Of all the tropical destinations for European birdwatchers, The Gambia has arguably the most allure for drawing birders of all skill levels back year after year. A large number of the country’s 570+ species are extremely easy to see – many without even leaving your resort! Friendly local guides take you on morning and afternoon tours, often by boat, into the surrounding area in search of herons, egrets, ibises, kingfishers, sunbirds, raptors, rollers and stunning turacos. The range of potential species includes huge Goliath Herons, Pink-backed Pelicans and other waterbirds, a splendid variety of raptors and such typically African beauties as Red-throated and Carmine Bee-Eaters. One of the highlights of any tour to The Gambia is the handsome Egyptian Plover which we search for near the Senegal border.
The Gambia remains an astonishing bargain for travellers where the more intrepid will find many examples of fascinating African culture in the rural heart of the country and a long bird list for the holiday will include a staggering variety of African species augmented by Paleactic migrants in their winter quarters.
Bee Cuban Hummingbird, Cuba from the Surfbirds galleries © Dr Kevin Elsby
Seeing the smallest bird on the planet, Cuban Bee Hummingbird, must rank as one of the top birding experiences a person can have (especially if it’s the spectacular male). A highlight of my last visit to Cuba was seeing them flying around my feet sipping nectar from low flowers. It’s uncommon and declining, unlike the other endemic hummingbird, Cuban Emerald, which is ubiquitous. The miniscule Cuban Tody is a very common bird that occurs wherever there is even a small amount of cover, and it is generally seen daily without much effort. And, believe it or not, the unusual Cuban Trogon is just as easy. The spectacular Blue-headed Quail-dove is the most elusive of all the endemics we look for and usually takes hours of searching (during which time we often ease our boredom by calling in a tody or a trogon just for fun). We usually find 26 of the 28 Cuban endemics given 10 or so days on this idyllic island.
All these birds can be seen in the most pleasant of surroundings – one has the distinct feeling of being stuck in the 60’s with all the old American cars, then there is the beautiful architecture, stunning beaches and reefs (with incredible snorkelling), year-round pleasant weather and all.
Namaqua Sandgrouse, Namibia from the Surfbirds galleries © Fran Trabalon
If you want to sink your teeth into an authentic African birding experience, but don’t want to break the bank doing it, South Africa offers remarkable value. More than half of the continent’s endemic bird families are represented in South Africa, including two (the Sugarbirds and the Rockjumpers) found essentially only in the Rainbow Nation. Over 140 endemic (or near endemic) species are found across the remarkably varied habitats. From Pink-throated Twinspot, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary and Rudd’s Apalis of the Eastern Sand Forests to Karoo Korhaan, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Namaqua Sandgrouse, and Karoo Eremomela of the stark and arid Karoo, a prodigious number of birds are tallied. The Cape Floral Kingdom of South Africa is the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms. About ⅔ of it is comprised of endemic plants, especially within the Fynbos shrublands along the Western Cape, where birds like Victorin’s and Knysna Warblers, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Rockjumper and Cape Sugarbird are found. Combine the stellar birds with spectacular Big Game viewing opportunities, and mix in some delicious South African wines, and it is easy to see why South Africa has become a favorite for so many.
Humboldt's Sapphire, Colombia, Chocofrom the Surfbirds galleries © Pete Morris
Only a decade ago, Colombia was almost a forgotten country. Years of terror, due to the war with FARC had made Colombia a virtual no go area. Move forward just a decade, and Colombia is a safe, modern and thriving country, with an infrastructure virtually unmatched in the Neotropics. It also has a bird list virtually unmatched in the world. With nearly 2000 species and around 90 endemics (and countless near endemics), it really has the one of the richest avifaunas in the world. Coupled with that, it has a superb network of reserves and protected areas. The northern Andes fork into three as they enter Colombia, separated by the mighty Magdelena and Cauca Rivers, creating unique diversity, and then the Andes reappear as the endemic rich Santa Martas which rise up 5000m from the north coast, virtually straight from the ocean! Add to this the Chocó coast and the easily explored Amazon, and you can start to understand the amazing diversity this wonderful country has. So how does one pick out highlights from that? With great transport infrastructure, one could be watching a Baudo Oropendola on the Chocó coast one day, a Red-bellied Grackle in the Andes the next and a Chestnut-crested Antbird in the Amazon the day after! To really do the country justice, two three week trips are required, though a single visit can get over 50 endemics, and two visits could ensure a high proportion of the gettable special birds. So if you fancy seeing such stunning birds as Blue-wattled Curassow, Yellow-eared Parrot, Buffy Helmetcrest or Gold-ringed Tanager or even Andean favourites such as Sword-billed Hummingbird or Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, or just bewildering numbers of hummingbirds and tanagers, Colombia is waiting.
Palawan Peacock Pheasant © Rob Hutchinson/Birdour Asia
The Philippines should be near the top of the list of anyone looking for an Asia tour packed with spectacular endemics, with an endemic count second only to the vast Indonesia. A three week tour, visiting a fascinating range of habitats from lush lowland rainforest, to bird-filled marshes, coastal mudflats and mossy montane forests, could easily score more than 150 endemics – more than half the currently recognized tally. More remote trips enable keen world listers to see almost all the others! Among these are some of the most endangered species in the world with Critically Endangered Philippine Eagles and Philippine Cockatoos featuring highly in our targets. So if seeing a Philippine Eagle carrying a flying lemur over a densely wooded hillside, a gaudy Palawan Peacock Pheasant strutting his stuff through the forest, a Steere’s Pitta lighting up the lowland rainforest, an endemic bleedingheart pigeon marching across the forest floor, or any of the many endemic owls, colourful kingfishers, sunbirds, pigeons or fruit doves, then the Philippines is the place to be. Not only this but the Filipino cuisine and endless smiles from the heartwarmingly kind Filipino people will ensure a memorable journey.
Pied Thrush, Sri Lanka from the Surfbirds galleries © Rich Lindie
Located at the tip of peninsular India, Sri Lanka’s avifauna not only reflects that of mainland India, but also includes many species migrating along the Central Asian-India flyway. However, Sri Lanka’s birdlife is most remarkable for its high degree of endemism and it is reasonable to expect to see all or most of the island’s 33 endemic species, including the recently discovered Serendib Scops Owl and the brilliantly coloured Blue Magpie during a 10 day trip, as well as a good number of its 68 endemic subspecies! We recommend visits to Sinharaja Forest and the Hill Country, as well as Uda Walawe Reserve to see a wide range of rainforest and Dry Country birds, and also winter visitors such as Pied Thrush and Indian Pitta. A bird tour to Sri Lanka makes for an ideal introduction to Oriental birdwatching or for those who wish to focus on endemics.
Herero Chat, Namibia from the Surfbirds galleries © Daniel Lopez-Velasco
A plethora of localized southern Angola/Northern Namibia endemics are very easily accessible here in Namibia because of the country’s brilliant infrastructure. Some of these specials inhabit the spectacular mountains of the Namib Escarpment such as the the charismatic Rockrunner, the elusive Herero Chat and noisy Rosy-faced Lovebird. While others frequent the camelthorn-lined dry riverbeds (e.g. striking White-tailed Shrike and Ruppell’s Parrot), the vast gravel desert plains (e.g. Ruppell’s Korhaan and Gray’s Lark) and of course the sand desert (Dune Lark being the biggest prize here – Namibia’s only true endemic). A visit to the beautifully remote, palm-lined Kunene River, rewards the birder not only with spectacular views into Angola, but also with some of the most localized of all the Namibian specials, Cinderella Waxbill and Angola Cave Chat (a healthy population of which was only recently discovered just south of the border in the spectacular, amazingly rugged, Zebra Mountains within Namibia).
One of the great things about Namibia is the fact that while birding, one also encounters most of the large animals Africa is famous for. Arguably the best waterholes for wildlife on the planet are in Etosha National Park – the floodlit waterhole at Okuekuejo being the most famous of them all.
Golden Dove, Fiji from the Surfbirds galleries © Rob Morris
Remote, little-known and seldom visited, many birders would be hard pressed to point to Melanesia on a map. Yet this extraordinary area hosts 200+ endemics, including sought-after specialties such as the odd, unique Kagu, Blyth’s Hornbill, Superb Pitta, Vanuatu Megapode, Sanford’s Sea Eagle, Mussau Triller, Palm and Blue-eyed Cockatoos, Cardinal Lory, Steel-blue Flycatcher and many more. If you enjoy doves of the showy & strange variety this is marvelous territory, with Nicobar Pigeon, Claret-breasted and Yellow-bibbed Fruit Doves, and Collared, Pinon’s, Zoe’s and Torresian Imperial Pigeons, leading the way. Melanesia (which includes Papua New Guinea, the Bismarcks, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Fiji) is an extremely interesting region to explore, with remarkably few migrants. Aside from a handful of shorebirds and the occasional cuckoo, most of the birds in this archipelago, remain there, encountering few other species on passage. Traditionally, it’s been difficult to access these islands, but today there are a couple of fabulous cruises that bring this remarkable area within reach.