America's Best Birdwatching
Published: April 2009
By Roger Pasquier
A coast-to-coast guide for spotting species.
Virtually every setting—coastline, open prairie, mountain range, big city park—makes for rewarding bird-watching. One of the joys of the sport is how little equipment it requires. Binoculars (8 x 40 or higher) and a comprehensive field guide are all you need. For observing waterfowl and other stationary birds from afar, a telescope (15 power and higher) is best. Birding at its most basic is a concentrated look at one aspect of nature. The pursuit takes you to beautiful areas, teaches principles of ecology, and makes you keenly aware of the vulnerability of our natural environment and the need to protect it. The following locales, all topographically and geographically interesting, attract diverse types of birds. For information and/or maps, call or write the sources given below.
MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, MAINE
Much of the island is part of Acadia National Park, with habitats that include oceanside cliffs, sphagnum bogs, spruce and fir forests, and bare mountain peaks, all reached by roads and trails. Excellent birding throughout the year. Permanent residents include common eiders, black guillemots, bald eagles, northern ravens, and gray jays. May through August, 20 wood warbler species and many other migrants from the tropics nest here. In winter, sea ducks, such as golden eyes and old-squaws, are easily visible in the harbors. Pick up maps and information on guided nature and bird walks at Hulls Cove Visitors Center in the park headquarters near Bar Harbor. The Blue Nose Ferry runs from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia; the crossing is ideal for spotting seabirds and whales. Acadia National Park, Box 177, Bar Harbor, ME 04609; 207/288-3338.
CENTRAL PARK, NEW YORK CITY
Like its counterparts in other dense cities, Central Park serves as a green oasis, especially important to migratory birds in spring and fall. Late April through May is peak season; on a good day, 70 or more species can be seen, including thrushes, vireos, warblers, orioles, tanagers, and other migrants from the tropics. From September through November they, along with sparrows and other short-distance travelers, as well as hawks and eagles, work their way southward, often passing through the park. The Ramble, a wooded area on the north side of the park's main lake, lures most of them. The reservoir is a winter favorite of ducks and gulls. Urban Park Rangers, 1234 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10028; 212/427-4040.
HAWK MOUNTAIN SANCTUARY, KEMPTON, PENNSYLVANIA
This site along the Kittatinny Ridge (the eastern chain of the Appalachians), located 35 miles from Reading, is on a flight path for migrating birds of prey. Late August through November all eastern North America species of hawks, eagles, and falcons take this aerial highway in numbers. The rocky outcrops of the mountain, which offer serene views of farmland, forest, and fall foliage, are a half-hour walk from the parking lot. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association, Rte. 2, Box 191, Kempton, PA 19529; 610/756-6961.
CAPE MAY POINT, NEW JERSEY
The southern tip of New Jersey acts as a funnel for migratory birds between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. Mid-August into November flocks follow the coastline south. In August and September abundant northern flickers, eastern kingbirds, swallows, and bobolinks are airborne, and many small birds, such as warblers, fill trees and shrubs. Hawks, falcons, and ospreys fly over in large numbers during September and October. North of Cape May, at Stone Harbor Point, look for herons and egrets in spring and summer, and the nearby Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge at Oceanville is a haven for waterfowl and shorebirds from fall through spring. Cape May Bird Observatory, Box 3, Cape May Point, NJ 08212; 609/884-2736.
BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, CAMBRIDGE, MARYLAND
One of several outstanding birding sites on the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay. Thousands of migrating ducks and geese congregate in the refuge from mid-October through November and again from mid-February through March (as long as the ponds aren't frozen). Bald eagles are permanent residents, and several species of herons, rails, and other marsh birds nest here. A 3 1/2-mile road and various foot trails run through the marshes and forest. Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge, MD 21613; 410/228-2677.
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA
The vast park is 2,200 square miles of wetland encompassing most of the undeveloped parts of southern Florida. A system of paved roads, trails, and boardwalks allows access to marshes and patches of woods. Many species of herons, egrets, and other wading birds are abundant. Brown pelicans, bald eagles, barred owls, ospreys, and pileated woodpeckers are easy to find. In spring and summer the spectacular swallow-tailed kite glides overhead. Many Everglades birds have become tame enough to be photographed easily. Everglades National Park, 40001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead, FL 33034; 305/242-7700.
DAUPHIN ISLAND, ALABAMA
This 14-mile-long barrier island near Mobile is one of many landfalls along the Gulf Coast for vast numbers of northbound migrants every spring who need to rest and feed after their long flight across the Gulf of Mexico. In April and May trees and lawns may swarm with warblers, tanagers, and other brightly colored returnees from the tropics. The 164-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary is one of the best birding spots on the island. Shorebirds, terns, and marsh birds can be seen much of the year in the mudflats, lagoons, and other wetlands. A complete trail guide is available at the town's city hall and at the sanctuary office. Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, Box 848, Dauphin Island, AL 36528; For information call Dr. John Porter at 334/861-2120.
ARANSAS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, PORT LAVACA, TEXAS
The 54,000-acre refuge is most famous for its rarest bird, the whooping crane. More than 100 of this highly endangered species (there are only 250 left in the world) are usually here between mid-October and early April, visiting from breeding sites in Alberta. To protect the cranes, visitors can view them only at a distance by boat. (Five companies run cruises in season; for information call Rockport Chamber of Commerce, 512/729-6445.) About 5,000 acres of the refuge are accessible by car and on foot. Sandhill cranes, many herons and egrets, waterfowl, shorebirds, and terns are plentiful in winter. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Box 100, Austwell, TX 77950; 512/286-3559.
CAVE CREEK CANYON, PORTAL, ARIZONA
One of many outstanding birding locales in southern Arizona, Cave Creek contains a wide variety of species in a small area. Of special interest are the many essentially Mexican birds that do not venture farther north of the border, including hummingbirds, the elegant trogon, and the painted redstart. Every season is good for sightings, but some of the Mexican transients appear only in spring and summer. U.S. Forest Service, Portal Ranger Station, Box 126, Portal, AZ 85632; 520/558-2221.
CHEYENNE BOTTOMS WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA, GREAT BEND KANSAS
This wetland is an important locale for waterfowl and other birds dependent on marshes. Tens of thousands of ducks and geese use the bottoms, and as many as 15,000 American white pelicans land during migration. Whooping cranes and the more common sandhill cranes gather in March and October. Sandpipers, along with other shorebirds migrating between breeding sites in the northern tundra and wintering areas as far south as the Argentine pampas, rest and feed here en route. Many roads run through the refuge; some are closed during hunting season. Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Cheyenne Bottoms, Rte. 3, Box 301, Great Bend, KS 67530; 316/793-7730.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, JACKSON, WYOMING
The park combines spectacular scenery and diverse habitats typical of the Rockies, from sagebrush and lush meadows to forested slopes and bare peaks. Each has its characteristic birds. The endangered trumpeter swan breeds here. Note the regular replacement of one species by a close relative as the elevation changes—a progression you can see among the jays (including the black-billed magpie and Clark nutcracker), nuthatches, chickadees, thrushes, and sparrows. Watch also for elk, moose, and bear. Park rangers lead nature walks. Grand Teton National Park, Drawer 170, Moose, WY 83012; 307/739-3399 or 307/739-3300.
TULE LAKE, CALIFORNIA
Three national wildlife refuges—Lower Klamath, Clear Lake (not open to the public), and Tule Lake—are oases for waterbirds in the semidesert near the Oregon border. The refuges support significant breeding populations of grebes, ducks, gulls, terns, and cormorants. Rarely seen sage grouse live in the dry uplands. In fall hundreds of thousands of swans, geese, and ducks stop here before continuing south to the Central Valley. Winter is the best time to see birds of prey, such as rough-legged hawks, bald eagles, and prairie falcons. Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, Rte. 1, Box 74, Tule Lake, CA 96134; 916/667-2231.
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, MERCED, CALIFORNIA
About 200 miles of road and 750 miles of trails make much of Yosemite's 1,189 square miles accessible. Elevations in the Sierra Nevada range from 2,000 to 13,000 feet, providing a cross section of habitats. In these dramatic settings, many birds typical of more northerly, essentially Canadian, forests are easy to see, such as the great gray owl and pine grosbeak. Rare in the East, they coexist with typical Rockies denizens like the calliope hummingbird and others, such as the white-headed woodpecker, unique to the West Coast. Spring and summer are the best seasons. Yosemite National Park, Box 577, Merced, CA 95389; 209/372-0200.
MONTEREY PENINSULA, CALIFORNIA
The municipal wharf and the Coast Guard pier and breakwater allow for good views of saltwater ducks, gulls, and alcids (murres, guillemots, and other puffinlike birds). From Point Pinos, you can see shearwaters and alcids over the ocean. Along the rocky shore look for Pacific coast species, including the black oystercatcher, the surfbird, and the wandering tattler. Beaches and mudflats teem with other sandpipers and plovers, while California natives like the chestnut-backed chickadee occupy the hills of Monterey cypress and pine. Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, 165 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove, CA 93950; 408/648-3116.
ROGER F. PASQUIER is the author of several books on birds and their conservation; he works at the Environmental Defense Fund.