I have written about the benefits and fun that can be had by attending a Birding Festival. This is the best time of year to find one. But another option is to sign up for a Birding Tour. There are countless companies that offer a variety of tours around the U.S. and abroad. One of the most highly recognized is the Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT). It must be noted however, that these kinds of tours tend to be expensive because they include lodging, meals, transportation during the tour and a professional guide. But, in terms of seeing lots of birds, some of them ‘lifers’ and going to locations you might never otherwise visit, there is no better way to improve your bird watching skills and add to your life list. It’s easy to use Google to find companies that offer these tours, but you can also look in Audubon Magazine and Living Bird – a publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Both have ads for Tours and Tour Companies in the back of the magazines.
We have just finished a birding tour along the Mississippi River valley in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This was a tour that my husband and I led for Road Scholar. We had 12 participants from around the country, with varying skill levels and physical abilities. Over five days we managed to see 100 species of birds. The timing was such that we hoped to catch the migratory song birds that are moving back north from tropical regions. The Mississippi River flyway is a major migratory route for millions of birds each spring. Each year is different from the previous one based on weather conditions and the length of our winter.
This year the winter stretched into April and we worried that the birds would be behind schedule, but we ended up having three very hot days (in the 80s) and it seemed as though the birds – warblers in particular – had already left the area. We know there is a period of time in May – usually mid-month – when birders have the best chance of catching the migrants, but the fluctuations in weather can greatly influence your success.
The Prothonotary Warbler is found in river floodplain habitat and is never easy to see, even though its yellow feathers are stunning.
There is no more brilliant bird than the Scarlet Tanager
Still we managed to see some extraordinary birds and several people in the group added ‘lifers’ to their bird list. Some of the highlights included; Prothonotary Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Wilson Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole (many), Great Horned Owl, and Coopers Hawk. I had seen all of these birds on previous outings, but they are not commonly seen, so each time is a thrill.
The benefit of going on a group tour is that you have many eyes searching the surroundings and inevitably, someone will spot a bird and then the rest of the group turns their attention to the new location and by giving one another hints on where to look, usually everyone gets to see the bird. However, watching warblers is always a challenge, because by nature they never stay in one place for longer than a few seconds. They fly in among the branches of a tree seeking tiny insects, so it requires a lot of practice and patience to become proficient at really seeing them.
We stopped at some State Park Visitor Centers and here our group had an easier time, as there were bird feeders set up and the birds came to us, sort of. They’re actually coming for the wild bird food, but it makes it easy for viewing lots of species.
New friendships are forged during these tours and everyone goes home with a better understanding of the ecology of an area and its significance for bird life.
By Kate Crowley