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.
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).