Birding in the U.S.
There are so many ways to have fun in the outdoors, like sports from hiking to kayaking and hobbies from photography to astronomy. Few activities, however, are quite like bird watching, or birding. Call them hobbyists, enthusiasts or just plain obsessed, birders are nothing if not dedicated. Armed with binoculars, cameras, sound recorders, field guides and an impressive knowledge of the critters they might see, birders venture deep into nature and find the perfect spot to sit and wait. They can spend hours, patient and quiet, simply waiting for the flutter of wings.
The optimal time of year to go birding varies from place to place, but for most regions, springtime means the birds are returning from their southern sojourns. Since forests are prime locations to see birds, we’ve put together a list to help you find some of the top birding parks and forests across the U.S.
The geological extremes of Maine’s Acadia National Park offer nature lovers a variety of habitats — including mountains, forests, streams and ponds, wetlands, meadows and beaches — in which to pursue their outdoor passions. It’s no wonder, then, that the park is home to more than 300 species of birds, including 23 species of warblers and the iconic bald eagle. Park rangers lead visitors in educational bird walks throughout the park, which focus on a number of species. One bird in particular, however, holds a special place in Acadia.
Mid-April marks the beginning of nesting season for the park’s peregrine falcons, which are often observed along the cliffs of Champlain Mountain. These impressive birds of prey have been attracting visitors since 1936, but the species saw a steep decline in the mid-1900s thanks to hunters, pesticides and pollutants. By the 1960s, scientists declared that no breeding pairs could be found in the eastern U.S. Acadia has played a large role in restoring the species to stability in the region, encouraging the return of breeding pairs and eventually contributing to the species’ removal from the Endangered Species List in 1999. Today, park rangers lead walks and lectures to educate visitors on these special birds and the importance of their preservation.
This dual location — set on long, skinny Assateague Island, which leaps over the Maryland-Virginia border — is a prime place for birders year-round. The island sits directly in the path of the Atlantic flyway, the migration route that stretches from Canada to South America, used by thousands of birds each year. Despite its size and location, the island still offers a variety of habitats, from dunes and shrub thickets to pine forests and salt marshes.
Visitors to Assateague Island are treated to a virtual air show of birds, including great blue heron, downy woodpeckers and the little-known saw-whet owl. Springtime begins the parade of migration as many species move northward for the summer. One of these species, the piping plover, gets special attention from birders and conservationists. Atlantic Coast piping plovers are listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to habitat loss. These little birds prefer open beaches for breeding and have lost many breeding grounds to development or interference from humans. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge has designated several protected areas for plover breeding grounds, and the birds can be found along the rest of the island as well.
The southeastern region of the U.S. can offer a plethora of great locations for birders, but few can beat South Florida’s Everglades, where warm, shallow waters have attracted all types of birds for thousands of years. More than 360 different species of birds have been recorded in Everglades National Park, and it was a favorite location of the famous naturalist John James Audubon.
Early written accounts describe the Everglades as being a top destination for observing avian life. Countless birds descended on the area to feed and rest during long migrations and to raise their young. In the early 1900s, however, the number of birds declined greatly due to pressures from the plume trade and the quickly changing landscape of South Florida. The fading bird population was actually a driving force behind the creation of Everglades National Park. Today, the park remains a popular destination for birding, drawing visitors from across the globe and offering a wide variety of bird species year-round.
Because Everglades National Park encompasses many habitats, from wetlands to forests, its bird species are equally diverse. The wetlands are a great place to find wading birds, like the elegant white ibis or the endangered wood stork. The park’s Anhinga Trail, part paved and part boardwalk, is a good place to spot these birds and many other waders, as well as its namesake, the Anhinga.
In springtime, the park’s hardwood hammock habitats provide early morning opportunities to view Cape Sable seaside sparrows. Spring mornings are also a prime time for spotting bald eagles and warblers, and at night, the hammocks are a great place to catch sight of barred owls.
Don’t let the tough name scare you off; this national forest in northern Wisconsin is great for birding. The forest itself spans 850,000 acres, but the very best spot for birders is Chequamegon Bay, south of Lake Superior. The region includes so many types of habitat — including mudflats, pine barrens, forests and wetlands — that it offers an array of birding opportunities throughout the year.
Springtime birders can hope to see any number of the 300-plus bird species recorded in the area, including the common tern, great gray owl, black-throated green warbler and even Sandhill crane. The national forest is one of many locations throughout the Midwest that participates in the annual Crane Count to monitor the populations of these migrating cranes. The sharp-tailed grouse is another springtime highlight, as visitors gather to watch the species’ remarkable mating displays.
- Cave Creek Canyon – Arizona
Located in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest and boasting an impressive 375 species, Cave Creek Canyon is one of the best places for birding in the Southwest. The region’s varied terrain — desert scrub and grasslands, forested slopes and mountain crests — and close proximity to Mexico give it a unique level of biodiversity for native species, and its location also allows it to serve as a corridor for many migratory species.
It is home to Gambel’s quails, cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers, sulphur-bellied flycatcher and no fewer than 16 types of hummingbird. But of all the birds that call the canyon home, none are more sought-after than the elegant trogon. Arizona’s southeastern mountains are at the northern limit of the bird’s range, making it a very rare sight for U.S. birders. The trogons nest in tree cavities and feed on insects and fruit found in the forest canopy. In addition to being particularly rare, these colorful birds are steeped in history: The species is a relative of the quetzal, the bird revered by Mayan priests. Only about two dozen elegant trogons appear in the canyon each spring and summer, each one a thrill for the bird enthusiasts that flock to the region hoping to see one.
America’s western coast lies along the perfect path to intercept birds during their yearly migration. The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge is made up of marshes, wetlands, lakes, forests and grasslands. As a result, it is one of the premier locations out west for spring or autumn birding. The refuge complex is made up of six separate refuges: Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, Clear Lake, Upper Klamath, Bear Valley and Klamath Marsh.
The spring months in these refuges witness millions of birds, as species of all kinds rest there on the journey north. The highlights of these sites for a birder include the American bald eagle, great blue heron and American white pelican. This last bird is one of the largest a birder can hope to see, with a wingspan second only to the California condor out of all North American bird species. Though populations are stable on a global scale, the American white pelican is listed as a California Species of Special Concern since its populations throughout the state are vital to the species’ migration and habitat loss has already affected its nesting areas. Few breeding colonies remain in the American West, but the Upper Klamath, Lower Klamath and Clear Lake Refuges each boast an American white pelican breeding colony of their own.
Alaska is a great spot for observing wildlife of all kinds, and birds are no exception. Denali National Park is home to 167 recorded species of birds. The majority of these — about 80 percent — only enjoy the park for part of the year. These migratory species represent travelers from six different continents. Every spring, these birds join the resilient, year-round residents to breed and raise their young. They remain there until fall, when they migrate to warmer climates.
Springtime in Denali for a birder means a chance to see golden eagles build their nests and black-capped chickadees rear their young. Early spring also carries the chance to see one of the park’s most unusual birds: the northern hawk owl. This nomadic bird of prey lives in the northern boreal forests of North America and moves often in response to environmental changes and conditions. It is hard to predict where and when to find them, but Denali, with its protected forests, is often host to the species, and it is one of the greatest hopes of Denali’s birders to spot this rare owl.
By late April, trumpeter swans join the party in Denali’s wetlands, arriving from further south, while the ruby-crowned kinglet, with its distinctive call, joins the voices of the Lapland longspur, the yellow-rumped warbler and the gray jay.
These are just a few of the many locations across the country where nature is in the spotlight and birds are the stars of the show. You can also check out other types of wild places near you, where the ecosystems are protected enough to attract various bird species, like national forests, national parks and wildlife refuges. Whether you’re a veteran birder, still learning the ropes or just want to spend some more time outdoors this spring, we hope this list of hotspots gives you some great locations to observe nature and the creatures in it.