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.
California Central Coast Birding Trail: Some of the most beautiful coastline on earth lies between San Francisco Bay and the Los Angeles basin. Not so well known--except among serious birders--is the fact that these four counties also hold hundreds of avian species. This trail, sponsored by Audubon California, leads to 83 prime birding locations. The sites are scattered through an incredible array of landscapes, from the coast to redwood forests and marshes. And this trail doesn't end at the ocean's edge; it leads you to explore offshore waters as well as the Channel Islands, where you'll find the island scrub-jay's entire world population. Back on the mainland you will see other treasures, including the flashy yellow-billed magpie, found nowhere in the world but California. A high point--literally--is the top of Mount Pinos, at almost 9,000 feet; this was one of the best places to see wild California condors before the last ones were captured for captive breeding in 1987. Today the program's offspring have been reintroduced to the wild and can be seen at other sites along the trail. For more information, visit the Central Coast Birding Trail or call Audubon California (916-649-7600).
California's Eastern Sierra Birding Trail: Less than a generation has passed since heroic birder-conservationists, led by the late David Gaines, won the fight to save Mono Lake from being drained. Mono Lake remains a mecca for birders because of this proud chapter in conservation history, as well as for the abundance of birds found here. About 50,000 California gulls nest on its islands, but they are outnumbered by the concentrations of eared grebes (close to a million) and Wilson's and red-necked phalaropes (tens of thousands) that stop over during their annual migrations. Mono Lake is just one of the attractions in this region, where the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada meets the edge of the Great Basin. Thickets in the foothills are home to green-tailed towhees, lazuli buntings, black-headed grosbeaks, and other colorful songbirds. In open pine groves you may chance upon a roving flock of pinyon jays, harsh-voiced birds named for their taste for pinyon seeds, while at higher elevations you could find the soft-voiced Townsend's solitaire or the flashy western tanager. Along rushing streams you might even be lucky enough to spot the American dipper, an odd aquatic songbird that once captivated John Muir. For more information, check out the Eastern Sierra Birding Trail Map or contact the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society (P.O. Box 624, Bishop, CA 93515).
Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail: Sites on most birding trails are linked mainly by paved roads, but the Inside Passage segment of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Trail offers a special treat because its sites are connected by ferries traveling the Alaska Marine Highway System. In this setting of forested islands and spectacular fjords, stretching from Skagway to Ketchikan, it's not surprising that water birds provide much of the excitement, with loons, cormorants, ducks, gulls, terns, and others passing in a constant parade. Horned and tufted puffins nest on the islands and fish in the surrounding waters. Pairs of marbled murrelets are everywhere, but their rarer cousins, Kittlitz's murrelets, are likely to be seen only where huge glaciers come down to the ocean's edge, as in Glacier Bay National Park. Of course, there are plenty of land birds in this region as well, and nine communities along the trail offer detailed information on birding sites in the forests, rivers, and marshes nearby. Highlights include flocks of migrating sandpipers on the Stikine River near Wrangell, and the world's largest concentrations of bald eagles, on the Chilkat River near Haines. And you can take non-birding companions along, too, for the chance of spectacular sightings of bears, whales, and other megafauna. For more information, visit The Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail or contact the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation (907-465-4190).
The Fountain of Youth--that was Ponce de Leon's quest in the early 1500s when he arrived in what is now the southeastern United States. Or at least that's what the legends say. We know more about the intentions of another explorer who traversed the same region 300 years later. John James Audubon was seeking birds, and throughout the South he found them in dazzling abundance.