National Wildlife Refuge System
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A lazuli bunting shows off its vivid blue and orange colors at the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex in California and Oregon.
A lazuli bunting shows off its vivid blue and orange colors at the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex in California and Oregon.
Credit: Dave Menke, USFWS
In spring songbird season, birders like to spot the colorful Western tanager in and around Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California.
In spring songbird season, birders like to spot the colorful Western tanager in and around Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California.
Credit: Dave Menke, USFWS

Grab Your Binoculars — It's Songbird Season

They’re baaaaack — or at least en route. Migratory songbirds are returning from their winter sojourns in Latin America and the Caribbean, and some of the best places to see and hear them are National Wildlife Refuges.

In the southern United States, April is the peak month to spot songbirds heading north as the days lengthen and the earth warms; in the northern states, prime viewing time is May. Land–based migrants, the returning birds include such songsters as warblers, vireos, tanagers, kingbirds, flycatchers, sparrows and orioles.

Seasonal bird migration is one of the wonders of nature. Most songbirds migrate at night, flying thousands of miles above the earth’s surface before making land at dawn to refuel and rest before continuing on their way. They tend to fly in waves and feed in mixed groups on insects, seeds, berries and fruit. Spotting them can take patience; waves may not come through daily. But the effort is rewarding because of the birds' colorful plumage and distinctive songs.

Some refuges, such as Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (http://www.fws.gov/midwest/minnesotavalley/) and Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in New York (http://www.fws.gov/northeast/iroquois/), offer guided bird walks to coincide with spring migration. Minnesota Valley Refuge’s bird walks take place each Saturday in April from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Two of Iroquois Refuge's warbler walks are set for Saturday, May 1, 8:00 to 11:00 a.m. and Sunday, May 2, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.

Among other refuges to see migratory songbirds:

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama:  Look for Carolina wrens, ruby–crowned kinglets and Eastern bluebirds. http://www.fws.gov/wheeler or 256-353-7243

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio: Look for warblers (some 37 species use the refuge), red–winged blackbirds and others in late April and early May. http://midwest.fws.gov/ottawa/ or 419-898-0014

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas:  Migrating birds, including many than cannot be seen elsewhere in the country, funnel here through the southern tip of Texas where the Mississippi and Central flyways converge. Look for buntings (blue, indigo and painted) and warblers. http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/STRC/laguna/Index_Laguna.html or 956-748-3607

Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, California:  Look for warblers (including yellow warblers, Nashville warblers, yellow rump warblers, and Wilson’s warblers), Bullock's orioles, vireos, Lazuli buntings and Western tanagers. http://klamathbasinrefuges.fws.gov/tulelake/tulelake.html or 530-667-2231

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia:  Look for warblers and other families of songbirds from April through June. http://www.fws.gov/northeast/greatdismalswamp/ or 757-986-3705

Walkill River National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey:  Look for warblers, indigo buntings, tanagers, Eastern meadowlarks and others. The action starts in April and picks up in May. http://wallkillriver.fws.gov/ or 973-702-7266

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, West Virginia:  Look for yellow warblers, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings and others. http://canaanvalley.fws.gov/ or 304-866-3858

Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota:  Look for Eastern bluebirds, which nest on the refuge, and a variety of warblers and sparrows. http://arrowwood.fws.gov/ or 701-285-3341

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington: Look for kinglets, warblers and others. http://www.fws.gov/ridgefieldrefuges/ridgefield/ or 360-887-3883

If none of these refuges is close by, take heart. Returning songbirds will cover most of the country, and you’re likely to find some at a refuge near you. Migrating shorebirds and waterfowl can also be seen on many refuges in the spring.

Refuges that are hot spots for viewing shorebirds include Blackwater and Bombay Hook on the East Coast, Sand Lake in South Dakota and Tijuana Slough in California. Refuges great for viewing migratory waterfowl include Sacramento and Upper Mississippi.

To learn more about the conservation of migratory birds in the National Wildlife Refuge System, visit http://www.fws.gov/refuges/whm/migratorybirds.html.

Many refuge visitor centers offer free guides to viewing birds; some also lend binoculars and a copy of bird expert Kenn Kaufman’s book, "Birds of North America." For a highly readable and well–respected book on bird migration, check out from the library Scott Weidensaul’s "Living on the Wind."


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