Method to the Madness

The idea of a six month birding adventure first came to fruition about two years ago when I made the decision to get out of the Marine Corps and go back to school for my MBA. My initial contract would be ending in March 2015 and I wouldn’t be able to start me MBA until August 2015. With an additional 60 days of terminal leave (vacation days) saved up, I essentially had a 6 month block with no real commitments. Anyone who knows me well knows that the instant I realized I’d have that much free time, the next thought was “where should I go birding?”. I pitched the idea of a 6 month birding trip to my wife, and being the amazing wife that she is, she said yes.

There were a few constraints that helped to form the initial stages of planning:

  1. We had 60 days to burn before the Marine Corps would fly my wife and I from Hawaii back to Pittsburgh (or anywhere closer) for free.
  2. Our car would be shipped back to the mainland (Baltimore or anywhere closer) and would need to be driven back to Pittsburgh.
  3. We set a deadline of 1 August to be back home to get ready for real life and starting my MBA

We played around with various scenarios and eventually developed a fairly well thought out itinerary.

SE Asia: 60 days

Ship the car to San Diego and drive across the US to Pittsburgh: 3 weeks

South America (South to North): 3 ½ months

Being stationed in Hawaii, we wanted to take advantage of living closer to southeast Asia than we probably ever will again. Having never birded Thailand before, it was a logical first thought since it has a wide range of southeast Asian species, some epic world rarities, and is extremely easy and cheap to travel in. We plan on spending just over a month in Thailand visiting almost all of the major birding locations from the southern peninsula to the northern border with Myanmar. We also were really interested in checking out Angkor Wat and since we’d be in Cambodia, it only made sense to try and see the critically endangered species that have put Cambodia on the birding map. Research into Cambodia showed that it’d be very difficult to try and do on our own, so we decided to book a tour with Sam Veasna Center. We try to avoid tours as much as possible, but in this case we figured it would be worthwhile. SVC is doing great things for Cambodian conservation and the price of the tour was very reasonable. Along with Thailand and Cambodia, we decided to add Japan to the beginning of the trip. Although I (Ross) have spent a considerable amount of time in Okinawa, I only made it to the mainland once (summer) and never had the opportunity to go to Hokkaido. The idea of Short-tailed Albatross, Steller’s Sea Eagle, and 6 species of cranes was too good to pass up.

The second portion of the trip is the road trip across the US. To be honest, this part hasn’t really been planned out yet and probably won’t be until the week (maybe night?) prior to it beginning. We plan to spend a few days in California before birding our way east visiting the hotspots in southeastern Arizona and eventually making our way to Big Bend National Park. By late March Colima Warblers should be around and after seeing those, it’ll be off to the hill country for Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos before spending some time in the valley. A day along the Texas coast and then it’ll be a long straight drive back to Pittsburgh where we will spend five days resting, refitting, visiting family and friends, and birding (well probably only I will be birding, Melissa will probably pass).

The three and a half months in South America will be spent traveling from south to north along the Pacific countries. We will be starting this section of the trip at the end of the world, Tierra del Fuego. This part of the world is usually visited by tourists and birders during the summer months of Nov-Jan, so our mid-April visit will definitely be interesting. Hopefully it hasn’t gotten too cold yet. After a few days of hanging out with Penguins and Magellanic Plovers, we will fly to Santiago and spend two weeks birding the rest of Chile and hopefully finding all of the endemics. After Chile, we will take a bus into neighboring Bolivia and spend two weeks birding our way from Santa Cruz to La Paz. After Bolivia we will enter Peru for our longest country stay of the trip. We plan on spending 52 days in the amazing country of Peru. First off will be a trip to the spectacular Incan Ruins of Machu Picchu. From there we will fly to Iquitos, the largest town in the world inaccessible by roads. This is the gateway to the Amazon and we will spend 10 days visiting two different lodges and a nearby reserve. Although this section will be by far the most expensive ten days of the trip, it will also probably be one of the biggest highlights of the six month trip. Wattled Currasow, Nocturnal Currasow, Iquitos Gnatcatcher, river island specialists, Amazonian River dolphins, and numerous primate species are only a few of the highlights we hope to encounter on this section of the trip. After we get our fill of the rainforest, we will spend 2 weeks in central peru looking for many endemic and still undescribed species of birds. From there we will move to the northern part of the country. As we travel throughout northern Peru, long drives to remote areas should produce rarely seen species such as Scarlet-banded Barbet, Purple-backed Sunbeam, and Russet-bellied Spinetail. Our last three weeks will be spent in southern Ecuador. This section of the country is home to numerous reserves that are working hard to protect the habitat of a few rare and endangered species. Throughout the three weeks we plan on looking for Jocotoco Antpitta, Orange-throated Tanager, Pale-headed Brush Finch, and numerous other regional endemics. Our trip will finally come to an end at the end of July where we plan on catching a flight out of Guayaquil and returning to Pittsburgh.

 Trip Stats (anticipated):

Days: 194

Countries Visited: 9 (Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea (12 hour layover), United States, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador)

Flights: 15

Estimated Species: 2000-2300

Budget: $30,000

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