By Sue Reddel and Diana Laskaris
Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.
We get an absolute thrill birding in our backyard, at local parks, and on trips anywhere in the world. Sometimes we just leave our discoveries to chance by winging it — forgive the pun. But when you’re planning a real birding trip, where one of the main goals of the journey is to spot some feathered friends, there are plenty of things that you can do to make sure you get the most out of your vacation.
Here are 11 of our top tips for planning the best birding trip ever.
1. Decide On Your Goals In Advance
Are you interested in seeing a particular species? Do you want to explore a beautiful area with whatever birds it has? Do you want to see big birds, colorful birds, or rare birds? When you decide on your goals first, it’ll be easier to make other decisions along the way.
2. Determine Your Budget
No matter your budget, you can have an excellent birding trip. Are you looking for an inexpensive, rustic trip that puts you out in nature? Would you like to stay in luxurious accommodations and then trek out to see the birds? Do you crave an opportunity to volunteer and have your trip paid for by an organization that can use your talents? Or are you somewhere in the middle, where you want to be comfortable and see some great birds?
Outlining your budget and priorities will help you plan the birding trip that meets your needs.
3. Select Your Destination
Once you have decided on your goals and your budget, you can pick your destination. Great birding can happen almost anywhere. But what your specific goals are might narrow the field a bit.
If you want to see a unique species that you have never seen before, you will want to select a destination where opportunities to spy that bird are as plentiful as possible. If you are looking to see many colorful birds, you’ll want to pick a destination that’s home to a lot of them. If your goal is simply to go to a beautiful place and see some birds, you can choose a few destinations that appeal to you, and then do some research on the birding scene there and use that information to help you pick.
4. Choose Your Accommodations
It’s important that your home away from home is what you want. If you crave comfort and amenities, choose a place to stay that is near birding options but has a lot to offer when you’re not birding. If you’re a camper, check out the campground options and their birding landscape. Most parks and campgrounds have online guides covering the birds you might see while you’re there. There are also local Audubon Society chapters (like Madison Audubon where we live) that you can consult for ideas. If you want all birds all the time, choose accommodations that cater specifically to birders.
5. Decide Whether to Get Guidance Or Go At It Alone
According to the Audubon Society, 46.7 million people enjoy observing birds in the United States alone. Birding travel is quite popular, with guided trips and experiences widely available. So you will want to decide whether you prefer birding excursions with other people, exploring on your own, or a little of both.
A number of companies specialize in birding vacations and tours around the world. If you’d like to have some guidance but also some time on your own, you could hire a personal birding guide who specializes in the area you are visiting, like this Southeast Arizona specialist. You could also sign up for individual events with organizations such as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, or local birding and environmental organizations. You can even chat online with or meet other birders from around the world and go bird-watching together.
6. Brush Up On Your Birds
Fortunately, when planning a birding trip, you have lots of information readily available. Bird Watcher’s Digest, BirdWatching Daily, and The American Birding Association are all devoted to birding. You can also pick up a bird field guide for your desired destination and consult online resources like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where you can learn to identify birds and their calls. Magazines like BirdWatching and BirdLife International provide additional ideas, great photos, and stories relevant to the birding community.
You can get some practice in by participating in local, national, and international events such as Global Big Day, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and other birding events and festivals.
7. Get Your Gear In Order
Another important aspect of birding is the gear that makes it comfortable and possible to see our sometimes shy feathered friends. You’ll want to make sure you have the right equipment to optimize those once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunities.
The most important item of all? Your binoculars. If you don’t already have some that are perfect for birding, there are a lot of resources, including Audubon, that can help you choose a pair. You might also want to bring a scope, field guide, birding app, insect repellent, and GPS with you.
Want to snap some photos? Don’t forget your phone or camera. You’ll also want clothing that is functional, comfortable, and in subdued colors that will help you blend into the landscape. A hat is also a good idea to help you blend in, especially if you’re going to be out in the sun all day.
8. Research Your Destination
Getting to know your destination beforehand will help you make the most of your time there. You can uncover the local hot spots, learn what birds are being seen where, and find out what birds are proving more difficult to encounter. You can also discover whether there are any birding clubs in the area where you can connect with experienced local birders. Great resources like eBird are an easy way to do some prescouting.
Many bird-friendly places also have bird parks, sanctuaries, and research and rescue centers that you can visit to see lots of birds and support the work of local ornithologists. For example, our visit to the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, was a highlight of our trip.
9. Get Your Checklist Ready
Whether you’re a competitive birder or not, it’s still fun to keep track of the birds you see. Be sure you record your encounters on a checklist. Many destinations already have birding checklists available. You can search a comprehensive database of checklists, or you might be able to find one specific to your destination. You can also choose to create your own checklist featuring the birds you want to see. Try giving yourself points for each sighting based on the likelihood that you would see a bird of that type. Then give yourself a treat based on the points you’ve acquired.
10. Pack Appropriately
Because you’ll likely be out and about while birding, be sure to bring the right clothing, gear, and accessories.
Depending upon the weather at your destination, you’ll want to pack lightweight vests, jackets, shorts or pants, and shirts that can stand up to all your romping and roaming. Be sure that your shoes are comfortable for walking, standing, and slogging through a variety of terrain. If they’re waterproof, that’s the golden ticket, because you just never know what you might encounter.
Don’t forget some easy-to-eat snacks and treats. You can even take some to share with your feathered friends, such as nuts, dried fruit, and granola. You might just meet a bird willing to risk a closer look for a tasty treat or two. More importantly, you won’t have to miss that super-special bird that decides to show up when your stomach is growling.
11. Get Excited
You’ve got all your plans in place, scoped out your destination, chosen the right clothes, done your homework, packed your bag, and are thoroughly prepared. Now’s the time to let yourself get into the mood for that incredible birding trip.
Feel free to steep yourself in bird entertainment. Watch the MyBackyardBirding channel on YouTube. Watch movies like March of the Penguins or The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. For the ultimate treat, break out the popcorn, give yourself a private screening of The Big Year, and watch the competition heat up at the extreme birding event. There are many more birding movies for you to enjoy.
However, you choose to prepare for your birding trip, be sure to let yourself get excited about it.
Birding trips are special and so much fun. With a little planning and a lot of enthusiasm, you can have the birding trip of a lifetime