Planning A Birding Safari In Uganda

First of all, everything I write here works for a normal “Big 5” type safari or even the mountain gorillas (though there are more specific blogs on gorillas) so if you are not particularly into birding you will still find value in this post.  Of course if you ARE into birding, you will find even more value!

Uganda has so much to offer and is easily accessed by airline miles.  If you have limited time and finances you will really have to make some tough decisions on how many parks to visit.  It really helps if you know what species are your priority.  For some people this may be raptors or trying to check off all the endemics.  For me it’s always parrots first, then songbirds, then other birds and mammals.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to bypass lions or cheetahs though!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see.  I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that.  Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I always check bird sightings on eBird, you can see my full guide on locating bird species .

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The trip reports will show you which parks you need to concentrate on.  Once you have this, you can start contacting birding tour operators or safari companies that are well-recommended for quotes.

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

Firstly I should mention that I had unusual circumstances regarding travel insurance coverage and pre-existing conditions so I could only make a short dash into Uganda.  Normally I would have spent at least a week here although I have already seen the Mountain Gorillas back in 1998.  I was prioritizing parrots knowing that plenty of other bird species would be in the same habitats.  There are 3 parrot species in Uganda.    The African Grey Parrot is one which I only caught a fleeting glimpse of in Ghana so I wanted a better look.  Same with the Red-headed Lovebird.  The third parrot is the Meyers (Brown) Parrot.  I didn’t want to stray too far from Entebbe so I found 3 good prospects:

ENTEBBE BOTANICAL GARDENS

African Grey Parrot — Psittacus erithacus

Red-headed Lovebirds — Agapornis pullinarus

Meyer’s (Brown) Parrots – Poicephalus meyeri

MABAMBA SWAMP

Best known for Shoebills though African Grey Parrots have been seen flying overhead.

MPANGA FOREST

Same as Botanical Gardens.

Here is a map showing the locations.

HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR OWN BIRDING SAFARI

In Uganda, it’s very rare for tourists to self-drive cars and you will have to use some kind of transport with a driver included.  These drivers probably won’t know anything about birds so you will also need a guide at each park/reserve you visit.  There are usually guides hanging around national parks waiting for customers so this won’t be a problem.  You may decide that it’s more convenient to just join an organized tour such as those whom I mentioned above if you can afford it.

I booked a Shoebill Safari with Mabamba Shoebill Safaris which was well-recommended on Trip Advisor.  The first time we went to the Botanic Gardens we used a taxi-minibus from our hotel.  This didn’t work out well as the windows were shaded cutting visibility.  After the Shoebill safari, I struck a deal with their driver to take us back to the Botanic Gardens after the shoebills, then the next day to Mpanga Forest.  They had a more comfortable vehicle (SUV) and made a good price.  If you are a less-experienced traveler and not comfortable with “Winging it”, then you can contact safari companies in advance to book a driver.

VISA FOR UGANDA

Uganda has an e-visa system where you fill out the application, upload scanned copies of your documents and pay online.  The paying thing is new, when I did it, we paid on arrival, $50 cash per person.  The details and application is HERE.

You will need scanned copies of your passport, a recent passport photo, your Yellow Fever certificate (valid for lifetime) and details of your flights and accommodation.  It’s pretty easy and our were approved by email the nest day.

BEST SEASON TO TRAVEL

There’s a couple things to consider, the weather and potential crowds (especially if you are going to other parts of Uganda).  I always check the weather on Weather2Travel.  In my case, since we were going to other places in Africa we went in the rainy season (April 2017) but it wasn’t too bad, only a few showers in the evening.

If you have “must-see” bird species, always check eBird to make sure the birds are being seen that time of year by other birders.

BOTTOM LINE

Obviously a lot of thought and preparation needs to go into a birding safari to Uganda and even more so if you will be visiting Chimps & Gorillas.  The lower your budget, the more you have to do yourself.  For most people, this will be a once in a lifetime experience so take your time and get it right!

 

Planning A Birding Trip To The Philippines

The Philippines archipelago has an astounding mix of more than 600 species of birds and  of these almost 200 species are endemic.  This was a very brief visit we made back in September 2010 while enroute to the World Parrot Conference at Loro Parque.  Some of the details are hazy but I do have plenty of photos.  Anyway, you can be sure the Philippines is on my list for future trips!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see.  I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that.  Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The itineraries can provide inspiration for your own or you may decide that it is easier to just join a tour.  They are not cheap but they do have excellent guides to help you find a lot more birds.

Independent birders have a lot of resources too.  Have a look at these websites.

Birdwatch Philippines

EBON

Katala Foundation

 

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

This was back in the early days of my birding career.  I was prioritizing parrots, knowing that there would actually be lots of different bird species in the same habitats.  First I contacted the Katala Foundation to see the #1 target, the Philippine Cockatoo.  Details are on their flyer and the costs are extremely reasonable.  Then I knew there were other parrots on Palawan such as some Racket-tail Parrots and Blue-naped Parrots.  Then I squeezed in a stop to Mt Makiling to hunt for Guiabero Parrots.

This will be covered in detail as the report progresses.

HOW I BOOKED OUR FLIGHTS

I used American Airlines miles for

BNE-HKG-MNL-HKG-LHR (CX) -MAD-TFN (IB).  I don’t recall what it cost then (it was much cheaper) but now it would cost 30k in Y or 40k in J for the BNE-MNL segments and 35k in Y or 75k in J for the MNL-TFN segments.  We were in Y as I hadn’t yet honed my travel-hacking skills to where we could get J. The flights were booked around the end of 2009.

From there, we had cheap paid tickets TFN-MAD-RAK (Marrakesh side trip), then United miles back to Australia via IST & BKK on TK & TG.

The one thing to be careful of is that we couldn’t just issue a MNL-Europe award from BNE.  We would have had to walk into an AA office and pick up the tickets in person.  However as an open jaw award, we could have this routing.

LOGISTICS

We flew on Cebu Pacific from Manila to Puerto Princesa where a rep from the Katala Foundation met us and took us to the minibus for Narra.  We took another minibus back to Puerto Princesa, then changed to a larger bus for the Sabang trip.

Back on the mainland, we took a taxi to the bus station and a bus that dropped us at Mt Makiling.  Given that this trip was 6.5 years ago, I don’t recall the details, we may have had another taxi from the bus stop to Mt Makiling.

WHEN TO GO

This wasn’t a conscious decision as this trip was part of a longer trip including Spain (Loro Parque conference) so we had to go in September.  We did cop some rain as a result but nothing we could do but try.

Weather2Travel is my go-to site for weather planning.  On a future trip, I’d be looking at Feb, March, April (avoiding Easter holidays).

VISAS

The citizens of most countries that are likely to be reading this blog can enter the Philippines for at least a month (or 3) visa free.  See details here.

ACCOMMODATION

During the layovers in Manila, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza because it was on the IHG Pointbreaks list and only cost 5000 points.  We stayed at very small hotels in Narra to see the Philippine Cockatoos, Subang for the Puerto Princesa Subterranean NP and Puerto Princesa.  Back on the mainland, we had an overnight in yet another small guesthouse in Mt Makiling.  None of these were booked in advance, we just rocked up.  If you want to have something booked in advance, it’s worth looking on  Pointshound  or  Rocketmiles to maximize bonus miles.  Each property will be reviewed in the appropriate section of the trip report.

Planning A Birding Adventure To Australia’s Northern Territory (Top End)

Now that you know how to use miles to get to Australia and use Darwin as a gateway city, what you really want to know is how to get out in the bush where the birds are!  Fortunately, Australia is an amazingly easy country to travel around in.  It’s safe, everyone speaks English and the tourism infrastructure is excellent!  All you need is a well-researched plan and a car to get there.

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MAKE YOUR PLAN

1. Determine what species of birds you want to see. Bear in mind that no matter what species you are targeting, you will find many other species in the same location. In my case, although I was really keen to see wild Parrots, I was very happy to see that other species such as Rainbow Pittas, Gouldian Finches and Bowerbirds were also within reach.

2. Use guide books such as “Parrots of the World” by Joseph Forshaw and “The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia” by Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight to determine where these species can most easily be found. These books have maps to help you formulate an itinerary. Although I prefer Kindle/eBooks for casual reading, with a field guide you really need the hard copy to be able to compare the birds you see to the images in the book. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the species. As long as you get a decent photo, you can always look them up! You can buy these books on Amazon.com if you don’t have them already.

3. Use other internet resources to find out where the birds have been seen most recently. These may be Facebook or Twitter contacts, blogs like Miles to the Wild or trip reports on Surfbirds. Google the scientific name of the bird + “report”. For example if you Google “Lophochroa leadbeateri sightings” you get this. If you have destinations in mind from researching the field guides, you can get better results by Googling “Lophochroa leadbeateri Bowra” such as this.

4. Use eBird searches on the species to see where other people have reported them.  I now have a full tutorial on how to use eBird to plan a trip.   Spend more time if the destination has more of the species you are targeting.

This step can be very time consuming as you need to research each species you want to see individually but it is well worth it as you will save lots of time once you are traveling and you can travel independently which saves you lots of money and gives you more choices as to when, where & how you want your birding adventure to happen!

5.  Visit some local birding websites.  The Northern Territory ones are especially helpful and I can recommend:

Experience the Wild

NT Bird Specialists

Book:  Top End Birdwatching written by Mike Reed.  I found it for sale at the Katherine Museum or contact NT Bird Specialists.  Wonderful book and helped me find lots of birds and identify them from the photos.  Plus it doesn’t weigh much!

Laurie Ross

Once I did all the research, this is the itinerary I put together which gave a fair shot at all my target birds.  I will go into depth on each hotspot in turn throughout this series.

NT Birding

LOGISTICS

You will definitely need a car, as this is a huge chunk of territory to cover and public transport is very sparse.  One thing to note about the Northern Territory is that cars don’t have unlimited kilometers like in most other Aussie cities and the per kilometer cost will probably double your rental car budget.  For this trip, since I happen to be a member of RACQ (the local auto club) I got 15% discount on Thrifty Car Hire-including the rental, the kilometers and insurance.  My own GPS covers all of Australia so I brought it along.  The itinerary above is all on tarred roads so a 2WD car is fine but if you want to include places like the Marrikai Track you will need a 4WD.  Always get quotes from several car companies and use whatever discounts you qualify for!  Refueling is cheaper in Darwin and Katherine so always top up before heading into the Outback.

A good plan is to bird early in the morning, use the afternoon to either siesta by the pool or drive to the next destination, then more birding in the afternoon.  The Territory is HOT, even in September which is when we did our trip!

Accommodation ranges from typical Aussie caravan parks (that also have self-catering cabins) to Outback style B&B’s.  You only chance to use hotel points will be in Darwin and Katherine but in this case I recommend choosing a property based on location and convenience within your price range.  We were low-budget and our accommodation averaged around $100 AUD per night.  Plan on picnic breakfasts and lunches while birding or driving between locations, then either BBQ or hit up a pub for dinner.

Stock up on groceries before leaving Darwin or Katherine for a better selection and cheaper prices.  We have a cooler that we keep the meat in and the drinks for the day.  Most accommodations will have a fridge and microwave, even a small kitchenette.  Having said that, by the time the trip was finished, we couldn’t look at another sandwich for weeks!

Bring lots of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, especially for Howard Springs!  If you are using carry-on only, you can easily buy it in Darwin at any supermarket.

Using eBird To Plan Your Birding Trip (Target Species Focus) In 10 Easy Steps

Over the last year or so, I have been using eBird to help plan my travels.  I am usually a species-focused birder when I travel.  That means I have certain species in mind and I will plan my trip to locations where I am most likely to see that species.  Another style of planning might be when you have a trip booked to a destination and you want to know where to go birding and what kind of species you might find there.  For example you have a business trip to Sydney and would like to get in some birding in your spare time.  But the steps below are basically what I do.

STEP 1

Go to eBird, set up an account or log in if you already have one.  Then click on Explore Data and scroll down to Species Maps.

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STEP 2

Enter the name of the species you want to see-either in English or the scientific name.  In the examples below, I will be using the Hooded Parrot which was one of my target species when we went to the Northern Territory of Australia.  The technique works no matter where you want to go and which birds you want to see.  African Grey Parrots in Uganda, Resplendent Quetzals in Costa Rica or Antpittas in Ecuador are all there to be found!

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Now that I have entered the Hooded Parrot, I can see where they are concentrated – just south of Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia.  This tells me what airport I will need to fly into to begin my trip.  The darker the purple, the more sightings of that species have been logged in eBird.ebird4

STEP 3

Refine the search by using the dates I want to travel.  I will usually choose the quarter that represents the month I will be there and a 10 year data.  Sometimes I scale that back to the most recent 3 years if there are a lot of results.  Also pay attention to red points as they represent sightings of a bird within the last month.  I also click on “Show Points Sooner” on the right side of the screen to make all those points appear.

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By zooming in, I can see the big concentration of points around Pine Creek, Nitmiluk and Katherine.  I note that either would be a simple 2-3 hour drive south of Darwin.  I like to organize my birding for early mornings and late afternoons and use the middle part of the day to drive from one place to another.ebird6

STEP 4

Now I want to examine these “points” that represent bird sightings in more detail.  I will right click on each point in the general area and open in a separate tab.  I want to see what the numbers look like.  Are they big flocks being constantly seen over a period of weeks or months?  This indicates the birds are common to the area and you have a good chance to spot them.  You can also see exact locations such as which park, what street, etc.  This location looks really good, various people (including me) are reporting good sized flocks.  So now I want to examine the Hotspot in more detail.  Right click on “Explore Hotspot” highlighted in yellow.

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STEP 5

Research the Hotspots.  If you are a destination birder rather than a species-specific birder you can come straight to the Hotspot section (see Step 1) and skip the other steps.  Seeing my target species is exciting enough but seeing a lot more birds in the same area is even better.  If I have limited time, I want the most “bang for my buck” so I want a Hotspot that not only has my target but lots of other interesting birds as well!

I have highlighted in yellow the information I want from this screen.  “Get Directions” will get me a Google map to the exact location of the Hotspot.  On the right side, I am looking at how many species are in the average checklist to get an idea of what other birds can be seen and how common they are.  I also take note of names which appear on a regular basis.  These people will be locals, maybe even birding guides so their lists are more likely to be accurate.

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STEP 6

Examine the bar chart for patterns in when the birds are being seen.  For example the Hooded Parrot is commonly seen between July to December.  They haven’t been reported at all in this location between mid January to June so I am glad my trip is in September!  One thing to note:  This location is pretty popular and gets a good amount of reports.  If you don’t see the bird being reported in a particular month, always check to see if ANY birds have been reported in the month.  For example if I were going in March, I would be concerned that no one has reported Hooded Parrots in March but other birds ARE being reported so it’s not a case that no one has filed a report yet for that month.  Birders are there in March, the Hooded Parrots are not there.

Now I scroll though to see what other birds are likely to be seen in September – quite a few parrot species so this looks like a great spot!ebird9

STEP 7

OK I know it isn’t “green” to print things out but it can be very handy to have a checklist readily available.  This is the first time I used this feature on a birding trip and it was invaluable to help me remember what I saw.  It also helped me identify some birds.  I would Google the bird species and match the results against my photos.

ebird91

STEP 8

Most people have more than one target species in mind when they go birding.  I do this procedure for all of my main target species (usually parrots but also bowerbirds, fairy-wrens, Gouldian finches).  Then I compare the checklists and bar charts to see what is the fewest number of stops I have to make to get all the desired species.  I had about 20 “Must-sees” for this trip to the Northern Territory.

STEP 9

I  like to cross reference what I learned from this procedure with other birding reports such as those found on Cloudbirders, Surfbirds and anything else that pops up on Google!  Sometimes I find good recommendations for accommodation and guides.

STEP 10

Now that I have my birding Hotspots sorted, I can start to look at other travel arrangements.  I need to fly to Darwin, rent a car and get accommodation near each of those Hotspots!

2017 – The African Godmother, Aussie-style Glamping & Revised Miles & Points Goals

It’s pretty hard to top our 2016 travels………………but if anything can, it would be another African adventure.   Last year, I made plans and pretty much nailed it, but no time to rest on my laurels!   2017 will see what will probably be our last trip to Africa (unless we win Lotto) so we are going to make the most of it while we can!  Bring on the Godmother of All African Adventures!

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2017 TRAVEL PLANS

After most airline miles programs devalued last year, I was worried that if we put off our long haul travel, we may not be able to make them happen.  Turns out I was right, Velocity devalued their partner awards on Etihad both in terms of mileage required and a shocking new surcharge.  United did away with their traditional stopovers and made their new Excursionist Perk program more restrictive in terms of regions and routings.  If I hadn’t booked when I did, we would have had to cough up more money, more points and travel in economy on Etihad instead of business class.  The itinerary targets all (except Niam-Niam) parrots in Africa that we haven’t seen yet and a few old friends like the African Grey (hopefully closer up), the Red-bellied Parrot and more!  So Africa here we come……………..and not a moment too soon!

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Trip #1

Brisbane – Perth – Abu Dhabi, car to Dubai for a couple days.  Used AAdvantage on QF in Y and Velocity on Etihad J before devaluations happened.

Dubai – Nairobi – Entebbe.  Used Flying Blue on KQ in Y.

UGANDA:  Will be visiting birding hotspots like Entebbe Botanical Gardens, Mabamba Swamp, Mabira Forest & possibly Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary where African Grey Parrots rescued from poachers were released into the wild.  (FYI:  This will be my 2nd trip to Uganda and I have already visited the mountain gorillas in Bwindi and chimps in Kibale).  My main goal is to get African Grey Parrots closer up and possibly Meyers Parrots and some other cool birds like Shoebills and Turacos.

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Entebbe – Addis Ababa – Lusaka – Windhoek.  Used United miles on Ethiopian & South African airlines in Y class.  This is a one region with a stop-over that technically wasn’t allowed before but sometimes slipped through.  It’s no longer possible with Excursionist Perks.

ETHIOPIA:  Will visit either or both of Wondo Genet & Lake Lugano.  Originally we were going to stay at Bishangari Lodge but it was burned down by protesters in Oct 2016.  The new plan is to fly to Awassa, then make day trips from there.  Once back in Addis Ababa, we will stay at the Ghion Hotel (their grounds are a birding hotspot) and a day trip to Menagesha Forest.  I’m targeting 2 endemic parrots – Yellow-fronted Parrot & Black-winged Lovebird plus other species.

ZAMBIA:  Will hightail it out of Lusaka to Livingstone for Victoria Falls/Mosi-o-tunya NP and the Machile IBA for Black-cheeked Lovebirds.  Then it’s on to Mfuwe and South Luangwa NP which is a hotspot for Lillian’s Lovebirds.

NAMIBIA:  We’ll pick up a rental car and drive around Namibia chasing Ruppell’s Parrots & Peach (Rosy)-faced Lovebirds near Etosha NP, Kunene River, Huab Lodge area and around Omaruru.

Windhoek – Doha – Adelaide – Brisbane  Used AAdvantage miles on Qatar Airways & Qantas in J.  This was one devaluation I couldn’t avoid but at least we are getting our miles worth!

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TRIP #2

Next year’s trip will be expensive both in miles & money so we will keep costs down on our road trip.  I’m thinking maybe a return visit to Bowra Station for “glamping” in the shearers’ quarters.

2017-goals

MILES AND POINTS GOALS

Much to my surprise, I am tracking pretty well.  2017 is booked.  I have enough miles for both a 2018 trip to South America & my solo trip to the World Parrot Conference at Loro Parque.  2019 is looking pretty good as both Qantas (Woolworths) and Virgin Velocity (Coles) are partnered with supermarkets and as long as they keep dishing out the bonus points, we are going to have enough for the South Pacific trip to Cook Islands, Samoa & Fiji from buying groceries & petrol.

But after that we will be miles-broke.  Who knows that the mileage programs will be doing by then or if they will devalue even worse so my goal for this year is to stockpile miles in flexible programs.  I have USA cards from Chase (Ultimate Rewards), Citibank (Thank You Points) and the Barclay’s AAviator card which gives an annual bonus of 10,000 miles plus 10% rebate on miles redeemed so virtually 20,000 effortless miles a year.  They often give spending challenges where you get bonus miles after achieving a goal to spend (for example) $1000 in 3 months.  I also have my Aussie Amex Platinum Edge to stockpile points that can be transfered to SPG (for now), VA, SQ, CX and a few others that I probably wouldn’t use.

SETTING MORE GOALS

In this I not only have to consider our finances & mileage accounts but also that we are not spring chickens and it is getting harder and harder to go on long walks and deal with the increasingly smaller seats in economy.  I’ve also had to do some re-shuffling of travel plans due to Venezuela’s ever-worsening situation and the Aussie dollar getting weaker making it harder to afford lodge packages in places like Tambopata which are sold in USD.  I haven’t really changed much from last year, just tweaked it a bit.

Prioritize trips to places that would otherwise be very expensive without miles such as South America.  These trips should be done as soon as the miles can be saved as they are vulnerable to devaluations.  Meanwhile, slot in a short haul trip during years we don’t have enough miles.

  1.  2018 South America  & Loro Parque – Have miles ready.  The actual destinations in South America will be chosen from Bolivia, Brazil, Guyana (which has some but not all of Venezuela’s key species), Bonaire & Mexico.  When grouping them, I need to consider the weather, easiness of finding birds, costs/exchange rates and miles to get there.  As a member of Qantas, I have searched over a whole year and business class is virtually impossible to get, especially for 2 people so we will have to cross the Pacific in economy.  I think they are now selling upgrades to elites and other paying pax.
  2.   TBD  South America – The Last Hurrah.  (Peru & Chile, Venezuela if they get their act together)  This trip requires a strong Aussie $ as birding packages in Peru are booked in USD.  We will be starting from scratch and it may take a few years to save enough miles.

Have a list of birding trips we can do using easy-to-get Velocity points or low-cost carriers.  These are completely flexible as to order and wouldn’t have to be booked 11 months in advance as the others would be. 

  1.  2019 – Pacific Islands (Rarotonga, Fiji, Samoa).  Using supermarket points with Velocity & Qantas with any spare AA for intra-Fiji flights.
  2.  2020 or 2021 Indonesia 1 (Sulawesi, Talaud & Halmahera) – using low cost carriers such as Air Asia,Garuda, Lion Air, etc.
  3.   Indonesia 2 (Seram, Buru, Tanimbar & Bali)
  4.   Philippines
  5.   Pacific Islands  (Solomons, Vanuatu & New Caledonia)
  6.   Papua New Guinea (might have to book an organized tour for safety).
  7.   New Zealand
  8.  Norfolk Island

Continue doing domestic Australian trips every year using “happy hour” deals, miles we don’t need for long hauls or road trips.

  1.  Uluru & Red Centre
  2.  Adelaide & Kangaroo Island
  3.  Gluepot, South Australia
  4.   Other NSW & Victoria TBD.
  5.   More Outback Queensland – most likely this year.

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CREDIT CARD & FINANCIAL GOALS

Not sure if there are any USA cards I can still get but I will be maximizing category bonuses with all cards.  I’ll also be on the lookout for any Aussie cards that I can qualify for although the best cards tend to be for high income earners only which lets me out.

There are a couple Aussie based survey sites that let you earn shopping vouchers with Coles, Woolies and other shops so I’ve been doing those.   Any money I can save on shopping goes into the travel budget!

Rewards Central

My Opinions

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BLOG GOALS

I’ve already made one improvement by installing Disqus for comments.  I got side-tracked with personal/family things so didn’t get my Feathered and Free stuff migrated over although the archive on the forum will be going offline when the contract expires in a few days.  I’ve had it going in one form or another for the last 10 years but just can’t keep paying for the hosting on top of this blog.

I’d like to promote myself as a guest speaker for bird clubs and travel conventions a bit more and maybe start a travel planning service for people wanting to use miles and points for eco-tourism.

Coming up, I’ll be finishing my series on the Caribbean with St Vincent, Dominica & Puerto Rico, then doing a series about Australia’s Northern Territory (Top End).  Then I still have some historical trips I can blog about with updated how-to-get-there info, maybe I’ll start with the Philippines!

Join me tomorrow as we visit St Vincent and the beautiful Vincie Parrot!

Planning A Birding Trip To The Caribbean

The Caribbean is one of the most challenging regions to go birding in, especially if you are on a budget.  You can get to most of the best islands for birding with miles but if you want to hop around between islands you are stuck with very expensive short flights.  Sooner or later, you will probably have to fly on Liat which is popularly known as “Leave Island Any Time or Luggage In Another Termnal”.

The other option is birding from a cruise ship.  This will get you to several islands and if you choose your itinerary wisely you could position yourself for some excellent birding.  I was successful in birding Jamaica & Grand Cayman from a cruise ship several years ago.

The islands highlighted in yellow are some of the most popular ones for birding and for parrot lovers, they all have endemic parrot species.

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CHOOSING THE ISLANDS TO VISIT

This was the easiest part.  The islands are fairly small and it’s easy to find out where the birds are.  I used eBird to get an idea but knew I would be hiring a guide at least on St Lucia and Dominica since time was short.  I was after several amazing Amazon Parrot species which are endemic to particular islands.  Puerto Rico has the Puerto Rican Amazon.  Dominica has the Imperial Amazon (Sisserou) & Red-necked Amazon (Jaco).  St Lucia has the St Lucia Parrot.  St Vincent has the St Vincent Parrot.  Trinidad has a couple of Parrotlets I was chasing – Green-rumped Parrotlets & Lilac-tailed Parrotlet.  There are also several Macaws and Amazon species plus lots of hummingbirds & manakins around the island so it was a great all-rounder.

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GETTING AROUND

We used United miles on Copa to get from Bogota to Trinidad via Panama.  Then we used miles from Port-of-Spain to St Lucia, only 4500 Avios for the short flight.  After that, we had to use Liat to St Vincent, Dominica & San Juan.

On Trinidad & Puerto Rico, we rented a car and drove around on our own.  On St Lucia, St Vincent & Dominica, we used a combination of guided birding tours (St Lucia), buses & taxis to national parks (St Vincent) and a private birding day trip on Dominica.

ACCOMMODATION

The Caribbean can be very expensive and even small lodges can be at least $150 a night.  Luckily I had some Hotels.com free nights, 2 Expedia credits for a promo they messed up on and some Orbucks from a photo competition they ran in 2014 which got our small hotels on St Lucia, St Vincent & Dominica plus one night at a small hotel south of San Juan for free.

We had 2 nights free in Trinidad at the Radisson thanks to the 2 for 1 redemption opportunity that came with the Club Carlson Visa booked just one month before that particular benefit went away.

We had one free night at the San Juan Intercontinental courtesy of the Chase free night with the IHG Rewards Visa.

Yes, you read that right, getting lucky with some hotel promos got us the entire week in the Caribbean for FREE!

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting in detail about our birding in the Caribbean so stay tuned!

Planning A Birding Trip To Colombia

Planning our birding trip to Colombia was a much bigger challenge than planning the Ecuador trip.  Even though the countries are next to each other, there is a huge difference between the tourist infrastructures.  Ecuador has been a travel hotspot for years and places like Mindo, Napo, Southern Ecuador & the Galapagos are well equipped to handle travelers of all types and budgets.  But Colombia was off limit for many years due to safety concerns and has only recently been returned to birders’ itineraries.  Even now, there is a preference for organized package tourists.  Many of the large birding tour operators are going to Colombia but there is still a good market for us budget minded independent birders!  We just have to work harder to manage it!

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SET YOUR BIRDING GOALS FIRST

With over 1900 bird species, Colombia has a lot to offer and unless you have unlimited time and money there is no way you are going to see it all.  Before you can choose which reserves you want to visit, you need to know what species are your priorities or which reserves have the biggest bird lists if you are looking to build up your life list.

My #1 target is to see as many parrot species as possible and lots of other bird species who live in the same habitats.  While I am not a “life-list ticker”, I do want to see as many different species of parrots in my life as I possibly can.  Therefore, when choosing between destinations within a country I consider these elements:

  1. Endemic species (can only be seen in one country such as Yellow-eared Parrot ( Santa Marta Parakeet).
  2. Species that I haven’t seen before.
  3. Species that are more easily seen elsewhere (Ecuadorian Amazon vs Colombian Amazon for example).
  4. How easily can I get to the reserve and is it in a safe location?
  5. Are some species just too rare that we probably have no chance of seeing them? (Sinu Parakeet – Pyrrhura subandina)?
  6. Can I hire guides in the reserves or nearest town?

So after looking at the 57 species of parrots that can be found in Colombia, I prioritized species that I hadn’t already seen on previous trips to South America and that I wasn’t likely to see in Ecuador, then I eliminated species that had no sightings on eBird and I was unlikely to be able to find.  Actually eBird played a HUGE part in planning this trip as I was able to get really good data on birds such as Fuertes Parrots which were being seen regularly near Santa Rosa and Rufous-fronted Parakeets which were being seen near Manizales.

This is a snippet of my planning spreadsheet for Ecuador, Colombia & Trinidad.  A yellow-filled box means that species is an endemic and needs to be prioritized.  Light green font indicates I have already seen the species elsewhere (but I am always happy to see them again) but I don’t need to make a special trip for that species.  Some birds are seen in both Ecuador & Colombia so I had to figure out which location would be easier logistically.  Just to get to this stage involved hundreds of hours of looking up each species on eBird, tracking sightings, cross-referencing species to get them down to as few sites as possible and making sure we can logistically get to the location.

ColParrot1 ColParrot2

ORGANIZING THE LOGISTICS

I was now down to 6 locations and less than 2 weeks to squeeze them all in.  I should probably say 5.5 locations as Minca is enroute to El Dorado.

  1.  Minca & El Dorado – accessed via Santa Marta airport
  2. Jardin – Yellow-eared Parrot Reserve – accessed by Medellin airport and a bus to Jardin.
  3. Rio Blanco & Surrounds – lots of species here, accessed by taxi or bus.
  4. Pereira – nearest city to accessible Fuertes Parrots.  I was trying for Giles Fuertes Reserve but told by ProAves that this reserve was not accessible to tourists.
  5. Chingaza Reserve – accessible by road from Bogota, planned to hire a taxi to get there.

I would need 3 flights.

  1. Quito to Santa Marta via Bogota (used Avianca Lifemiles).
  2. Santa Marta to Medellin (used Avianca Lifemiles).
  3. Pereira to Bogota (originally was going to use bus but found super cheap fare on Avianca).

This is what it all looked like on paper computer screen.

Colombia Plan

FINDING ACCOMMODATION

This turned out to be the easiest part.  Broken down by site:

  1. Santa Marta – flight got in at 9:30 so used an Expedia voucher for budget hotel.
  2. El Dorado – booked online via ProAves.
  3. Minca – booked online via Booking.com
  4. Jardin – got off bus from Medellin and walked into budget hotel on main plaza.
  5. Manizales (Rio Blanco) – must have advance booking so booked by email.
  6. Pereira – booked a backpacker place as I knew they would be able to find a cheap taxi to take us to Fuertes Parrots location at low cost.
  7. Bogota – was going to use Club Carlson bogo redemption but they closed their cheaper hotel so I used Orbucks from last year’s photo contest with 15% off promo code.

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This is an extremely succinct version of all the work I put into organizing a budget birding trip.  It’s very time consuming, especially if you have target species to track down and are limited by both time and budget.  But the end result was worth it for my high success rate.  Birds highlighted in peach were seen on this trip.  Those preceded by a 9 were allocated to Colombian sites (1-6 were allocated to Ecuador).  Red font on white background (ahem – parrotlets!) were total dips for this trip and my lifetime.  Lilac background was a dip on THIS trip but seen previously elsewhere.  For Colombia, out of  15 allocated species, 11 were seen, 4 were dips but the Brown-throated Parakeet had been seen in Panama so not a life dip.  Lilac-tailed Parrotlets could also be seen in Trindad so there was a 2nd chance (which ended up failing).

Colombia targets

So how can you do a trip like this?  Join me for the fantastic ride through Colombia during the next few weeks!

Top 8 Things To Avoid When Planning A Trip Using Miles

No sooner have I returned from the big South American birding trip, I now have to think of NEXT year’s trip.  The 330 day window is approaching for the outbound and I like to book as soon as I see the flights loaded.  Of course we are using miles from various accounts and there has been some tweaking done because of the American and Virgin Velocity devaluations.  This is why I have delayed the trip reports but hopefully I will soon have the important flights booked and can relax a bit.  It has brought to mind a few things I have to avoid while planning “The Godmother of all African Adventures“.

TOP 8 THINGS TO AVOID

  1.  Major public holidays – not only in my home country of Australia but I want to avoid holidays in the destination countries as well.  It is much harder to get award flights at these times.  I check this using Time and Date. 
  2.  School holidays – the last thing we need is for national parks to be crowded and booked solid.  Doesn’t make for peaceful birding!  In this case, I want to avoid South African school holidays while we are in Namibia and Zambia.
  3. Ramadan – We’ll be using Etihad and possibly Qatar Airlines for this itinerary so I want to avoid traveling during Ramadan.  We like to go into the cities during layovers and have a couple days in Dubai for shopping so don’t want to deal with not being able to eat and drink at our normal times.  This makes the trip a challenge as we want to avoid traveling over Easter on the Aussie end and be home well before Ramadan starts and still get reasonably good weather.  Which brings us to…
  4. Rainy Seasons – we couldn’t avoid all of the rainy seasons because this itinerary is in vastly different parts of Africa but I kept it to a minimum as much as possible.
  5. Major sporting events like the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, etc.  Also makes award tickets hard to get and airports will be crowded.
  6. Major elections – I like to avoid them as sometimes they are treated as holidays and services are not available or curtailed because everyone is watching the results come in.
  7. Airline miles devaluations – I try my best to book before a devaluation takes affect.  I couldn’t help the AA one which happened on 22 March as our trip next year can’t begin until after Easter 2017 but I had to reverse the order of the trip to avoid the Velocity devaluation of Etihad partner awards.
  8. Personal and family events planned for 2017 – I had to tweak the dates to avoid being away at certain times when we need to be home.

My goal here is easily booked award tickets to go birding at an optimal time when the weather is decent, everything is open and doing business as usual and the parks won’t be crowded.

Budget Birding Travel Planning Timeline

If you want to go birding overseas but you don’t have a lot of money, you need to put a lot of time and effort into the planning of the trip.  After all, more financially advantaged people could simply call a birding tour operator, pay the fee and have everything organized for them!  So here’s how I plan my trips.

ONE TO THREE YEARS IN ADVANCE

At this point I am in the miles-collecting stage.  I have a bucket list of trips I want to do and which airline’s programs will get us there.  It can take awhile to accumulate the miles as Australia is pretty far from everywhere!  I’ll be applying for credit cards and directing spend to credit cards that will get us to the planned destinations.  I’ll also be maximizing category spends (for example grocery stores with 3 x points per $) and trying for retention bonuses.

I will also be researching key bird species and where to find them, then working out the best place to see them and choosing spots that offer the best bang for my buck – meaning more species in addition to the key species.  I’ll be reading reviews of eco-lodges and working out how to book them.

TEN TO TWELVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE

Flights open up for booking around 11 months in advance so since I want to get the best flight with my miles I book as soon as I see them open for sale.  I’ll book seat assigments and if the only option involves a bank of 3, I will try to get a free middle seat.  I will also have made contact with some eco-lodges and probably made a soft booking with confirmation to come once I have the flights booked.  I give preference to lodges that make it easy for me and accept credit card or Paypal for the deposit.  I HATE wire transfers as they have every disadvantage you can think of.  They cost money in transfer fees, you have to have the cash on hand and you don’t earn miles for them.  If bird species can be seen in more than one country, all else being equal, I would choose the country that makes it easier for me to visit – no visa or visa on arrival.

FOUR TO TEN MONTHS IN ADVANCE

I’ll be booking accommodation using portals to maximize points and paying with miles earning credit cards.  I try to stagger them every couple weeks to spread out paying for them.  I’d be contacting guides for rough estimates on guiding fees and making any arrangements for permits or national park bookings.  If I have a self-drive birding excursion, I’d be booking car rentals around this time.

TWO TO FOUR MONTHS IN ADVANCE

I’ll be double-checking entry requirements to make sure they didn’t change visa requirements for Australians and applying for any required visas as they are usually only valid for 90-180 days.  I usually have all accommodation booked by now although some may be only under deposit.  I’ll also be checking eBird for recent bird sightings and making any adjustments necessary.

ONE TO TWO MONTHS IN ADVANCE

Final payments are usually due around this time for lodges that I have under deposit.  I will start lining up any guides that have to be booked in advance or letting the lodge know that we need one so they can arrange it.  I’m still checking eBird and keeping on top of weather issues such as rainy seasons or roads closed by flooding.  I’ll start organizing any foreign currency I need to arrive with for taxis and first day expenses.  I’ll also be monitoring my flight bookings for changes and checking seat charts to see that they haven’t been changed or no one has taken the middle seat.  Since I have pet birds, I will organize my birdsitter around this time.

LAST MONTH BEFORE TRAVEL

I’m basically just tying up loose ends by now as everything should be well organized.  More monitoring of flights, Trip Advisor, eBird, currency rates.  I make sure all my bills are pre-paid until at least the month we get back.  I notify banks/credit cards where we are going so we don’t get fraud notices.

TWO DAYS BEFORE TRAVEL

If my airline offers online check in, I will do this.  We will be packed by this time with all batteries charged and ready to go.  I double check the birdsitter and bank accounts to be sure there is enough to cover the cash withdrawals I will be making on the trip.  I’ll double check on how we are getting to the airport which is usually by bus unless it’s an early flight in which case we’d get Uber or taxi.  I’ll email the first few lodges to reconfirm and remind them we are coming.

All documents will be packed and triple checked as I am paranoid about forgetting something important.  We get the house in order and make sure everything is locked up.  I like to update any programs on my laptop and iPhone apps before we go and then turn off automatic updates as I don’t want a lengthy download happening someplace with slow internet.

 

 

 

2016 – Epic Journeys, Amazing Birds While The Dust Settles On Airline Programs

2015 has been a relatively quiet travel year as planned and we did need to take a break and get some things done around the house.  We have almost finished those projects so it’s time to look forward to an epic birding adventure around South America & the Caribbean!

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TRAVEL PLANS

After US Airways merged to American, I had enough miles to book the long haul parts of the Brisbane to Ecuador & return from the USA to BNE flights.  The rest of the trip has been pieced together from random accounts.  Unfortunately it is pretty much impossible to get J on either trans Pacific long haul and it’s not worth wasting miles on J for short haul flights so this trip will be all in economy albeit with carefully chosen seats!  Top birds will be parrots (as usual), hummingbirds (love these little guys), quetzals, tanagers and anyone else who flies by!

Trip #1

Brisbane – Sydney – Santiago – Guayquil on Qantas & Lan.  Planned birding in Cerro Blanco, then buses to Copalinga & Umbrellabird Lodge.

Guayaquil – San Cristobal, Galapagos – Quito.  Birding on the island and surrounds.  I had to get the LAN Visa card JUST for this ticket as I couldn’t get the seats otherwise and this is an expensive route!  From Quito either rented car or public transport to the Tandayapa/Sacahtamia/Mindo area.

Quito – Coca, then we have a 3 night Napo Wildlife Centre package.  Then we take buses to Wildsumaco, San Isidro & Guango Lodge before returning to Quito.

Quito – Bogota – Santa Marta.  We overnight in Santa Marta at a hotel I got for free on Orbitz, then we have a few days in El Dorado & Minca for birding.

Santa Marta – Medellin (the last 3 flights using Lifemiles).  Bus to Jardin to hopefully see Yellow-eared Parrots, then more buses to Manizales for Rio Blanco & Nevado for more birding.

Peireira – Bogota (cheapo Avianca flight), then day trip to Chingaza.

Bogota – Panama – Trinidad.  Planned birding in Nariva Swamp, Yerette, Caroni, Aripo & Asa Wright.

Trinidad – St Lucia (nice 5th freedom award on BA).  We’ll be looking for St Lucia Parrots and any other birds.

St Lucia – St Vincent – Dominica – San Juan.  Chasing more endemic Amazon Parrots through the Caribbean if Liat doesn’t make us crazy first!

San Juan – USA (various award flights to visit family).

LAX – Brisbane on Qantas.

money bird

Trip #2

A quick fly-self drive trip to Darwin, Kakadu & Katherine Gorge area.  I was going to use AA or BA for this but might just wait for a “happy hour” special deal to come along.

loyalty

MILES AND POINTS GOALS

Last year, I had some very specific goals to save up for and I had a certain order I wanted to do the trips.  However this past year has been a horror year for devaluations and Aussies now stand to lose our only method of collecting miles in the SPG partner programs which include AA, Flying Blue & Lan.  I am somewhat shielded by being a dual citizen who can also get USA cards but that is pretty much over as I have already had all the cards in the programs I can use.  All I can do is try to maximize 5x category bonuses to get as many miles as possible.

I think the next couple years, the major programs will sit tight and let the dust settle while they figure out what to do next with the programs.  United’s major devaluation came into effect in early 2014 and I feel reasonably safe it won’t devalue again before the end of 2016.  I don’t trust the current rates beyond 2017 though so I have decided to bring forward the “Godmother of All African Adventures” to 2017 replacing the Indonesia trip which can be done anytime using low-cost carriers such as Air Asia & Lion Air.  I should have enough United, Virgin, Singapore & Flying Blue to book the flights we need by the middle of the year.  I do need to concentrate on Ultimate Rewards, Thank You Points (for SQ) & Aussie Amex for Virgin so those cards get priority for spending.

American just devalued which takes effect March 2016.  I had to readjust the miles needed for 2018 trips to Mexico, Bolivia & Venezuela and I will probably be going to Loro Parque solo.  These trips will be booked in late 2017 and I don’t think AA will devalue again before that.  AA will probably stay the same until late 2018 while they crunch numbers on the new program.

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RE-PRIORITIZING GOALS

The end of loyalty programs as we know them is not quite here but it’s coming.  The programs themselves won’t go away, they will just become less profitable for us to use.  Already Australians can use low-cost carriers such as Air Asia to get to most of Asia for around the same cost as big airlines like Qantas & Singapore charge for the fuel surcharge on award tickets.  There is still value in redeeming business class awards – that is if you can find one!  If you read last year’s Goal Post, then you can see how my bucket list has changed slightly due to these devaluations and the lower Aussie dollar.  That’s why I keep a bucket list & you should too in case you need to swap trips around.  I have posts on how to do that HERE & HERE.

On my planned future trips, it is virtually impossible to get business class between Australia & South America.  Africa is possible mostly in Ethiopian which doesn’t have lie-flat seats on these routes so I don’t think it’s worth it.  So here is what I have to do.

Prioritize trips to places that would otherwise be very expensive without miles such as Africa & South America.  These trips should be done as soon as the miles can be saved as they are vulnerable to devaluations.  Meanwhile, slot in a short haul trip during years we don’t have enough miles.

  1.   2017 Africa (Namibia, Zambia, Ethiopia, Uganda) – 80% OK, still need some UA & SQ.
  2.   2018 South America (Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia) & Loro Parque – Have miles ready
  3.   TBD  South America (Brazil)  This trip is better for when AUD is low as we can avoid USD and use local currency.
  4.   TBD South America (Peru & Chile)  This trip requires a strong Aussie $ as birding packages are booked in USD.

Have a list of birding trips we can do using easy-to-get Velocity points or low-cost carriers.  These are completely flexible as to order and wouldn’t have to be booked 11 months in advance as the others would be. 

  1.  Indonesia 1 (Sulawesi, Talaud & Halmahera)
  2.  Indonesia 2 (Seram, Buru, Tanimbar & Bali)
  3.   Philippines
  4.   Pacific Islands (Rarotonga, Fiji, Samoa).  This one targeted for 2019, best done with Velocity & Qantas with any spare AA for Fiji flights.
  5.   Pacific Islands  (Solomons, Vanuatu & New Caledonia)
  6.   Papua New Guinea (might have to book an organized tour for safety).
  7.   New Zealand
  8.  Norfolk Island

Continue doing domestic Australian trips every year using “happy hour” deals, miles we don’t need for long hauls or road trips.

  1.  Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine
  2.  Uluru & Red Centre
  3.  Adelaide & Kangaroo Island
  4.  Gluepot, South Australia
  5.   Other NSW & Victoria TBD.
  6.   More Outback Queensland

CREDIT CARD GOALS

Last year I had to cancel a few cards due to annual fees and to free up “slots” to improve my chances for instant approvals.  Goodbye to Amex SPG, Chase Sapphire,  Citi AAdvantage, Club Carlson & Lifemiles Visa.  On a mini app-o-rama I said Hello to United Explorer (2nd time), Lan Visa (only way to get to Galapagos) & Citi Thank You Premier (For Flying Blue, Singapore, Qantas, Etihad & 3x on travel purchases.

This year I am not sure if I can get any more USA based cards considering all the cancelled cards plus I have 2 more on the chopping block.  I’d like to have the British Airways Visa again to get a nice stash of BA and a United business card but I don’t want to push Chase too far.  I do plan to maximize the 5x categories on the Ink & 3x on the Citi TYP.

We may go for some Aussie cards if the opportunity comes up.

Dream Travel

BLOG GOALS

I am finally all caught up on blogging trips we did since I started this blog in Nov 2012.  Of course we did lots of travel before that so I will be catching up on historical birding trips with current information on how to do them.  I also plan to merge Feathered and Free to this platform but before I can do that, I need to transfer over the historical travel posts.

First up for January – tomorrow – the fabulous Pantanal of Brazil!

Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhyncus hyacinthius)

Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhyncus hyacinthius)