My fledgling interest in birding started on a business trip in East Africa, which is not exactly what you expect when you’re catching a cab in a suit on your way to a meeting in a glass skyscraper.

I remember the moment vividly: standing under the covered entry at the hotel’s front door in Dar Es Salaam, I watched as a weaverbird (The International Ornithological Committee recognizes 122 weaverbird species; I’m not sure which it was.) built the most delicate, beautiful hanging nest. It worked fast; I was mesmerized and very nearly late to the appointment.

weaver bird tanzania

Weaver bird

The same sense of surprise reinforced my newfound passion for birding when, back home in Switzerland, I started seeing gray herons that looked very much like the great blue herons we had at my childhood home on Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

I’d expected them there in Florida; one used to walk right up to our sliding glass door in the morning as we ate breakfast, but I didn’t expect to see them in Switzerland. (Now I know, of course, they’re nearly everywhere.) Likewise, I’m not sure what I expected when we kayaked the eastern mangroves of Abu Dhabi; the avian species we encountered were nearly identical to those I grew up with. Lots more heron there.

grey heron gray heron europe switzerland

Gray heron, Europe

In Switzerland, we live next to a gray heron colony, and for several years, we have watched as they industriously build and guard their nests each spring. For hours some days in April, the males gather and fly with twigs and branches to and from the nests while the females stay put. We meet them sometimes as we’re hiking alongside local streams, too.

I’ve started to notice birds everywhere now, some I’m familiar with, others are new-to-me avian species. There was a giant Osprey nest on a utility pole at the entrance to our street in Florida; here in Switzerland, it’s White Storks’ nests on chimneys and light poles near Zurich’s Griefensee.

For avid birders, these synanthropic species may be far too easy to spot. Still, this new interest got me thinking, “Instead of just appreciating birds during my day-to-day, what would be on my Birder’s Bucket List? Where would I go to see more elusive species?”

grey gray heron europe switzerland baby bird nest

Gray heron, Europe

How to Build a Birder’s Bucket List

As I’ve started talking to birders about this, it’s been interesting how unique each person’s list – and approach – is. I thought I could just download a checklist and check them off; for many birders, that’s not how it works.

For starters, birders collect a lot more data than just the species. This is where technology helps. The eBird platform, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, records species, date, time, location and even your effort in the form of the time and distance covered. 

The data you share is also invaluable for conservation research. Ebird explains, “Your sightings contribute to hundreds of conservation decisions and peer-reviewed papers, thousands of student projects, and help inform bird research worldwide.”

In terms of approach, there seem to be two general schools of thought on the Birding Bucket or Life List: species or destination.

One woman told me she wanted to go back to places she’s lived before she became a birder, that she hadn’t appreciated them then; that’s how she built her Birder’s Bucket List. She was destination-first all the way.

Other people build their lists by focusing on species, collecting sightings and filling in their Birder Life Lists strategically, seeking out the most unique ones and especially valuing rare or exotic birds. 

Some birders are competitive about their lists; it’s a numbers game. In birding circles, you might hear, “I saw two new lifers this weekend.” Certain species have greater caché, and bigger numbers are, in this case, better.

I am not one of those birders. Yet.

birding binoculars ornithology bird bucket list

Suggestions for your Birder’s Bucket List

As a novice and someone who does not like to experience disappointment on vacation, I’ve decided to go the destination route. There are places I want to see, and I look forward to the avian species I may encounter there.

Whether you’re an avid birder or an avian-curious traveler, these top birdwatching destinations promise awe, wonder, and a syncopated symphony of birdcalls. 

I love crisp mornings, mountains, sub-Saharan Africa and sea kayaking; my husband’s a sunshine-loving, northern Brit runner; those varied interests shaped my list, so there’s something here for nearly everyone.

Here are places on my (admittedly amateur) Birding Bucket List:

  • Uganda & Rwanda  Despite being small and having no ocean coastline, Uganda supports over 1000 avian species (more than double that of, say, Norway or Oman). One of the astounding things about Uganda is how drastically the habitats and landscape change over short distances, so these numbers reflect the huge variety of habitats. On Nat Hab’s new Ultimate Gorilla Safari, you’ll have the opportunity to witness Rhinoceros, Gorllias, and an incredible variety of birdlife, too!
Shoebill stork, Uganda

Shoebill stork, Uganda

  • Costa Rica has been on my list for decades. Nat Hab’s new Costa Rica Wilderness Explorer itinerary delivers a wilder side of Costa Rica than many visitors see. Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with an impressive 47 bird species endemic to the mountains and foothills of Costa Rica and Western Panama.
Flying Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno, Savegre in Costa Rica, with green forest background. Magnificent sacred green and red bird. Action fly moment with Resplendent Quetzal. Birdwatching

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

  • Scotland is on my list. I’m already looking forward to seeing Atlantic puffins in Scotland, plus golden eagles and other raptors. I imagine long walks on windswept cliffs and whale-watching, too. What’s not to love?
Atlantic puffins, Scotland

Atlantic puffins, Scotland

  • I’d like to return to Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland delta, where I would spend more time watching birds and capture far better photos of the bright green bee-eaters. Over 600 avian species have been recorded in Botswana, none of them endemic. Botswana boasts great numbers of European and North African migratory birds best seen during the safari green season from October to April.
Little Bee-eater - Merops pusillus a near passerine green and yellow bird species in the bee-eater family, Meropidae. They are residents in much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Flying green bird

Little bee-eater

Getting Started on Your Birding Life List or Bucket List

Ready to get started with your own birdlife list? You only need two things: The first is a means to identify the birds that you encounter. In this Dose of Nature video, Photo Expedition Co-Director Mike Hillman shares more information on how to get started. He:

  • provides tips for identifying any bird using key features
  • helps sort through the often overwhelming abundance of birding field guides, apps and other resources available; 
  • shares how to find birding hotspots near you and 
  • points to online birdwatching communities you can join. 
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Mike Hillman with a wildlife viewing scope, Alaska Bear Camp © Court Whelan

While this webinar focuses on North American birds, the principles apply across the globe:

What to do with your Birder’s Bucket or Life List?

Finally, birders keep bucket or life lists for many reasons. Here are a few:

  • Track and monitor what you have (and haven’t) seen. There are approximately 11,000 avian species globally; you’re going to have to keep track!
  • Life or bucket lists become social! With platforms and apps like eBird, they’re a great way to reminisce and get into conversation about your birdwatching adventures. The first time you see a new-to-you species may be a moment you want to mark and remember, especially when adding a rare species to your life list.
  • With eBird, you can contribute to research and conservation efforts as a citizen scientist. That’s just cool.

My newbie birder’s Buckt List includes destinations both near and far, remote and easier to reach. They’re tailored to my personal interests. What’s on your Birder’s Bucket List? ‘Got your apps, binoculars and camera gear ready?

Nat Hab guests search for birds with Expedition Leader and Photo Director James Beissel

Nat Hab guests birding with Expedition Leader and Photo Director James Beissel © Dana Cama