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The World’s Best Birding Trips: 5 Small Ship Cruises

by Todd Smith

The world's best birding trips are found on the water. Any small ship expedition cruise has great opportunities to view birds, as small ships can get into small coves and close to shore where birds are easily viewed. Shore excursions such as hiking and kayaking offer opportunities to discover coastal and inland habitat with expert naturalist guides well versed in local birds. Small ships explore a variety of coastal regions throughout the world, and the opportunities to engage in bird watching from an expedition cruise are almost endless. Here are five of my top five small ship cruise locations for bird watchers.

Alaska Birding Cruises

For best viewing, I suggest travelers cruise when the birds are most prolific. Alaska birding is best in spring (May 15-June 15) and after Aug. 15 to see migrations. Hundreds of bird species migrate to Alaska’s arctic each summer, crossing over Alaska’s Inside Passage. Glacier Bay National Park is a hotbed for birders with cute puffins and the rare Kittlitz’s Murrelet. Glacier Bay Adventure Cruise spends several days inside Glacier Bay, where guests splend plenty of time off the ship. The renowned South Marble Island is home to nesting puffins, kittiwakes and cormorants, and it's a popular haunt for predators such as bald eagles and Peregrine falcons. The 6-day cruise embarks in Bartlett Cove, home to numerous songbirds.  About 240 species of birds have been recorded in Glacier Bay National Park. For a full list, visit the National Park Website birds page

Galapagos Birding Cruises

While guests on any Galapagos Islands cruise will view many species, bird enthusiasts will appreciate the experts from National Geographic aboard the Endeavour and Islander.  There are 56 native bird species in the Galapagos, with 80 percent found only here. Thirteen species of Darwin’s finches are notoriously hard to identify but are a highlight for nature lovers and can be found throughout the archipelago. Choose an itinerary with Espanola Island during the breeding season of May-November to view the waved albatross with its seven-foot wingspan. Flightless cormorants, another oddity of evolution, can be found on Fernandina and Isabela Islands, and flamingos can be seen at various visitor sites. The Galapagos penguin is the northernmost penguin in the world and the only penguin found north of the equator. Birds in the Galapagos evolved without any predators so they have no innate fear of humans. This behavior is startling at first as birds don't flee when hikers walk past a nest. Eventually you grow used to it and use the opportunity to get bird  photographs that would be impossible anywhere else. Learn more about Galapagos birds from our partners at the Galapagos Conservancy. 

Amazon Birding Cruises

The rainforest surrounding the upper Amazon River and its tributaries in Peru is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. An astounding 1,700 plus birds (close to 20% of the world's total can be found here, of which more than 300 species are endemic). On a Delfin Amazon Cruise guests can easily add 100 birds to their life list. Colorful macaws and toucans get the most attention, but serious birders delight in finding local species such as Antbirds and Hoatzin’s during excursions into small tributaries and lakes that increase chances of viewing a variety of species. Travel during the high water season of December-May for the best chance to see a variety of birds. Clay licks are a spectacular natural show where parrots, mackaws, parakeets and other birds regularly come to lick the clay, which rids their bodies of toxins that accumulate due to their diet of seeds.  Early morning, evening and night excursions are often offered to make the most of bird and wildlife watching opportunities. Local guides in the Amazon enhance identification and scientific knowledge with interesting information on cultural and mythological stories behind the birds you encounter. 

Antarctica Birding & Penguin Viewing Cruises

Cruising the Antarctic Peninsula reveals many species of penguin, such as Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo. For a greater diversity of penguins, including King penguins, and the chance to witness huge colonies of up to a million birds, select an Antarctic cruise that includes South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. The Antarctic cruise season is short and penguins mate, nest and rear their young from November to February. Travel in the early season of November and December to view courtship behavior, nesting and eggs.  January and February are best to view newly hatched chicks and adolescents entering the water. Penguins in Antarctica have no land predators and as such they have no fear of humans. One of my favorite experiences in Antarctica is to sit near a penguin colony with my camera, watching Gentoos males stealing rocks from other nests to bring to their mate for her nest. The photography is amazing, and you may just end up with a penguin at your feet. 

Papua New Guinea Birding Cruises

Papua New Guinea is one of the most exotic locations for viewing birds aboard a small ship. The diversity of species rivals anywhere on earth, and bird watching is combined with authentic cultural interaction and incredible snorkeling.  The region is particularly famous for endemic species such as the Raggiana and Blue Birds of Paradise and rare find including the Fire Maned Bowerbird. Most Papua New Guinea birding trips are scheduled during the dry season in October and November. 

Bird Watching Guides

Every AdventureSmith Explorations traveler is outfitted with a detailed reading guide for the destination they will visit. I thought I would highlight some of my favorite bird guides and bird books for the destinations listed above. All of the titles below can be found in our AdventureSmith Bookstore.

Alaska Bird Guides

Guide to the Birds of Alaska by Robert Armstrong
Alaska Birds
(field guide) by James Kabanaugh
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
by Jon Dunn

Galapagos Bird Guides

Galapagos, A Natural History by Hichael H. Jackson
Galapagos Wildlife
, A Visitors Buide by David Horwell & Pete Oxford
Birds, Mammals and Reptiles of the Galapagos Islands
by Andy Swash & Robert Stills
The Beak of the Finch
by Jonathan Weiner

Amazon Bird Guides

Birds of Peru by Tom Schulenberg, Dan Stotz, John O'niel, Dan Lane
A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Peru
(Field Guide) by James L. Castner

Antarctica Bird Guides

Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife by Hadoram Shirihai and Brett Jarrett
Antarctica, A Guide to Wildlife
by Tony Soper and Dafila Scott
Penguins of the World
by Wayne Lynch

Papua New Guinea Bird Guides

Birds of Paradise, Revealing The World's Most Extraordinary Birds

Of course there are countless other locations than the ones above that offer excellent bird watching opportunities. One of the best ways to increase the number of birds on your life list is to explore by small ship. Call our experts today to plan your next birding trip aboard a small ship cruise.

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