When was the last time you travelled for birding? Since the Covid-19 era, I have become a patch birder. On rare occasions I do visit some other areas, but when I hang binoculars around my neck, even without a second thought I head for Beljarica backwaters. It offers the richest pickings in Belgrade, especially with the incoming spring, but I must admit, the thing I miss the most is travelling and birding overseas.

And in the times when lockdown is the word of the year, I am not sure how much sense it makes to write about packing for a birding trip. Whatever, here I go.

The first thing is obviously a pair of binoculars. Normally, I’d take my standard (and lightweight) 8s, plus a scope. But, in the rainforests of e.g. Central America, a scope is – most of the time – a total waste of space and weight. During a week in Costa Rica, I used it only twice. It would make more sense and I would feel much more comfortable if I took only the 8s. Leaving the scope behind means leaving the tripod at home and the tripod is possibly the single bulkiest equipment item.

Camera, too, is a must-have, but I don’t like the idea of exchanging a bulky scope for an overweight DSLR camera. I should get myself a new one, and I am eyeing the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark series (I hope that company will survive this period, otherwise we would be stuck with huge Nikon or oversized Canon, without much difference between them). A backup camera, clearly, is my phone, and I should finally master the use of a scope adapter with binoculars, where I always miss having a third hand (it is easier with a scope, where a tripod acts as a third hand).

Then, a torch for owling and a headlamp for finding one’s way around the lodge in the dark. Whenever possible, I’d leave my laptop at home and opt for a digital detox. Back to the phone, it is important for navigation, too, as well as for a bird ID app, especially calls and songs. Some birders might consider a voice recorder and a speaker (but I prefer not to use playback). Don’t forget all the cables, chargers, backup batteries and international electrical adapters!

The field guide I always bring as a paper book, and there’s no substitute for snooping through the pages. Also a field notebook and pens. And with these few items, birding equipment is mostly covered.

Let me summarise this:
• binoculars
• scope and tripod
• camera
• mobile phone and scope adapter
• torch
• headlamp
• laptop
• voice recorder
• speaker
• cables, chargers, backup batteries and electrical adapters
• field guide
• field notebook and pens

We all dream of travelling lightweight, but rarely succeed in it. Noah Strycker’s tactic to take only one piece of a carry-on sized luggage is almost perfect for tropical destinations, although I take two: one smallish carry-on sized suitcase that gets checked-in, one carry-on sized rucksack that travels with me (about 40 l, for optics, important medication and a basic change of clothes in case I am flying to Johannesburg, South Africa, but my luggage goes to Munich, Germany), plus a multi-pocket vest.

Optics is never checked-in and it always travels with me. And the field guide stays in my vest pocket, so I can go through it on an outbound flight (and try to memorise some more details of the common birds, plus a few targets) as well as the inbound flight (when I work through my tour list).

I would usually study the travel guide prior to the trip and then leave it at home (perhaps photograph a few pages to have them in my phone). Again, I prefer paper over e-books.

Other than birding equipment, I’ll bring a hat, a bandana or two, sunscreen, refillable water bottle, mosquito repellent, pocket knife (I am thinking of downsizing to Victorinox Super Tinker, and should remember to pack it into a checked-in luggage – it was a painful lesson at the Athens airport, Greece), 4-5 metres of a prusik (a thin climbing rope) and a carabiner or two, lightweight plastic compass, rain poncho (some lodges provide those for their guests, so check in advance whether you need to carry your own), sleeping-bag liner (but not the sleeping bag: in under-developed countries, not all accommodation is up to western hygiene standards) and a roll of 3-ply toilet paper.

Do not forget passport, credit and ATM cards or cash. I see no point in mentioning shoes or clothes, no one ever forgets that and if a particular shirt still ends up forgotten, you can do without. I usually make a checklist of what to pack using the Universal Packing List (since 1996) at https://upl.codeq.info

Bon voyage.


Cover photo: Pjeganathan / Wikimedia Commons

Written by Dragan
Dragan Simic is obsessively passionate about two things – birding and travelling in search of birds, and that has taken him from his native Balkans to the far shores of Europe and the Mediterranean, southern Africa, India and Central America. His 10,000 Birds blog posts were Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. Birder by passion and environmental scientist by education, he is an ecotourism consultant, a field researcher and a bird blogger who always thinks that birding must be better behind that next bend in the road, and that the best bird ever is – the next lifer. He tweets as @albicilla66