Nature travelers know the joy of exploring new environments on their travels. Wildlife and birdwatching are hobbies that allow you to connect with nature, immerse yourself in the landscape, and fully appreciate the beauty of the natural world. Combining the love for travel with the joy of observing birds and other wildlife can result in unforgettable experiences. Best of all, these activities are accessible to everyone, regardless of expertise. All you need is a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and a sense of curiosity. In this article, I will share tips for nature travel that have allowed me to get the most out of my holidays, whether my itinerary is nature-based or not.
“Traveling, it leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
Wildlife and birding travel is my favorite kind of adventure. I feel at peace when I am in nature, and I am most thrilled when in the presence of wild animals. The memories of these moments are the top takeaways from all my travels. And are the very best stories to share at home!
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Benefits of adding nature and birdwatching to travel
For nature lovers and birders travel is a fantastic opportunity to visit new destinations in search of unique species. If you’re seeking a specific species, or traveling on a birding tour, you will want to research migration times and patterns. But if you’re traveling on a general tour, don’t despair. Each region offers different birds and wildlife, offering a great experience regardless of the season.
We spent a delightful morning birding in Portugal a few years ago. But at the end of the tour the guide apologized for finding only common birds. He explained that we had come at a bad time for birding. I laughed and told him that we’d had an excellent time as ALL the birds we’d seen were exciting. We’d never seen the common birds of Portugal!
Observing wildlife and birdwatching is much more than just identifying and ticking off species from a list. These hobbies encourages mindfulness, environmental awareness, and a profound connection with nature. And though most of the time we enjoy these pastimes in our backyard or local park, it’s a bonus when you can add time in nature to your vacation.
How adding time in nature enhances your travel (and your life!)
- Connection with Nature: When you become attuned to the natural environment and wildlife, you gain a deeper appreciation for the beauty and complexity of the natural world.
- Mindfulness and Relaxation: These activities encourage mindfulness as you focus on the sights and sounds of nature. This can lead to reduced stress and increased relaxation.
- Memorable Experiences: Observing birds and wildlife in their natural habitat often leads to unforgettable moments. These memories can be some of the most cherished from your travels.
- Educational Opportunities: Birdwatching and nature observation provide learning opportunities about the environment, ecosystems, and the behavior of various species.
- Diverse Destinations: Birdwatching and wildlife observation take you to diverse and often remote destinations. Exploring these areas can offer a unique adventure and a break from typical tourist destinations.
- Conservation and Awareness: By participating in these activities, you also contribute to conservation efforts. Your understanding and appreciation of nature can translate into a desire to protect it. Additionally, your presence as a responsible observer can promote ethical wildlife viewing and habitat preservation.
- Photographic Opportunities: Birdwatching and nature observation often yield fantastic photographic opportunities. Capturing these moments can result in stunning and meaningful photographs to remember your trip.
- Social Interactions: Though many think these are solitary hobbies, in fact birders and naturalists enjoy time together sharing stories and insights.
Incorporating nature and birdwatching into your travel can add depth and purpose to your adventures, making them not just about seeing new places but about really experiencing the natural world. You’ll discover that traveling adds opportunities for birdwatching, etc., but spending time in nature also enhances the trip itself. Whether you’re an experienced naturalist or a novice birder, these activities can enhance your travel in numerous ways.
Tips for Nature Travelers: Wildlife and Birdwatching
- Learn About The Area: Research the birds and wildlife you hope to see in your chosen location. Understanding their habits, habitats, and behaviors will increase your chances of spotting them.
- Plan Your Visit: If you’re seeking a particular animal or bird, plan your visit for the best location in the right season.
- Network with Local Birdwatchers and Naturalists: Locals often have valuable insights into prime birdwatching and wildlife observation spots. . You can often connect with the local community online well before your trip.
- Find a Local Guide: Look into guided walks or a local guide to get the best experience with limited time. The local people are always your best bet for maximizing enjoyment of an area.
- Invest in Quality Binoculars: High-quality binoculars are essential for a closer view. Choose binoculars with a comfortable grip and the right magnification for your needs.
- Pack Neutral Clothing: Wear clothing that blends into the environment and use camouflage techniques to stay concealed. Wildlife is more likely to appear when it feels safe.
- Learn to Be Patient: Wildlife can be elusive, and it often takes time to spot animals in their natural habitat.
- Observe in the Morning and Evening: Many birds and wildlife are most active during dawn and dusk, making these the best times for observation.
- Respect the Habitat: Stay on designated paths and avoid disturbing nests, dens, and sensitive areas. Do not trample or damage the environment.
- Consider bringing a Tripod or Monopod: A stable base helps keep your binoculars or camera steady, especially for long periods of observation.
- Keep a Journal: Document your observations, including the date, location, weather conditions, and details about the species you encounter. Share the sighting on eBird or iNaturalist as a ‘citizen scientist’, but be sure to disable geo-tagging on photos.
- Stay Quiet: Minimize sudden movements and noise. Remaining still increases the chances of wildlife appearing naturally. Keep conversation to a minimum and speak softly. Use hand signals when birdwatching in groups to avoid scaring away wildlife.
- Be Mindful of Scents: Avoid wearing strong perfumes or deodorants, as some scents can repel wildlife.
- Listen for Bird Calls and Animal Sounds: Familiarize yourself with the calls and sounds of the birds and wildlife in the area. This can help you locate them by sound.
- Respect the Animals’ Space: Maintain a safe and ethical distance from wildlife.
- Don’t Feed or Otherwise Bait the Animals: Playing recordings to attract birds, or otherwise baiting animals, is disruptive to the animal and can be dangerous for you. Do not feed them, as this can change natural behavior and damage their diet.
- Embrace Technology: Modern technology can be a huge help to a beginning naturalist. Apps such as Cornell Labs’ Merlin can help to identify bird from your photos or sound recordings. Other resources that track bird and wildlife sightings, can provide real-time information about recent observations.
- Note the Details: Take time to observe distinctive features, e.g., the color of the bird’s legs, or the behavior of the animals. When you’re consulting a guide book later this will help you decide on identification.(always a challenge for me)
- Keep an Eye Out for Other Observers: Seeing a group with long lenses and tripods is usually a good indication that there’s an interesting sighting to be found. If you respectfully and QUIETLY approach you’ll be able to share the view.
- Educate Others: Share your knowledge and passion with friends and family to foster an appreciation for nature and conservation. By sharing your outdoor adventures, you may encourage them to try a nature-based trip and thus continue the commitment to sustainable travel.
- and …Have Fun: Put down your camera occasionally and allow yourself to just enjoy being in nature.
Remember that successful birdwatching and wildlife observation often require time and practice. One of our best nature traveler tips is to practice at home. Head out to some natural areas to reacquaint yourself with your camera and binoculars. Spend some time reading about the habitat you’ll be visiting. The more you engage with the natural world, the more you will learn, and the richer your experiences will become.
Respecting nature and wildlife
Birdwatching and wildlife observation are not just about observation; they are also about preserving the habitat and respecting the natural behavior of all creatures. Be a responsible observer by following these principles:
Keep a safe distance: Avoid getting too close to birds and other wildlife, as this can disrupt their activities. Binoculars and telephoto lenses are the best way to observe wildlife while maintaining this physical distance. Remember, wild animals that feel threatened can behave in an unexpected and even dangerous manner.
Respect the animal’s comfort zone. If the animal runs from you, it is because it feels uncomfortable or threatened. No further attempt should be made to approach it.
Follow the Leave No Trace rules of responsible travel to lessen your environmental impact.
Our favorite nature destinations
Nature is everywhere so it’s tough to recommend destinations for nature-based vacations. Do a little research before your trip and you’ll find there’s likely a great nature spot wherever you might be. NYC’s Central Park is a birder’s paradise with more than 210 species recorded yearly. Likewise, London, Cape Town, and Singapore also offer some great birding opportunities. There are protected areas in Florida that are magnets for wildlife photographers (and great for a beach holiday). And my home state of Massachusetts has over 60 Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries and the Cape Cod National Seashore to explore.
You don’t need to go a long way to enjoy wildlife, but if you’re looking for a great destination for a nature-based trip, here are a few of our favorites:
U.S. National Parks: Stop by the Visitors Center at any U.S. National Park for information on the wildlife and birds you’ll experience in the park. Speak to the park rangers. And check the calendar, you’ll likely find ranger-led nature walks and presentations on the daily calendar. These are great for the whole family.
Costa Rica: Known as a birder’s paradise, Costa Rica boasts an astonishing variety of bird species, including the Resplendent Quetzal and some extraordinary hummingbirds. Its lush rainforests and preserved lands make it a top destination for naturalists also. You can also spot sloths, howler monkeys, and colorful frogs.
East Africa: Embark on a safari in Kenya or Tanzania to witness the annual spectacle of the Great Migration while observing African vultures, storks, and countless other bird species. You’ll also have the opportunity to see the “Big Five” and a wide variety of other wildlife, from zebras to hippos.
Southern Africa: Not to be outdone, Southern Africa offers game reserves to experience the Big Five, but also opportunities for observing marine animals and birds. A trip to Southern Africa also gives your non-wildlife obsessed companions a chance to enjoy the culture and vineyards of South Africa.
Galápagos Islands: This remote archipelago (and UNESCO world heritage site) offers the chance to see unique bird species, such as the Blue-footed Booby and the Galápagos Penguin, up close in their natural habitat. You’ll also encounter marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and other fascinating wildlife in the Galápagos Islands.
We’re looking forward to visiting a few more areas of natural beauty in the couple of years: the Amazon and Pantanal in South America, New Zealand, Namibia, the Great Barrier Reef, and Madagascar. Have you been? I’d love to hear your recommendations!
Traveling essentials for nature travelers
When traveling for bucket list birdwatching and wildlife observation, packing the right essentials is important. Note: a few of these items are expensive and may be out of reach for nature lovers. But some can be rented in the local communities or even borrowed from your local public library before leaving home!
Here’s a list of our nature-based travel must-haves:
- Binoculars (or Spotting Scope): A good pair of binoculars is your window to the avian world and the broader wildlife landscape. Choose lightweight, waterproof binoculars with a comfortable grip for extended use.
- Field Guide: Invest in a field guidebook specific to the region you are visiting to help with bird and wildlife identification. Download this to your tablet or device, or carry a hard copy, whichever works for your mode of travel.
Many libraries have these field guides available to borrow.
- Camera: A camera with a telephoto lens can capture those moments when you encounter rare or beautiful birds and other wildlife.
Dave carries a Canon dSLR with multiple lenses but in recent years I’ve moved to a superzoom bridge camera. I’ve been impressed with the quality of the photos I’ve gotten from my Panasonic Lumix FZ300 (including the bird images on this page.)
- Tripod and Spotting Scope: [optional] If exploring with a group it’s helpful to have a tripod and spotting scope set up to share observations. The stable tripod is also great for wildlife photography and can be used with a spotting scope to get great photos on your cell phone!
- Notebook: Keeping a journal to record your sightings, locations, and observations is valuable for both birdwatching and wildlife observation.
- Comfortable Gear: Wear comfortable clothing, hiking boots, and a wide-brimmed hat to ensure a pleasant birdwatching and wildlife observation experience. If traveling in areas of tick-borne diseases, make sure to wear long pants tucked into your socks.
- Additional Gear: Water bottle, mosquito netting for face
Outside resources for birders and nature travelers
For those looking to expand their knowledge and connect with fellow travelers and nature enthusiasts, there are several valuable resources available:
- Nature Conservation Organizations: Many organizations work to protect bird species and wildlife. Some of these (World Wildlife Fund, Audubon, for example) have partnered with companies in the travel industry to create sustainable tourism opportunities. Supporting these organizations through donations or volunteer work can be a meaningful way to give back to the natural world you love to explore.
- Birdwatching and Wildlife Tours: Numerous travel companies and tour operators specialize in birdwatching tours and nature trips, providing expert guides and itineraries tailored to your interests and skill level. This is a great way for solo travelers to enjoy a nature trip.
- Online Communities: Joining online forums and social media groups dedicated to birdwatching and wildlife enthusiasts can help you connect with like-minded individuals, exchange tips, and gain insight into hotspots and best practices.
- Educational Books and Courses: There are numerous books, courses, and workshops available for those looking to deepen their understanding of birdwatching, wildlife, and conservation.
Experience nature while exploring the world
Exploring the world through its extraordinary wildlife promises an adventure with every sighting and a story with every glimpse of a wild creature. So, pack your binoculars and head off on a journey of discovery through the captivating world of birds and wildlife, all while exploring breathtaking destinations around the globe. I can’t wait to hear about your nature vacations!
Amy, a writer on responsible bucket list travel, is your reliable source for insightful travel advice. With a career background in libraries, and a degree in biology and mathematics, Amy's approach to travel is rooted in meticulous research and planning, and her commitment to eco-conscious adventures.
Amy’s dedication to sustainable travel practices, including efficient packing techniques, ensures that every adventure leaves a positive impact on both the environment and the traveler's well-being. Trust Amy to guide you towards meaningful and eco-friendly travel, making the most of your retirement years.
A lifelong New England resident, Amy is also the source for insider tips on travel in the Northeastern U.S.