Bird-watching isn’t all about standing in a muddy field, eyes glued to a tiny, indistinguishable speck in the distance – it can be great fun and a brilliant activity with kids of all ages if you know where to go.
And you don’t have to go far – Norfolk, for instance, is dotted with easily accessible bird reserves such as Foxley Wood, an ancient woodland full of wildflowers, wild animals and a great array of birds, just 20km north of Norwich. Equip the kids with their own binoculars and a list of birds they might see and hear, and go for a walk. If they give up after a while, it doesn’t matter – you’re in a woodland playground.
High-quality children’s binoculars are available from the RSPB’s website, rspb.org.uk. Family membership of the RSPB supports the organisation as well as giving you free entry to more than 100 nature reserves around the country (some of them very family-friendly, with adventure playgrounds and visitor centres) plus free magazines (‘Bird Life’ for over-8s and ‘Wild Times’ for under-8s, both 6 times yearly).
Another organization worthy of your support is the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), which works to conserve wetlands for birds and other wildlife. Its nine wetland visitor centres around the country, including one in south London, offer you the chance to see everything from barn owls to flamingoes.
World Owl Centre, Muncaster Castle, Lake District
If your children are thrilled by the birds of prey in ‘The Owls of Ga’Hoole’, take them to see the real thing in the beautiful gardens of Muncaster Castle, where the World Owl Trust looks after more than 100 owls who you can meet and learn more about. The gardens also have mazes and adventure playgrounds, plus a castle B&B with family rooms, so you can send your children to sleep lulled by mass twit-twooing. Adopt an owl to help contribute to the Trust.
Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales
This is one of the best places in the world to see adorable puffins, who arrive en masse in early April to breed – bring kids in the May half-term break (there are some child-friendly cottages in the vicinity). Keep kids up if you want them to see the 120,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters returning to their nesting burrows under cover of darkness. You can also take boat-trips or high-speed ‘sea safaris’ in the hope of glimpsing porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks or minke whales.
Falconry has been a valued part of Bedouin desert life in the UAE for centuries and is still a very popular sport there, enjoyed by the public as well as the royal family. The very family-friendly Jumeirah Bab al Shams Desert Resort & Spa runs Desert Falconry excursions daily at 5pm, when guests get the chance to learn about the sport and spend time with the birds and their trainers. You can also explore the desert by camel or horse, and there’s a kids’ club and a shaded children’s pool.
Navarra, Galicia, Spain
The mountains and valleys of Navarra at the edge of the Pyrenées host a wonderful variety of large birds of prey, including eagles, vultures and falcons, but as the region is on the migratory flight path to Africa, you’ll also see other birds fleeing the colder winters.
Accommodation specialists in this area include Casas Cantabricas, whose guest feedback shows that it’s the local bird life that delights their young visitors the most. This unspoilt region also offers beautiful rural scenery and a number of sandy beaches.
Amazulu Game Reserve, Zululand, South Africa
Combining a safari with a bird-watching expedition is a great option for families – there’ll always be something to look at, with the birds often even more interesting than the Big Five! The Amazulu Reserve, consisting of savannah, wetlands and mountains, has an astonishing 400 different species of birds.
Under-11s will stay free at the luxury Amakhosi Safari Lodge, where guests can choose their favourite safari, from birding, fishing or the Big Five to frogging! The Young Explorer program includes games based on the animals they’ll have seen.
This conservation organisation based in South Africa leads tour groups throughout the continent – contact them for custom-made family trips to view the birdlife and wildlife throughout the Cape and also in Namibia (both excellent, malaria-free places to take children).
FLAMINGOS, SPOONBILLS AND PELICANS
Orlando Wetland Park, Florida, USA
This water reclamation area east of Orlando is home to a fabulous range of waterfowl and other birds, but keep your eyes out for some of Florida’s other inhabitants – there are plenty of alligators around here (don’t worry – you’re kept well away from them).
If you’re in a twitching frame of mind, you’ll see birds everywhere in Florida: Disneyworld has hundreds of heron and pelican visitors, and spoonbills flutter across Orlando city. In fact, combining trips to Disneyworld, the beaches of Florida and Orlando Wetland Park sounds like the recipe for the perfect family holiday!
This beautiful country of volcanoes, jungles and beaches also has some great national parks in which to spy birds and creepy-crawlies. Start your trip in San José, the capital, where a visit to the Botanical Garden will help you get your bearings on what birds there are here. Then head for Santa Elena Cloudforest Reserve to look for birds such as the quetzal, a sacred bird to the Mayans – a series of ‘skywalks’ helps you to get close to the birds in their nests, with zip-wires for quick descents.
Responsible Travel’s 16-day family tour of Costa Rica combines the Reserve, plus boat-trips, beaches and the chance to meet local people. It also contributes to the Rainforest Alliance and works with local people.
Santo Domingo Botanical Park, Dominican Republic
This fantastic family-holiday destination (safe, with great beaches and countryside and excellent accommodation) also offers the largest botanical gardens in the Caribbean, where you’ll see the ubiquitous palmchat, Hispaniolan woodpecker, hummingbirds, flycatchers, and even aquatic birds such as the purple gallinule. Keep your binoculars ready at all times and your guide to the birds of the Caribbean at hand, as there are birds literally everywhere.
Tubagua Plantation Eco Village offers very reasonably priced, attractive and environmentally friendly accommodation and can arrange ornithological trips, but you could also just plant the kids on your balcony high above the rainforest and birdwatch from the comfort of your room.