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.
Watery realms that have long defined this region--iconic wetlands, vast salt marshes, trackless swamps, the great barrier islands of the Outer Banks, and the mighty Mississippi River--make it a dream birding destination. Contemporary explorers will revel in the sight of pelicans diving offshore, hordes of herons and egrets dancing in the shallows, blizzards of terns swooping over a beach, flashes of colorful songbirds adorning coastal trees like Christmas ornaments, and raptors wheeling and soaring where the woods give way to prairies.
Audubon had to cast about to find a roseate spoonbill and the other birds he brought to life in his paintings. Now we have the advantage of birding trails--well-marked paths highlighting the top spots. Best of all, the birds themselves get a boost from our visits, because ecotourism is increasingly helping to solidify the importance of preserving nature at its finest. So what are you waiting for? Stick this guide in your travel bag and come check out 10 of my favorite southern trails. (Click here to download the guide.)
The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail: You could wander anywhere in Alabama and see rich natural habitats and beautiful birds, but when the wind shifts in spring or fall, it's time to head for the coast. The Gulf of Mexico exerts a powerful influence on migratory birds, and twice a year the tiny transients swarm by the thousands along its shores. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail will lead you to the best of the migrant stopover sites, from legendary places like Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island to dozens of lesser-known gems. On big migration days the trees are alive with a kaleidoscopic swirl of brightly hued warblers, tanagers, orioles, buntings, and other songbirds, resting and refueling for the next leg of their journeys. Throngs of sandpipers and plovers march across the mudflats. Ibises and egrets pirouette in the shallows. On days when migration is slow, you can follow loops of the trail to inland woods, where you might hear the surprisingly sweet whistles of the elusive Bachman's sparrow or a barred owl belting out baritone hoots from the deep shadows of a cypress swamp. For more information: Visit The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail or call 877-226-9089.
Great Florida Birding Trail: Linking the high points of the peninsula and the Florida Panhandle, the Great Florida Birding Trail lives up to its name with sheer magnitude--stretching some 2,000 miles and including almost 500 sites--and with the quality of the birding it offers. Be prepared to see huge concentrations of Florida's most famous water birds, including flocks of wintering teal, pintails, and other ducks in the marshes of the Panhandle, teeming colonies of sooty terns and brown noddies on the Dry Tortugas, and noisy treetop nesting groups of wood storks at Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. If you're lucky, you might catch specialties, too, like the elegant white-crowned pigeon, the elusive buffy-toned mangrove cuckoo, and the black-whiskered vireo, all birds of Caribbean or tropical affinities. Droll burrowing owls blink beside their burrows, and graceful swallow-tailed kites swoop and circle above the cypress strands. This trail's biggest star by far, the Florida scrub-jay, is a striking blue bird found nowhere else in the world. These jays have a reputation for being practically fearless of humans, so your odds of seeing at least one--if not a constellation's worth--are quite good. For more information: Visit the Great Florida Birding Trail or call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 850-488-8755.
Georgia's Colonial Coast Birding Trail: Some of the most splendid salt marshes left in the United States are on the Georgia coast, where they provide a year-round home for clapper rails, marsh wrens, and many other birds. Seasonal movements bring northern harriers, flocks of white ibises, and florid pink roseate spoonbills. Several of the barrier islands are easily reached by bridges and causeways. On the islands' protected beaches and tidal mudflats you'll come across impressive concentrations of birds year-round. American oystercatchers, black and white with long red bills, stalk across the flats, while black skimmers glide low over the shallows. Gulls and terns rest on the beaches at high tide, and piping plovers, red knots, and numerous other shorebirds gather in winter or during migration. Away from the water's edge, the woods of the islands and coast are alive with songbirds. In summertime spectacular painted buntings pop up in the thickets, especially in Cumberland Island's semi-wilderness, reached from the mainland only by ferry. At the trail's southwest end lies Okefenokee Swamp. This immense wetland is most easily traversed by canoe or kayak, and more than 100 miles of boat trails invite you to seek out the swamp's birds. For more information: Visit the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division or call it at 770-761-3035.