Birdist Rule #87: Know How to Bird on Vacation with a Non-Birding Spouse

It's possible, but compromise is key.

The majority of birders I know are in relationships with non-birders. I’d guess that has a lot to do with a fairly small pool of available birder partners, but it could also be that any single relationship can handle only one crazy person. Either way, birders and non-birders can make it work. Take, for example, me and my non-birding wife, Liz.

How do we do it? Well, there are a couple qualities that help. Liz is a heavy sleeper, so I can usually get out early on a migration morning and be back with coffee before she’s out of bed. She also loves the outdoors, which means she still has a good time when we go hiking even if I’m really paying attention only to the birds. Mostly, though, she’s tolerant. Tolerant of me making detours in the middle of errands when a rarity is reported. Tolerant of me taking forever to walk down a trail in a birdy area. Tolerant of me needing to leave on a moment’s notice. Thank goodness.

Of course, there’s a limit to everything. When Liz and I scheduled a two-week vacation to Australia, I knew I’d be stretching the patience of even the most tolerant spouse if I spent every single day birding. But, of course, being a birder in a totally new country, I also knew I needed to see as many birds as possible. I am who I am, you know? The challenge was on.

Skip ahead two months to the present day. We’re back from Australia, still happily married. And I saw 201 species of birds—a total I’m very happy with considering all the birds were self-found with no guided help whatsoever. Even better, Liz, when I yelled into the living room just now to ask her how the trip went, said it was “amazing” and that she’d “go back there again in a heartbeat.” I pulled it off. But how?

Go somewhere great. The first secret to having a great birding vacation with a non-birding spouse—or partner, or friend, or whomever you might be traveling with—is to pick an incredible destination. There’s a reason Liz doesn’t generally come along when I’m chasing vagrant sandpipers at the sewage treatment plant. No, Australia is amazing. We split our time among destinations in the tropical north: the Cairns area of north Queensland, and the Darwin area of the Northern Territory. (It’s winter down there during our summer, but we wanted to stay in warm weather.) It was gorgeous. We visited tranquil (and mosquito-free!) rainforests, islands ringed with white-sand beaches, misty billabongs, dry monsoonal forests, and a bunch of other landscapes we’d never seen anywhere else. Australia has so many types of habitats to offer, and we both enjoyed them all (while I scoured them for birds).

Part of Australia being such a big tourist draw, of course, is the wildlife. Seeing wild koala, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, and platypus has been a dream for both of us since we were kids, and the added bonus is that wherever there’s charismatic megafauna there’s usually some avifauna around, too. I saw my lifer Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo and Blue-faced Honeyeater while we watched eastern gray kangaroos lounging at a golf course. I saw Emu and Double-barred Finches while Liz chased agile wallabies at Mareeba Wetlands. Our trip to see platypus at Tarzali Lakes also netted me Australian Swamphen and a Latham’s Snipe. My lifer Pied Currawongs were flying behind the koala we saw on Magnetic Island. (One of the more magical moments of both of our lives, I might add.) 

Pretend it’s not just about the birds. Once you’re in a beautiful location, suggest a bunch of birding locations that don’t sound like birding locations. Allowing your non-birding spouse to think they’re not just being dragged to a birding spot is key to their enjoyment. I’d be like, “Hey, let’s go for a romantic walk on the Cairns Esplanade!” Boom, 39 species, day one. “We should check out this crazy tree at Curtain Fig National Park, I hear it’s amazing.” Lifer Brolga and Spectacled Monarch, among others on day four. “You know what was fun? The Cairns Esplanade.” A bunch of new species, including Great Knot and Varied Honeyeater, on day eight. Worked every time.

Stay in their comfort zone. The few times during the trip when I could tell I was pushing the birding a little too hard were the times I didn’t really know what I was doing. We drove up to a remote birding spot on Mt. Lewis on our second day, deep into the rainforest with no cell service and no other people in sight. In my thirst to see cool birds (I found the Atherton Scrubwren and Chowchilla, but dipped on the Blue-faced Parrotfinch), I overlooked that being so remote with no way to contact anyone if you encountered one of the billion things in Australia that can kill you might not be the best idea. Liz felt uncomfortable in such a precarious spot, and asked that we leave early. I had to leave some birds behind, but I’m glad she was honest. It was dumb of me to let birding excitement overwhelm potential concerns. Lesson learned.

Learn to be okay with not seeing everything. The key to birding with a non-birder—indeed maybe the key to any long-term relationship—is compromise. I know I could have seen more species if I had free rein; I could have gone into the northern wilds of the Cape York Peninsula, or tracked skittery grasswren through the spinifex. But I didn’t do those things, because Liz probably would have hated them. I birded plenty, but we also spent time doing stuff that she wanted to do, like hanging out in hammocks on the beach, staying in fancy jungle lodges, and making time to explore the Sydney waterfront. It made her happy, and that makes me happy. 

Liz and I had a wonderful vacation in Australia, with me seeing as many birds as I could while also making sure she didn’t regret marrying such a single-minded weirdo. Keeping your partner happy is the key to taking a non-birder on a birding vacation. After all, the birds stay where they are, but your partner is with you for good.