In essence, a 300mm f4 lens with a 2x converter becomes a 600mm f8 lens. With most DSLRs this will have the same crop as a 900mm lens, giving you a powerful lens.
Avoid the shakes There are some technical aspects to consider when using a supertelephoto lens. First, it can be hard to keep the camera still: the lens doesn’t just magnify the image – it
also magnifies any camera shake. A good rule is to use a shutter speed faster than the effective focal length of the lens. So, using the example of a 900mm lens, you should be able to shoot the camera with a shutter speed of 1/1,000 of a second or faster without a tripod. If there is not enough light to achieve this, consider increasing the sensitivity (ISO) setting. A fast shutter speed will also help to freeze any action, such as a bird taking off, in flight or hunting. Some lenses have inbuilt vibration reduction (VR) or image stabilisation (IS), allowing you to hand-hold and shoot at a speed three or four stops slower – so for the 900mm lens, instead of setting exposure at 1/1,000 of a second, you could use 1/125 or even slower. Many photographers use a monopod (a one-legged tripod); these offer stability but also allow more movement than a tripod – you can swivel and follow your subject.
Far left: Ostriches on the Makgadikgadi Pan, Botswana – “Even relatively large birds will sometimes need a super-telephoto lens. This was shot with a 600mm lens – eﬀectively a 900mm lens on a crop sensor DSLR.” Above left: Spotted owlets, Bharatpur, India – “Learning about your subject can help you photograph them – these owlets are known for sleeping together on branches.” Centre left: White tern, Cousine Island, Seychelles – “Photographing birds with movement – even just flapping their wings – can give a more dynamic shot.” Below left: Flamingos in flight, Botswana – “When you approach birds, make sure you are ready to shoot in case they fly away.” This image: Seychelles bulbul, Praslin Island, Seychelles – “If you sit still long enough, birds may start to approach you.”
there are branches or twigs in front of the bird, but just sky behind.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
You will usually find that autofocus works best for moving subjects; however, when using a powerful lens the depth of field is very shallow, so it is vital to get the focus spot on. Most DSLRs have a range of autofocus modes; you should experiment to find which ones are best for given subjects
and scenarios. Typical options include predictive focus, to accurately focus on moving subjects, and modes to focus on the closest or furthest objects. Closest focus mode is useful if you’re photographing a bird in front of a busy background. Furthest object focus is useful if
Be realistic about what you can hope to achieve, especially if you don’t have serious equipment or a lot of time to wait around. Larger birds will be easier to photograph; alternatively, try to photograph large flocks or nesting colonies, so you don’t have to get in so close for an interesting, frame-filling shot. Even if you are photographing a mass of birds, try to look for an individual or small group as a point of focus to create your composition – otherwise you run the risk of just having a random jumble of birds without anything to lead the eye into the picture. It’s important to be aware that some birds and their nests are protected; it is illegal to approach these birds without a permit. Restrictions, and enforcement, will vary around the world, and you should do your research in advance.
You should also be aware of other restrictions in some countries: if you get busted crawling through bushes overlooking an airport, while dressed in camouflage gear and carrying a telephoto lens, your trip may last a little longer than you expected...
DO TRY THIS AT HOME The UK has some incredible birdlife, so you don’t have to travel far to practise your skills. Even in central London there are parks where herons nest and fish. If you do take some good shots remember to enter them into the Wildlife category of the Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year competition (launched later in 2010) – a feathered winner is overdue! ▪ Steve leads photography tours to India and South-East Asia, with land arrangements by Intrepid Travel. For more information visit: www.BetterTravel Photography.com
Wanderlust April/May 2010 93
→ CATEGORY COUNTRY
Binoculars for birding If you want to maximise your avian adventures, quality optics are a must – but they’re not cheap. Find the right bins for you with our guide to models for beginners and pros
ild birds tend to be, well, wild – in the main, they won’t perch helpfully alongside you for easy identification. So a good pair of binoculars is the main piece of kit you’ll want to invest in when you start your birding career. And they are an investment: quality optics and build don’t come cheap, but for a pair that will actually improve your birding, there’s no cutting corners.
JARGON BUSTER Binoculars are classified by two numbers. The first denotes the magnification. Look through a pair of 8x32s and the subject will appear eight times larger than with the naked eye. Bigger is not always better: high magnification also amplifies hand-shake and reduces the amount of light entering the instrument (so images appear darker), the field of view (making it harder to find your subject) and the depth of field (so a smaller range of distances will be in focus at the same time). The diameter of the objective lens (the one that you point at the subject) is the second
value in the binoculars’ specifications. The size of this lens influences the light-gathering capacity of your binoculars – a bigger hole will gather more light. Exit pupil is an overall measure of brightness, calculated by dividing diameter of objective lens by magnification: in our 8x32
Try before you buy Is the subject really sharp when you focus? Do colours stay bright right to the edge of your vision, not just in the centre? Does the adjustment mechanism suit you, or is it fiddly? How do the binoculars sit in your hands? Do they feel comfortable against your eye? Are they compatible with your glasses? Are they waterproof and durable? Is weight important to you? Are the binoculars covered by a guarantee?
example, the exit pupil is 4. The larger the number, the brighter the image – go for an exit pupil of four or more. Field of view is the width, in metres, that can be viewed at a distance of 1,000m (sometimes expressed in degrees). A smaller field of view makes it harder to locate your subject. Everybody’s requirements are diﬀerent but, for travel, 8x32 binoculars are a good compromise between magnification, brightness and weight, oﬀering excellent detail and field of view with steady, bright images. Most models tested are available in variants with diﬀerent magnification and objective lens ratings. One thing to stress when reading the following reviews: with optics, you get what you pay for – but ultimately only you can judge what you need. If you like wildlife watching in a general sense, at home or on your travels, models in lower price brackets will probably be fine; if you’re keen on launching a serious birding career, try out several models and buy the best you can aﬀord – it’s a long-term investment. The truth is that models under £150-200 just won’t do the job for meaningful birdwatching.
Countless guides – for use at home or in the field – provide identification tips for beginners, usually covering specified regions, bird types or habitats. Other titles are more inspirational in scope, providing encouragement and descriptions of experiences.
94 Wanderlust April/May 2010
RSPB Guide to Birdwatching
(A&C Black, 2008) by Mike Unwin An excellent introduction to the key techniques and points of interest; perfect for beginners
Collins Birds of the World
(Collins, 2007) by Les Beletsky Detailed overview of all bird groups around the globe, with beautiful illustrations of 1,300 species. Other Collins field guides cover regional species
How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher
(Short Books, 2004) by Simon Barnes A comic, touching book observing how birdwatching is really an integral part of all our lives – you’ll realise you know more than you think
The Running Sky
(Jonathan Cape, 2009 2009) by Tim Dee A memoir of sorts about the impact of birds on one man’s life – but the insights are relevant to all
John Warburton-Lee/awl-images.com; Dreamstime.com
OPTICRON DISCOVERY WP PC 8X42 Considering these are relatively cheap, they have a solid feel and a good field of view; optics are sharp, focusing smooth and images are vivid and bright. This is partly a result of a larger objective lens, hence they’re heavier than 8x32s tested here. Overall this is a fine pair of fairly compact bins for beginners and occasional birders. Weight: 703g Dimensions: 133x126mm Field of view at 1,000m: 131m Short focus: 1.5m So? Fine compromise between price and quality Price: £159 Stockist details: 01582 726522, www.opticron.co.uk
BUSHNELL LEGEND ULTRA-HD 10X42 Bushnell bins have a sound reputation for tough build and quality in the mid-range price bracket. The HD version of the longstanding favourite Legend models have even clearer optics but the same bombproof build and waterproof/fogproof construction. If you’re likely to undertake many wildlife-watching trips and want something that’ll stand the test of time and the rigours of the road, consider these. Weight: 638g Dimensions: 130x145mm Field of view at 1,000m: 113m Close focus: 1.9m So? Tough, sharp, simple Price: £479.95 Stockist details: 01634 201284, www.jjvickers.co.uk
BARSKA NATURESCAPE 8X42
NIKON MONARCH 8X36 Light, waterproof, compact – these bins are great for travel, and with rubberised, waterproof casing and a sturdy build you feel confident throwing them in the pack. Optical quality is fine and bright, though field of view and short focus are slightly compromised – but that’s a small price to pay, literally and figuratively. Weight: 570g Dimensions: 124x129mm Field of view at 1,000m: 122m Short focus: 2.5m So? Cracking budget bins Price: £179 Stockist details: 0800 230220, www.nikon.co.uk
SWAROVSKI EL 8X32 TRAVELER
At the more budget end of the scale (no, really!), this model drops a few marks for the slightly plasticky moulded body, less-concise focus wheel and more-limited field of view. But being waterproof, pretty tough and reasonably light, this is a great all-round introductory pair if you’re testing the birdwatching waters. Weight: 602g Dimensions: 127x127mm Field of view at 1,000m: 112m Short focus: 2m So? Not-quite-pocket size travel-friendly bins Price: £199.99 (10x42 same price) Stockist details: 0116 234 4644, www.barska.com
LEICA ULTRAVID 8X32 HD
As you’d expect (look at the price) these feel wonderful – they sit perfectly in the hand, focusing is smooth, and image detail is precise. The Snap Shot Adaptor attaches compact digital cameras to the bins, enabling them to act as a super-telephoto zoom – capture shots of those tiny tweeters from a distance. Weight: 610g Dimensions: 138x114mm Field of view at 1,000m: 140m Short focus: 2.1m So? Things of beauty Price: £1,430 Stockist details: 01737 856812, www.swarovskioptik.com
This level of quality in such a compact body is, perhaps, what you have the right to expect for this outlay – but these live up to the price tag. Crisp images, tough build, light weight, smooth focusing (including a snap-shut dual-ring focusing system rather than the single-lens dioptre adjustment standard on most models). Weight: 535g Dimensions: 116x116mm Field of view at 1,000m: 135m Short focus: 2.1m So? Compact quality of the highest order Price: £1,575 Stockist details: 020 7629 1351, www.leica-storemayfair.co.uk
The iPhone is a natural fit for bird identification, being able to display photos, illustrations and video, and play calls and songs. As yet there are few truly international apps, but several are worth looking at.
iBird Explorer Pro
(US$29.99) Comprehensive list of 924 North American species, including photos, illustrations and songs to aid identification. www.ibirdexplorer.com
(£2.39) Linked to the birdwatching community website www.birdingnews.co.uk, this app reports on sightings of rare species.
Chirp! Bird Songs of Britain and Europe
(US$2.99) A cute little app which simply plays the songs of 80 species.
Birds of Britain & Ireland
(£14.99) UK-centric but in-depth guide including calls and songs. The same company also produces iDentify MP3 field guides.
Wanderlust April/May 2010 95