A King by Brian Field.
THE TOP TEN BIRDING EXPERIENCES?
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
The fantastic Wilson's Bird-of-paradise, photographed on the island of Waigeo in West Papua by Nick Cobb. Most of the few who have seen this bird say it is the best bird in the world but there are many contenders!
Lists such as this one are of course highly subjective but these birds are the ones I believe are the best in the world. They have been chosen very carefully and for a multitude of reasons, but mainly based on personal experience of 89 of them and on dreams of seeing the rest, dreams resulting from what I have heard, read or seen.
They represent less than 1% of the 10,965 birds of the world (see BirdLife's Latest List) hence there are hundreds more which could have made this list, and just 75 of the 237 bird families are covered, with four hummingbirds and nine birds-of-paradise.
In most of the species accounts below there is some information about the bird and the best destinations in the world to look for it. To find out more about the birds listed here and read about other amazing birds see the great book Animal Records by Mark Carwardine, an updated reprint of which was published by the Natural History Museum, London, in 2010, and to find out more about the latest taxonomy concerning bird families and species see The Clements Checklist.
For other wildlife see Best 100 Other Wildlife.
Ostrich Struthio camelus
The largest bird in the world by far, reaching an average height of about 2 m (6.6 ft) and exceptionally 2.75 m (9 ft). It also has the largest eyes for a bird (up to 5 cm (2 in) in diameter) and can run up to speeds of 70 km/h (45 mph)! It occurs in parts of Africa south of the Sahara. The best places in the world to see Ostrich include Ethiopia, Kenya, Northern Tanzania and Namibia. The blue-necked and blue-legged molybdophanes subspecies which occurs in Somalia, Ethiopia and eastern Kenya is sometimes considered to be a full species known as Somali Ostrich and it can be seen in Ethiopia (on the Ali Dege Plains near Bilen for example) and Kenya (in Samburu for example).
A male Ostrich in full breeding plumage in the Masai Mara, Kenya by Steve Garvie.
Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarias
This extraordinary creature, the third largest bird after Ostrich and Emu, has a central claw up to 12 cm (5 in) long; a sharp blade used in self-defence and known to have badly injured several humans and killed at least one! It occurs in New Guinea and Eastern Australia where the best places in the world to see a Southern Cassowary are in Queensland, Eastern Australia, notably at Cassowary House and Mission Beach. There are two other species of cassowary, Dwarf (Casuarius bennetti) and Northern (Casuarius unappendiculatus), both of which occur on the island of New Guinea and both of which are very rarely seen.
A Southern Cassowary at Cassowary House, Queensland, by Mark Harper.
Southern Brown Kiwi Apteryx australis
The flightless kiwis with feathers more like fur are the strangest birds of all. There are at least four species, all of which are endemic to New Zealand, and Southern Brown is one of the easiest to see. The best places to see a Southern Brown Kiwi, which occurs in southwest South Island and on Stewart Island, is Stewart Island. Great Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx haastii) occurs on northwest South Island, Northern Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) occurs on North Island and offshore islands, and Little Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx owenii) occurs mainly on offshore islands, where it has been translocated, including Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi.
Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
There are many colourful male ducks, some too colourful some would say, but none can match this one for subtle colours and pattern – it is one of nature’s finest works of art. It has a wide distribution, occurring in Iceland and down the northwest Atlantic south to Long Island, and in the north Pacific south from the Bering Sea to Japan, and from Alaska to Northern California, including rivers as far inland as Wyoming in the northern summer nesting season.
The beautiful Harlequin Duck, in Yellowstone NP, Wyoming by Dubi Shapiro.
Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus
Not the rarest or most difficult to see member of the large ‘pheasant’ family, amongst which there are many contenders for the 'best 100 birds', but the male peafowl or Peacock is arguably the most incredible thanks to its train of elongated uppertail-covert feathers which forms a huge 'fan with eyes' when the bird displays. It is perhaps just as famous for its incredibly loud and far-carrying 'kee-ow, kee-ow, kee-ow' call. It is native to the Indian Subcontinent and the best places to see Indian Peafowls in the wild are Nepal, Northern India, Western India and Sri Lanka. The very similar Green Peafowl (Pavo muticus) occurs locally in South-East Asia and on Java.
A displaying Peacock in Sri Lanka by Chris Townend.
Lesser Flamingo Phoenicopterus minor
It is possible to see flamingos in many places in southern Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and some places in Asia, but it is the Lesser Flamingo which forms the largest gatherings of non-passerine birds, sometimes numbering millions, on some East African lakes, and the best places in the world to see flocks of Lesser Flamingos include Lakes Elmenteita, Nakuru and Bogoria in Kenya, and Lakes Manyara and Natron (largest breeding colony, sometimes containing over a million pairs) in Northern Tanzania. However, water levels at most of the Rift Valley Lakes rose by several metres during the early 2010s and were still rising in 2014, reaching heights not seen for decades, displacing most of the flamingos.
Lesser Flamingos at Lake Bogoria in Kenya by Steve Garvie.
King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus
This incredible bird is not as big or as hardy as Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) but it is not much smaller, better-looking and some of its rookeries are not only enormous but also situated in some of the most spectacular settings in the world. Indeed, the best places in the world to see King Penguins include the islands of South Georgia, which is visited on some cruises to Antarctica and on the Atlantic Odyssey, and Macquarie in the Subantarctic Islands of Australia and New Zealand in the Southern Ocean. There are also small colonies on the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego where over 50 now breed at Seno Inutil in Chile.
King Penguins at a rookery on South Georgia by Nigel Wheatley.
'Wandering Albatross' Diomedea spp.
There are four or five species of ‘Wandering Albatross’, the bird, along with the 'Royal' Albatrosses, with the longest wingspan of any bird in the world, reaching up to 3.6 m (11 ft 11 in). They occur south of the Tropic of Capricorn where the best places in the world to see ‘Wandering Albatrosses’ include their nesting places, on islands like those off South Georgia, and the Subantarctic Islands of Australia and New Zealand. At sea they can be seen on cruises that include South Georgia, such as the Atlantic Odyssey, off the coasts of Southeastern Australia and New Zealand, and on the Western Pacific Odyssey.
A magnificent Wandering Albatross gliding over the Southern Ocean, by Paul Macklam.
Light-mantled Albatross Phoebetria palpebrata
This is arguably the most elegant of the albatrosses. It graces the islands and seas south of the Tropic of Capricorn from southern South America to the Subantarctic Islands of Australia and New Zealand and the best places in the world to see Light-mantled Albatrosses include their nesting places, on islands like South Georgia, where the birds can be seen on the cruises which visit there and Antarctica, as well as the Atlantic Odyssey, and the Subantarctic Islands of Australia and New Zealand. Where they nest pairs perform a beautiful, balletic, synchronised flying display, one of the finest sights in the natural world.
A superb Light-mantled Albatross riding the wind in the Subantarctic Islands of Australia and New Zealand by Jon Hornbuckle.
Snow Petrel by Alun Hatfield.
Snow Petrel Pagodroma nivea
'Seabirds are real birds' seabird enthusiasts say, partly because they are so dynamic in flight. This is certainly the case with petrels and there are many with a good claim to be on this list, but Snow Petrel does stand out as truly exceptional, and not only because it is the most southerly breeding bird, raising its young in mountains up to 240 km (150 miles) inland from the coast of Antarctica. The best places in the world to see Snow Petrel include Antarctica and its surrounding islands, as far away as South Georgia, which are visited on some cruises to Antarctica and on the Atlantic Odyssey.
White-faced Storm Petrel Pelagodroma marina
One of the best-looking storm petrels with what is arguably the best action as well, 'bouncing' across the ocean on its long legs. It is widespread and may be seen in several places worldwide but the best places in the world to see White-faced Storm Petrel include the waters near Madeira, Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Massachusetts, Eastern Australia and, best of all, in the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland on North Island, New Zealand.
A great image of a White-faced Storm Petrel off Madeira by Simon Colenutt.
Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aethereus
There are three species of tropicbird, all of which are wonderful flyers, but this is arguably the smartest. It occurs in the tropical east Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and Middle East and may be seen in many places but the best places in the world to see Red-billed Tropicbird include Baja California, Central Mexico, Tobago and Galapagos.
A fantastic image of a Red-billed Tropicbird in the Cape Verde Islands by Dave Barnes.
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
This is the largest of the five species of frigatebirds, with a wingspan which may reach 2.5 m (8 ft). Frigatebirds have the lightest skeletons of any birds, just 5% of their total weight and less than the weight of their feathers. This means they also have the lightest wing-loading (the ratio of wing area to overall weight), enabling them to stay airborne with ease and they grace the skies throughout the tropics. The Magnificent Frigatebird is restricted to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the Americas, including the Caribbean (with a few pairs on the Cape Verde Islands), where it is easily seen south from Baja California and Florida to Venezuela, the guianas and the east coast of Brazil, as well as Galapagos. The other species can be seen around Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic, and from the Indian Ocean through Indonesia east to the Great Barrier Reef and the Pacific Ocean.
Nothing else looks quite like a frigatebird! This Magnificent one was gliding in the skies above Barbados in the Caribbean, where its image was taken by Michael McKee.
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus
A big, striking bird with long, narrow wings and a fine sight over the sea, but not as stirring a sight as ten or twenty or a hundred or more plunging into the sea like arrows, into a shoal of dazed and confused fish; one of the greatest wildlife spectacles there is and one it is possible to see on both sides of the north Atlantic with this species and elsewhere with the two other species: Cape (Morus capensis) off the coasts of southwestern Africa; and Australian (Morus serrator) off southern Australia and New Zealand. There are also several species of similar boobies although they usually plunge-dive from lower down and at more of an angle than the more robust gannets which dive more steeply from a height of 10 m (33 ft) to 40 m (130 ft)!
A Northern Gannet at Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire, England, by Jon Hornbuckle.
Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus
All eight species of pelican are amongst the most extraordinary of all birds, thanks mainly to their enormous bills and pouches, and the Australian Pelican has the longest bill of any bird, growing to length of 47 cm (18.5 in). It is also one of the smartest pelicans thanks to its bold black and white plumage. It occurs throughout Australia and is a regular visitor to New Guinea, and even occasionally wanders as far west as Java, and even south to New Zealand. The other seven species of pelican occur almost throughout the rest of the world.
An Australian Pelican is an impressive beast. This fine image was captured by Michael Halliday.
Black Heron Egretta ardesiaca
This is not the best-looking heron but it does have a unique fishing technique. The bird is able to make an ‘umbrella’ with its wings, spreading and bending them into the shape of an umbrella over the water surface, presumably in order to see its fish prey more easily with its head tucked below the canopy. It occurs in many wetlands south of the Sahara on mainland Africa and on Madagascar and the best places in the world to see Black Heron include Gambia, Kenya (where Lake Jipe is a particularly good site), Northern Tanzania (where Lake Manyara is a particularly good site) and Botswana.
A Black Heron fishing in Gambia by Steve Garvie.
Saddle-billed Stork in the Masai Mara, Kenya by Steve Garvie..
Scarlet Ibis Eudocimus ruber
This astonishing bird really is scarlet and virtually from claw to beak. It occurs from Northern Colombia to northeast Brazil and the best places in the world to see Scarlet Ibis include Colombia, Western Venezuela, including the Llanos, Eastern Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad where there is a famous roost of hundreds in the mangroves of Caroni Swamp.
Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis
This very tall stork with a very long bill, which is black and red with a yellow 'saddle', occurs in Africa south of the Sahara and although uncommon can be seen in many places.
Shoebill Balaeniceps rex
Like a blue stone statue with an enormous bill up to 19 cm (7.5 in) long, evolved to deal with its preferred prey, lungfish. This bizarre bird occurs in Africa from south Sudan to Zambia, mainly in remote, extensive swamps which are not easily accessible. However, there are a few places where seeing one is almost guaranteed and the best places in the world to see Shoebill are Mabamba and Murchison Falls NP in Uganda, and Bangweulu Swamp in Zambia.
Shoebill at Mabamba in Uganda by Francesco Veronesi.
Andean Condor Vultur gryphus
This massive bird has a wingspan which may reach 3 m (10 ft) or even more and its broad wings are ideally suited to soaring over the High Andes and some coasts from Colombia south to Tierra del Fuego. It may be seen in many places but the best places in the world to see Andean Condors include Antisana NP in Northern Ecuador, Colca Canyon in south Peru (where the birds are sometimes close enough to hear the wind rushing past their outstretched wing feathers), Bolivia, Northern Argentina, Torres del Paine NP in Chile and Los Glaciares NP in Southern Argentina.
Andean Condor soaring over the Colca Canyon in Peru, by Dubi Shapiro.
American Swallow-tailed Kites in the Florida Everglades, Florida by Dave Irving.
American Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus
Few things look so beautiful in the air. This wonderful thing has a wide distribution, from the southeast USA (northern summer) and Southern Mexico to Northern Argentina, and may be seen in most destinations in Central and South America.
African Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vocifer
This magnificent eagle gets the nod over Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) because its loud yodeling call is so evocative of Africa. Indeed, Africa would not be Africa without its fish eagles. South of the Sahara that is, where it may be seen in many places, although it is less common in or absent from the remaining extensive forested areas of West Africa and the drier regions of the southwest.
Steller’s Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus
This massive and spectacular eagle occurs only in the northwest Pacific region from east Siberia to Japan, Korea and extreme Northern China. The best places in the world to see Steller’s Eagle include Kamchatka and especially the island of Hokkaido in Japan where hundreds usually spend the winter in the company of comparatively small White-tailed Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla).
Steller's Eagle at Lake Furen on Hokkaido, Japan by Ian Merrill.
Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja
The ultimate raptor; this is the largest, heaviest and most powerful eagle, which may reach a height of over a metre and weigh up to 9 kg (20 lb). It preys primarily on tree-dwelling mammals, which research has shown to be about 79% sloths and 11.6% monkeys, monkeys such as Capuchin, Howler, Saki, Spider, Squirrel and Titi, although it will also eat armadillos, peccaries, porcupines, curassows and macaws. One bird has been recorded catching and carrying off a Red Howler Monkey (Alouatta seniculus) weighing 6.8 kg (15 lb). The Harpy Eagle has a wide range, from southern Mexico where it is very rare south through Central America and lowland South America as far south as the far north of Argentina. Harpy Eagles inhabit extensive forested areas occupying large territories up to about 15 square miles (nearly 40 square kilometres) in extent where the huge accipiter-like birds with broad, rounded wings and long tails twist and turn with surprising agility through the trees and branches in pursuit of prey. They are not only thinly distributed or rare they rarely soar above the forest canopy and are therefore very hard to see.There are a few readily accessible places though where seeing one is possible, albeit usually only if a nest has been located by local people, because although young birds normally leave the nest after about two months they stay near the nest, typically in the same tree, for up to two years before they begin to fend for themselves. The best places in the world to see Harpy Eagle ... well, the most reliable places ... are Imataca Forest Reserve in Eastern Venezuela and the Darien in eastern Panama, with a better than average chance also in Guyana, the Serra das Araras in Southern Brazil, the Alta Floresta area near Southern Brazil and at lodges in Amazonia, especially in Ecuador.
A magnificent Harpy Eagle in the Serra Das Araras of Southern Brazil by Chris Townend.
Peregrine Falco peregrinus
This is the fastest living thing. When stooping in pursuit of prey the Peregrine can reach up to 180 km/h (112 mph) and possibly 300 km/h (186 mph). It pursues flying birds with incredible speed and agility, striking them with its talons, although the prey is probably killed by the force of the impact. The Peregrine is also arguably the most widespread bird, occuring from the Arctic to Australia, and may be seen virtually everywhere!
A Peregrine by Simon Colenutt.
Kagu Rhynochetos jubatus
This strange bird, in its own family, is endemic to the island of New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific, where it survives in small numbers in the remnant forests and is easy to see. It is a grey bird about the size of a Cattle Egret and although flightless it has retained full-size wings which it uses for display purposes, as can be seen in the image on the New Caledonia page. The island is easily accessible from Australia and is also visited on the Western Pacific Odyssey.
A confiding Kagu on the island of New Caledonia by Simon Colenutt.
A displaying Sunbittern by Jon Hornbuckle.
Sunbittern Eurypyga helias
This terrific bird is so different to any other it’s in a family of its own. It is a beautiful sight when hunting, stalking prey quietly along watercourses, but when threatened it looks stunning, because it spreads its broad wings wide, faces them forward and displays what look like two giant eyes. It occurs from Guatemala in Central America through Costa Rica and Panama and down through South America from Colombia and Venezuela to Brazil, and may be seen at quite a lot of sites but the best places in the world to see Sunbittern include La Selva in Costa Rica, the Llanos in Western Venezuela, the Iquitos area in Northeastern Peru, Manu National Park in Southern Peru and the Pantanal in Southern Brazil.
Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis
Arguably the most striking of the fifteen species of crane this one also ‘dances in the snow’ and may be seen doing so at the best place in the world to see Red-crowned Cranes - the island of Hokkaido in Japan, the same island where hundreds of Steller's Eagles also gather in winter. It also occurs from eastern Siberia to Eastern China where up to 1000 (nearly 50% of the world population) spend the northern winter at Yancheng Reserve in Jiangsu Province.
Red-crowned Cranes on Hokkaido, Japan, by Francesco Veronesi.
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
There are lots of lapwings and plovers to choose from but few if any can match this handsome bird, which also happens to look good in the air. It has a wide distribution across Europe and North Africa, and Russia to Southern China, and may be seen at numerous places.
A splendid Northern Lapwing in Cornwall, by Martin Elliott. It is not difficult to see why it was once known as the Green Plover.
Ibisbill Ibidorhyncha struthersii
This smart shorebird is so different to any other it’s in a family of its own. It occurs in Central Asia including China and the Himalayas and may be seen in many places but the best places in the world to see Ibisbill include Kazakhstan, the Bai He River near Beijing in Northern China, the Qinling Mountains in Central China, the edge of the Tibetan Plateau next to Sichuan in China, Nepal, Bhutan, Northeastern India, Northwestern India and Northern India.
An Ibisbill, in a rocky river, typical habitat, in Bhutan, by Paul Noakes.
Black-winged Stilt(s) Himantopus spp.
The one to four species of ‘Black-winged Stilt’ have the longest legs relative to body-length of any bird, legs that may reach a length of 24 cm (9 in). It is these red legs together with the bold black and white body and long, thin bill that make this bird a unique and extraordinary sight. It occurs throughout the world, across Europe, Africa south of the Sahara and Asia, to New Zealand, in the USA south through Central America to Southern Peru, and from north Chile across to Argentina and southeast Brazil, and can be seen in numerous places.
A fine image of the crazy Black-winged Stilt taken on the island of Mallorca by Michael McKee.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus
This unique and increasingly rare bird nests in far northeast Siberia and spends the winter in eastern India, Bangladesh and east Asia where the best places in the world to see Spoon-billed Sandpiper include Ban Pak Thale in Southern Thailand. Another site where it has been known to winter is Xuan Thuy National Park in Vietnam while less accessible wintering areas include the Lower Meghna Delta in Bangladesh and the Bay of Martaban in Myanmar. During migration it may be seen at the Min Estuary near Fuzhou and at Yangkou in Rudong County near Shanghai (where 140 were counted along a 120 km stretch of coast in 2013) in southeast China, and birds still occur at Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong during their northbound spring migration but this species is less regular there than it used to be. During the northern summer Heritage Expeditions operate a cruise which includes looking for Spoon-billed Sandpipers on their nesting grounds. The ship they use is the ‘Spirit of Enderby’ which carries a maximum 54 passengers and visits Kamchatka and the Commander Islands as well as Meinypil’gyno, which is the main monitored breeding site, and the Chukotka coastline, where the species is also known to nest.
A superb image of the unique Spoon-billed Sandpiper taken by Michael McKee at Ban Pak Thale in Southern Thailand.
Egyptian Plover Pluvianus aegyptius
This is one of the most brilliant of all birds, in a family all of its own. It occurs mainly along rivers in tropical West Africa where the best places in the world to see Egyptian Plover include Niokolo Koba National Park and nearby lodges in Senegal, inland Gambia, Tiwai Island in Sierra Leone, the White Volta River in Ghana and Benoue National Park in Cameroon.
The beautifully coloured and marked Egyptian Plover photographed in Gambia by Steve Garvie.
Ross’s Gull Rhodostethia rosea
An exquisite bird which occurs only in the High Arctic, even in the northern winter when it actually moves north from its nesting grounds to the pack-ice of the Arctic Ocean. The best place in the world to see Ross’s Gull in all its glory (pink breeding plumage) is the Kolyma Delta in Arctic Russia, although there is also a chance in Arctic Canada. During the autumn, especially in late September and early October, Ross's Gulls migrate through Barrow in Alaska and often linger, sometimes thousands of them! During the northern winter stray birds may wander south from the Arctic, some as far as northwest Europe where they are much appreciated by the many birders.
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
This graceful beauty is the most widely travelled of all birds, covering about 70,000 km (43,000 miles) each year on its meandering migration between its mainly Arctic nesting grounds and its Antarctic wintering grounds. It is the only bird which is regularly seen on or off all seven continents although the best places to see it are at its nesting colonies, from Alaska east across North America, Northern Europe and Russia to the Bering Sea. These birds can be very aggressive when nesting though and are quite capable of making repeated blows with their sharp beaks, especially to the heads of any observers who approach too closely.
Arctic Tern attack on the Farne Islands, England, captured by the brave Lee Dingain.
Black, African and Indian Skimmers Rynchops spp.
The buoyant flight of smart black-and-white skimmers, especially when they are skimming the water surface with their unique bills in search of food, is one of the finest sights in nature. The knife-like lower mandible of the bill of the Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) may be up to 3 cm (1.25 in) longer than the upper mandible. It slices through the surface of the water until touching a fish then the bill snaps shut to capture the prey. The Black Skimmer is the most widespread, occurring down the east coast of the USA and both coasts of Central America south and inland to northern Argentina, and may be seen at many places. The best places to see African Skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris), which is widespread but patchily distributed south of the Sahara, include the Kazinga Channel in Uganda, Botswana and Namibia. Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicollis) is the rarest. It occurs from the Indus in Pakistan east to Myanmar and the best places to see it are Chambal NS in Northern India and in Western India.
A superb image of a skimming Black Skimmer in Florida by Dave Irving.
A fantastic image of an Atlantic Puffin returning to its young on the Isle of May in Scotland with a beak full of sandeels, by Steve Garvie.
Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica
This is arguably the most handsome of the three species of puffin, the other two being Horned and Tufted, which occur, during the northern summer, in the northern Pacific where Alaska, and Kamchatka, and the Kuril and Commander Islands, are good places to see them. The Atlantic Puffin occurs during northern summers on coasts and offshore islands in the north Atlantic, south to Maine, New England in the USA, and islands off northwest France in Europe. It can be seen in many places, and is often confiding enough to be seen at very close quarters. Where this numerous species spends the northern winters no one seems to know for sure, except it is rarely seen from land and is therefore presumed to spend the season farther out to see than other auks.
Palm Cockatoo Probosciger aterrimus
This enormous parrot with an amazing crest occurs on the island of New Guinea and in far northeast Australia and the best places in the world to see Palm Cockatoo are West Papua, Papua New Guinea and near Bamaga Resort, Cape York, far northeast Australia. They are shy birds so one has to be very fortunate to see one well, let alone see a male 'drumming'; that is, tapping a hollow trunk with its feet, a nut it has collected or more often a stick which it brandishes with a foot and bangs the tree from two to sometimes over a hundred times.
Scarlet Macaw Ara macao
This is arguably the most spectacular of the six largest macaws, along with the very similar Red-and-green Macaw (Ara chloroptera) which also has a scarlet body. Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), the largest of them all, is mainly blue, whereas Blue-and-yellow (Ara ararauna) and Blue-throated (Ara glaucogularis) Macaws are blue and yellow, and Great Green Macaw (Ara ambigua) is mainly green. The best places in the world to see Scarlet Macaw, which occurs from extreme southeast Mexico south through Central America to Amazonian Brazil, include Costa Rica, Western Venezuela (with Red-and-green), and, together with Red-and-green and Blue-and-yellow, in Suriname, the Amazon, Southern Peru and Bolivia (with the endemic Blue-throated as well). Blue-and-yellow also occurs in Southern Brazil which is also the best place for Hyacinth Macaw. The best places in the world to see Great Green Macaw, which occurs from Honduras south through Central America to west Ecuador, are Costa Rica and the Darien region of Panama.
Clay licks are great places to see parrots and especially macaws, notably those in Manu National Park and at Tambopata in Southern Peru, although these Red-and-green Macaws were at a lick in the Contamana Hills in far northeast Peru where this great image was taken by Ian Davies.
Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin
This bird is so strange it is not only in its own family, it is in its own (sub)order. Also known as the 'Stinkbird' because it reeks of cow dung (the fermented leaves in the bird's crop) it is more famous for its young which have 'claws' on their thumbs and first fingers, enabling them to climb trees until their wings are strong enough for flight. These claws were once believed to be evidence of the transition between reptiles and birds but they probably evolved separately, rather than being inherited from early birds. Hoatzins occur in the Amazon and Orinoco river systems in Venezuela, the Guianas and Amazonia and may be seen in many places near water.
A beautiful Barn Owl by Steve Fletcher.
Barn Owl Tyto alba
There are so many weird and wonderful owls and yet this, one of the commonest and certainly the most widespread, is arguably the most beautiful. It has incredibly sensitive hearing, good enough to locate prey in total darkness; its eyes see just a little better than ours in the dark. The Barn Owl occurs on every continent except Antarctica and may be seen virtually anywhere except much of Canada, Russia, northern Asia, the Sahara, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands.
Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca
Another fantastic owl and a big one - some females may be as large as the largest owl, the Eurasian Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo), some Siberian races of which may be as tall as 75 cm (29.5 in) and have a wingspan of 2m (6.6 ft). It is certainly a fearsome sight when protecting its young, confident enough to attack Arctic Foxes (Vulpes lagopus) and even the dreaded (Northern) Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). It is a bird of the High Arctic and accessible nesting sites where it is regularly seen are few and far between but the best places in the world to see Snowy Owl include the Barrow area in far north Alaska and Wrangel Island off Russia, while there is a chance of seeing it on cruises in Arctic Canada and in Lapland in Arctic Norway. During the northern winter variable numbers of birds move south and may be seen anywhere in the northern USA, Scandinavia and, more rarely, northern Europe (notably the Outer Hebrides off Scotland), but more reliably in Canada where northern Quebec, Ontario (including the Pearson International Airport area, Toronto), and southeast Manitoba are particularly good areas.
Snowy Owl on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland by Michael McKee.
Pennant-winged Nightjar Macrodipteryx vexillarius
There are several out-of-the-ordinary nightjar species, the breeding-plumaged males of which mainly have fancy tails, but they also include Standard-winged Nightjar (Macrodipteryx longipennis) of Africa south of the Sahara south to Cameroon and west Kenya which has two large standards at the end of elongated primary feather shafts, as well as Pennant-winged Nightjar, also of Africa south of the Sahara, which has over-sized black and white primary feathers at the end of each wing, two of which form streamers, so that the bird looks like it has wings attached to its wings! This amazing bird is present from the extreme north of Eastern South Africa to Southern Tanzania including Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi during its nesting season, mainly from September to March, and from Northern Tanzania to Eastern Nigeria mainly from April to August when the best places to see it include Murchison Falls and Lake Mburo NPs in Uganda, and Ngaoundaba in Cameroon.
Sword-billed Hummingbird at Guango Lodge in Northern Ecuador by Dubi Shapiro.
White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus
The fastest bird in level flight, reaching a top speed of 170 km/h (105 mph) and, seen well, this large, handsome dark brown and white swift with a silvery back is arguably the most dashing of the swifts. Seeing one well is difficult though because these birds are high-fliers. There are plenty of places to try, from the Himalayas through China to south Siberia and Japan during the northern summer, to West Papua, Papua New Guinea and east Australia during the northern winter, as well as South East Asia and Indonesia on migration.
Sword-billed Hummingbird Ensifera ensifera
Not the most colourful hummingbird but no other humming or other bird has a bill up to 11 cm (4.5 in) long on a body averaging 13 cm (5.25 in) long - the longest bill in relation to body length of any bird in the world. This extraordinary bird occurs in the Andes, from Western Venezuela to Northern Bolivia and the best places in the world to see Sword-billed Hummingbird include Colombia, Northern Ecuador (at feeders at Yanacocha and Guango Lodge for example), Northern Peru and Southern Peru.
Bearded Helmetcrests Oxypogon spp.
So many hummingbirds to choose from but the males of these four species have astonishing head plumes. They occur in the high Andes of Western Venezuela and Eastern Colombia where the best places in the world to see Bearded Helmetcrests include Pico Aguila in Western Venezuela, and Caldas, Rio Blanco and Los Nevados National Park in Colombia.
Buffy Helmetcrest at Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia by Ian Merrill.
Marvellous Spatuletail Loddigesia mirabilis
Another less than dazzling hummingbird but male Marvellous Spatuletails have got the most amazing tails; 'little hearts' on wires which they hold up above their heads in order to try and impress females. The best place in the world to see Marvellous Spatuletail is the only place it occurs - a tiny area of Northern Peru around Florida de Pomacochas where the Huembo Spatuletail Reserve is a good place to start.
The amazing Marvellous Spatuletail at Pomacochas in Northern Peru by Christian Nunes.
Bee Hummingbird Mellisuga helenae
The male of this species of hummingbird is a dazzler and it’s the smallest bird in the world. Including the bill and tail this mind-boggling bird is still just 57 mm (2.25 in) long. Not including the bill and tail it’s about 30 mm (1.2 in) long! It weighs between 1.6 g and 1.9 g, which is believed to be the lowest possible weight limit for a warm-blooded animal, considerably lighter than the familiar wren which weighs between 8 g and 12 g. The best place in the world to see Bee Hummingbird, which is endemic to Cuba, is Zapata, where males are usually in full breeding plumage in March and April. (The Little Woodstar (Chaetocercus bombus), another hummingbird, which occurs in Colombia, Ecuador and northwest Peru, is considered to be even smaller by some scientists).
Many other hummingbirds could be listed here. There are over 330 species and the greatest diversity occurs in the northern Andes where it is possible to see over 50 species on short trips to Colombia and Northern Ecuador. Over 40 species can be seen on trips to Northern Peru or Southern Peru. In Central America 30 species or more may be seen on trips to Costa Rica and Panama, and over 20 species in Southern Mexico and Honduras.
Resplendent Quetzal Pharomachrus mocinno
Along with Wilson's Bird-of-paradise the Resplendent Quetzal is often considered to be the most beautiful bird in the world, thanks to the male's metallic green upperparts, bright red underparts and long central tail feathers which extend up to 65 cm (2 ft) beyond the rest of the tail. The best places in the world to see Resplendent Quetzal, which occurs from the far south of Mexico to western Panama, include El Triunfo and Lagos de Montebello in far south Mexico; Finca Las Nubes in Guatemala; Cerro de la Muerte and Monteverde in Costa Rica; and western Panama. There are also four other very similar quetzals, albeit without the tail streamers, which occur from eastern Panama and western Venezuela south through the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to western Bolivia, and in the Amazon.
Whitehead’s Trogon Harpactes whiteheadi
There are over 40 species of trogon, the males of which tend to be very colourful, but this one’s red and silver ‘combo’ makes it stand out even amongst so many beautiful birds. The best places to see Whitehead’s Trogon, which is endemic to Borneo, include Mount Kinabalu and Gunung Mulu NPs.
Turquoise-browed Motmot Eumomota superciliosa
This is arguably the best-looking of the ten species of motmot and definitely one of the most beautiful birds in the world thanks to its jizz and incredible colour scheme. It’s so good it could be a bird-of-paradise. The best places in the world to see Turquoise-browed Motmot, which occurs from Southern Mexico to northwest Costa Rica, include the impressive Mayan remains of Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula of Southern Mexico and a few other sites there, Honduras, and Costa Rica.
The absolutely stunning Turquoise-browed Motmot in Costa Rica by Steve Garvie.
Cuban, Broad-billed, Narrow-billed, Jamaican and Puerto Rican Todies Todus spp.
These tiny, tame and entertaining little beauties are all very similar and all endemic to the Caribbean islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico, where there are many places to see them all.
Cuban Tody by Dave Irving. One of five very similar species in the unique family.
Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata
This ball of brightness with a scarlet dagger for a bill is arguably the most dazzling of the many small 'blue and red' kingfishers. It occurs in Africa south of the Sahara and can be seen in many places.
Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata
This is one of the largest kingfishers but no less brilliant for that, being a striking combination of black, white, rufous and deep blue with a big red bill. It also has a wide distribution, being present during the northern summer from India through China to North Korea and during the northern winter from Sri Lanka through South East Asia to Sumatra, Borneo and the Philippines, and can therefore be seen at many places throughout Asia.
Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis
A unique bird in its large family and one of the most striking of all birds thanks to its pied plumage and foraging technique which involves hovering high above the water in search of fish, up to 3 km (2 miles) from land! It is widespread and easy to see in most of Africa south of the Sahara, from as far west as Gambia to as far south as Cape Town in South Africa, parts of the Middle East as far west as southern Turkey, and from the Indian subcontinent to mainland South East Asia.
Pied Kingfisher in typical hovering mode in Jordan by Michael McKee.
Two astonishing members of an astonishing family - no other birds look anything like these! Northern (Merops nubicus) differs from Southern (Merops nubicoides) in having a complete turquoise head with a black mask whereas in Southern the turquoise is confined to the crown. They may be seen in many places in Africa south of the Sahara but the best places in the world to see Southern Carmine Bee-eaters are at their nesting colonies in Zambia, Botswana and the Caprivi Strip at the northeast end of Namibia, usually in October-November.
A gorgeous Northern Carmine Bee-eater in Kenya by Steve Garvie.
To see why European Bee-eater should be called Golden Bee-eater take a look at the stunning images on the page dedicated to it on Ray Wilson's website.
Golden Bee-eater Merops apiaster
This is another very strong contender for the most beautiful bird in the world, thanks to its colourful but not gaudy plumage, dynamic, dashing pursuit of flying prey and lovely purring call. It is better known as European Bee-eater but the old Russian name of Golden Bee-eater is much more appropriate because it describes the bird so well and because this species, despite its commonly used name, not only spends the northern winter in Africa south of the Sahara but nests there as well, in southwest Africa. It also nests in North Africa, as well as Europe, western Russia and the Middle East, and may be brighten up anyone's life in many places throughout its range.
Lilac-breasted Roller Coracias caudata
A conspicuous bird, often perched atop an acacia, in many places from East Africa south to Eastern South Africa, and so good-looking every single one is worth stopping for. The far northern lorti race which occurs in northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia does not actually have a lilac breast since the breast is blue and the lilac confined to the throat, but both races are equally brilliant with pale blue crowns and rumps, and, in flight, flashing pale blue forewings contrasting with the dark blue/purple primaries and secondaries.
Hoopoe Upupa epops
Totally unique and great-looking to boot, the Hoopoe looks particularly amazing in floppy flight when the broad, bold black and white wings are spread like a giant butterfly. One, two or three species occur in Africa, Madagascar, Europe, Russia, China, and from the Indian subcontinent to South East Asia, and they can be seen in many places.
A migrant Hoopoe in Cornwall, England by Michael McKee.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar Galbula ruficauda
This is one of the commonest and the most widespread of the brilliant jacamars, and arguably the most dazzling. It occurs from Southern Mexico through Central America and northern South America as far south as Northern Argentina and may be seen in many places.
There sure are some pretty jacamars but Rufous-tailed Jacamar, one of the commonest and most widespread, is arguably the best of the lot. Image by Steve Garvie.
There are lots of spectacular large hornbills, especially in Asia, but none are as colourful as Knobbed Hornbill which is endemic to Sulawesi. Image by Coke & Som Smith.
Knobbed Hornbill Aceros cassidix
One of many impressive large hornbills this one has a particularly attractive head, bill, casque and pouch. It is endemic to Sulawesi where it can be seen at several sites.
Keel-billed Toucan Ramphastos sulfuratus
Most toucans are spectacular so choosing one to represent them is very difficult. Toco Toucan (Ramphastos toco) is just about the biggest but Keel-billed Toucan is also very large and has arguably the most beautiful bill in a family full of them. The best places in the world to see Keel-billed Toucan are many within its range, from Southern Mexico through Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama into northern Colombia and extreme northwest Venezuela. Toco Toucan takes over from there down to northern Argentina but it is sparsely distributed and surprisingly elusive, and the best places to see Toco Toucan are northern Bolivia and Southern Brazil, especially in the Pantanal.
Black-and-yellow Broadbill Eurylaimus ochromalus
There are more than ten species of colourful Asian broadbills but this one has been picked out as the best because it is one of few small birds in the world which has some pink in its plumage. Added to the black and yellow upperparts, large yellow eyes and big blue bill, it’s a cracking combination. It occurs in South East Asia, including Southern Thailand and the Malay Peninsula, as well as on Sumatra and Borneo, and may be seen at many places.
A male of the brilliant irena subspecies of Banded Pitta, at Khao Nor Chuchi in Southern Thailand by Roger Wyatt.
Banded Pitta Pitta guajana
There are over 30 species of pitta, many males of which could be described as ‘jewels’ but the one that stands out as the brightest and most brilliant of them all is the irena subspecies of Banded Pitta, thanks to its broad, flame-coloured supercilia and fiery-striped deep purple-blue underparts. It occurs from Peninsular Thailand south through the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra and the best places in the world to see it include Khao Nor Chuchi in Southern Thailand (where Gurney’s Pitta (Pitta gurneyi) also occurs but is now very rare), Taman Negara in the Malay Peninsula and Way Kambas in Sumatra. The other brightest subspecies are affinis of west Java and guajana of east Java, which leaves the slightly less startling but still superb schwaneri of Borneo where the best place to see this subspecies of Banded Pitta is Danum Valley (where Blue-headed Pitta, below, also occurs).
Blue-headed Pitta Pitta baudii
When a male of one of these bounds out of the rainforest gloom it certainly looks like a jewel, thanks to its azure-blue crown and nape. What with a black mask, white throat, rich red-brown back and purple-blue underparts it is also an all-round attractive bird, one of the most gorgeous in the world. It is endemic to Borneo where the best places to see Blue-headed Pitta include Danum Valley, Sukau and Gunung Mulu NP.
White-plumed Antbird Pithys albifrons
This is the stand-out bird in a massive family and one of the most extraordinary of all birds thanks to its outrageous white facial plumes which form a long upright crest and beard. It occurs in northern South America north of the Amazon and is usually seen following army ant swarms only. The best places in the world to see White-plumed Antbird include Imataca FR in Eastern Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, the Amazon of Brazil, the Amazonian region of Northern Ecuador, and the Iquitos area in Northeastern Peru.
Pompadour Cotinga Xipholena punicea
The cotingas is yet another family full of gorgeous birds but the male of this one really is special thanks to its claret-coloured plumage. The best places in the world to see Pompadour Cotinga, which occurs in northern South America from extreme east Colombia through south Venezuela to the Guianas, the Amazon region of Brazil, northeast Bolivia and Northeastern Peru, include Imataca FR and the Escalera in Eastern Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, the Amazon, and the Iquitos area in Northeastern Peru.
Three-wattled Bellbird Procnias tricarunculata
'Bok!', as in a hammer striking an anvil, that is the call of the Three-wattled Bellbird. It's an extraordinary sound, even more so for the volume which is believed to be the highest for any bird. The bird opens its black gape as wide as possible to deliver the ear-splitting explosion of sound and the same is true for the other three bellbirds in the cotinga family: the 'Klong-Klang!' of White (Procnias alba), which occurs from southeast Venezuela through the Guianas to northeast Brazil; the 'Bok!' and 'Klong-Klang!' and other calls of Bearded (Procnias averano), which occurs from northeast Colombia to northeast Brazil, including Trinidad; and the 'Bok!' of Bare-throated (Procnias nudicollis), which occurs in southeast Brazil, eastern Paraguay and northeastern Argentina. The best place in the world to see (and hear!) Three-wattled Bellbird, which occurs in Central America between Honduras and western Panama, is Costa Rica.
A fabulous Andean Cock-of-the-Rock in Southern Peru by Ray Wilson.
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock Rupicola peruviana
The red males of this species are a bit brighter than Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola rupicola), the only two birds of this ilk in the world. The best places to see Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, which occurs from Western Venezuela to Northern Bolivia, include the few known leks: at Jardin in Colombia; in the Santo Domingo Valley in Western Venezuela; at Refugio Paz de las Aves in Northern Ecuador; and near Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge in Southern Peru. The best places in the world to see Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock, which occurs from extreme east Colombia to the Guianas and Brazil north of the Amazon, include the Escalera in Eastern Venezuela, at leks in Guyana, at a lek near Manaus in the Amazon and, best of all, at the largest known lek, at the Voltzberg in Raleigh Falls NP, Suriname.
Wire-tailed Manakin Pipra filicauda
The males of several manakin species are very colourful and this is arguably the most outrageously bright. Male manakins also perform often frenzied displays to attract females, usually involving posturing to show off their colours and rapid darting flights between close perches, as well as, in some cases, jumping up and down on perches or even over rival males, and, in several cases, ‘sliding’ along carefully chosen slender branches, a feat achieved by the incredibly fast movement of their legs, too fast for the human eye, and often likened to 'moonwalking'. The male Wire-tailed Mankin is different - it 'brushes' its elongated, curved tail feathers against the face and/or throat of its desired mate, the only example among birds in which modified tail feathers are used in a tactile rather than visual display. It occurs mainly in western Amazonia into Northeastern Peru (where it may be seen in the Iquitos area), Northern Ecuador (where it may be seen in Amazonia) and east Colombia, and from there north through Western Venezuela where it may be seen at Henri Pittier NP. The species which 'slide' occur in Central and South America and they include the famous Red-capped Manakin (Pipra mentalis) which occurs from Southern Mexico to northwest Ecuador, and may be seen displaying at several sites, especially in Costa Rica and Panama.
Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae
The male of this species has a shimmering veil of a tail with lyre-shaped outer tail feathers but it is its song which is even more amazing, for it is a superb mimic, even copying the shutter and motor-drive sounds of SLR cameras. It occurs near Sydney in Eastern Australia, notably in Royal National Park where there is usually at least one confiding male along Lady Carrington Drive, and Minna Murra Rainforest Park, and near Melbourne in Southeastern Australia, notably in Sherbrooke Forest and other places in the Dandenong Ranges, and at Badger Weir, and is most likely to be heard singing and seen displaying in the southern autumn and winter, which is also true of the only other lyrebird, Albert’s Lyrebird (Menura alberti), which is just as good at mimicry and also has almost as impressive a tail. It also occurs in Eastern Australia but has a much smaller distribution and is best looked for near O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park near Brisbane, although even there it is tough to see a singing and displaying male.
A displaying male Superb Lyrebird at Healesville near Melbourne by Michael Halliday.
Flame Bowerbird Sericulus aureus
The male of this species is quite possibly the brightest bird in the world; deep, fulsome, shocking yellow-orange all over! It occurs in New Guinea of course where the best places in the world to see Flame Bowerbird include the lower Arfak Mountains of West Papua (the form aureus considered a separate species by some taxonomists and commonly called Masked Bowerbird), and the Kiunga/Elevala River area of Papua New Guinea (the form ardens) where there are even known bowers which it is sometimes possible to see birds visiting.
Splendid Fairywren Malurus splendens
Of the nine pretty fairywrens the male Splendid is the most colourful. It is endemic to southern Australia, mainly in the arid interior of the south and southeast but in inland and coastal areas in Western Australia. The best places to see Splendid Fairywren include Hattah-Kulkyne NP and Gluepot Reserve in Outback Australia, and in many places in Western Australia, including Perth, Dryandra SF and Stirling Range NP.
A fabulous male Splendid Fairywren of the western splendens form in Stirling Range National Park, Western Australia, by Mark Harper.
Regent Honeyeater Xanthomyza phrygia
Arguably the most beautiful member of a very large family and one of the most beautiful birds in the world, especially if seen well, for then every crescent may be seen clearly and the observer can believe what has been painted in the field guides! It occurs in Eastern Australia where it is at least partially nomadic but is seen with some regularity in Capertree Valley, especially near Glen Davis, a few hours by road from Sydney, and less reliably in Southeastern Australia at Chiltern-Mount Pilot NP near Wangaratta in Victoria.
There can be few more fantastic sights than a fairy-like white paradise flycatcher dashing about the forest. This image of an Asian one was taken in Sri Lanka by Chris Townend.
African, Madagascar, Asian and Japanese Paradise Flycatchers Terpsiphone spp.
All the males of these species are long-tailed beauties, especially the white morphs of the first three. These birds can be seen in Africa south of Sahara and from Asia to Indonesia.
Vanga Flycatcher Bias musicus
This small and stocky bird has a spiky crest, bright yellow eyes, a short tail and broad rounded wings, and no other bird looks anything like it. The male is black and white, the female grey, rufous and white. It has a curious patchy distribution in Africa south of the Sahara and is inexplicably rather uncommon in some places but commoner in others where it can be seen with some ease. It also has a rather long alternative name; Black-and-white (Shrike) Flycatcher, perhaps because the word Vanga is associated with a sometimes violent initiation ceremony of the former Ndembo secret society of the Lower Congo.
A fabulous male Brown Sicklebill on the 'bird table' at Kumul Lodge, Papua New Guinea, by Paul Macklam.
Brown Sicklebill Epimachus meyeri
This is not the best name for this species. The females may be brown-ish but the much rarer males are something else; truly birds-of-paradise, what with a slim, down-curved bill, pale blue eyes, metallic blue head and back, and long, narrow, black, down-curved tail, making it look rather like a cross between a pheasant and a hummingbird. To top it all when it fires its unique machine-gun call, which rattles through the forest, the extraordinary creature fans its mauve breast plumes and white flank plumes. The species can be seen along the Pondok Tiga-Yabogema Trail on the Lake Habbema Trek in West Papua and in the Tari Valley of Papua New Guinea although virtually every bird seen is likely to be a shy and elusive female or an immature. To see one well and to stand a chance of seeing a male Brown Sicklebill in all its glory it is best to visit Kumul Lodge in Papua New Guinea where females, immatures and sometimes males visit the massive 'bird table'! The other large sicklebill, over a metre long, is the rather imposing Black Sicklebill (Epimachus fastuosus) which is even more elusive and only likely to be seen at known display posts in the Arfak Mountains of West Papua and the Tari Valley in Papua New Guinea.
Another long-tailed beauty - the Ribbon-tailed Astrapia, in the Tari Valley, Papua New Guinea, by Mark Harper.
Ribbon-tailed Astrapia Astrapia mayeri
A large, shimmering blue and green male bird-of-paradise with two very long silky white tail streamers, the longest feathers relative to body length of any bird, which may grow to 90 cm (3 ft) long. This fabulous creature occurs only in Papua New Guinea and although full adult males are rare they can usually be found at the best places in the world to see Ribbon-tailed Astrapia; Kumul Lodge and the surrounding area, and especially the Tari Valley above Ambua Lodge.
King Bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus regius
The ‘blood-and-snow bird’, as males may be described, is an astonishing sight. Just 16 cm (6 inches) long, it has the most incredible soft but glossy, deep ruby-red upperparts, and two long tail ‘wires’ tipped with shimmering emerald discs. It’s so amazing it’s hard to imagine such a thing exists and even those who have seen it well can hardly believe it. Seeing one is quite easy, seeing one well, displaying in their favoured vine tangles, is another matter, but possible at the best places in the world to see King Bird-of-paradise, which are Nimbokrang in West Papua, and along the Elevala River and near Karawari Lodge in Papua New Guinea.
Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise Seleucidis melanoleuca
Another stunning member of the incredible birds-of-paradise family, males of this species have candy-floss-like yellow plumes and twelve recurved tail ‘wires’, and dance up and down the tops of tall dead stumps in forest clearings. The best places in the world to see the fabulous Twelve-wired Bird-of-paradise are Nimbokrang in West Papua, and along the Fly and Elevala Rivers, and near Karawari Lodge in Papua New Guinea.
Wilson’s Bird-of-paradise Cicinnurus respublica
Along with the Resplendent Quetzal of Central America this bird is often considered to be the best bird in the world, especially by the relatively few birders who have been fortunate enough to have seen a fully-adorned male displaying. The best and only places in the world to witness such a fantastic sight are the islands of Batanta and Waigeo off the west coast of West Papua, the only islands in the world where this bird occurs. There are known display courts with palm-fringed viewing screens on both islands, where it is possible to watch this wonder at very close range for hours on end.
A male Wilson's Bird-of-paradise above its court on the island of Waigeo off West Papua, by Nick Cobb.
Western Parotia Parotia sefilata
This astonishing bird used to be known as the Six-wired Bird-of-paradise thanks to the male’s six head ‘wires’ which end in small spatules, but it is now better known as the bird-of-paradise that 'dances' with its legs taut, body feathers held out like a tutu, and head and wires waving from side to side at what seems like a hundred miles an hour. The best place in the world to see a male Western Parotia displaying is the Arfak Mountains of West Papua where there are known display courts with palm-fringed viewing screens from which it is possible to watch them at very close quarters. The very similar Lawes’s (Parotia lawesii), Eastern (Parotia helenae) and Wahnes’s (Parotia wahnesi) Parotias occur in Papua New Guinea, but as is the case with Carola’s Parotia (Parotia carolae) which occurs in West Papua and Papua New Guinea, no display courts are currently being made accessible to members of organized tours, if any are actually known at all.
A male Western Parotia above its court in the Arfak Mountains of West Papua, by Nick Cobb.
King-of-Saxony Bird-of-paradise Pteridophora alberti
A small and relatively subdued bird for a male bird-of-paradise but it more than makes up for it with its amazing head plumes which grow to 40 cm (16 inches) long, nearly 20 cm (8 inches) longer than the bird itself, and which it is able to move in any direction, and despite its subtle colours it is the sight of the waving plumes which often leads to it being voted bird-of-the-trip by birders completing their New Guinea experience. Bearing in mind the birds it has to compete with for such an honour it must also be considered as possibly the best bird in the world. The best places in the world to see King-of-Saxony Bird-of-paradise include the Pondok Tiga-Yabogema Trail on the Lake Habbema Trek in West Papua and better still the Tari Valley and Kumul Lodge area in Papua New Guinea.
The incomparable King-of-Saxony Bird-of-paradise, in West Papua, by Simon Colenutt.
A male Raggiana Bird-of-paradise, in Varirata National Park, Papua New Guinea, by Mark Harper.
Raggiana Bird-of-paradise Paradisaea raggiana
The shivering veils of salmon-pink plumes, presented by displaying males of this species at their communal leks, is one of the most beautiful sights in the natural world. Raggiana Bird-of-paradise is just one of the six very similar birds-of-paradise species with males that have flamboyant flank plumes, which are red in Raggiana which occurs in southeast West Papua and mainly Papua New Guinea, Goldie’s (Paradisaea decora) of the D’Entrecasteaux archipelago off Papua New Guinea, and Red Bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea rubra) of the islands Batanta, Waigeo, Gemien and Saonek off West Papua, white in Emperor Bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea guilielmi) of the Huon Peninsula in Papua New Guinea, and yellow in Lesser (Paradisaea minor) and Greater (Paradisaea apoda) Birds-of-paradise which occur in West Papua and Papua New Guinea. The males of these species are elusive away from their display trees which themselves are few and far between, at least as far as is known. However, the best places in the world to see Raggiana and other, similar, birds-of-paradise, where there are known display trees, include Nimbokrang in West Papua and near Kumul Lodge in Papua New Guinea for Lesser, near Kiunga in Papua New Guinea for Greater, on the Huon Peninsula of Papua New Guinea for Emperor, on the islands of Batanta and Waigeo in West Papua for Red, and in Varirata NP in Papua New Guinea for Raggiana.
Blue Bird-of-paradise Paradisaea rudolphi
The last but not least of the nine birds-of-paradise in this list, and another strong contender for the best bird in the world, thanks to the male's beautiful bone china blue back and shimmering blue, black and red breast shield. It occurs only in Papua New Guinea where the best places in the world to see Blue Bird-of-paradise are the Tari Valley and near Kumul Lodge.
A male Blue Bird-of-paradise in a 'garden' in the Tari Valley, Papua New Guinea, by Paul Macklam.
Yellow-headed and Red-headed Picathartes Picathartes spp.
These two extraordinary species are in a unique family, sometimes called 'rockfowl'. These terrestrial birds not only have distinctive brightly coloured bare heads, long necks, strong, long legs and long tails, they have immaculate plumage, as can be seen in the image below. They occur only in West Africa where the best places to see Yellow-headed Picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus) , which occurs from Guinea to Ghana, include Sierra Leone and Ghana, and the best places to see Red-headed Picathartes (Picathartes oreas), which occurs from southeast Nigeria to Gabon (and the island of Bioko in the Gulf of Guinea), include Cross River NP in Nigeria, a couple of sites in Cameroon, Lope NP in Gabon, and Dzanga-Sangha NP in the Central African Republic.
The extraordinary Yellow-headed Picathartes photographed in Ghana by Ian Merrill.
Rail Babbler Eupetes macrocerus
This is a stand-out bird! A bit bigger than large thrushes and babblers it is a rich brown beauty with bold black and white stripes on its head, a longish neck and quite long legs, and it walks about on the forest floor like a small chicken. It is usually extremely shy but rarely flies and normally runs from a potential predator or observer at great speed. In its small range, the best forest patches left from Southern Thailand through the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra and Borneo, the best chances of seeing one are in the Khung Chin Waterfall area in Khao Laung NP in Southern Thailand which is very popular with photographers who queue up to photograph the birds from mobile screens, and in Taman Negara and Panti Forest Reserve in the Malay Peninsula.
Blue Nuthatch Sitta azurea
All nuthatches are a bit special but this exquisite little black, blue and white bird is arguably the most amazing. The best places in the world to see Blue Nuthatch, which occurs from the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra and Java, include Fraser’s Hill in the Malay Peninsula, Kerinci Seblat NP and the Tapan Road in Sumatra, and Gunung Gede-Pangrango NP in Java.
Wallcreeper Tichodroma muraria
The Chinese name of this bird, which translates as ‘rock flower’, says it all, and this ‘avian flower’ can fly! The unique Wallcreeper constantly flicks its wings open when climbing vertical rock faces or foraging amongst river rocks, revealing its red wing patches and when it flies it does so with broad wings flashing red and white and looks like a giant butterfly! It has a wide range and can be seen in many places although it is much harder to find during the breeding season when it inhabits steep high-altitude terrain. The range extends from southern Europe to the Himalayas and Central China and the best places in the world to see Wallcreeper during the northern summer breeding season include above Gavarnie in the Pyrenees of Southern France, the upper Hecho Valley in the Pyrenees of Northern Spain, the high Picos de Europa in Northwestern Spain, Bekas Gorge in Transylvania, Romania, the Trigrad Gorge in Bulgaria and, in late winter/early spring, Georgia. The best places to see Wallcreeper during the northern winter, when the birds move to lower altitudes, include Les Baux near the Camargue in Southern France, the Sierra de Guara region of the Pyrenees in Northern Spain and Northern India.
A fantastic image of a Wallcreeper in the Trigrad Gorge, Bulgaria by Simon Colenutt.
Musician Wren Cyphorhinus aradus
This small brown bird may not be much to look at but it sure is worth listening to, for it has, arguably, the most beautiful and beguiling song of any bird and there are an awful lot of such songs to choose from. There are many places to listen to and maybe even see this shy singer in the lowland forests of northern South America.
White-throated Dipper Cinclus cinclus
All five species of dipper, which can dive, swim and ‘walk’ underwater, are special, even the three mainly brown ones, but this is arguably the best-looking. It may be seen on numerous rivers and streams from North Africa and Europe east to the Himalayas and western China.
White-throated Dipper, here of the 'black-bellied' form, in Norfolk, England, by Michael McKee.
Firecrest Regulus ignicapillus
This little gem looks even more amazing when the male flares its aptly-named crest. It may be seen in numerous places in North Africa and Europe east to the Caucasus Mountains.
A great image of a Firecrest taken in Tuscany, Italy, by Simon Colenutt.
White-winged Apalis Apalis chariessa
There are several pretty apalises, dinky birds with long tails, but the male of this species, a stunningly attractive black, white and deep yellow bird, is arguably the best. The best places to see White-winged Apalis, which occurs in Tanzania, Mozambique and Malawi, include the Udzungwa and Uluguru Mountains of Southern Tanzania, Mounts Chiperone and Namuli in Mozambique, and near Zomba and on Thyolo Mountain in Malawi.
Varied Thrush Ixoreus naevius
The males of this species of thrush are one of the most beautifully coloured and patterned birds in the world. They may be seen throughout Western North America, from Alaska to the northwest USA during the northern summer, in northwest USA all year round, and from there to California, sometimes as far south as northern Baja California, during the northern winter.
A Varied Thrush near Anchorage, Alaska by Simon Colenutt.
White-crested Laughingthrush Garrulax leucolophus
So many laughingthrushes to choose from but this one, with its amazing big fluffy snow-white crest and black mask is arguably the most striking. It occurs in the Himalayas from northwest India to South East Asia and may be seen in many places.
A White-crested Laughingthrush at Fishtail Lodge in Pokhara, Nepal by Spider.
Golden-breasted Starling Lamprotornis regius
There are a lot of good-looking starlings but this is arguably the best-looking. It occurs from Somalia and south Ethiopia to northeast Tanzania and the best places in the world to see Golden-breasted Starling include Samburu and Tsavo East NP in Kenya.
Golden-breasted Starling in Samburu, Kenya, by Francesco Veronesi.
Golden-winged Sunbird in Kenya by Steve Garvie.
Golden-winged Sunbird Nectarinia reichenowi
A male sunbird which stands out amongst the many stunning members of this family, thanks to its iridescent fiery-copper and bronze head, breast and back, black underparts and golden-yellow wings and tail, complete with elegant streamers. It’s so good it has to be one of the best birds in the world. It occurs from the eastern Congo through southern Uganda and Kenya to northern Tanzania, usually between 1800 and 3400 metres or down to 950 metres during the rainy season, and the best places in the world to see Golden-winged Sunbird include the Aberdares and Mount Kenya in Kenya, and the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania.
Golden-winged Warbler Vermivora chrysoptera
So many New World Warblers are so stunning that it is extremely difficult to pick out one for a list such as this but this is arguably one of the most dazzling. It occurs in southern Manitoba, Canada and the northeastern USA in the northern summer, from far south Mexico to far north South America in the northern winter, and at many places between during migration, including Point Pelee in Ontario, Canada, and High Island in Texas, where, at times, over 25 species of New World Warbler occur during the northern spring.
Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus
It’s not just the red waxy tips to the secondaries that make this bird special, it’s the soft plumage, the subtle colours, the black mask, the fluffy crest and the delicate wing and tail markings. The two other species of waxwing also possess the waxy tips, and the Finch-billed Myna (Scissirostrum dubium) which is endemic to Sulawesi and nearby islands also has such tips to its rump feathers. The drabber Cedar Waxwing occurs from Canada and the northern USA during the northern summer south as far as Panama in the northern winter, the almost as beautiful (the tail tip is red instead of yellow) but mis-named Japanese Waxwing occurs in North East Asia during the northern summer and south to southern China in the northern winter but it is irregular in Japan, and Bohemian Waxwing occurs in Alaska and northwest Canada, as well as north and east Scandinavia, and across Siberia during the northern summer, and south to Canada and the northern USA, as well as central Europe to Japan and southern China during the northern winter, although the numbers of birds which move away from the nesting range varies from year to year so it is difficult to pinpoint the best places to see this species away from there.
Bohemian Waxwings in Berkshire, England, by Michael McKee.
The gorgeous Orange-breasted Bunting in Mexico by Brian Field.
Orange-breasted Bunting Passerina leclancherii
There are hundreds of pretty little passerines, including numerous tanagers, but few if any are as pretty as this green-crowned and electric-blue-backed beauty with bright yellow underparts intensifying to golden orange across the breast. It is endemic to west Mexico, from near the Monarch Butterfly roost sites in Central Mexico to the southwest coast where in the Tapanatepec and Arriaga foothills it is possible to see it alongside one of its major contenders for a place on this list; the almost as gorgeous, even more electric blue Rosita’s (Rose-bellied) Bunting (Passerina rositae) with white eye-rings and rosy-pink underparts.
As far as the bird species which are not widespread or relatively easy to see throughout their range are concerned the top destinations where the highest number of the Top 100 Birds occurs on a regular basis are West Papua and Papua New Guinea (9 species each), Eastern Australia (5), Antarctica and the Atlantic Odyssey (4), Kenya, Southern Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, New Zealand and the Subantarctic Islands (all 3), the Arctic, Cuba, Western Venezuela, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Northern Tanzania, Arctic Russia, Japan, Southeastern Australia and Western Pacific Odyssey (all 2), and single species for many more.