I admit it: We birdwatchers are an odd lot. Never mind those goofy brimmed canvas hats we like to wear (hey, it gets hot in the sun!) and the gigantic binoculars we lug around that look like something James Bond might use to hunt down enemies of state at night. It doesn't bother us at all to plunk down hundreds of dollars for high-powered spotting scopes or to get up at 5 a.m. to catch the morning's feeding activity. But we're like everyone else in one respect: We hate to get fleeced - or should I say de-feathered - on overpriced travel. Unfortunately, many tour companies do just that. Birdwatching jaunts to hot spots in Central and South America can set you back $3,500 or more, and even U.S. trips can be pricey. I was recently quoted an astronomical $695 for a weekend expedition through Florida's Everglades - food and airfare not included! But why spend so much? For around $100 a day, you can get decent or sometimes downright luxurious lodgings, savory food, and expert guides, practically anywhere in the world. Here are picks for the top seven deals that will leave you twittering "Cheap! Cheap!"
A destination with the word "camp" in it might not appeal to intrepid birders at first. But at the Audubon Society's weeklong ornithology camp in Hog Island, Maine, you're not hemmed in or stuck walking the same terrain every day. The camp, 60 miles northeast of Portland, is a base of operation for hikes over the 333 surrounding acres or day trips by boat to nearby islands. You'll see puffins - those cute, penguinlike birds found in only a few remote spots in the U.S. - plus a variety of shorebirds and warblers. Lectures and workshops are led by Steve Kress, author of The Audubon Society Handbook for Birders.
Lodgings are admittedly primitive, in a nineteenth-century farmhouse where singles sleep dorm-style and couples get tiny private rooms. The food, though, is far superior to what you'd expect at this price: Homemade scones at breakfast; make-your-own box lunches from a carvery table; fresh fish or meat and salads for dinner. This year's dates are June 11-17, June 18-24, June 25-July 1, and September 4-10. Other six-day Downeast Expeditions, which visit important mainland habitats including Acadia National Park and Quoddy Head State Park, are operated June 17-23, June 24-30, and July 1-7. For all weeklong programs, both on Hog Island and the mainland, the price is $850 per person for all lodging, three meals a day, guiding, and day-trip transportation. To book: 203/869-2017 or see www.audubon.org, under "education." To get there, fly or drive to Portland and then travel by Mid-coast Limo (888/404-7743 or 320/245-2648; $40 per person one-way; $10 each additional person) to Damariscotta, a mainland town ten miles northwest of Hog Island. Audubon staff will escort you to the coast where you will meet the Puffin IV to take you the final quarter-mile to Hog Island.
There's a good reason that Kingsville, Texas, is one of the most popular birding destinations in the country. This tiny town 100 miles south of San Antonio abuts King Ranch, a parcel of land bigger than Rhode Island and home to one of the largest varieties of avian life - more than 400 species - in the country. Ferruginous Pygmy-owls and Tropical Parulas are regular residents here, as are road runners scuttling down dirt paths. You can't tour the ranch unescorted, but a full-day tour (and we mean full: 5 a.m. to 4 p.m.) led by a resident ornithologist is a reasonable $99-$109 per person, including transportation, lunch, and drinks. Tours are conducted several times weekly, September through June; check their Web site (www.king-ranch.com) for exact dates. To make reservations or arrange a private tour any time of year, call 361/592-8055.
There are no lodgings on the ranch itself, but a dozen budget chain motels are close by; Best Western, at $45-$65 a night for a good-sized room, outdoor pool, and continental breakfast is just one example. Places for cheap eats, such as 24-hour pancake houses and seafood shacks, are plentiful. While in the area, also visit Bentsen State Park, 70 miles south of Kingsville, to glimpse Mexican species that cross the border.
Call the Kingsville Convention and Visitor's Bureau at 800/333-5032 or 361/592-8516 and ask for their "Birder's Guide to Kingsville," which contains bird checklists and maps, plus info on food, lodging, and special events. Also see their Web site, www.kingsvilletexas.org.
Santa Rita Lodge doesn't offer the most elegant of accommodations, but birdwatchers flock to it because it's smack in the middle of mountainous Coronado National Forest, 40 miles south of Tucson. At $73-$93/night (discounts available for multiple nights during off-season), it's an ideal headquarters for any exploration of southeast Arizona, one of the nation's most important birding areas.
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