Undercover Birding: how to enjoy birdwatching while traveling with friends

Traveling with friends can be a great experience. However, if you’re an avid birdwatcher, you might find it challenging to pursue your hobby in a packed itinerary. But fear not! With a little creativity and planning, you can still indulge in your love for birdwatching without compromising the group’s travel plans. In this post, I share some strategies to sneak in some birdwatching while traveling with friends.

Common myna seen during a tour of Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawaii
Common myna, Oahu, Hawaii

We love traveling with our friends and family. We have enjoyed some extraordinary adventures – cycling through Holland with our bike group, exploring Egypt with one of our favorite couples, and rafting through the Grand Canyon with a bunch of dear friends. I am an avid birdwatcher and I know I won’t be checking off all the local bird species when I’m with my friends, but the time together more than makes up for it. AND… I have honed my ‘birdwatching while traveling with friends’ skills to allow me to discover a lot of life birds without interfering with my group’s plans.

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Tips for enjoying birding while traveling with friends

barn owl
Photo by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

As part of my trip preparations, I include some bird and wildlife pre-planning. I use the mnemonic BARN OWL to remind myself of what to I need to do be ready for spontaneous birdwatching- pack binoculars, be alert, research my destination, practice nature photography, be OK with my non-birder companions, plan to wake up early, and investigate hiring a local guide. Here are a few more details on the BARN OWL tips.

  1. Keep Binoculars Handy: Pack a compact pair of binoculars that you can easily carry in your backpack or purse. Having your binoculars readily available allows you to seize spontaneous birdwatching opportunities. Bonus friendship points: Share the binoculars when you’re enjoying a city skyline.
  2. Be Alert During the Trip: While traveling with friends, keep your eyes and ears open for birds along the way. Whether you’re on a road trip, exploring a city, or hiking in nature, birds can be found in various environments. Listen for their calls, watch for movement in trees or skies, and be alert to their presence.
    If on a guided tour, share your interests with your guide who might be able to help you spot birds and wildlife. Our safari guide in South Africa was delighted when I shared my interest in birds. Most travelers come looking for the Big 5, and it can be frustrating for the guides when they can’t produce wildlife to please their guests. Our guide was excited to share some of the smaller wonders of the game reserve and challenged himself to get my African bird list up to 100 species. He taught me some valuable tips for birdwatching on safari.
  3. Research Birding Hotspots Before You Go: Research your destinations to identify birding hotspots and locations with stunning landscapes, picturesque trails, or historical landmarks. These scenic locations might offer opportunities for birdwatching, and activities your friends will enjoy as well.
  4. Encourage Nature Photography: Capturing images of the birds can be an exciting and rewarding activity for everyone, even if they are not interested in identifying bird species. With cameras, and cellphones, everyone can interact with nature in their own unique way while you pursue your birdwatching passion. If traveling with kids, bring along an inexpensive set of binoculars for them to use.
  5. Be OK with not seeing all the birds: At some point your passion for nature might bore your friends. Take a step back and accept that traveling with friends is a great opportunity to enjoy time together and make memories. Put the field guide away and do things that all can enjoy. If this is disappointing to you, opt for a specific birdwatching vacation next time. Or…

Sneak in some birdwatching without the group.

hummingbird feeding from my finger in Nederland, Colorado
Nederland, Colorado

6. Wake up early: Take advantage of the early mornings, when most cities and tourist attractions are quieter. Wake earlier than your friends and head out for a peaceful bird walk in a nearby park or natural area.
Bonus friendship points: Stop for coffee and pastries on your way back.

7. Schedule a morning for yourself with a Local Guide: Having a dedicated birding day will make it easier for you to go along with your group’s itinerary the rest of the trip. Hire a local guide who can take you to the birding hotspots and will share valuable knowledge.
Bonus friendship points: Your friends have time to themselves and their interests.
We hired a guide for a morning in Lisbon, Portugal while our friends slept in. Just a few hours and I saw some spectacular birds while Dave enjoyed the drive through the countryside.

How to share bird fun with your non-birding friends

If your traveling companions are agreeable there are ways to share your enthusiasm without boring them to tears.

Sinai Rosefinch, Wadi Rum
Sinai Rosefinch, Wadi Rum, Jordan
  • Shift the focus from identifying species to observing and learning about bird behavior and ecology. Discuss the unique behaviors, mating rituals, and feeding habits of the birds you see.
  • Encourage your group to try bird photography. Focusing on a bird through a lens often shows off elements that people overlook on a quick glance. Your friends may come away with an appreciation of the nuances of birdlife.
  • Share field guides to the local birds and checklists. Your competitive friends might enjoy seeing who checks off the most. If you’re feeling creative, make bingo cards with local birds or bird characteristics. (As the seasoned birder, you can encourage but not compete.)

Ultimately, it’s important to accept that not everyone may share your level of enthusiasm for birdwatching. Be mindful of the duration and intensity of your bird walks, ensuring that they are enjoyable for all participants. Be ready to compromise on the amount of time spent in nature to accommodate other travelers’ activities or interests.

Photos and tips from some of my favorite underground birding trips:
birdwatching while traveling with friends - birds seen when not birding #birding

Traveling with friends doesn’t mean you have to completely give up on enjoying the local birds. By incorporating these strategies and staying open to spontaneous opportunities, you can fit in some great birdwatching while still enjoying traveling with your friends and family.

7 tips for birdwatching on vacation. How to enjoy birding while traveling with non-birders. #birdwatching #travelbirding #naturetravel #birdingtheworld

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