Keel-billed toucan in Panama

The Best Birdwatching Tours in the World

Keel-billed toucan in Panama

Somewhere around 3.5 million international trips are taken each year for the sole purpose of bird watching. Every year more than 20 million Americans go on bird watching tours, spending upwards of three billion dollars. Yep, you read that right. BILLION.

Bird book

Why? Well, in the first place, birds are just cool. They are beautiful and accessible and possess a wide range of cultures, rituals and individual personalities. There are not many things that I personally enjoy more than taking pictures of birds. The sheer diversity of birds in the world is simply stunning, with more than 10,000 different species on literally every continent.

One of the positives of taking birdwatching tours is that the activity contributes to the conservation of bird habitat through the economic development of communities in birdwatching destinations. Simply put, if the people in the area see the economic value of birds, they are far more likely to protect those animals and their habitat.

Here are our picks for the destinations that offer the world’s best birdwatching tours!

Great green macaw

Panama


Panama has more species of birds than the United States and Canada combined. We’re talking over 900 different species, 11 of which are endemic. Between Panama and neighboring Costa Rica, there are nearly 70 endemic species.

Because it is quite literally the bridge between North and South America, Panama is the meeting point of species from both continents. In addition, the environmental conditions are perfect for diversification of species. The varied geography creates 12 different eco-tones, ranging in elevation from sea-level to 11,000-foot cloud forests.

Some of the best places for birdwatching in Panama are Soberania National Park, Rio Chagres, San Lorenzo National Park, Darien National Park and La Amistad Biosphere Reserve.

Emerald bellied puffleg

Colombia


Now that peace has come to this beautiful South American nation, wildlife tourism is increasingly on the rise, with birdwatching tours leading the charge. With 1,889 species, Columbia contains about 20% of all bird species on the planet! On top of that, there are about 200 species of migratory birds that pass through Columbia, as well as 71 endemic species.

One of the country’s top birdwatching spots is just outside the capital city of Bogotá at the Conejera Wetlands, a 160-acre protected reserve with nearly 120 bird species. Other top spots in Columbia include the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria, Valle del Cauca and Columbia’s famed coffee plantations. Mmmm… coffee and birds. Perfection!

Hoatzin

Peruvian Amazon


Peru is another country boasting an impressive number of bird species. In the northern part of the Peruvian Amazon, the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve hosts around 500 species, from vibrant parrots to pre-historic hoatzin and huge horned screamers. The Tambopata National Reserve is famous for the salt licks, which attract masses of parrots and macaws on a daily basis.

Keep in mind that it’s not just about the birds in Peru. This nation also has the largest diversity of butterflies in the world, with a mind-blowing 3,700 species!

Common hoopoe

Southern Spain


Birds in Europe are in serious trouble for a variety of reasons. But there are parts of Spain that stand out from that otherwise bad news, enough so to make it onto our list.

Eurasian bee-eater

The geography of southern Spain is extremely diverse. From mountain tops to steppe grasslands to fresh water wetlands, coastal marshes and Mediterranean woodlands, this diversity of habitat easily makes Spain the top destination for birdwatching tours in Europe.

The icing on this cake is Coto Doñana National Park. This protected area is home of the rarest of European and Mediterranean bird species, from the common hoopoe to the Eurasian bee-eater, the Eurasian roller and the lesser kestrel.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May, New Jersey


Here in the United States, we have a great number of fabulous places for birdwatching tours. Number one is arguably Cape May, New Jersey.

Situated along a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, the cape is blessed with a great variety of habitats. From salt marshes, wet forests, freshwater marshes and ponds to grasslands and pine forests, this area has drawn bird enthusiasts ever since John Audubon came here around 200 years ago. The fall migrations are particularly impressive.

Cape May boasts nearly 500 bird species, including raptors, shorebirds and migratory songbirds. Check out the
New Jersey Audubon website for more information and a detailed checklist.

Blue footed booby

Ecuador


Back to South America, and the tiny nation of Ecuador. As with Panama, Colombia and Peru, Ecuador’s great bird diversity has in large part to do with its extremely varied habitats.

On the slopes of Ecuador’s celebrated volcanoes you can see the rare Andean condor. Drop down into the rainforest for stunning tanagers and curious toucans. Further down on the coast, the blue-footed boobies are known for their dramatic leaps into the sea.

The Pichincha Province is particularly well-known for good lodging, a wide range of knowledgeable guides and, of course, the ubiquitous hummingbirds. Also be sure to check out the western lowlands of the Rio Silanche Reserve for great raptors such as tiny hawk, black hawk-eagle, the double-toothed kite and gray hawk.

Waved albatross

Galapagos Islands


The Galapagos Islands really need no introduction. A province of Ecuador, the volcanic island chain runs across the equator about 600 miles from the South American coast.

Home to 24 species found nowhere else in the world, the 12 main Galapagos islands hosts the largest breeding colony of the massive waved albatross. There are other rare and wonderful species as well, including Darwin’s Finches, three kinds of boobies, flightless cormorants, and Galapagos penguin – the only penguin found in the northern hemisphere!

Hyacinth macaw

Brazilian Pantanal


The massive wetlands of southwestern Brazil and eastern Bolivia are collectively known as the Pantanal. At 75,000 square miles, this is by far the largest wetland in the world.

Home to the hyacinth macaw, the largest (and, by some accounts, most obnoxious) parrot in the world, as well as the famed harpy eagle, the Pantanal hosts 3,500 known plant species, 300 mammals and over 1,000 species of birds.

Harpy eagle

About 80% of this wetland is totally covered in water during the wet season. But when it dries out, it’s the perfect place for birdwatching tours. Cruise down dark rivers or climb treetop canopy towers to search for spectacular species such as the white-banded tanager, white-eared puffbird, coal-crested finch or the chapada flycatcher. If you’re extremely lucky, you might even see the elusive jaguar along the way.



Photo credits: Harpy eagle and emerald-bellied puffleg by Greg R. Homel; Cape May Warbler by DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17411391; Common Hoopoe by Arindam Aditya - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49686047; Northern Pintail by DickDaniels (http://carolinabirds.org/) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18776405; Eurasian Roller By Sumeet Moghe - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22566815