Audubon's Field Guide to Birding Trails
When I trekked among the stark cactus gardens of the Arizona borderlands for the first time, I saw a dozen new birds for my life list in the first half-hour: quirky roadrunners, noisy cactus wrens, sleek phainopeplas, and enough others to make my head spin. The same thing happened when I hit central California’s rockbound coast, with its tattlers and surfbirds clambering over the boulders, gulls and terns swarming offshore. In the flower-filled meadows of the Colorado Rockies the source of my vertigo was the dazzling hummingbirds, elusive grouse, and ethereal mountain bluebirds. I felt like it was 1848 and I was in the creek at Sutter’s Mill, discovering gold.
The astonishing diversity of birdlife in the West mirrors the extreme variety of conditions. California’s Death Valley may broil at 115 degrees while the peak of Mount Whitney, less than 100 miles away, is still covered with snow. Washington State can boast temperate rainforest to the west of the Cascades and desert to the east of those same mountains. No wonder I sometimes lost my way en route to a rare bird.
But those days are over. Today we avian explorers have maps to help us find our treasures. Built on a concept pioneered in Texas in the 1990s, birding trails link sites where the public is welcome and the birding is superb. These routes have become a bonanza for birders and for local communities that have profited from ecotourism. The trails featured here are among my favorite Westerns, but there are plenty of others to discover, and a lot more in the works. So grab your binoculars and one of these guides—X marks the spot where you might strike it rich. (Click here to download the guide.)
Great Washington State Birding Trail: The great state of Washington is too diverse to be encompassed by one birding trail, which explains why Audubon Washington has established a series of looping trails and mapped them independently. Seven proposed loops will cover the entire state. Four are already completed, and they furnish a spectacular cross-section of a remarkable set of landscapes. The outer coast of Washington hosts a wide array of migrating shorebirds, including huge flocks of western sandpipers and lesser numbers of Pacific Coast exclusives like surfbirds and black turnstones. Fog-shrouded forests that cover the coastal slope and the Olympic Peninsula echo with the ethereal whistles of varied thrushes, while richly colored birds like red-breasted sapsuckers, Townsend’s warblers, and chestnut-backed chickadees hide in the shadows. Ascending toward the high peaks of the Cascades, you’ll find black-backed woodpeckers, gray jays, and many other birds of northern affinities lurking in the forest. East of the mountains, the landscape changes abruptly to drier settings, with different birds. Rock wrens bounce and chatter along the edges of craggy arroyos, while long-billed curlews stalk over the open grasslands. Sage thrashers and Brewer’s sparrows, plain but tuneful birds, sing surprising melodies from the sagebrush flats, and golden eagles wheel overhead. For more information, visit Audubon Washington and contact 866-WA-BIRDS to order maps.
Oregon Cascades Birding Trail: The mighty Cascade Range stretches the length of Oregon, from north to south, separating the interior’s arid country from the coast’s rains and lush forests. These mountains are rightly famous as a place of awe-inspiring scenery, from the deep-blue Crater Lake to the towering snowcapped Mount Hood. Follow the Oregon Cascades Birding Trail and you will get to enjoy both the amazing scenery and a brilliant bevy of colorful birds. The trail, designed by a consortium of groups including the Audubon Society of Portland, features nearly 200 stops. Some are in the lowlands at the base of the mountains, such as along the edge of the Columbia River, where bald eagles and ospreys are celebrities. But most of the real stars are at higher elevations. Brushy thickets may hold bright golden Wilson’s and MacGillivray’s warblers and the elusive but smartly patterned mountain quail. The tall conifer forests are home to the hermit warbler, a striking bird with its center of distribution in the Oregon Cascades. Up at treeline, you may have to search carefully to find the gray-crowned rosy-finch, but the brash, noisy Clark’s nutcracker is more likely to find you. For more information, visit The Oregon Cascades Birding Trail or contact The Audubon Society of Portland (503-292-6855).
Montana Birding and Nature Trail: In Big Sky Country big plans are afoot to provide birding trails throughout six major regions of the state. Routes are already completed for the northwestern and northeastern sections, and more are coming. In the northwest, where the Bitterroot and Missoula loops are finished, magnificent forests and meadows along clear streams are inhabited by everything from massive pileated woodpeckers to tiny Calliope hummingbirds. Brilliantly colored western tanagers flash through the pines, and violet-green swallows circle overhead. In open forest stands you might spot both Lewis’s woodpeckers and Clark’s nutcrackers, named for the intrepid explorers who passed this way two centuries ago. In northeastern Montana’s high plains, the surroundings and the birds are completely different. Swainson’s hawks in summer and rough-legged hawks in winter soar and hunt in the prairies. The wide-open sagebrush flats here are among the last strongholds of the greater sage-grouse, and if you visit in spring, you may get to watch the bizarre courtship dances of the males on their traditional lekking grounds. For more information, visit the Montana Birding and Nature Trail or contact the Montana Natural History Center (406-327-0405).
Idaho Birding Trail: Its license plates may still talk about famous potatoes, but Idaho is a place where birders should keep their eyes on the skies (and leave the fries for later). The plains and canyons along the Snake River are renowned for their concentrations of birds of prey, making Idaho a mecca for raptor biologists and birders from around the world who are drawn to the state’s hawks, eagles, and falcons, and hundreds of other bird species. The Idaho Birding Trail features 173 sites in four sections of the state, from north to south. If you hike through the forests of northern Idaho, you’re sure to notice many of the smaller songbirds, from hyperactive mountain chickadees to Townsend’s warblers and Cassin’s finches, all adding their sparks of color to the dark conifers. Get out into more open areas, though, and chances are you will be distracted by the big birds. Powerful golden eagles and ferruginous hawks, dashing peregrine falcons and prairie falcons, and more than a dozen other raptors are the star attractions here. Water birds abound as well. Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge hosts trumpeter swans and one of the largest nesting concentrations of sandhill cranes, as well as Franklin’s gulls, ducks, and geese. For more information, visit the Idaho Birding Trail or contact the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (208-334-3700).
Utah’s Great Salt Lake Birding Trail: The Bonneville Salt Flats of northwest Utah may be some of the most lifeless acres on the continent, but the nearby Great Salt Lake and the mountains to the east are teeming with life, including more than 200 species of birds. The Wasatch Audubon Society created a partnership that assembled a set of birding trails that encompass more than 50 of the best sites in this region. A number of the richest sites are on the Great Salt Lake itself, including the marshes of the fabled Bear River Refuge, where great flocks of white pelicans, marbled godwits, yellow-headed blackbirds, western grebes, and numerous other birds swarm in the shallows, vying for your attention. Even on the lakeshore’s more open or barren parts, you can find pale little snowy plovers, elegant American avocets and black-necked stilts, and other shorebirds. The mountains that rise to the east of the lake, famed for their skiing in winter, offer an array of different habitats for birds in all seasons. Shady canyons filled with cottonwoods give way to spruce forest, with typical montane birds such as the elegantly patterned Williamson’s sapsucker and Cassin’s finch. At the highest levels, patches of tundra above treeline are among the likeliest places in the world for you to find the rare black rosy-finch. For more information,visit the Great Salt Lake Birding Trails or contact the Wasatch Audubon Society (801-621-7595).
Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail: Southeastern Arizona, where isolated mountain ranges rear up like islands in a sea of desert grassland, lures you with more than 400 bird species, including dozens that spill across the border from Mexico. This birding trail, sponsored by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory with help from the Tucson Audubon Society, identifies 52 key sites for finding those birds. If you go expecting to find only desert, you’ll be in for a shock. Magnificent desert vistas are here, of course, but the lowlands also have riverside forests, home to specialty birds like sleek gray hawks and noisy Abert’s towhees. The mountain summits are draped in pine and fir forests, habitat for stunning red-faced warblers, Mexican chickadees, and other prized finds. Many of the sites on the birding trail are noted for hummingbirds; more than a dozen species occur here—the highest concentration in the United States—from the minuscule Calliope hummingbird to the blue-throated hummingbird, which is as big as a sparrow. Some of the most exciting birding awaits you in rocky tree-lined canyons that snake through the foothills. These are the haunts of such Mexican-border rarities as the sulphur-bellied flycatcher, the buff-collared nightjar, the thick-billed kingbird, and the fabulously colorful elegant trogon, the northernmost member of a purely tropical family of birds. For more information, check out the Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail Map or contact the Tucson Audubon Society (520-629-0510).
Colorado Birding Trail: You may be lured to Colorado by the high peaks of the Rockies, which dominate the state, dividing the mesas of the west from the short-grass prairies to the east. But you won’t be able to avoid falling in love with other landscapes along the Colorado Birding Trail. In the treeless terrain of the prairies, many songbirds take to the sky to sing, and the air is often filled with the flight-songs of lark buntings and chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs. These short-grass plains are also the haunt of the rare mountain plover, a poorly named bird that sees mountains only from a distance. When you wind into the mountains you can discover red-naped sapsuckers and sky-blue mountain bluebirds in the aspen groves, and pine grosbeaks and red crossbills chattering in the conifer forests. At the high summits, where the open tundra comes alive with wildflowers in summer, you may be lucky enough to find the white-tailed ptarmigan, a master of camouflage, which is near its southernmost limits here. Everywhere in Colorado, from mountains to plains, you’ll find peak experiences. For more information, visit the Colorado Birding Trail or contact Audubon Colorado (303-415-0130).
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 León’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.
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.
Kentucky’s Audubon Birding Trail: Taken by itself, this is one of the shortest birding trails on the continent, with only three major stops. But it is a must-see historical complement to the 20 wildlife trails that wind their way around the Bluegrass State. It features the area of Henderson, where John James Audubon lived for several years while beginning his epic Birds of America. By following the hiking paths in the state park here, you can almost literally walk in his footsteps and perhaps watch descendants of the very birds that inspired the artist two centuries ago: kingly wild turkeys, coveys of northern bobwhites, brilliant golden prothonotary warblers, and shaggy-headed belted kingfishers. Along forest streams you’re pretty sure to see Louisiana waterthrushes bobbing and teetering at the water’s edge and little green herons lurking in the shadows, and hear red-eyed vireos singing repetitive whistled phrases from the treetops. Farther along the trail, lakes and marshy sloughs provide a winter home for migratory waterfowl, including wigeons, American black ducks, mallards, teal, and impressive numbers of Canada geese. Great blue herons stand at attention along the shorelines and build bulky stick nests in colonies high in the trees, just as they did in Audubon’s day. For more information: Visit Trailsrus.
America’s Wetland Birding Trail, Louisiana: Louisiana’s Gulf Coast region forms a generous jambalaya of all the ways that water and land can meet: lakes and rivers, cypress swamps, gum and tupelo bayous, flooded rice fields, freshwater marshes, salt marshes, mudflats, and sandy beaches. When locals say this birding trail crosses “America’s wetland,” it’s no idle boast. But don’t take my word for it; find out for yourself by visiting any of the 115 sites along the trail’s 12 loops. On the outer coast, brown pelicans have recovered from their population crash of decades past, and passing flocks can be seen constantly. Shallow lakes and swamps support a wealth of waders, including snowy egrets, little blue herons, and tricolored herons. Elusive marsh birds are easier to see here than practically anywhere else, and you may get your best looks ever at buffy little least bitterns, rusty-red king rails, and other skulkers. Easier to spot are the flocks of ducks and geese that arrive for the winter, including major populations of greater white-fronted geese and snow geese. If you can tear yourself away from the water, the trail also offers concentrations of warblers, vireos, thrushes, and other migrating songbirds during spring and fall. For more information: Click here or call the Louisiana Office of Tourism at 225-342-8100.
North Carolina Birding Trail: Natural features divide North Carolina neatly into thirds, with mountains in the west, the coastal plain in the east, and the Piedmont Plateau in between. Two sections of a statewide birding trail are finished, and the third, the mountain region, is scheduled to be ready for business by the summer of 2009. Travel this trio of trails for a cross section of some of the best birding on the continent. The coastal plain features the long sweep of the Outer Banks, where the Wright brothers made their first flight and where huge flocks of migratory shorebirds still gather in spring and fall. Waterfowl also abound, and wintering flocks of tundra swans provide a spectacle for winter trips. In the upper coastal plain and the Piedmont’s tranquil pine forests, there are parties of brown-headed nuthatches chattering and clambering about the branches like little wind-up toys. Scarlet tanagers and rose-red summer tanagers sing from the woods, while indigo buntings and yellow-breasted chats add spots of color in the brushy edges. The western peaks have a Canadian flavor, with dark-eyed juncos and Blackburnian warblers singing from the spruces, a world away from the coast’s subtropical feeling. For more information: Visit the North Carolina Birding Trail or call the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at 866-945-3746.
Great Plains Trail of Oklahoma: Comprising 13 separate loops in Oklahoma’s western half, the trail calls for weeks of exploration. Prepare to be surprised by the diversity of landscapes and their associated birds. Flocks of blue-gray pinyon jays swarm across the slopes in the far west’s rugged Black Mesa country; elusive black-capped vireos and rufous-crowned sparrows chatter from thickets in the southwestern Wichita Mountains; and snowy plovers and stately American avocets parade across the glistening flats of the Great Salt Plains. During spring and fall, clouds of Franklin’s gulls circle over the fields en route to or from the northern prairies. Winter flocks of bold Harris’s sparrows, black-faced and pink-billed, swarm through the riverside thickets. Come anytime in the warmer months and you’ll be greeted by Oklahoma’s state bird, the gorgeous scissor-tailed flycatcher, pale with salmon-pink tinges and streaming tail feathers. Summer is also the time for Mississippi kites, graceful acrobatic raptors that are perhaps more numerous here than anywhere else, wheeling and diving above cottonwood groves on the plains. For more information: Visit the Great Plains Trail of Oklahoma or call the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department at 800-652-6552.
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Coastal Trail offers good birding throughout the year, but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings. Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of whooping cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed reddish egrets, blazing pink roseate spoonbills, and beautifully patterned white-tailed hawks. The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico, enlivening the American landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy ringed kingfishers, like belted kingfishers on steroids; great kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family; and green jays, which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue tones. For more information: Visit Great Texas Wildlife Trails or call the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at 512-389-4800.
Panhandle Plains Wildlife Trail, Texas: The Texas Panhandle’s high plains might seem flat at first glance, but the endless horizons, hidden canyons, broad playa lakes, and rugged mesas create an indelible portrait of America’s wide-open spaces. Shallow wetlands on the plains provide seasonal stopovers for migrating plovers and sandpipers, traveling between the Arctic and the South American pampas, while serving as winter quarters for noisy hordes of sandhill cranes by the tens of thousands. Here you can visit scenes straight out of the Old West, like big prairie dog towns, where you might spot a burrowing owl, a ferruginous hawk, or a flock of mountain plovers. In summer scaled quail give their hoarse scraping calls from fence posts, while brown-toned Cassin’s sparrows and flashy lark buntings perform fluttering flight songs over the grasslands. In winter, flocks of longspurs swirl above the same flats—watch for a hunting prairie falcon in close pursuit. For some birders, the prize will be a lesser prairie-chicken. This rare grouse has vanished from some former haunts, but in the Panhandle you can still marvel at the males performing their bizarre stomping and hooting dances at dawn. For more information: Visit Great Texas Wildlife Trails or call the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at 512-389-4800.
Great River Birding Trail: When fully completed by the end of this year, the Great River Birding Trail will follow the mighty Mississippi all the way from the Gulf of Mexico north to its headwaters in Minnesota. Detailed county-level maps already connect sites near the river in eastern Louisiana and Arkansas and in western Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Explore any portion of the vast route and you’ll come to understand that the river is a vital corridor for birds, worth enjoying and protecting. In shaded backwaters and oxbows near the main river, flocks of rainbow-colored wood ducks thrive in all seasons, joined in winter by great flights of mallards and other ducks migrating from farther north. Seemingly endless streams of ospreys, eagles, sandpipers, and plovers participate in the year-round parade of wings overhead. Extensive forests on the riverbanks hold a wide variety of nesting birds, from colorful yellow-throated, hooded, and Kentucky warblers to big raptors like red-shouldered hawks and barred owls. In the maturing bottomland swamps of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, birders can thrill to frequent sightings of big, flashy pileated woodpeckers, while dreaming of the possibility that even bigger woodpeckers might still be lurking among the trees. For more information: Visit the Great River Birding Trail.
The Northeast Corridor may be the most heavily settled part of the country, but it is still a land of amazing natural riches. Nothing demonstrates this more delightfully than the wealth of bird species found here. Even small states like Rhode Island and Delaware boast lists of up to 400 species. Many birds have adapted to life on the edges of our largest cities; for those that have not, each state in the region has set aside parks and refuges that preserve a touch of wilderness.
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.
Connecticut River Birding Trail, New Hampshire and Vermont: The Connecticut River’s upper stretch marks the meandering border between these two New England states, and it also links a series of more than 120 of this trail’s fine birding sites. Many featured locations are in beautiful forests, and a visit in spring or summer will give you a chance to glimpse such colorful songbirds as rose-breasted grosbeaks, tiger-striped Cape May warblers, and fiery orange Blackburnian warblers. Away from the river, some upland forests are home to birds more typical of the far north. The bold, cheeky gray jays, sometimes called “camp robbers,” are fearless birds that may fly up to greet you, but you’ll probably have to search to find the quiet and elusive black-backed woodpecker. The region also features many pristine wetlands. In addition to the Connecticut River itself, a favored migratory route for various waterfowl, there are marshes where chunky American bitterns stalk among the reeds, and ponds that also host great flocks of ducks during their migrations in spring and fall. Worth seeking out on a special trip are those larger lakes where common loons come to spend the nesting season, filling the summer nights with their wild, mournful yodeling. For more information: Call 802-785-2855.
New Jersey Birding and Wildlife Trails: Developed by the New Jersey Audubon Society, these trails reveal the Garden State’s remarkably rich birdlife. One completed route winds through Cape May and the southern Delaware Bay shore, comprising one of the continent’s most famous regions for observing migratory birds. The massive flocks of red knots and other shorebirds that gather here in spring have drawn both international acclaim and focused conservation concern. The autumn flights of raptors at Cape May are world class, offering glimpses of everything from speedy little sharp-shinned hawks to powerful peregrine falcons and huge golden eagles. Farther north, another completed trail shines a spotlight on a very different region: the Meadowlands, in northeastern New Jersey. Just a few miles from the heart of New York City, the Meadowlands play host to more than 200 bird species, from great blue herons and bald eagles to colorful little warblers and goldfinches. Other trails are in the works. Just launched are the Skylands Trails in New Jersey’s northwestern highlands. Here cool evergreen forests cradle nesting birds of northern affinities, like blue-headed vireos singing their short whistled phrases and northern waterthrushes teetering back and forth alongside creeks. For more information: Visit New Jersey Birding and Wildlife Trails or New Jersey Audubon, or call the Cape May Bird Observatory at 609-861-0700.
Audubon Niagara Birding Trail, New York: Tourists and honeymooners descend on Niagara Falls mostly during the warm seasons, but birders flock here in late fall and winter for the gulls. Near the end of November more than 100,000 gulls representing in excess of a dozen species may be present simultaneously on the Niagara River close to the falls. Most will be common species, such as boisterous herring gulls and dainty little Bonaparte’s gulls, but there is usually a scattering of uncommon birds like pale Iceland gulls or even mega-rarities like the pinkish Ross’s gull from Siberia. After donning your parka and gloves, you will also be rewarded with thousands of ducks, such as canvasbacks, scaup, redheads, goldeneyes, and mergansers. And the good birding carries over into spring, because the Audubon Niagara Birding Trail takes in a variety of sites away from the falls, including forests, meadows, and swamps—all with a rich variety of nesting birds. A focal point is the steep-sided canyon at Letchworth State Park, where birds of the far north can be found living in this cool and shady microclimate. For more information: Download the Buffalo Audubon Society’s informational brochure, “Nature Tourism in Buffalo/Niagra” or call the Buffalo Audubon Society at 585-457-3228.
Lake Champlain Birding Trail, New York and Vermont: More than 100 miles long and for a brief time considered one of the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain is an impressive body of water that separates Vermont from northern New York. Local opinion is divided as to whether it really has its own Loch Ness–type monster—named “Champ”—but it does have a mammoth birding trail, identifying 88 superb spots near the shoreline and uplands on both sides of the lake. Visit in summer and you’ll find sky-blue eastern bluebirds along the fencerows, boldly patterned bobolinks singing their bubbling songs over the meadows, and wood thrushes delivering their haunting flute solos from deep in the forest shadows. Hooded mergansers, small ducks with elegant crests, nest in the wooded swamps in summer and gather on the open lake during migration seasons, when they are joined by flocks of snow geese, goldeneyes, and many more waterfowl. Winter brings a different set of birds to the Champlain Valley, and if you come here for a cold-weather adventure, you may get to enjoy such northern creatures as snowy owls, snow buntings, and rough-legged hawks—even if Champ fails to surface. For more information: Call 802-747-7900.
Susquehanna River Birding & Wildlife Trail, Pennsylvania: Developed by Audubon Pennsylvania, this ambitious trail is centered on the mighty Susquehanna River, but it spreads out to take in more than 200 sites in 39 counties, with detailed directions and bird-finding information. Much of central Pennsylvania is covered with extensive and magnificent forestland, a stronghold for such spectacular birds as richly hued scarlet tanagers, flashy rose-breasted grosbeaks, and big, bold pileated woodpeckers. Ridges that run from northeast to southwest through Pennsylvania serve as a migratory route for birds of prey in fall, and this trail will lead you to some of the best vantage points, such as the world-famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Hit this ridge on the right day in fall and you might see sharp-shinned hawks by the hundreds or broad-winged hawks by the thousands sailing along on updrafts from the valleys below. Of course, many water birds follow the Susquehanna itself during migration, stopping over on the river or on nearby marshes and lakes. Shorebirds, gulls, terns, herons, and egrets are all regular visitors. Great noisy flights of tundra swans furnish a major annual spectacle here in late fall and early spring as they follow the river to and from wintering grounds on the Chesapeake Bay. For more information: Visit the Susquehanna River Birding & Wildlife Trail or call Audubon Pennsylvania at 717-213-6880.
Rhode Island Coastal Birding Trail: Rhode Islanders have heard every cliché about their state’s small size, but they know they can find big numbers of birds without venturing beyond their borders. This trail features seven prime sites, including two national wildlife refuges as well as parks and wildlife management areas. In salt marshes near the beach, seaside sparrows and clapper rails are among the prized finds for keen birders, and even a casual observer can appreciate the northern harriers that might be seen in low, slow flight as they hunt over the coastal marshes at any time of year. Along the shoreline the birding may be at its best in winter. On rocky headlands you might spot the dark silhouettes of so-called purple sandpipers, while gulls of several species wheel overhead. Just off the coast you’ll enjoy wintering flocks of common eiders, big hardy sea ducks famed for the insulating properties of their down feathers. Not so famous but also present are other kinds of seafaring ducks, such as white-winged scoters and common mergansers, while clusters of black-and-white patterned long-tailed ducks may be on display flying farther offshore. Travel this trail and experience its birds, and you’ll agree that good things do come in small packages. For more information: Download the Rhode Island Coastal Adventure Trails’ Coastal Birding Trail guide or call 401-364-9124.
Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail: One of the first states to develop a statewide birding trail, Virginia created a model for others by dividing its natural riches into three distinct regions, each with its own loop. The coastal section has a southern climate and a southern flavor to its birdlife. Along the beaches and barrier islands, stocky brown Wilson’s plovers run across the sand, shrill-voiced royal terns circle overhead, and squadrons of brown pelicans glide above the waves, just as they would along a Florida beach. There’s a completely different feel to the state’s western mountains, where you may find nesting birds typical of farther north, such as the colorful Canada warbler singing from the rhododendron thickets and the shy brown veery giving its spiraling airy whistles from moist ravines among the maples. Between the mountains and the coast, the rivers, meadows, and great forests of oak and pine will produce a plethora of colorful birds in all seasons, from eastern bluebirds and red-bellied woodpeckers to rich fox-colored brown thrashers. Wild turkeys have become numerous again, and small groups of them may be seen stalking along the edges of woodlots and fields, just as they did when the first colonists arrived. For more information: Visit the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries or call 804-367-6913 or 866-748-2298.
The Midwest’s great open expanse is the largest swath of flatland in the United States. Urbanites on either coast may think of it as flyover country—if they think of it at all. Call it what you will; I call it home. The birds that captivated me as a six-year-old in Indiana, and that consumed my every spare moment as a teenager in Kansas, stirred my desire to witness all the world’s birds. And they ultimately drew me back to the Midwest, to live in Ohio. More than 70 years ago my grandfather published Level Land, a book of poetry celebrating the prairies, so perhaps the Midwest is in my blood. If so, as a birder, I have no regrets.
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.
Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail: Minnesota may be famous for its 10,000 lakes, but the state’s rivers make the best routes for birding trails. This particular one, a project of Audubon Minnesota, follows its namesake river valley from the South Dakota border through the state’s southern part to the heart of the Twin Cities area. An expansive trail, it is thoughtfully divided into 11 distinct loops, each of them compact enough to provide a full day of birding. In summer many of the trail’s highlights are in the more open habitats. Clay-colored sparrows sing their funny flat buzzes from atop low thickets in the prairie, while bobolinks bubble and chime in flight above damp meadows. Open marshes are the places to hear yellow-headed blackbirds attempting to sing, although their hoarse strangled squawks are anything but tuneful. Black terns, graceful and sleek, fly above these same marshes. You might want to try the trail in winter. Your bird list will be shorter than it would be in summer, but it may include such prizes as the golden eagle or the northern shrike. For more information: Visit The Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail or call Audubon Minnesota at 651-739-9332.
Nebraska Birding Trails: The state license plate a few years ago featured flying sandhill cranes, and for good reason: Half a million of these regal birds stop over on the Platte River in southern Nebraska every spring, attracting thousands of birders and tourists from around the world. But if you explore this statewide series of 15 trails, encompassing more than 400 sites, you’ll realize that Nebraska has a lot of birds besides cranes. With its broad stretch from west to east, the state takes in species typical of areas beyond the Great Plains in both directions. Northwestern Nebraska’s pine ridge region has birds straight from the Rockies, like hyperactive pygmy nuthatches and flocks of blue-gray pinyon jays. At the state’s opposite corner, bottomland forests ring with the songs of typical southeastern birds, like Kentucky warblers and Louisiana waterthrushes. Visiting birders may be most excited about the grassland species inhabiting the wide-open spaces between these extremes. Among the distinctive denizens waiting to be discovered are droll burrowing owls nodding next to prairie-dog towns, sharp-tailed grouse strutting on their display grounds, and long-billed curlews showing off their namesake scimitar beaks. For more information: Visit Nebraska Birding Trails or call 402-471-7755.
Birding Drives Dakota (North Dakota): The phrase “birding drives Dakota” is a clever play on words and an optimistic claim about the importance of ecotourism in this state. Plus the “birding drives” themselves make up an excellent trio of birding trails. Centered around several national wildlife refuges in southeastern North Dakota, they take in some of the most beautiful and bird-rich prairies and marshes anywhere. The abundance of birds here in summer may be a shock when you see it for the first time. There are ducks on every pothole and pond, often including pintails, gadwalls, teal, canvasbacks, and many more. Clouds of Franklin’s gulls, patterned with black hoods and frosted wingtips, circle and soar over marshes a thousand miles from the coast, firmly putting the term seagull to rest. Western grebes splash noisily across open lakes in fast-moving courtship dances. At the same time more sedate Wilson’s phalaropes pirouette on smaller ponds. The area also holds elusive grassland species that are prize finds for traveling birders: Nelson’s sharp-tailed, Baird’s, and Le Conte’s sparrows all sing from the tops of weed stalks, while Sprague’s pipits pour out their liquid songs as they flutter high above the swaying grasslands. For more information, visit Birding Drives Dakota or call 888-921-2473.
Hocking Valley Birding Trail, Ohio: Mention of Ohio may evoke images of flatland and farms, but take a trip through Hocking Hills in the state’s southeastern quadrant, and prepare to be surprised. Here steep cliffs tower above clear rushing streams and waterfalls, hemlocks stand tall in rocky glens, and profusions of ferns grow in the shadows of forested ravines. Birding is good all year here, with permanent residents like pileated woodpeckers and barred owls lurking in the dense forests and red-headed woodpeckers drumming in the open oak groves. Still, summer is the most exciting season, because the mix of habitats supports such a wide variety of nesting birds. In the cool shade of the conifers in narrow canyons, many birds typical of Canadian zones have southern outposts, and you may find hermit thrushes, Canada warblers, blue-headed vireos, and others. Just a few miles away, in swamps and sycamore groves along the larger rivers, you can see many birds of southern affinities: the yellow-throated vireo, with its rich colors and husky voice, and the beautiful cerulean warbler, patterned in sky-blue and white—a declining species that may be more common here than anywhere else. For more information, visit Hocking Valley Birding Trail or call 740-385-8003.
South Dakota Great Lakes Birding Trail: The first birders to follow this trail were Lewis and Clark, journeying up the Missouri River in 1804. They wouldn’t have called it a “great lakes” trail then—the name comes from three large reservoirs behind modern dams on today’s river. Other aspects of the landscape have changed as well, but it is still rich with habitats. East meets west here, with eastern bluebirds and western meadowlarks singing alongside the same fields, and eastern and western kingbirds nesting in the same cottonwood groves. Visitors from afar may be most fascinated in the grasslands. Marbled godwits, big cinnamon-tinged sandpipers, nest around prairie marshes in summer, sharing the skies with colorful little chestnut-collared longspurs and an array of other open-country species. Local birders are more likely to check out the reservoirs’ edges, especially during migration, when rare water birds may drop in. On the Missouri’s undammed stretches, piping plovers and dainty least terns nest on the sandbars, while many other shorebirds stop over on migration. Search along this trail’s byways and you’ll agree that the area remains, even two centuries after the first explorers, a fabulous region for discovery. For more information, download the South Dakota Great Lakes Birding Booklet or call 800-732-5682.
Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail: Read the slogans and you might not associate this state with anything but dairy farms and cheese. But by looking through their binoculars, birders will see that Wisconsin is a microcosm of the entire Midwest. Typical habitats and birds from all compass points are represented among this statewide birding trail’s 368 sites. To explore the spruce and pine forests in the trail’s northern section is to evoke an ineffable sense of the great north woods, and you might find nesting pine siskins, boreal chickadees, or northern saw-whet owls. A full complement of eastern North America’s woodland birds may be found in eastern Wisconsin’s hardwood forests, with everything from ruffed grouse to tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers. The central region’s damp meadows are the places to hear the chatter of fidgeting sedge wrens by day and the bubbly aerial flight songs of American woodcocks at dusk. The edge of Lake Michigan produces concentrations of migrating hawks and songbirds plus a chance to see rare water birds. Great flocks of ducks and geese gather on small lakes in the state’s interior. For more information, visit the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail or call the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at 608-266-0545.
Great River Birding Trail: America’s greatest river is the centerpiece of this ambitious birding trail, designed by National Audubon to follow the mighty Mississippi all the way from its headwaters near the Canadian border to its delta on the Gulf of Mexico. When completed, the trail will include county-level maps of birding sites all along the river’s course, with the Midwest portion covering parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. Appropriately, many of the birding highlights along this section of the big river involve large birds. In summer great blue herons and other long-legged waders are common. Migration seasons bring a surge of snow geese, Canada geese, and other waterfowl. Midwestern populations of American white pelicans have been increasing, and flocks of these huge birds now follow the river in spring and fall, pausing on backwaters or wheeling in ponderous flight overhead. In the cold months, much of the Upper Mississippi Valley becomes a major wintering area for bald eagles, as these magnificent birds gather around the river’s locks and dams. You may find dozens together in some locales, a spectacle that has inspired several towns and cities to establish eagle festivals. For more information, visit the Great River Birding Trail.