observation of birds as a recreational activity or citizen science
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Travel topics > Natural attractions > Birdwatching

Birdwatching, twitching, birding, or amateur ornithology can be a casual and unexpected enjoyment, as well as an ambitious pursuit to see the most unusual species.

See Ramsar sites for an international convention aimed at conserving wetlands and waterfowl. That article has a long list of sites, overlapping somewhat with those listed below.

Understand

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Two mandarin ducks (male on the left) in Lancashire, UK
 
Scarlet macaw with lovely plumage

You can always observe and listen to the birds that live in your home town or wherever you are visiting. Many birds live in urban and semi-urban environments, including some that sing exquisite songs, such as the Eurasian blackbird, which has a wide range that includes the largest cities in Northern Europe and sings for several months of spring and summer, during its mating season. American robins also sing very pretty and varied songs, though not to the degree that Eurasian blackbirds do, and they are common in many US cities including New York City, particularly in parks. Even protected species are not always hard to spot; for example, if you are visiting the coast of California, you are likely to see pelicans and other large sea birds that are not at all reticent to be around people.

Birds such as pigeons and sparrows might prefer cities; however, many people regard them as pests, rather than living attractions.

Migratory birds can often be seen in great numbers where they wait for good weather to cross large bodies of water, or wait out a prolonged winter at higher latitudes. Capes stretching out into the water and wetlands in the vicinity are often good places to look for migrating birds. These places are usually well-known by local birders and not hard to find information on. Sometimes there is infrastructure, such as birdwatching towers.

Quite often, merely a trip to a decent-sized urban park with a lot of foliage is sufficient to observe many migratory birds in season. Birds that prefer woods and bushes are often hard to spot, or at least to watch long enough to identify them. However, in the mating season many of them are easy to recognise by their singing. Walking in the wood or park listening to the concert of singing birds is an experience in itself. For locals in temperate and arctic regions, the voices of birds mark the arrival of spring, and thus also have a profound symbolic significance.

While there are some birds in most places, for advanced birders some of the bird sanctuaries and habitats listed below or at Ramsar sites can be a special experience.

Equipment

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Binoculars are useful even in a city park.

If you want to take photos, see travel photography, video recording, and wildlife photography for some advice. In particular, birding generally needs a telephoto lens. Ideally, you want quite a long lens to photograph small or distant birds, a fast lens for stop-action shots and/or shooting in low light, and autofocus for tracking birds in flight. Image stabilisation is also useful if you shoot hand-held. A lens with all those features will be both expensive and heavy, but various compromises are possible.

If you want to record sounds, you need sound recording equipment. You usually need a strongly directional microphone. You will probably need some time for getting used to your system and to make it work for you. Try to test it in environments similar to those at your destination.

Binoculars are more or less necessary if you want to identify unfamiliar species at a distance, and makes birdwatching much more interesting also otherwise. Consider whether light weight or other features are more important for you. Some will want a telescope and support for it, such as a monopod or tripod. Coordinate these with your camera system, if you intend to take photos other than snapshots.

A field guide. Some swear by traditional books, other praise the corresponding smartphone apps. Make your choice or bring both. Nowadays they can be complemented with smartphone apps that recognise some birds themselves, such as by sound or silhouette (the Jyväskylä University one recognises sounds of some 150 species, using only the smartphone microphone).

Some may also want an app for registering their observations at some birdwatching site. A notebook or computer may also be useful.

However, none of this equipment is essential if you simply want to observe birds with the naked eye and listen to their songs, and you can always take pictures or videos of birds that are not too timid around humans by using a cell phone.

On the site

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The early bird is a well-known idiom. Birds are usually most active at sunrise.

Minimize sound and motions, to avoid disturbing the birds. Most birds see better than people do, and probably see you before you see them.

Feed

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Birdwatchers can attract birds by handing out feed. This is controversial, as birds can get malnourished (especially their chicks), migratory birds can be lured to stay for too long, and the feed can attracts rats and other pests. In cities birds used to being fed can be intimidating. Cities and national parks might prohibit feeding. Feeding is common practice at some locations, but doing it right is fundamental to avoid problems. Prefer feed that is part of the birds' natural diet, instead of processed food, such as bread. This is critical for young birds; those that mostly eat bread might become dangerously malnourished. If possible, use a feeding table that hinders the birds' excrements from getting into the food and keeps land animals away. If you put the feed on the ground, get it out in the morning or at least well before sunset, so that the feed is consumed by the birds before darkness. In regions with birds migrating away in autumn, do not feed them when they should leave.

Winter feeding helps sedentary birds to survive until spring. However, it soon makes them dependent on the feeder; winter feeding is a commitment which you should maintain throughout the season, or avoid from the beginning.

Destinations

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Major wildlife regions
North AmericaCentral & South AmericaAfricaMadagascarEurasiaSouth & Southeast AsiaAustralasiaArcticSouthern Ocean

Africa

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See also: African wildlife, Safaris

Asia

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See also: Wildlife in South and Southeast Asia
 
Egrets, Olango Island

Indian Subcontinent

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East Asia

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Southeast Asia

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Bali myna, West Bali National Park

Europe

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See also: Eurasian wildlife
  • 18 Camargue, France. The Rhône delta.
  • 19 Danube Delta (Romania). Great flocks of pelicans and a myriad other wading birds    
  • 20 Outer Hebrides, Scotland. Full of migratory birds.
  • 21 Hornborgasjön, Falköping, Sweden   is famous for the mating dance of cranes (Grus grus) in spring.
  • 22 Faroe Islands
  • 23 Heligoland, North Sea, part of Germany. Crowded by birds.
  • 24 Istanbul, Turkey. Some might be surprised to hear that the birdwatching opportunities abound in this city of 10+ million people. Since the migratory birds prefer to fly over land instead of large expanses of water, Istanbul is on a site that most migration routes between Europe and Africa converge. The easily accessible Çamlıca Hill on the Asian Side of the city is a great location to spot them, especially during the autumn migration.
  • 25 Karlsöarna, Sweden
  • 26 Öland, Sweden; especially Öland's southern point is frequented by migratory birds to or from the Nordic countries
  • 27 Rügen, Germany
  • 28 Skagen, Denmark. Denmark's northernmost tip is the best birdwatching spot in the country.
  • 29 Skomer, Wales

North America

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See also: North American wildlife
  • 32 Sierra Vista in Arizona. "the hummingbird capital of the world"    
  • 33 Kelleys Island in Ohio. A haven for migratory birds in Lake Erie.    
  • 34 Frank Lake Alberta. An important Canadian location for bird nesting.    
  • 35 Celestún, Yucatán. Important breeding location for flamingos and other aquatic species.    
  • 36 Calakmul, Yucatan. More than 280 bird species live in the jungles surrounding the ancient Mayan archaeological ruins. Living in the dense canopies are herons, warblers, woodpeckers, and even the resplendant quetzal.    
  • 37 Isla Isabel National Park, Nayarit. The island is home to more than 40,000 birds, including the blue-footed booby, the brown pelican, frigate birds, and plenty of seagulls.    

Oceania

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See also: Australasian wildlife

The exotic fauna of Australia includes birds that visitors from the rest of the world may not have seen. Even in central Sydney, you may see and hear white ibises (colloquially called as bin chickens), sulphur-crested cockatoos and laughing kookaburras.

Native birds, some of which are neither exotic or flamboyant but nevertheless interesting, are watchable from a range of locations in Australia known as "Bird Observatories." What was originally the Royal Australian Ornithological Union, but is now called Birdlife Australia, has observatories at:

South America

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See also: Central and South American wildlife

South America has astounding biodiversity with some countries having astounding numbers of bird species. Colombia is estimated to have more than 1,900 species including hundreds of endemic species.

Brazil

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  • 44 Iguaçu Falls (Brazil/Argentina). The area around the falls is home to hundreds of species of birds, and on the Brazilian side is a bird park where you can see lots of them.

Chile

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  • 45 Quintero, Chile - Just offshore is the Humboldt current, one of the world's great open water birdwatching areas. Keep your eyes open and you could spot Humboldt Penguins, Peruvian Diving-Petrels, Peruvian Boobies, Guanay & Red-legged Cormorants, Peruvian Pelicans, Grey Gulls, and Inca Terns.

Colombia

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Ecuador

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  • 48 Yasuni National Park (Ecuador) - Sub-tropical jungle where you can take birdwatching treks in canoes. The parrot salt licks are a highlight, where you'll see clusters of dusky-headed parakeets.
  • 49 Reserva Chakana- Hacienda Antisanilla (Ecuador) - The single best place in Ecuador to spot Andean condors.

Peru

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  • Peru is home to many nests of the mighty Andean condor.

Distant islands

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  • RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (any garden or park in the United Kingdom). Last weekend of January, annually. Nationwide survey carried out on behalf of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Take a flask of tea and spend an hour watching birds and other wildlife in your nearest greenspace. The goal is to record how many individuals of a particular species you see at any one time. Download a recording sheet beforehand, then submit your results to the RSPB's website. Similar surveys are arranged in other countries. Free.  
  • Audubon Christmas Bird Count (various locations in the United States and throughout the world). Annual nationwide bird census conducted by the Audubon Society and affilliated groups in late December to early January. Volunteers gather in groups to identify bird species in the assigned area.Download birding guides and census sheets and upload data to a common database.

Stay safe

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Many bird sanctuaries are in difficult terrain; wetlands, rocks or shorelines. Be sure to find safe ground, or a safe vessel.

Birds might be aggressive against intruders; see Dangerous animals#Birds. Nearly all living animals have parasites on them; see Pests.

Bird flu, or more formally avian influenza, can infect both birds and mammals. Fewer than a thousand cases have ever been reported in humans, but some of them have been fatal. Most have involved people who work with poultry, but there is also some risk to birdwatchers. The main transmission methods are by contact with dead birds or the wastes of live ones; avoid those and you should be safe. For more information, see the World Health Organization page on the topic.

Respect

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See also: Animal ethics, Ecotourism

The leave-no-trace principle is important for birdwatching.

Travellers can be tempted to gather remnants such as egg shells or feathers; however, this behaviour may unintentionally disturb birds and in many countries it is illegal to do so. Also, bird flu can be transmitted by contact with dead birds or the waste of live ones; the risk is small in most areas, but best avoided.

Pishing/audio lures

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The use of pre-recorded audio lures, mimicked bird calls or a "pish-pish-pish" noise (colloquially known as "pishing") in birdwatching is as controversial a topic as any. The safety and well-being of any bird being pished should always be considered, and once the bird has appeared in view all pishing activity should cease. If you are in a group, it is advisable to ask before pishing a bird as some birders disagree with the practice.

Traditionally, pishing is done by a person simply keeping still and making a soft "pish-pish-pish" noise hoping to attract any curious birds nearby. Small birds can be attracted in this manner. Another pishing technique involves mimicking a specific bird's call, such as the distinctive "HOO-hoo" call of a cuckoo or drumming on a tree to imitate a woodpecker. Modern technology, however, has introduced the use of pre-recorded audio lures that anyone with a smartphone can access. This has led to an increase in people engaging in pishing, some of whom do not understand the possible repercussions such as causing birds to waste energy in seeking a perceived intruder. Pre-recorded audio lures should be used sparingly in all instances.

Pishing near nests or during the breeding season should only be undertaken for scientific purposes and not for "getting a better look or better photograph". Disturbing breeding birds is often illegal and in any case against the general ethics of birdwatching.

See also

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