Alan Johnston in Antarctica

Birding Bucket List Complete!

Regular Naturetrek client, Alan Johnston, was delighted to complete his ‘Birding Bucket List’ whilst on tour with us in Guyana last year and wrote to the Naturetrek office to share his story with us and our readers. 

Part One

In 2016, my partner and I returned home from a very enjoyable holiday with Naturetrek to the Seychelles. Nearing my sixtieth birthday, I decided to compile a ‘bucket list’ of a dozen bird species I hoped to see and two places to visit. They were:-

African Finfoot
Alpine Accentor
Grey Hypocolius
Guianan Cock-of-the-rock
Harlequin Duck
Red-tailed Tropicbird
Rosy Bee-eater
Snowy Owl
Yellow-headed Picathartes (White-necked Rockfowl)
Antarctica & Penguins
Svalbard & Polar Bear


I was interested in wildlife at an early age and have been an avid birdwatcher since my twenties. Early birding trips were with my friends and my first Naturetrek tour was to Ethiopia in 2004. Since then, I have been lucky enough to travel all over the world and see many species sought after by birders.

My first trip after compiling my list was on the 'Norway & Finland – An Arctic Spring' tour in 2017. Here, despite the unseasonal deep snow that made the trip very difficult, we saw Great Grey Owl, a species that could easily have appeared on my list.

In 2018 it was off to Africa again on the 'Uganda – In Search of the Shoebill' tour. Here I managed to see two listed species, the African Finfoot and Shoebill, plus Northern Carmine Bee-eater that, like the Finfoot, had eluded me on previous trips.

African Finfoot – I had travelled to the African continent on at least a dozen trips but never managed to see this, at times, elusive aquatic species.

Shoebill – No other bird has a bill like this and it was an easy choice for the list.

Ibisbill – A species that is related to waders but is sufficiently distinctive to merit its own family Ibidorhynchida. Like the Shoebill, its appearance was enough to add it to my list. Plus, there was a chance of visiting another country, Kazakhstan. Everything about this tour was breathtaking and we only visited a tiny fraction of this vast former Soviet Republic. We saw two Ibisbill in glorious sunshine at Big Almaty Lake in the Tien Shan Mountains – a little distant for photography but I was still happy with my photo. I was even more delighted with my photo of Himalayan Rubythroat taken at the same magnificent location.

Yellow-headed Picathartes – Another distinctive species that had a name to match when I first read about it, although, like many species, its name has been changed to White-necked Rockfowl which somehow to me doesn’t seem so unusual. A visit to Ghana to see a Picathartes is well worth it and in doing so, visitors contribute to a community fund that goes to the remote village of Bonkro. This venture has enabled the conservation of the species and among other things the building of a primary school.

Rosy Bee-eater – The family of bee-eaters is one of richly colourful birds. I was transfixed when, in 1985 in the Camargue, I first saw European Bee-eaters. Since then, I have seen many birds in this family all over the world including Black Bee-eater in Uganda. I had hoped to see at least one Rosy Bee-eater in Ghana, but never imagined there would be as many as 64 in one tree!

African Finfoot © Alan Johnston
Shoebill © Alan Johnston

Rosy Bee-eaters © Alan Johnston


Yellow-headed Picathartes © Ken Riley


Alan in the field with an Ibisbill

Part Two

Antarctica & Penguins – The following year, I joined the Naturetrek charter of the MV Ortelius for what can only be described as a voyage of a lifetime on the 'Antarctica, the Falklands & South Georgia' tour.

Harlequin Duck – I combined the quest for this beautiful duck with a trip to 'Yellowstone in Spring' and a pre-tour self-drive road trip that took in South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Snowy Owl – I had hoped to travel on the 'Alaska – America's Last Frontier' tour the year after Yellowstone but covid put that on hold until 2022. By then the basic tour had changed, going to Nome instead of Utqiagvik (Barrow), the latter now an optional extension. ‘Brilliant’ I thought, there was a chance of Bristle-thighed Curlew before heading off to the ‘top of the world’ in search of Snowy Owl and even Spectacled Eider. I was not disappointed and not only did we see these species but we were in town on the summer solstice for the traditional Iñupiat Blanket Toss. 

Grey Hypocolius – One of my first field guides that covered more than Britain was The Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East – Heinzel, Fitter & Parslow. This species immediately attracted my interest because of its name and the illustration. When the Naturetrek tour 'Oman – Arabia's Finest Birding' was advertised for November 2022, I booked immediately. Despite there being only a slim chance of seeing one, I couldn’t wait to travel. While boarding the vehicles one morning, Andy Smith, our guide, quickly alerted us to one perched right beside the vehicles. I watched it, mesmerised, through my binoculars. I then took a hurried, blurred photo before I managed to focus the camera. Unfortunately, one of the group stood right in front of me so a better photo was impossible, but I had seen it and it looked nothing like the illustration in the old field guide! Oman was a surprisingly varied, beautiful and welcoming country.

King Penguins © Alan Johnston
Harlequin Ducks © Alan Johnston

Part Three

Alpine Accentor – This must be the most surprising addition to the list. How was it possible to bird for over 40 years in mountains across the world, from the Pyrenees to Taiwan, and fail to see such a widespread species? I mentioned this fact to Andy, the leader of the tour in Oman, and he said they had seen them on last year’s 'Albania in Spring' tour. I’d never thought of Albania as a destination but on returning home from Oman I decided to join the tour. It was a hard trek in the Dinaric Alps up amongst the snow that revealed a flock of Alpine Accentors. The Valbone Valley had delivered where many had failed.

Svalbard & Polar Bear – The chance of circumnavigating the high Arctic islands of Svalbard in search of Polar Bears under the midnight sun completed my second destination choice, as I joined the 'Spitsbergen – Realm of the Polar Bear' tour. Once again, Naturetrek delivered everything that I’d hoped for.

Red-tailed Tropicbird – I hoped to join the 'Madagascar's Endemic Birds' tour but fearing that the tour might not run I booked it as a Tailormade trip and was not disappointed. Everything was perfect: endemic birds, lemurs, chameleons and catching up with Red-tailed Tropicbird on the island of Nosy Ve after missing them in 2016 in the Seychelles.

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock – Way back in 2005, on the 'Ecuador – Cock-of-the-rock' tour, I had hoped to see an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek. Unfortunately, the visit was cancelled due to heavy rain, although a distant view was had on a later day. So, many years later, it seemed only natural to join the 'Guyana – A Timeless Paradise' tour to try again for close views of the other species in the genus. I could not imagine having closer views of such a brightly coloured bird that can, at times, disappear in plain view.

Hoatzin – It was fitting that the national bird of Guyana was the last species on my ‘bucket list’. It was my last full day of a very successful tour to an amazing country. We were scheduled to go on a boat trip where there was a chance of seeing ‘one’ according to Wally, our excellent guide. Little did I know that it was a ‘certainty’ we would see them. In the knowledge that it would complete my list, he was being mischievous. So much so that when two were spotted before we even boarded the boat, I thought it was a wind-up. I lost count of how many we saw on that river.

 Alan in the field with Alpine Accentors
Spitsbergen montage © Alan Johnston

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock © Alan Johnston


Hoatzin © Alan Johnston


Red-tailed Tropicbird © Alan Johnston

We thank Alan for sharing his fantastic quest and for travelling with us around world. We hope we can help with the next bucket list!