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Choosing a Birding Tour

Am I ready for a Birding Tour?

How do I know if I’m ready for a birding tour?
It’s a common and understandable question. The concern most often seems to be, “Am I a good enough birdwatcher?” The simple answer is “Yes”—whatever your skill level. Most tour companies are accustomed to dealing with participants of widely differing abilities, from complete novices to highly skilled tour veterans. If asked, most tour leaders would say that they prefer to lead an enthusiastic novice who finds everything wonderful to a jaded veteran bored with all but a few new species. The only real question is, “Am I interested enough in birds to spend time and money on such a trip?”

Will I get along with the group?
One of the best aspects of birding tours from both an organizational and leadership perspective is that all the participants share a common interest. As a member of a tour group, you may find some personalities more congenial than others, but given the strong common interest in the group, it’s unusual to find someone who’s unbearable.

Tour Leaders

The leader is the single most important element of a birding tour. He or she is responsible for every element of the tour once it’s underway, including bird finding, identification, and interpretation; tour logistics; and sensitive, patient attention to the needs of the group. It’s a remarkably challenging task. A brilliantly designed tour with a terrible leader will never be a great one, but a logistically challenged tour with a brilliant leader sometimes can.

There are some important questions to ask about your leader:

  1. Is he or she a professional?
    We believe that paid professional leaders are better equipped to handle the diverse demands of a birding tour. Volunteer leaders, or those who may be getting the trip free, are less likely to devote their full attentions to the needs of the group (though of course some volunteers are admirably selfless in leadership roles). It is always a good idea to learn something about your leader and how he or she likes to run birding tours. Ask the organizing company for a biographical sketch of the leader if they don’t have one on their website. Ask your friends and acquaintances about their experiences with the leader. If you don’t know anyone who has traveled with the leader, ask the company to put you in touch with someone who has. Companies are, of course, unlikely to point you to anyone who had a bad time with the leader in question, but you can still learn a lot by asking the questions that are most important to you.

  2. Does your leader have significant previous experience in the tour area?
    On a birding tour, it’s essential for your leader to know a great deal about the area visited. It takes repeated exposure to master bird identification, to learn the vocalizations, and to understand the distribution, ecology, and behavior of the local avifauna. Traveling with a leader who lacks this experience can be extraordinarily frustrating. An ornithologically inexperienced leader can be acceptable if the tour has a co-leader with the necessary knowledge. Well-organized companies or organizations should be able to give you considerable detail on your leader or leaders’ knowledge of the area.

  3. Does your leader share your interests?
    Virtually all professional leaders are good with birds, but many have other skills that may mesh with your interests. Some may be good general naturalists, knowing butterflies and plants. Some may be trained in ecology and be able to thread those concepts through the tour. Others may know a lot about the customs and culture of the tour country. Still others may be at the very cutting edge of bird identification. A leader whose interests match yours is likely to make your tour more interesting.

Tour Companies

There are many companies offering birding tours. There are dedicated birding tour companies, large and small, that offer nothing but birding, and there is also a host of other organizations such as universities, museums, Audubon clubs, and private groups running tours that may include birdwatching. When considering a birding tour company, you should first be clear as to the kind of tour you want. Assuming that you want to spend virtually all your time watching birds, here are some things to look for:

Large companies with lots of tours may not run better tours than small companies that offer just a few. Large companies, however, are large because they have run first-class tours for many years, and as a result have built up a team of excellent leaders and a loyal following. If you absolutely have to pick a tour without the benefit of knowing anything about the tour company or the leader, it’s much safer to choose from among the offerings of a large company.

Buying a tour is like buying most other things. Most purchases stem from the recommendation of a friend whose opinions you respect. Most people who sign up with a bird tour company for the first time are doing so in part because one or more of their friends have recommended the company. It’s a time-tested and largely satisfactory approach.

If you can’t find anyone who has traveled with the bird tour company you’re considering, there are still a number of things you can look for to judge its worth. Do they have a reasonable advertising presence? Do they respond promptly to your request for literature? Is their literature or website clear and well prepared? Do they answer followup questions, if any, with candor and thoroughness? Companies that do well in these matters are likely to run their tours well, too.

Tour Price

Two companies can offer tours of the same length to the same location and with prices that differ by hundreds or thousands of dollars—and yet both trips can offer good value for the price.

The following elements can influence the cost of a tour.

  1. Group size
    From a strictly ornithological perspective, small groups are almost always better than large groups. Small groups take less time to complete every activity, they make less noise on the trail and have an easier time finding and seeing birds, and they give each participant more access to the leader. The ideal size for a tour is probably four participants or fewer—but of course tours that limit groups to those tiny numbers are likely to be terrifically expensive. Most tour companies have compromised to the point that group sizes are normally six to 16 participants, accompanied by one leader (six to 10 participants) or two (eight to 16 participants). Every so often, a tour will have much larger numbers, as in the case of chartered ships, but with the exception of cruises and a few land-based tours where large numbers of eyes are an advantage, the more people on a tour, the less efficient the birding. Serious birders should avoid groups of 20 or more unless the organizers intend to divide into much smaller sub-groups, each with its own competent leader. Having said that, a tour with 20 participants and one leader might be comparatively inexpensive.

  2. Inclusion or exclusion of services
    Tour prices can vary considerably depending on what’s included. Some of the most important elements to bear in mind when comparing tour prices are the inclusion or non-inclusion of the following items: internal airfares, food and drink, professional or volunteer leadership, professional or volunteer office assistance, and first and last day transfers and other services for joining and leaving the tour. Remember, too, that there may be differences in the quality of included items. A non-stop flight, for example, may be vastly preferable but considerably more expensive than a multi-stop flight with off-peak timing. Hotels and meals can vary dramatically, too. It’s not always easy to determine whether the included service is of the required quality. It’s always worth looking closely at the “fine print” on the company’s website. And when in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask.

Tour Operation

Let’s say you’ve winnowed your choice down to just two or three companies, each appearing to run birding tours of the sort you want, at a time when you can and want to travel, and going to about the same places at about the same price. As similar as these tours might seem, they may in fact be operated quite differently. Some tours are aggressive, rising early and spending most or all of the day in the field in search of birds. These tours will certainly see more birds but they may also be very tiring. At the other extreme, a relaxed tour may offer optional early morning excursions followed by breakfast followed by a late-morning excursion; but more sleep almost always means fewer birds. Experienced tour participants can get an indication of the tour type by looking at past bird lists. Tours whose bird lists include lots of nocturnal birds and shy species almost certainly spend more time in the field.

Some birding tours use large buses, while others use smaller mini-buses or vans often driven by the leader. There are advantages to each. The larger buses are usually more comfortable with larger windows for viewing; some have restroom facilities. In tours with considerable driving, a larger bus can save wear and tear on both participant and leader alike. Smaller self-drive vehicles, however, can react far more quickly to roadside birds. They can often get down small roads and into small parking spaces that the big buses can’t or won’t negotiate. If there are two smaller vehicles, it’s possible to split the group temporarily to satisfy differing objectives. With self-drive vehicles, the day can begin early and end late without incurring the resentment of the driver.

If the pace of the tour is important to you, ask the organizing company to describe the typical day afield. If you find the answers too general or unsatisfying, ask if you could talk with the leader or past tour participants.


The good news is that there are a number of good birding tour companies. Your chances of finding one are improved if you can determine in advance the sort of tour you want in terms of group size, birding rigor, level of comfort, and, of course, price. Once that’s decided, we encourage you to base your selection on the quality of the tour leadership. Nothing will be more important in determining how much you enjoy your tour.

Updated: May 2012