13. Foreign trips – top five destinations for bird photography

The UK offers a wealth of opportunities for photographers and often it is only imagination and determination that limit the scope of activities. But for a change it can be a wonderful experience to venture further afield and see what other parts of the world have to offer. Avoiding obvious photographic hotspots such as south Florida and monumentally expensive destinations like Antarctica, here are a few personal suggestions.

a.       New Zealand

From an environmental point of view, New Zealand is an ecological catastrophe: 42% of its terrestrial bird species have become extinct in since the arrival of humans 700 years ago, and the land is now overrun in places with alien plant and animal species. So why visit New Zealand? Aside from the beauty of the landscape, the country boasts some of the World’s most successful conservation programs, single-minded to the point of ruthlessness in their aims and methods. Consequently remaining native species are being helped as much as is humanly possible; many have never developed a fear of people and make wonderful photographic subjects. But the stars of the show are the seabirds, some of which breed on New Zealand; many more are visitors to the rich oceans that surround the land. From a photographic point of view, New Zealand is the seabird capital of the world. Pelagic trips operate out of Kaikoura on South Island, and to Hauraki Gulf from various spots on North Island.

Named for the extraordinary, asymmetrical bill, the Wrybill is a wader that is unique to New Zealand. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Named for the extraordinary, asymmetrical bill, the Wrybill is a wader that is unique to New Zealand. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

b.       Trinidad and Tobago

If you have never visited the tropical New World then the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is an easy introduction. Both islands are usually visited as part of the same trip but Trinidad offers arguably the best photographic opportunities, with the Asa Wright Nature Centre a perfect base for exploration. The centre itself offers some amazing photographic opportunities and is noted for its hummingbirds; a network of trails allows the surrounding forests to be explored. A trip to Trinidad would not be complete without a visit to Caroni Swamp to witness the evening arrival of hundreds of Scarlet Ibises.

Scarlet Ibises are improbably colourful birds. Because they arrive at Caroni Swamp just before sunset, photographic opportunities are limited in duration so you need to be ready for action. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Scarlet Ibises are improbably colourful birds. Because they arrive at Caroni Swamp just before sunset, photographic opportunities are limited in duration so you need to be ready for action. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

c.       Eilat, southern Israel

As a destination for bird photography, Israel has fallen out of favour in recent years, perhaps understandably so given the country’s spotlight in the media. But in photographic terms it is still as good as it ever was, offering the spectacle of millions of migrant birds passing through on migration, and reliably wonderful morning and afternoon light. For a first time visitor, Eilat makes an ideal destination and is a major migration hotspot. To give you an idea of the scale, take Honey Buzzards as an example: on a good morning in late April you could see tens of thousands passing over one location; in the right place, views can be breathtakingly close. Migrant passerines can be found wherever there is vegetation while saltpans and the famous ‘North Beach’ (on the Rea Sea) are locations for waders and terns. Eilat in winter is also good, with resident desert birds and wintering wheatears and Sinai Rosefinches on offer.

Eilat offers unrivalled opportunities to photograph migrating Honey Buzzards, either soaring in the mountains or coming down to drink at pools. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Eilat offers unrivalled opportunities to photograph migrating Honey Buzzards, either soaring in the mountains or coming down to drink at pools. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

d.       Varanger, north Norway

Varanger Halvøya National Park, to use its official name, lies well inside the Arctic circle and is about as far north as you can travel in mainland Europe. Hardy souls pay winter visits for flocks of Steller’s and King eiders but it is in spring and early summer that the location comes into its own. Arctic-breeding species are present in abundance with lekking Ruff a highlight and nesting species that include Bluethroat, Red-necked Phalarope, Red-throated and Black-throated divers, Temminck’s and Little stints, Turnstone, Long-tailed and Arctic skuas and White-tailed Eagle. A network of gravel tracks lead to the interior, some to the boundary of the national park, and many are driveable with care.

Norway’s Arctic tundra hosts breeding waders galore, and singing Temminck’s Stints are regularly encountered shortly after their arrival. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Norway’s Arctic tundra hosts breeding waders galore, and singing Temminck’s Stints are regularly encountered shortly after their arrival. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

e.       Keoladeo National Park, India

Often simply referred to as Bharatpur (the adjacent city) this former Maharaja’s hunting ground is now a wildlife sanctuary and a wonderful destination for any bird photographer. A network of tracks criss-cross Keoladeo and can be explored on foot or by rickshaw. The national park is best known for its wintering water birds - usually in the hundreds of thousands - although precise numbers vary each year according to prevailing water levels. Many of the birds are seemingly oblivious to people and opportunities for photographing storks, egrets, herons and kingfishers are outstanding. There are plenty of associated raptors too and Marsh Harriers and Great Spotted Eagles are regularly encountered within the boundaries of the park. In adjacent farmland, delights such as Indian Coursers and Black-winged Kites are an added bonus.

A selection of herons, egrets and storks feasting on fish at Keoladeo. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

A selection of herons, egrets and storks feasting on fish at Keoladeo. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Rob Read