Audubon's Field Guide to Birding Trails
There are a lot of species to see out there. Here are four sets of regional birding trails to guide you to some of the country's great spots.
Incongruous as it might seem, the center of the continent funnels millions of migrating birds, providing vital rest stops for weary shorebirds wading in its wetlands and for woodland species retiring where the prairies give way to forests. But the prairies themselves hold some of the richest prizes. From the outrageous stomping dances of greater prairie-chickens in early spring to the swirling flocks of longspurs in winter to the haunting whistles of upland sandpipers in summer, this area of wide horizons has the capacity to delight us in every season.
To see the birds here at their best, though, we have to know where to find them. Fortunately, birding trails have been springing up like prairie wildflowers all over the Midwest, beckoning us to follow from one to the next. I invite you to come explore 10 of my favorite trails in this part of the country and discover for yourself the astonishing mountain of avian abundance in this level land. (Click here to download the guide.)
Chicago Region Birding Trail, Illinois and Indiana: Chicago was not founded by birders, but it could have been. Here, where the eastern forest meets the prairies and the Great Lakes, is the heart of an exciting territory for naturalists. This regional trail, sponsored by the City of Chicago, the Bird Conservation Network, and Chicago Wilderness, leads to 58 of the best birding sites in the seven Illinois counties surrounding the city and in two counties in northwest Indiana. On native prairies in summer, rare Henslow's sparrows sing their flat hiccups, while meadowlarks and bobolinks deliver more melodious tunes. Forest preserves host flashy treetop birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers in summer, while remnant marshes still support nesting herons, ducks, and all sorts of water birds. During spring and fall migration, gulls, hawks, and other migrants sweep along Lake Michigan's shoreline when the winds are right. But birders in the know may follow the guide to downtown Chicago, where, in the shadows of skyscrapers, parks along the lakefront provide stopover habitat for thousands of migrant travelers, including everything from blackburnian warblers to Virginia rails. For more information: Visit the Chicago Region Birding Trail or call the City of Chicago 312-743-9283.
Kansas Birding and Natural Heritage Trails: Mountains and canyons are fine for picture postcards, but the prairies' subtle beauty and variety must be experienced to be understood. Follow this trail's four sections--scheduled to be fully completed in 2010--and see for yourself. In the Flint Hills' magnificent tallgrass prairies, breathy whistles of upland sandpipers float down from on high, while chunky little dickcissels sing choppy buzzes from the roadsides. Farther west, in sandsage flats near the Colorado border, you may find regal ferruginous hawks and some of the rare lesser prairie-chicken's last remaining populations. The central part of the state's vast wetlands serve as a stopover for tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds, especially in spring, when colorful Hudsonian godwits, American golden-plovers, and others pause here en route to the Arctic. The woods and thickets of southeastern Kansas are brightened in summer by the spectacular colors of painted buntings, indigo buntings, and blue grosbeaks, while these same thickets in winter hold throngs of big, boldly patterned Harris's sparrows. For more information: Call Audubon of Kansas at 785-537-4385.
Minnesota's Pine to Prairie Birding Trail: Remarkable bird diversity abounds where northwestern Minnesota's great coniferous forests yield to a narrow band of deciduous woodlands and then the wide-open prairie farther west. This trail, the first established in the state, links 45 prime sites along the transition zone, offering the chance to see almost 300 bird species. If you are visiting from points south, you may be most intrigued by the possibilities in the region's evergreen forest: the powerful northern goshawk, the quiet, elusive spruce grouse, and the oddly tame gray jay. The deciduous woods provide a summer home for black-billed cuckoos, brilliant scarlet tanagers, and many other migratory birds, while the grasslands just to the west offer everything from buzzy-voiced grasshopper sparrows to greater prairie-chickens. Some of the best birding is around marshes and lakes, where you may find American bitterns stalking slowly in the shallows and common loons nesting in the wilder and more remote bays. With luck, you might even spot the elusive yellow rail, or hear its odd ticking song. For more information: Visit the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail or call the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at 800-433-1888.