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Star Travel Review

Keith Betton

Ornithologist and writer
W: www.keithbetton.com


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Birding your way around the world - Ten of the Best Sites

Back in 1986, just over eight million of us took package holidays abroad, and 25 years later that figure is around 30 million! No other industry has seen such growth during that time, and with more leisure time we have become a nation of holidaymakers!  In line with this, a range of specialist birding holiday companies have formed to quench this thirst for travel. Birding holidays are now available to almost 130 destinations worldwide ranging from four days in France to three weeks.

Given about £20,000 you could really have a year to remember!  Here's how I would do it.

After a few days ensuring that my local Hampshire year list does not get neglected, I would set off for my first trip of the year - to Morocco.  North Africa has its own special charm, exhibiting similarities to the Middle East rather than the African Continent.  In January one might be lucky to see one of the world's rarest and elusive birds - the Slender-billed Curlew. Last winter only one was seen on the marshes at Merdja Zerga (midway between Rabat and Tangier).  Other birds here include interesting waterfowl such as Crested Coot, Red-crested Pochard and Marbled Duck, whilst gulls include Audouin's and Slender-billed.  Morocco offers a number of sub-Saharan species that can be found nowhere else in North Africa, including Double-spurred Francolin, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Marsh Owl and Brown-throated Sand Martin.  In addition this is your best chance of seeing species such as Levaillant's Green Woodpecker, Dupont's Lark, Temminck's Horned Lark, Rock Martin, Moussier's Redstart, Tristram's Warbler, Crimson-winged Finch and Desert Sparrow.  However, do not leave without seeing Africa's last remaining population of Northern Bald Ibis. These can be found on the coast at Oued Massa and Tamri (both near Agadir).


My February holiday would be to Florida, although this state is rewarding at any time of the year.  It is an easy destination to visit if you want to travel independently and the fly-drive prices are very competitive. Most birders fly to Orlando, which is close to swamps and woodlands which hold Snail Kites and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  Travelling east the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent network of coastal marshes with Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Scrub Jay, and Black Skimmer.  Moving south past Miami, the Everglades is an essential part of any visit, and provides several difficult and very localised species such as Mangrove Cuckoo and Black-whiskered Vireo.  If time permitted I would spend a couple of days on the Keys. Finally, the west coast has good beaches (excellent for terns and waders) and reserves such as Corkscrew Swamp and Ding Darling Trail.

As spring migration commences, Israel would be my March destination. No countriy is better placed to witness the passage of almost one million raptors - mostly Steppe Buzzards, but with plenty of Black Kites and Steppe Eagles too.  We are too early for Levant Sparrowhawk and Honey Buzzard, but this is made up for by other migrants such as Pallid and Montagu's Harrier, Griffon Vulture, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Imperial Eagle and Lesser Kestrel.  Other passage species in March include White-tailed Plover, Ruppell's Warbler, Masked Shrike, Great Spotted Cuckoo and both White and Black Storks.  The best location for a brief stay is Eilat, from which one can explore the Arava Valley to the north.  However, if time permits, the Dead Sea, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights are all outstanding.  Israel's residents are also impressive and include some real stunners - Hume's Tawny Owl, Houbara Bustard, Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse and Hoopoe Lark.

There are so many places you could spend April, but I would choose Texas.  This state can offer up to 300 species in two weeks and as the month progresses, so the spring migration gets better, although winter visitors such as Whooping Crane may have already headed northwards.  I would focus on the southern part of the state, commencing at Houston, working westwards along the coast.  The Whooping Cranes winter at Aransas but are not guaranteed after April 1st.  The Attwater National Wildlife Refuge is the place to see the rare Greater Prairie Chicken.  As one moves further west the migration becomes more intense, with flocks of Swainson’s and Broad-tailed Hawks passing overhead.  The Rio Grande Valley is magical - full of birds, many of them stragglers from Mexico at the their northern limits.  Working northwards along the Valley, the habitats change, and so do the birds as the Mexican influence diminishes.  Having reached Rio Grande City, my journey would take me back to Houston via the Edwards Plateau.  The impressive list on this route might include Tropical Parula Warbler, Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Red-billed Pigeon, Plain Chachalaca, Pauraque, Long-billed Thrasher, as well as Altimara, Hooded and Audubon’s Oriole.

Beidaihe is on the east coast of China, this gem in the Province of Hebei is about 150 km east of Beijing.  In just a few years this seaside town has become one of the best places to see Siberian migrants, and May is as good a time as any.  Birding holidays here are now easily available thanks to several specialist tour operators - and it need not break the bank.  Imagine watching species such as Black-faced, Yellow-throated, Japanese Reed  and Tristram's Buntings, Daurian Redstart, Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin, Eye-browed, Grey-backed, Siberian and White's Thrushes, Narcissus and Mugimaki Flycatchers - all at close range.  These birds are far more approachable here than in their breeding or wintering grounds.  Most of the birds are best observed from the Lotus Hills which allow extensive viewing over the plain and out to sea.  Waders are also an attraction and include Grey-tailed Tattler, Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint and Far Eastern Curlew.  What more could you want?

I normally spend June carrying out local census work in Hampshire, so two quick trips to Europe are all I can really spare time for. The first of these is to the Camargue.  For me, the best birds of this area are in fact found in the surrounding hills and plains.  La Crau is a stony area of barren sands which appears to harbour few birds, but careful observation may reveal Black-eared Wheatear, Lesser Kestrel, Red-footed Falcon and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse.  The small range of mountains east of Arles host Bonelli's Eagle and Eagle Owl whilst the pasture below is good for Short-toed Eagle, Little Bustard, Lesser Grey Shrike, Bee-eater and Roller.  But for most people, the centre of attention is the impressive colony of  some 10,000 pairs of Greater Flamingo.  The marshes are home to Night Heron, Squacco Heron, Bittern, Little Bittern and Purple Heron.  Sadly though, much of the area is being converted to agriculture.

But it is tourism, rather than agriculture which has threatened to destroy my next destination - the Coto Donana.  This expanse of over 70 sq km accommodates a range of species which is similar to the Camargue, but benefits from the addition of Spanish Imperial Eagle, Marbled Teal, Egyptian and Griffon Vulture, Gull-billed Tern, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Azure-winged Magpie and Purple Gallinules.  Away from the wetlands, the open farmland surrounding the historic village of El Rocio is home to Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Collared Pratincole, Calandra Lark, Short-toed and Lesser Short-toed Larks.  Moving eastwards to Gibraltar you have a chance to see the only Barbary Partridges in Europe.  This small corner of Britain acts as an excellent base to explore the Spanish coast in both directions.  Had I chosen to come here in April, there would have been White and Black Storks, Osprey, Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Short-toed Eagle, Marsh, Hen and Montagu's Harriers.  In June there will be a few Hobbies and perhaps the occasional Booted Eagle.  However, local sites support species such as Red-necked Nightjar and Rufous Bush Robin, which are well worth seeking.

Now it is time to stay in the UK!  From July to September I would catch up on my local birds, perhaps even chasing the odd rarity before the next big trip. 

And what a trip! October is the time to visit Bharatpur in northern India, focusing on the Keoladeo Ghana National Park.  Set in 29 sq km of marshes surrounded by artificial bunds and abundant scrub, this monumental bird sanctuary is just 55 km west of Agra where you can tick off that other monumental site - the Taj Mahal.  Staying inside the park at the Shantikutir Forest Rest House you can hire a guide and possibly take a boat ride around nesting trees that at this time of the year are heaving with storks and ibises.  Cycle rickshaws are available, as are forest jeeps and bikes.  In October we are just too early to see the critically endangered Siberian White Crane, however typical species include Pallas's Fish Eagle, Adjutant, Lesser Adjutant, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas and Collared Scops Owl.  In the nesting trees there are Black-necked Stork, Painted Stork, White-necked Stork, Open-billed Stork and Oriental White Ibis.

Staying with the long-haul theme, Kenya is my destination in November. With a potential trip list of over 700, there is so much to see that it is best to join a group to maximise your list. Main sites to visit include the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo and Samburu National Parks. The Rift Valley lakes are also stunning with their variety and volume of birds.  Lake Nakuru is an incredible spectacle, with a quarter of a million Lesser and Greater Flamingos along its shore.  Other lakes to visit are Baringo, Naivasha and Bogoria.  It is also important to visit Mount Kenya and the Kakamega Forest, as these areas include a number of rare endemics.  Another essential site is the Sokoke Forest north of Mombasa which is home to the Sokoke Scops Owl and Sokoke Pipit and a number of other wary species.  The coastal mangroves are also excellent areas to watch waders at low tide, including the amazing Crab Plover.  Other rare birds of Kenya that you should aim to see include Taita Thrush, Hinde's Pied Babbler, Clarke's Weaver, Sharpe's Longclaw, Black and White Flycatcher and the elusive African Finfoot.

Now to my final trip of the year, and one that provides incredible value for money - The Gambia.  This is another possibility to travel independently, although you will see more with an organised group.  Having spent a few days around Banjul with excursions locally to Lamin Creek, Abuko, Tanji and Bijalow, it is time to head upriver in search of some of the country's specialities.  Stopping overnight at Tendaba Camp there is another chance to see African Finfoot, and possibly Fairy Blue Flycatcher and White-backed Night Heron.  The marshy flats around this area are attractive to many birds of prey such as Grasshopper Buzzard and scavengers such as Ground Hornbill.  The final leg of this expedition would take me in search of Red-throated Bee-eaters and the Egyptian Plover at either Kaur or Basse.  The latter has to be the world's smartest bird, although it chooses some horrible places to spend the winter!   Then it's back to Banjul for a well-earned rest at the hotel pool!

So I have started and finished my year with two waders - and two of the most enigmatic birds you can hope to see.  And now it's time to go home to put my feet up over Christmas, ready to plan next year's holidays!


Photo source: http://birdquest.net


Desert Sparrow

Terek Sandpiper

Greater Flamingo

Egyptian Vulture

African Finfoot

Grasshopper Buzzard



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