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.
More so than many parts of the country, the East is a land with extreme seasonal changes in weather. These in turn lead to tremendous diversity in birdlife as migration peaks and ebbs throughout the year. This makes it possible to pursue colorful little warblers in the woods as they rush northward in spring, flashy bobolinks singing over the meadows in summer, busy flocks of sandpipers trotting across tidal flats in fall, and flights of ducks and gulls arriving at the coast or along major rivers at winter's approach. Every season has its avian wonders. To appreciate them, we must know not just when to look, but where.
Fortunately, we have birding trails to guide us. These routes point the way to the prime sites, from the well-known hot spots to the undiscovered gems. Complimentary trail guides available online or on printed brochures (sometimes both) are full of tips and advice on when to visit. On the birding trails, everybody wins: Local communities benefit from tourism dollars, birders get to check off their lists, and habitats gain protection as their value is recognized. So grab this guide and come check out 10 of my favorite eastern trails. (Click here to download the guide.)
Delaware Birding Trail: Despite its size, Delaware encompasses six well-defined ecological regions. This trail takes in all of them, revealing their contrasts and providing an education in ecology even as it entertains with great birding. Many of the trail's 27 sites are along the coastline, where beaches, tidal flats, and marshes offer exciting bird diversity year-round. Pale little piping plovers nest on the beaches, joined in spring and fall by busy flocks of other plovers and sandpipers, while migrating black terns, yellowlegs, stilts, and rails gather in the marshes. In winter great flocks of snow geese and ducks shelter in these same wetlands, and their thundering flights at dawn are reason enough for a cold-weather visit. If you can tear yourself away from the coast, Delaware's interior has stunning meadows and forests with their own treasures. The low hills along the state's northwestern edge contain songbirds typical of more northerly climes, like the soft-voiced veery and the sharply patterned blue-winged warbler. Southern tier pine flats are enlivened by gangs of spunky little brown-headed nuthatches, which reach the northernmost edge of their range here. For more information: Visit the Delaware Birding Trial or call 302-739-9912.
Maine Birding Trail: Anchoring the northern end of our Atlantic Coast, Maine is almost as large as the rest of the New England states combined, with miles of wild coastline and vast tracts of wilderness offering plenty of room to roam. The state's birding trail is divided into eight regions, showcasing the wide range of natural habitats. Many visitors will be eager to explore the north woods, looking for creatures more typical of Canadian boreal zones. Here you can find husky-voiced boreal chickadees, colorful pine grosbeaks, nomadic white-winged crossbills, and more. Those lucky enough to spot a famous spruce grouse will delight in how astonishingly tame this little forest chicken can be. Other trail loops weave through hardwood forests and blueberry barrens, and along wild rivers, beaver ponds, and coastal marshes. Of course, prominent among Maine's attractions are the offshore islands, and this trail includes multiple departure points for boat trips heading out to seek seabirds like terns, guillemots, and the celebrated Atlantic puffin. Audubon scientists have succeeded in reintroducing puffins to several islands where they had vanished, so your chances of seeing this comical bird have improved in recent years. For more information: Visit the Maine Birding Trail (207-827-3782) or Project Puffin.
Essex National Heritage Area Birding Trail, Massachusetts: Essex County, Massachusetts, is not a huge tract of land, but it includes some of the country's most renowned birding spots. Inland forests and grasslands support a wide variety of nesting birds in summer, as well as long-distance migrants like brilliant scarlet tanagers and flashy black-and-buff bobolinks. Not far away, the coastal regions come into their own during spring and fall migration seasons and especially in winter. The riverfront at Newburyport is thronged with gulls and waterfowl during the colder months, while nearby Plum Island's dunes, fields, and marshes often play host to snowy owls, ghostly visitors from the Arctic. Rockport's stony coast offers superlative birding in winter: Little flocks of intricately patterned harlequin ducks hug the shoreline, and seabirds like razorbills, kittiwakes, and gannets come close to shore when the wind is right. For those who wish to pursue seabirds in their own element, this trail includes information on boat trips to Stellwagen Bank, a marine sanctuary frequented by deepwater birds like shearwaters and storm-petrels (as well as by whales). For more information: Visit the Essex National Heritage Area or call the Essex National Heritage Commission at 978-740-0444.