The Best Destinations in the World for Birdwatching

Birdwatcher observing a starling murmuration at dusk

David Trood / Getty Images

Birdwatching is one of the most rewarding ways to get out and enjoy nature; because wherever you are—from teeming metropolises to some of the world’s least hospitable wildernesses—there will always be something to see. Some destinations are particularly renowned as birdwatching hotspots, however. In this article, we take a look at 12 of our favorites, including the bird-of-paradise-filled forests of Papua New Guinea, the migration highways of America, and the seabird colonies of the extreme southern hemisphere. Some are exceptional for the diversity of their birdlife, while others are the last bastions for species at risk of extinction. Either way, each of them deserves a spot on your birding bucket list. 

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Monteverde Cloud Forest

Resplendent quetzal in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

Kevin Wells / Getty Images

8633+3P3, Carr. a Reserva de Monteverde, Provincia de Puntarenas, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Phone +506 2645 5122

With over 900 recorded bird species and an eco-friendly reputation, Costa Rica is a dream destination for many birdwatchers. Parks and reserves all over the country promise fantastic sightings, but one of the most popular spots is undeniably the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Located in the northern interior, the 26,000-acre reserve incorporates four different forest habitats, including its world-famous cloud forest. More than 400 types of bird find refuge here, and a walk along verdant wooded trails could well yield sightings of two of Costa Rica’s most impressive species: the resplendent quetzal and the three-wattled bellbird. At the Hummingbird Garden in Selvatura Park, keep an eye out for more than 14 kinds of hummingbird, including some rarities. 

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Chobe National Park

Colony of carmine bee-eaters in river bank nests

Mint Images / Art Wolfe / Getty Images

7C9H+QMG, Kakoaka, Botswana

Located in northern Botswana, Chobe National Park is a Big Five game reserve often considered one of the most biodiverse regions on the African continent. The Chobe River and its fertile floodplains are the main attraction for birders, with boat-based safaris offering the chance to get close to an astonishing array of birds with minimal effort. More than 450 avian species have been recorded, including the highest density of raptors in Southern Africa. Notable sightings range from colonies of jewel-colored carmine bee-eaters nesting in the river banks; to glimpses of sought-after specials such as the Pel’s fishing owl and the African skimmer, here in the most southerly part of its range. The gateway to the park is Kasane town, which has its own airport. 

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The Pantanal

A crocodile with a butterfly on it's head in the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil

 TripSavvy / Chris VR

State of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

The most obvious destination in South America for many birders is the mighty Amazon Rainforest, home to over 1,300 species. However, the impenetrable nature of much of the Amazon makes birds relatively difficult to spot; not so in the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland in the world at more than 42 million acres. Most easily accessible from Brazil, the Pantanal is home to jaguars, caimans, otters, and capybaras, as well as some 475 avian species. Some of the most coveted are the hyacinth macaw (the world’s largest parrot), the locally endemic chestnut-bellied guan, and the fabulously camouflaged great potoo. In addition, expect an astonishing diversity of wading birds, with woodpeckers, trogons, jacamars, and more found in dense forest areas.

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Galapagos Islands

Blue-footed booby, Galapagos Islands

pchoui / Getty Images

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Situated 563 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands famously inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory was based on the incredible endemism of the archipelago’s wildlife, much of which is found nowhere else on Earth. This is also what makes it an incredible birding destination—of its 57 resident species, 25 are unique to the Galapagos. This includes the Galapagos flightless cormorant, the Galapagos hawk, the Galapagos short-eared owl, and the endangered Galapagos penguin. Additionally, look out for a wide variety of seabirds (from boobies to albatrosses and frigatebirds). Seabird colonies are amazingly unafraid of people, allowing for some unforgettable close encounters. Board a Galapagos liveaboard for the best experience. 

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05 of 12

Isle of Mull

White-tailed sea eagle in flight against a snowy backdrop

Nitat Termmee / Getty Images

Isle of Mull, United Kingdom

The second-largest of the Inner Hebrides islands on Scotland’s majestic west coast, the Isle of Mull is something of a haven for U.K.-based birders. With 300 miles of coastline, tidal and freshwater lochs, and a mountainous interior, it is rich in diverse habitats for everything from wading birds to moorland raptors and pelagic seabirds. Of particular interest are the island’s golden and white-tailed sea eagles. The latter was classified as extinct in Britain in the early 1900s but was successfully reintroduced on Mull in 1985. For a glimpse of another major rarity, make the short hop over to Iona, an island known for its corncrake sightings. Mull also provides a sanctuary for many other wildlife species, from red deer to otters.

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Cape May

Flock of terns over Cape May, New Jersey

Jay Cassario Photography / Getty Images

Americans looking for world-class birding a little closer to home will find it on New Jersey’s Cape May. Every fall, the peninsula funnels southbound migrants to land’s end at Cape May Point, where New Jersey Audubon hosts several migration watches. Head to the Cape May Hawkwatch for a chance to see raptors ranging from ospreys and peregrine falcons to golden eagles or the Morning Flight site at Higbee Beach for early morning songbird (and especially warbler) counts. At Avalon, a good year can see over a million seabirds pass right by the beach on their annual migration, while November brings great skeins of brant geese and hunting short-eared owls to the coastal meadows. Check the Audubon website for all the latest migration action. 

07 of 12

Papua New Guinea

Raggiana bird-of-paradise displaying, Papua New Guinea

feathercollector / Getty Images

Papua New Guinea

Made famous by David Attenborough’s iconic 1996 documentary "Attenborough in Paradise," Papua New Guinea is one of the ultimate destinations for extreme birders. In particular, adventurers come in search of the birds-of-paradise, an exotic group of birds characterized by the males' elaborate plumage and mating displays. PNG is home to 31 of the 42 species found worldwide, including the extraordinary ribbon-tailed astrapia, the King of Saxony bird-of-paradise, the blue bird-of-paradise, and the lesser bird-of-paradise. These are some of those found in the highland regions, while lowland highlights include the fluorescent king bird-of-paradise and the black-and-yellow twelve-wired bird-of-paradise. Join a dedicated tour for the best experience. 

08 of 12

Kruger National Park

Pel's fishing owl in a tree

Rainer von Brandis / Getty Images

South Africa
Phone +27 13 735 4000

Kruger National Park is the best-known safari destination in South Africa, with all of the Big Five and plenty of other animal highlights, including cheetah and wild dogs. As one of the largest national parks on the continent, it encompasses an incredible variety of habitats – which also makes it a top spot for birders. It is home to over 500 avian species, including the Birding Big Six: the saddle-billed stork, the kori bustard, the martial eagle, the lappet-faced vulture, the Pel’s fishing owl, and the ground hornbill. For the best birding, head to the far north of the park (Pafuri and Punda Maria in particular) and consider timing your trip with the South African summer (October to March). At this time, more than 200 migrant species expand your Kruger bird list. 

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09 of 12

Farne Islands

Puffins, United Kingdom

Brian Swales LRPS / 500px / Getty Images

David Attenborough once referred to Northumberland’s Farne Islands as his favorite place in the UK for experiencing “magnificent nature.” The archipelago, which consists of 28 remote islands, is mostly uninhabited but can be visited on a day trip or boat-based birdwatching tour. Seabirds are the main attraction here, with over 100,000 of them calling the Farnes home during the breeding season. Come to see nesting guillemots, Arctic terns, and eider ducks, and the crowd favorite, the charismatic puffin. From May to July, over 37,000 pairs of puffins can be seen traveling to and fro between their burrows and the sea, often with bills full of sand eels. The Farne Islands are also well known for their grey seal colonies, with pups present from October to December.

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South Georgia

Colony of king penguins on South Georgia

Janet K Scott / Getty Images

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

For remote birding at its best, save up for an adventure to South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean. This snow-and-ice-bound island is virtually uninhabited and impossible to get to other than on a specific expedition. It is home to a bevy of Antarctic species—including petrels, skuas, prions, shearwaters, and albatrosses. Birds of particular interest include the wandering albatross (with the longest wingspan of any living bird), and the South Georgia pipit (the most southerly passerine in the world). There are some 30 million breeding birds on South Georgia, with the most famous of these being the penguins. Four species are regularly found here, including colonies of over 200,000 king penguins each at St. Andrews Bay and Salisbury Plain. 

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Kapiti Island

Little-spotted kiwi on the forest floor, New Zealand

Oliver Strewe / Getty Images

Kapiti Island, Wellington 5032, New Zealand

New Zealand’s isolated location and recent geological history mean that the country has a high level of endemism, especially in its birdlife. Unfortunately, many of New Zealand’s rarest birds are under threat; and Kapiti Island is considered a key habitat and sanctuary for native species. Located 3 miles off the North Island's west coast, its special endemics include the takahe (the largest living member of the rail family), the endangered North Island kokomo, and the Tasmanian spotted owl. For most visitors, the main attraction is a chance to see both brown and little spotted kiwis. Of around 1,700 little spotted kiwis left in the wild, 1,200 live on Kapiti Island. For the best odds of spotting one, join an overnight kiwi tour with Kapiti Island Nature Tours

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Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

 Chris VR / TripSavvy

Chivay, Peru
Phone +51 54 203010

While most destinations on this list allow visitors to see a wide range of different birds, some of the world’s best birding spots are made famous by one iconic species. That’s the case for Colca Canyon in Peru, which has become synonymous with the Andean condor. These magnificent birds take the title of largest flying bird in terms of combined weight and wingspan, with the latter reaching 10 feet, 6 inches. The Colca Canyon, located roughly four hours by car from Arequipa, is probably the best place in the world to see them. This is due to the strong winds that funnel down the valley, allowing the great birds to soar effortlessly above observation points like Cruz del Condor. The dry season (April to November) is best for sightings.

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The Best Destinations in the World for Birdwatching