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Best birding in highlands and islands

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Prepare for some close encounters of the bird kind with our field guide to finding (feathered) friends in far-flung places. This article is adapted from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures.

Greater Bird-of-paradise, Indonesia

Greater Bird-of-paradise by Andrea Lawardi. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Getting to the remote landscapes where these magnificent birds live is almost as exciting as actually finding the bird. The direction is usually up: up-river, uphill and peering upwards in rainforest. Villagers will know of any local dancing trees, the morning and evening venues where groups of preening, prancing males strut their stuff in front of the females. Birds, that is, though there’s probably a spot where local boys and girls do the same. As you’ll likely be staying in a village, you may even get a chance to join them.

Go: Wasur National Park near Merauke, the easternmost town in Indonesia, is a good place to start birding. If you don’t speak Indonesian, take a point-and-ask picture dictionary.

Line Islands Warbler, Kiritimati (Christmas Island), Pacific Ocean, Kiribati

This admittedly undistinguished warbler is the only native land bird on Kiritimati, the world’s biggest coral atoll. But it’s endemic to only two small islands in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and is a noteworthy tick off the birding bucket-list. Resident colonies of seabirds – frigate birds, terns and boobies in their thousands – afford plenty of other feathered action. The birds’ presence is a victory over isolation and geography, and your presence will feel like a victory too. The flight schedule is whimsical and most locals travel by sea; the occasional yachtie makes landfall.

Go: See Air Pacific (www.airpacific.com) for current flight information. If you’re time rich and cash poor, ask about infrequent boat services to and from Tarawa.

Noisy Scrub-bird, Western Australia

As you might expect from its name, you’re likely to hear this bird before you see it. If you see it, that is. The call is unmistakable; if you’ve never heard it before, listen for a beautiful and extraordinarily ear-piercing song emanating from thick heathland scrub and you’ll know you’re in the right place. But this bird is sneaky and camera-shy. One of the most sought-after endemic birds in Australia, you’ll have to be quick to spot it dashing, road-runner style, across gaps between islands of bush along a tiny stretch of Western Australia’s isolated south coast.

Go: Cheyne’s Beach Caravan Park has info about the most recent sightings; ask at reception for the bird file behind the desk. See www.cheynesbeachcaravanpark.com.au.

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica

Resplendent Quetzal by Joseph C Boone. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Picture a flamboyant punky hairdo, dyed bright green. Add emerald zigzag epaulettes on a scarlet belly and long tail streamers and, voila, it’s a Resplendent Quetzal in breeding plumage. While usually foraging in inconveniently high trees (be prepared for the occupational hazard of birder’s stiff neck), these, um, resplendent birds often nest in rather more conveniently placed fence posts and tree stumps; look for the tail feathers poking out. If you’re in the right part of the country – cloud forest and its fringes in the highlands – your host is sure to know the nearest likely nesting site.

Go: Breeding season is March to June. Head for rugged Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve or low-key villages around Cerro de la Muerte. Pack a waterproof poncho.

Orange Dove, Fiji

Are those feathers? Or is it wearing a wig made of fluorescent orange hair? This improbably coloured bird blends equally improbably into its forest home on several smaller Fijian islands. Your first indication that it’s around may be its call – a repeated click, coughed out by the male. On Taveuni Island, the predatory (introduced) mongoose is absent, so wildlife is less fearful and more abundant than elsewhere. Most visitors hug the coastline, but venture inland and you’ll find lush forests and well-maintained bush-walking tracks that make birding here a calm, quiet pleasure, albeit a sweaty one.

Go: Head to Taveuni’s Bouma National Heritage Park to try birdwatching on rugged Des Voeux Peak or on the Vidawa Rainforest Trail. More at www.bnhp.org.

Pel's Fishing Owl, Botswana

Pel's Fishing Owl by Ron KnightCreative Commons Attribution Licence.

There’s an extra frisson of anticipation when watching birds around water in Africa. Are those ripples on the surface of the river from a heron spearing fish on the shoreline or is a hippo about to surface next to your canoe? If the waterway’s lined with trees and you’re beside it with a spotlight after nightfall, you can double the anticipation factor, especially if a wailing scream, followed by a series of booms, emerges from the dark. The former is a young (and hungry) Pel’s Fishing Owl, the latter is the parent birds’ reply.

Go: Seasonal islands in the meandering Okavango Delta are the place to look for this species (and the delta’s 400 or so others). Visit www.botswanatourism.co.bw.

Red-breasted Merganser, Christmas Island, Canada

Widespread in the northern hemisphere, this duck is one of few that stays around when most water bodies in north-east Canada freeze over. Their red breasts offer a welcome flash of colour on the sheltered winter waters of Bras d’Or lake. Join the (very) few hardy human visitors that brave the chilly weather and you’ll soon spot the few hardy waterbirds that do too. Not much else will be moving out in the open except you and them, bound by a sense of both solitude and solidarity in the wild snowscape.

Go: Dreaming of a white Christmas on this Christmas Island? Stay at Hector’s Arm B&B (www.bbcanada.com/hectorsarm). The nearest airport and car hire is in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Golden Bosunbird, Christmas Islands, Indian Ocean, Australia

The stunning plumage of this unique tropicbird gives it its local name, the golden bosun. Endemic to this isolated island, it’s a beautiful exhibitionist and its tail-streaming, low-flying aerial displays are in your face. Sometimes literally; bike riders beware. It nests at a low level, mostly on sea cliffs and in tree hollows but occasionally on public paths (handy for photographers). And there’s nothing quite like floating on your back in limpid water, looking at golden bosuns and black frigate birds – also endemic – outlined against turquoise sky.

Go: Birding’s less fun during the December to April heavy wet season. Most flights leave from Perth, Western Australia. More information is at www.christmas.net.au.

Pink Flamingo, France

Flamingo by alfonsopazphoto. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Immortalised as the Queen of Hearts’ croquet mallet in Alice in Wonderland, the pink flamingo remains something of an eccentric oddity. Revisit the book’s illustrations before you visit the real thing on the briny lagoons of the world’s largest river delta in the Camargue. Rather than whacking croquet balls, their flattened, upside-down bill is handy for filtering small critters from shallow swamps. They’re here all year in small numbers and up to 10,000 gather during peak breeding season to parachute in and cosy up in photogenic silhouettes against the sunset.

Go: Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau is 40km drive from Arles, Provence. Breeding season is November to March. Take a serious mosquito repellent.

Western Tragopan, India

This rarest of all pheasants has a mix-and-match design with a patchworked red and orange head above a black and white polka-dot body. Hiking high into the forests of the Great Himalayan National Park and Kullu Valley, you can give your neck a rest and look down into the understorey where the birds feed. And look outwards too, to saw-toothed, snow-capped mountains.

Go: The park is closed in winter. For fees, access details and dates, see www.greathimalayannationalpark.com.