Birding Vacations

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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!"

United States

Maine

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.

Kingsville, Texas

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.

Arizona

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.

Owners Lyle and David Collister cater specifically to the binocular-toting crowd, and hang seed and hummingbird feeders outside every window. Rooms and cabins are modest, with fully equipped kitchens. There's ample birding on the grounds - at peak times, at least seven kinds of hummingbirds plus dozens of other species. Guided walks lasting three to four hours cost just $12 and take you to three sites at different elevations in Madera Canyon.

Higher-elevation birds can be seen along the trail to the top of 9,543-foot Mount Wrightson; the trail starts about a mile down the road from the lodge. Another legendary site, the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, is an easy day trip, about an hour and a half's drive away.

To book, call 520/625-8746. The lodge is open year-round. Hint: There's no restaurant on the premises, and the nearest town, Green Valley, is 13 miles away, so stock up on groceries before arriving.

International

Peru

Here's a single big splurge among our economical selections. Peru has long been out of reach for budget-minded birders, but tour company Explorama, in business for 35 years, has introduced an eight-day package for $1,995 that includes airfare from Miami to Iquitos (575 miles north of Lima) and stays at three different reserves along the Amazon River. This is no mind-numbing "lister" expedition in which you race from spot to spot to check birds off a tally sheet. Instead, Explorama offers a more relaxed pace for beginning or intermediate birders.

The itinerary includes daily hikes through assorted habitats - flood plains, pastures, and open fields-plus canoe trips along the Amazon shore and on interior lakes. And good birding abounds right on lodge grounds. At ExplorNapo Lodge, a 118-foot-high walkway offers a thrilling treetop view of the rain forest canopy. It's a great break from "warbler neck," the inevitable stiffness that comes from arching backwards to peer into trees, and a unique way to see species such as Black-headed Parrots and Chestnut Woodpeckers at close range.

The trip leader is "Peru Guru" Dennis DeCourcey, a former curator for the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and birdwatcher for more than 40 years. Departure dates this year are March 16, June 17, and October 14. Custom tours can also be arranged. For more info, see www.explorama.com. To book, call Explorama's U.S. agent, Paul Caira, at 800/707-5275.

Belize

Birdwatchers have long flocked to Trinidad to view neotropical birds, but in recent years, prices there have soared. Belize is a great alternative: many of the same species but fewer crowds and better deals. One sleeper of a bargain is Lamanai Outpost Lodge, 75 miles east of Belize City. With its 18 thatch-roof cabins, each with its own veranda and private bath, plus a restaurant and bar overlooking the New River Lagoon, it feels more like a tropical resort than a hard-core birding lodge.

The species here are spectacular: Scarlet Macaws, Tiger Herons, and the Jabiru Stork, with a wingspan of up to 12 feet, to name a few. There are also plenty of non-feathered attractions. Howler monkeys live right on the premises, and the Mayan ruins at Lamanai Archaeological Reserve are within walking distance. A popular activity is a Spotlight River Safari aboard a pontoon boat at night to view crocodiles, iguanas, and kinkajous, which are tree-hanging mammals with wrinkled, catlike faces.

Peak-season cost is $125/day, including room and meals. Discounted packages are available. Some activities, such as guided canoe trips and ruins tours, are extra but reasonably priced at under $30. Ground transport can be arranged. The lodge operates year-round. To book, contact Kenneth Cruce at Center Travel, 800/324-5680 or 830/257-5000. For more information see www.birdtrips.com

Ecuador

Two lodges here offer value and great birding: One, Hotel Tinalandia, is located 50 miles west of Quito, on the western slope of the Andes. This 60-acre property features trails that snake past whitewater streams and up steep hills to put you at eye level with the rain forest canopy. Guided trips are also offered to nearby habitats. The thatch-roof guest rooms are comfortable and incorporate lots of native tiki wood and bamboo. Typical meals consist of chicken or fish, rice and beans, and lots of local produce such as hearts of palm. Rates run $90-$100/night and include all three meals.

At Mindo Garden Lodge, a 16-room property 50 miles northwest of Quito, a big attraction is the Cock-on-the-Rock, a rare, red pigeonlike bird with a colorful crest. Guests here get up at 4:30 a.m. to trek over the lodge's 25 acres in hopes of spying one. Giant Antpittas, tubby ground-dwelling birds once thought to be extinct, have also been spotted. Other native wildlife includes pumas, Blue Morpho butterflies, and Poison Arrow frogs. Rooms are elegant, with hardwood floors and thatched roofs, and the owners happily cater to special dietary needs. Rates run $84/night, with all three meals included. Discounted packages are available, as is ground transport for $60 per person each way. Both properties are open year-round. To book, call Kenneth Cruce at Center Travel, 800/324-5680 or 830/257-5000. For more information see www.birdtrips.com.

Costa Rica

Sixteen years ago, the Erb family bought this 125-acre farm, and after failed attempts to raise pineapples, coffee, sugar cane, and black pepper, converted it into a luxurious birding lodge they dubbed Rancho Naturalista. It has since become famous, so it's all the more remarkable that they've held the line on price. About $135 a day (or $877/week) buys you a spacious room with panoramic mountainside views, meals of near-gourmet quality (roast pork loin, Spanish-style steak), and amiable guides with encyclopedic knowledge of the nation's 800-plus species.

At 5:30 every morning, the staff hangs bananas in trees just off the main veranda while guests gather with coffee to watch a parade of exotic birds coming to feed, including toucans and florescent tanagers. Breakfast is followed by a guided walk over the property's many trails, through pastures, up a mountainside, and down to stream pools where hummingbirds bathe. Walks are repeated in the afternoon, but many guests choose to wander the grounds themselves. Maps are provided.

The same family also owns Tarcol Lodge ($99/night, $643/week), which makes a great add-on trip. It's smaller (four rooms) and a more rustic, sink-in-the-hall kind of place, but its Pacific coast location is home to a stunning assortment of shorebirds. Ground transport between the two lodges or to the airport, is $75 for up to four people. To book year-round, call Mark Erb at Costa Rica Gateway, 800/593-3305.

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