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How to Choose a Birding Tour (Part Two of three) (1 Viewer)

Time of year can be a big issue as most people are not able to simply pack up their bags at any time, and most countries have a fairly defined period when the conditions are best suited to birding or travelling in general. We always attempt to pick the best time of year for getting the highest species total or the maximum number of endemic and special species, which is not necessarily when most species are in the area, but this also depends on climatic conditions for example. On some occasions it also makes sense to take advantage of low-season rates as tour costs can often be reduced without negatively impacting on the number of species we expect to find. Some countries should just not be visited at certain times of the year and we would even advise against it on private tours, while others, where the endemics are the important targets for instance, can be productive during a larger part of the year. Here are some examples of good areas to visit in different months: the Indian subcontinent, Colombia, Chile, Myanmar, South Africa, Antarctica and Ethiopia from November to February. February is also good for the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Morocco, while we mainly visit Cuba a little later on in March, since this is the best time for passage migrants. March and April are good for Cameroon and Bhutan, and our Ecuador and Philippines tours occupy this part of the calendar too. Our preferred time in East Africa is April and May in Kenya and Tanzania; towards the end of this time is when we also head into Eastern Europe and Mongolia. Uganda is best a little later towards June and July, which is when the season also begins in Papua New Guinea, and Spitsbergen is more navigable. Around August is great for Gabon, Sulawesi and Brazil, while the Namibia (including our Namibia, Okavango & Victoria Falls Overland Safaris) season begins around this time as well. September is great for much of South America, including Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. Moving into October, South Africa, Australia and Madagascar come into their most productive periods as we enter the austral summer again. Remember that this is just a brief indication and many areas are good during a variety of seasons and can be visited at other times as well.

One of the first things that is often looked at when deciding on a tour is its length and how well it fits in with any other plans that you may have. We often try to start a tour towards the end of a weekend, giving people time to reach the destination if they leave on a Friday evening or Saturday, thereby reducing the number of leave days required in order to do the tour. Most tours are also just less than 2 to 3 weeks long (with exceptions), depending on the destination, again allowing participants to arrive home on a weekend. Most of our guests prefer longer tours, as the cost and effort of distant travelling warrants this, rather than shorter tours that require proportionately relatively longer travel times. Additional options for those wanting to extend their experiences are our extensions, which are offered before and/or after many tours, targeting something different in a similar region that isn’t possible on the main tour; as well as making the most of the time and costs involved in travelling to distant destinations.

This gets us to another very important factor, namely cost. Of course, there is generally a range of tour operators offering tours to certain regions at widely varying prices. Things that can be easily overlooked however are factors such as the standard of accommodation used on tour, extra excursions such as boat rides, group size, how professional, experienced and specialized the guide is, and whether there are local guides or assistants on the tour that will assist with logistics and any language problems if these should surface. You might find a very cheap tour operator somewhere and then be disappointed to discover that you missed so many of the potential highlights because shortcuts were taken or the guide had limited birding knowledge, for example. Some destinations are also just more expensive than others, where again you would have to decide what you most want out of your trip. An important consideration when selecting a tour is potentially the number of tours that you might be able to do in the longer term. For example your recommended choice of an African tour would be different if your plans were to only visit Africa once compared to a birder who intends to make several visits to different parts of Africa over the course of their international birding time.

Something that goes along with the two previous factors is ease of travel to the tour starting point – more distant tours are usually more time-consuming and expensive to get to, while you may also need a day or two to recover from the jetlag if there is a significant time zone difference. In some cases it is possible to combine tours so that you can then take full advantage of being in that particular area; for example we offer a variety of back-to-back tours to the Indian subcontinent, Europe and the Caribbean that follow on from each other for this very purpose. This simultaneously reduces your travel costs and relative travel time to get from one particular tour to the next.

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Some people have specific birds they would particularly like to see, or groups of birds or families they are really interested in ‘chasing’. Doing an entire tour for a single bird may not be worthwhile, but looking at the distribution of the species in question and seeing what else is available within the region often means that you are able to find a tour that combines a number of other interesting features as well, which would then make it an option more worthwhile for you to pursue.

How good are your birding skills? Some destinations, especially those that include visiting many forest sites, require a lot of patience, effort and skill if you expect to see most of the birds that are possible in the area. Some birders do struggle to pick up movement for example, making it very difficult for them in these tougher birding situations. Other destinations however offer more open habitats and/or more confiding birds, Ethiopia, Northern India and Kenya are examples of easier birding locations. Here the birding can be a lot less demanding and many people derive more pleasure and less frustration from such tours.

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On some tours there are very few physical demands for participants, such as in East Africa, where much of the birding occurs in national parks, where you may not leave your vehicle due to potential danger from wild animals. If, however, you wish to look for Horned Guan in Guatemala, or Mount Cameroon Speirops in Cameroon, you would need to put in a great deal of effort to have a fair chance of seeing these particular birds. Long driving days can also be quite demanding physically, although this can often not be avoided on comprehensive birding tours where the object is to see as many of the region’s species or endemics.

Related to the above point is the intensity level of a tour, with some being very intense, including birding activities from predawn until dusk and often beyond, whereas others have several fairly relaxed days or breaks built in to the itinerary. Often some segments can be left out; for example, if you are not interested in taking part in a night walk, this can be a way to reduce the intensity of a tour, but many people are worried about missing special sightings and will try to minimize the experiences that they miss on any trip. Whether you sit down for every meal or take packed meals that you eat ‘on-the-fly’ can also heavily influence how much birding time is available every day. Since Rockjumper is the largest international birding tour company we are often able to offer tours with various levels of intensity to the same country. For instance, our shorter Highlights tours aim to provide a less intensive experience designed around less driving distances, comfortable lodges and more relaxed time in the field. Our Comprehensive tours are aimed at the keen birder and are usually slightly longer tours that aim for as many of the accessible endemics and as high a bird count as possible but still minimizing single night stays and allowing for some down time. At the other end of the scale, our Mega tours are designed for the hardcore birder and generally aim for record-breaking bird numbers, such as our Colombia Mega 1,000 Bird Tour, or every possible endemic. These tours are faster paced with long days in the field and regular one-night stops.

Comfort is also an important factor for many of our participants, and is a major deciding factor in the choice of a particular tour. On certain tours we can offer high quality accommodations and mostly smooth roads, such as in our home country South Africa and also in Thailand for example. However, this is most definitely not the case in many destinations, where conditions necessitate some unavoidable discomfort in order to seek our target species. The same can be said for meals; in India for example, where much of the food is spicy hot and fantastic if you enjoy that kind of cooking, but possibly a little monotonous (and fiery!) if you don’t. Many of the less developed countries often provide food that is not nearly as diverse as you may be used to, and this can sometimes be seen as rather problematic if you are a particularly fussy eater.

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