How to Prepare for an Exotic Birding Tour: Tips from the Pros
Veteran birders with international travel experience provide time-proven tips on how they prepare to bird in a new region. See Part I of this post, Study the Birds.
Alvaro Jaramillo, professional field guide, owner of Alvaro's Adventures
"How much or how intensely you study for a trip to an exotic locale depends on a bunch of different factors, but one that can overwhelm you is the total list of birds possible. It is much easier to study for a Galapagos Trip where there are few but incredibly interesting species, versus the Ecuadorian mainland where there are more species than you can see in a lifetime birding North America. The truth is that unless you have all the time in the world, or you have an incredible memory, it can be nearly impossible to become proficient in a place with 1000+ species.
"So what to do? Truth is that all birds are not created equally. We pretend that the checklist is truly egalitarian, that each check is equivalent, but come on, who are you kidding? A Resplendent Quetzal counts for about 100 Paltry Tyrannulets. So why not study with this in mind. Pick a number you can manage, maybe its 50 or so, of the birds that get your fancy because they are spectacular, rare, or maybe they have a great name.
"I mean if something is called an earthcreeper, awlbill, visorbearer, or Phainopepla you are kind of curious to see what they look like. Pick these 'fave birds' and study them well, in detail and be ready for them on your trip. It is these birds that you will remember years after the trip, these birds and the ones with a good story behind them.
"You might one day say “remember that Paltry Tyrannulet we saw making a nest behind the tire shop when we got that flat tire, the one after we tried that amazing mango juice at the little colorful restaurant with the crazy music blaring, everyone was going nuts because they were celebrating that they got into the world cup…remember?” (photo credit Edwyn Geer)
Terry Fuller, physician and world birder who's seen half the world's bird species
- Study as much as possible beforehand. The more you know ahead of time, the better the trip, all the way around. Don't be afraid to mark up your field guide in preparation. Or even break the binding and take the pertinent sections or just the plates.
- Narrow the field guide down to the regions that will be visited, using highlighter to mark those birds. That way there's less to wade through. No need to get distracted by desert birds when you're going to be in the cloud forest.
- Note and focus in on the specialties, endemics, and high priority targets.
- In studying, concentrate on the groups that have closely-related and close-looking species. Mark their differentiating features in the plates. Otherwise, when you see the bird, you won't know that you were supposed to look at the fine streaks on the crown or the straight slender bill until the bird is gone and it's too late.
Marcia Balestri, international birder from Maryland
"Locally, I do a lot of birding by ear, so when I am off to a new place, I try to find recordings of both the very common birds that I expect to see as well as the rare/endemic birds (or the ones I just really, really, really want to see). I try to learn both (not necessarily successfully), so I don't spend a lot of time on something that I am sure to see often and can focus on the goodies that I am there for. Wish I had the ability to learn them all!"
Mike Powers, conservation scientist at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birding blogger at Feathers and Flowers
- Call up bar charts in eBird for the region/country, as applicable. I specifically target locations where I'll travel to learn what species might be encountered, as well as the season. While many places may have very few submissions, any information is useful!
- Learn the geography of country, then what species associate with each unique habitat (learn which species will you encounter where)
- Study field guides for country/region to learn visual identifications
- Search online photo archives to get an idea of extent of variation within and among species (being wicked careful that some/many images may be improperly tagged or identified)
- Knowing most birds are heard first, and can usually be identified by song, I listen to CDs of songs from that region/country. I often make a playlist that focuses on the songs of the species I know I'll encounter. My goal is to know their "backyard bird song" like I know my own chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches so I'm not spending too much time trying to locate and identify yet another ubiquitous species.
- For more sought-after species I often use Xeno-Canto or Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds to hear a variety of songs from those species.
- Read trip reports from that area (archived online) to discover what others routinely find, and where.
Iain Campbell, professional field guide and co-owner, Tropical Birding
"My approach is to suggest that people learn the things like Tanager, Cotingas and things that move through in flocks. In Asia, these are the bulbuls and in Australia, the honeyeaters. Having an idea of the things that may pass through without the guide seeing are most important. On the other hand, territorial birds are easy to pick up on the spot."
Sonia Jupp, birder from England
"I tend to
- Acquire a field guide.
- Look up trip reports both from the company running the tour and other companies/independent birders to identify likely areas where particular birds are to be found and how easy they are to see (on top of tree, skulking in undergrowth, in clumps of bamboo etc.,)
- Get hold of a CD or DVD of bird sounds. I tend to play the CD while commuting to and from work, often with the fieldguide as well. (I do commute by Tube/Subway, by the way). Even if I cannot recognise a song or call when I get out on tour, at least it reduces the time it takes to get a grip on the calls and songs when I do get there.
- If the local language is not English, learn a few useful phrases (one beer please, thank you, no, where is the ladies toilet?) and also learn a little history of the country."
Bill Thompson, III, trip leader, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest
"I try to read trip reports both for bird content and for helpful hints. I prefer trip reports from actual individuals rather than relying exclusively on reports from tour companies. Travel blogs can be an excellent resource for reality-based information. On a trip last year to Papua New Guinea I got some amazing information about soaking leech socks in tobacco water. This tip (from a trip report to SE Asia) made my legs (and those of my fellow sock-soaking travelers) the only leech-free ones on the trip.
"For overseas trips I always buy the recommended field guide and go through it on the plane ride, trying to quiz myself after flipping through a few times. For destinations that are truly new to me with unfamiliar avifauna, I don't try to learn species as much as I try to get a grip on the various bird families. That way I can feel slightly less confused when the guides start calling out bird names. In some cases this involved learning a bit of Latin for the scientific names.
"Sometimes, if I know I'll be going after especially vocal (or heard-only) birds, I will visit Xeno-Canto to listen to bird songs from an exotic destination (eg: Bukidnon woodcock in The Philippines, resplendent quetzal and horned guan in Guatemala)."
Author Note: Check out the trip-planning articles on the BWD website.
James Currie, show host/creator of Nikon's Birding Adventures TV
"When traveling for Birding Adventures TV I purchase the best field guide for the region I'm traveling to. I then get a list of the birds of the region and start researching the most commonly found birds. I do not focus on the rare and uncommon species.
"Grouping the common birds into habitat also helps tremendously as I know what birds to expect where in each region. Lastly, a local guide goes a long way to enhancing my birding experience and I seldom bird a new area without one."
Jeff Bouton, trip leader, Marketing Manager for Leica Sport Optics
"No matter what prep I do beforehand I always follow up with a final field guide review on the plane. My typical routine is to look through the guide en route to the locale and make notes on a pad of likely species (based on range maps and date) with perhaps a key ID mark. Even though I may never look at the list again I find this reinforcement helps to cement this beast, at least in my short term memory.
"I also like to use the Xeno-Canto website to listen to some of the common bird's songs before going. If you want to be REAL prepared you can even save these to an electronic device to have a customized set of songs in your pocket for reference or even playback."
Susan Myers, professional field guide specializing in Asia and Australia
"As a trip leader I certainly don't expect people to know every bird they see. The only thing I hope for a client is that they enjoy their trip. Over the years, I've noticed that the people who enjoy themselves the most are those who've done a bit of preparation. I don't mean the type of person who has obsessively memorized the field guide and demands to see every bird in it, rather those who've taken the time to go through the book a few times and familiarize themselves with the general aspects of the birds and the birding.
"I think one of the most useful things to do when you are visiting an unfamiliar area is to get to know the families. If you are in Asia for the first time and you see a bird and can know that you are looking at a barbet and not a broadbill, imagine how much more rewarding and memorable that experience will be.
"My favorite clients are those who read the text, too. I hate it when I see someone has brought along half of their field guide, leaving the text in the trash as though it is a useless waste of space. How can you possibly gain an understanding of the birdlife if you don't read about it's behaviour, habitat preferences, plumage differences and so on....you can't glean that information from a pretty picture and, sure you will learn this from being out in the field but the information in that text was almost certainly compiled from years and years of experience.
"My advice to bird tour participants is that no matter how busy you are leading up to your trip, at some stage you are going to be eating breakfast or plopped in front of the telly, so take a few moments a day to open the book, study the illustrations to get a feel for the general groupings, read a few snippets, maybe look at some photos on the internet, read a report or two, and remember to use the field guide in the field, too.
"Also remember to trust the leader - they have read the field guides a thousand times, spent thousands of hours in the field and know the birds like old friends...."
How do ideas from veteran birders compare to your crash course study routine for international birding trips?
---Thanks to all the birders who contributed to this post.