World's Best Birds
Why do we travel? To expand the mind and heart by experiencing a different culture; to create memories that will last a lifetime; to share those experiences back home with those we love are all reasons that come to mind.
There's one easy way to check all these boxes and more – birdwatching.
Spotting a rare bird in an exotic locale provides expansive, memorable moments that you’ll be eager to share back home. And if the species is endangered, birding offers a unique – and disappearing - view into a specific ecosystem that’s hard to appreciate in any other way.
Here’s our list of the best birding sites in the world, from the tropics to the hinterlands, covering all seven continents. Pack your binoculars and your camera and capture a native souvenir that will deeply define your travel experience.
15. Cape May, New Jersey
It may surprise some to see a seaside New Jersey town on the list of the best places on Earth to see birds. But believe it: This is one of the world's most avian-abundant destinations, a place "National Geographic" has called a "bird funnel."
If you’ve honed your birding skills to the point where you’d bet money on your ability to spot a grouse faster than the next guy, head to Cape May's annual World Series of Birding. The relatively low-key sport of birdwatching is taken to a whole new level, but the profits go to protect birds and it’s all in good fun.
If you can’t make the tournament, the amazing Audubon chapter at Cape May has an observatory that keeps the birding excitement going year-round, with migration counts in both Spring and Fall.
Coolest Bird to Spot in Cape May: Red-knot Sandpiper
Shorebirds are a big draw in Cape May, and one of the most memorable is the Red Knot Sandpiper. The gorgeously hued bird stops here during its extraordinary 9,300-mile migration from its Arctic breeding grounds to South America.
14: Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam
“Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam is a fantastic National Park,” says Arjan Dwarshuis. And he would know: the conservationist and owner of The Birding Experience is the 2016 Big Year record holder, meaning he spotted more birds in that year than anyone else on the planet. His final count? More than 6,800 bird species in 40 different countries!
The dry season for this rainy part of the world starts in October, so that’s the best time to book birding tours. One specific draw is the three-mile hike to Crocodile Lake, where magnificent birds congregate.
Coolest Bird to Spot at Cat Tien: Oriental Pied Hornbill
Dwarshuis finished his Big Year at Cat Tien with sightings of the Green Peafowl, Germain’s Peacock-Pheasant and Orange-necked Partridge, all very worthy birds to spot.
But for appearances alone, we suggest seeking out the Oriental Pied Hornbill. Surely one of the most distinctive birds you'll ever see, it's marked by a prominent bill that, on males, can be up to 19 centimeters long.
13. Wadden Islands, between Denmark and the Netherlands
Although there are many “hotspots” for birders throughout Europe, including prime layovers in Spain during Spring migration, Dwarshuis has a bias for this unique string of islands in the Wadden Sea.
“The Dutch Wadden Islands offer - without doubt - the most impressive birding in Northwester Europe!” he says. “Especially in May and August/September you can witness the largest congregation of waders in the world.”
(If you’re in the area, consider a tour with Dwarshuis himself.)
Coolest Bird to Spot in the Wadden Islands: Eurasian Spoonbill
One of the most distinctive of the wading birds here is the Eurasian Spoonbill. The bird is named, of course, for its spatula-like black bill, which it uses to search for fish in shallow water. Also notable: its hypnotizing red eyes.
12. Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, India
Nestled in the Himalyan foothills in a far, remote northwest corner of India, this rugged and remote sanctuary is not for the day-birder. Since few travel to this area, though, the payoff for the committed birder is huge.
Out of all the continents, Asia has one of the highest bird diversities on the planet. So it says something that, according to Dwarshuis, this is where you’ll find the best birding in all of Asia.
Coolest Bird to Spot at Eaglenest: Temminck’s Tragopan
Dwarshuis singles out the sanctuary's “spectacular pheasants like Temminck’s Tragopan, the vivid green Fire-tailed Myzornis and the enigmatic Beautiful Nuthatch.”
With its white-spotted plumage and violet-blue face, the Temminck’s Tragopan in particular will take your breath away.
11. Magee Marsh, Ohio
Once you’re hooked on birding, you quickly realize that, well, birds are everywhere. That means a run-of-the-mill business trip to Toledo, Ohio, can be transformed into a life-changing experience for the committed birder.
“Many birding hotspots are located along a migration route where birds stop, rest and refuel before continuing along their migration journey, such as Magee Marsh,” says Laura Kammermeier, Digital Publication Marketing Manager for Birds of North America.
May is the month to go; this is when birders turn out in droves to catch sight of thousands of warblers, a wonderful communion between humanity and nature.
Coolest Bird to Spot at Magee Marsh: Northern Parula Warbler
You can’t go wrong with any of the warblers who stop over in Magee Marsh. But one of the most striking is the colorful Northern Parula Warbler. The bird, which often forages in dense foliage, is tricky to find. Search for it by listening for its distinctive, buzzy trill instead.
10. Eilat and Hula Valley, Israel
Israel doesn’t have the rainforests of the Amazon to attract birds, but it does meet the classic advice of realtors: location, location, location.
The popular resort town of Eilat, the southernmost city in Israel, and the northern valley of Hula are both perfectly positioned on the migratory route for thousands of birds needing a rest from traveling over vast distances between Africa, Europe and Asia. (The International Birdwatching and Research Center of Eilat, or IBRCE, is an excellent resource for birders.)
“Eilat during spring migration is spectacular,” Kammermeier says. She suggests heading to the area in March for its annual birding competition Champions of the Flyway, during which teams compete to spot the largest number of species within a 24-hour period.
Coolest Bird to Spot in Eilat and Hula Valley: Gray Cane
The artificially restored Agamon Hula Lake in the Hula Valley is now home to 40,000 Gray Cranes that chose to stay and feast on local crops rather than continue to Africa. The influx has been bad for local farmers - to protect their product, the government now feeds the cranes up to eight tons of corn each day! - but great for birders.
The drab name "Gray Crane" doesn’t do justice to this bird, whose silver, black and white coloring makes it a true beauty.
9. Poyang Lake, China
Poyang Lake is the largest freshwater lake in China, drawing a half-million migratory birds each year. Located in the Jiangxi Province in the country's southeastern region, it is breathtakingly massive — 170 miles long and 11 miles wide.
“Winter birding is truly spectacular around Poyang Lake,” Dwarshuis says. “In 2014 I witnessed a congregation of over 1,000 Siberian Cranes (among four other species of Crane), almost the entire world population of this critically endangered species.”
Unfortunately, the lake has suffered dramatic water loss in recent years, most likely from sand quarrying or the effects of the nearby Three Gorges Dam. But it remains a top spot for bird enthusiasts.
Coolest Bird to Spot at Poyang Lake: Siberian Crane
Poyang Lake is one of the only places on Earth you can spot the stunning Siberian Crane, identified by its black wingtips and red skin.
The Eastern population breeds only there and along the Lower Yangtze River Basin in China. As for the Western/Central population, it’s limited to a single crane who winters along Iran’s Caspian Sea.
8. Cairns, Australia
Dwarshuis puts it bluntly: “With over 400 endemic species, Australia is a must-visit for any self-respecting birder.”
In particular, he recommends the Queensland city of Cairns, “where you have a dry interior, the endemic-packed Aberthon Tablelands and a lush coastal rainforest within a relatively small area.”
The city is also considered a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, making this a wildlife-lover’s dream.
Coolest Bird to Spot in Cairns: Masked Lapwing
The Masked Lapwing, with its yellow veil-lake mask, is aptly named and hard to forget. Just make sure to keep your distance as you grab your camera: this plover is known to chase away humans who get too close to its young.
7. Kaikoura, New Zealand
Just four hours away from Australia, New Zealand is another must-visit for birders. If you’re in this remote part of the world, why not see the natural wonders that both of these amazing islands offer?
Dwarshuis singles out Kaikoura as the best affordable spot to see pelagic birds — seabirds that spend most of their time on the ocean, like albatross, petrels, shearwaters and tropicbirds.
“You can book a morning trip out to the continental shelf and in a couple of hours’ time you can witness a feeding frenzy of seven species of Albatross,” Dwarshuis says.
Coolest Bird to Spot in Kaikoura: Wandering Albatross
Kaikoura is where Dwarshuis saw his first Wandering Albatross, “the bird with the largest wingspan of all.”
Wingspans can reach 11 feet, six inches, a truly extraordinary sight.
6. South Georgia Island, Antarctica
The beloved documentary “March of the Penguins” made the four-foot tall Emperor Penguin – the largest penguin in the world – the star of these remote islands. But there are other species here, as well, including two songbirds found nowhere else in the world: the South Georgia Pipit, and the South Georgia Pintail.
These two smaller but endangered species made news when a massive, $13 million conservation effort to drive invasive rats off the 400-square-mile island proved successful in 2018. The rats were eating the eggs and chicks of these songbirds and other birds, including albatrosses, skua, terns and petrels.
Eradicating the rats took several years and tons of poison; the success could mean attempts elsewhere to protect birds from invasive species introduced by humans.
Coolest Bird on South Georgia Island: South Georgia Pintail
Yes, the Emperor Penguin is a must-see, even more impressive in person than it is on screen.
But for sheer uniqueness, check out the South Georgia Pipit or, pictured here, adorable South Georgia Pintail duck. As any birder knows, special bragging rights come from seeing native birds that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.
5. Costa Rica
At less than 20,000 square miles and packed with over 600 hundred resident and more than 200 migratory species, it’s hard to find more birds in a smaller area than in Costa Rica.
“Anywhere in the country is good for birding,” Dwarshuis says. “You have an endemic-packed mountain range, both Pacific and Caribbean lowland rainforest, dry forest, mangrove, coastline and huge wetlands.”
Coolest Bird to Spot in Costa Rica: Resplendent Quetzal
Costa Rica is where Dwarshuis saw his world-record breaking bird, the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, a gray-brown bird that can be hard to spot and is more readily identified by its loud singing.
But Dwarshuis notes that the country’s best bird is, “of course,” the aptly named Resplendent Quetzal. With its iridescent green, red and blue coloring and three-foot-long tail-feather train, this bird is renowned as one of the world's most beautiful.
4. Papua New Guinea
Even those with no interest at all in birding have probably been mesmerized by internet videos of the infamous mating dances of the Papua New Guinea Birds-of-Paradise. Witnessing one of these mating dances firsthand is a birder’s dream.
To seek these birds out, Dwarshuis advises heading to Ekame Lodge along the Fly River. “Here, at this very remote site, I saw displaying Twelve-wired, King and Greater Birds-of-Paradise, but also the spectacular Crowned Pigeon, Presques Parrot and the huge Palm Cockatoo.”
Coolest Bird to Spot in Papua New Guinea: Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise
Each Papua New Guinea Bird-of-Paradise is as dazzling, and riveting, as the last. But perhaps the most show-stopping of all is the Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise.
While the female isn’t much to look at, the male sports a greyish-blue bill, yellow iris and ornamental flank plumes in orange or red.
3. The Everglades, United States
Florida’s wetlands have long attracted birds; naturalist John James Audobon once wrote that waders here “appeared in such numbers to actually block out the light from the sun for some time." Today, Everglades National Park touts 360 different species of birds.
The Everglades is one of many national parks in the United States providing not just an amazing inventory of birds, but a critical refuge for many species facing the threat of climate change. The country’s National Wildlife Refuge System also provides important habitat for thousands of birds.
Coolest Bird to Spot in the Everglades: Purple Gallinule
Scout out swamps and marshes for the Purple Gallinule. With its colorful plumage, bright red-and-yellow bill and loud clacking noise, it makes its presence known.
2. Great Rift Valley, Kenya
Although many go on safari to see the “Big Five” — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo — the smart safarian adds birds to the list. Instead of anxiously waiting hours for one big animal, alert birders fill their idle time with brilliant plumage and fascinating tweets (of the non-social-media variety).
The magnificent Great Rift Valley runs nearly 4,000 miles from Lebanon to Mozambique, and the Kenyan portion holds ancient lakes hosting over 400 species of birds, from flamingos to eagles to bee eaters.
“I visited Lake Nakuru, where I saw over 230 species in just one day,” Dwarshuis says. “Lake Baringo further north also offers terrific birding, including some hard to find nocturnal species like the Three-banded Courser and very localized species like Hemprich’s Hornbill.”
Coolest Bird to Spot in the Great Rift Valley: Flamingos
Lake Nakuru’s most famous residents are flamingos — and there are lots of them. Over 1 million can converge here at one time.
Alas, the number of flamingos is slowly dwindling due to climate change, but you can still see plenty of the pink beauties here.
1. Manu Road, Peru
Just like humans, birds need consistent access to clean air, food and water. That’s why anywhere near the Amazon basin, a three-million square mile biosphere teeming with life, is an ideal place to find birds.
To really spot the good stuff, head to the famous Manu Road in Peru, which starts in the city of Cusco and ends in Peru’s portion of the Amazon. Thousands of species call this area home.
“Peru offers incredible birding owing to its location in the Amazon headwaters and to elevational gradients along the Andes Mountains,” says Kammermeier, of Birds of North America.
Coolest Bird to Spot at Manu Road: Andean Cock-of-the-Rock
The fancifully named Andean Cock-of-the-Rock sports equally fancy red-orange plumage, plus brilliant black-and-white wings and a crest that nearly obscures its bill. It’s a little silly looking, in a completely delightful way.
Also seek out the Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, known as the Harpy of the Andean cloud forests, a massive raptor with a striking presence.