Sand Hill crane on San Luis National Widllife Refuge. Photo Credit: USFWS

Birding on Refuges

There are more than 700 species of birds on National Wildlife Refuges across our nation. More than 200 refuges were created specifically to protect, manage and restore habitat for migratory birds.

You may find birding guides or checklists on individual refuge Web sites. The U.S. Geological Survey also keeps birding checklists for some refuges. A guide provides pictures and descriptions of birds; a checklist provides more detailed information, including the best time of year to see individual species.

In 2014, five national wildlife refuges earned places on a USA Today “10 best” list for bird-watching. Here's the story.

eBird Tracker

Birders: meet high-tech. eBird Tracker is a real-time, online checklist program enabling new and veteran birdwatchers to:
  • Record the birds you see
  • Keep track of your bird lists
  • Share your sightings and join the eBird community
  • Contribute to science and conservation
  • Explore dynamic maps and graphs

Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data on bird sightings. Many national wildlife refuges now have an eBird Trail Tracker kiosk where visitors can check which birds are currently being seen in the area, learn more about those birds and add their own sightings. You may also post observations on the national eBird site here.

Here are a few refuges with eBird trackers in California and Nevada where you can post your own sightings and look for others.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, NV

Don Edwards-San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA

Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, CA

Merced National Wildlife Refuge, CA

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, CA

San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, CA

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, CA

And here are a few refuges highlighted as top birding locations outside of our region:

Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, NJ

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, TX

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, NJ

Red River National Wildlife Refuge, LA

J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL

Before You Go

Refuges vary in size, facilities, and hour/seasons of operation. Before you visit a national wildlife refuge for your birding trip, check its Web site or call to confirm the following information:


What amenities are available? Check on status of restrooms, trails, auto tour route, visitor center, observation decks, etc. Some facilities may be open or closed depending on the season, weather conditions or management needs.

Hours of operation

Most refuges are open during daylight hours. Some may open or close specific areas seasonally.

Special events or programs

There may be special events, tours, or activities taking place during your visit. Often they feature opportunities that aren't available normally.


Are you looking for a strenuous hike? A peaceful stroll? All-day birding extravaganza? Birding by boat? Just want to stretch your legs? When you talk to a volunteer or staff member, describe the kind of experience you're looking for.

Be prepared!

Some refuges have gas stations, convenience stores, and other amenities nearby. At others, you have to travel miles for basic services. In rural areas, hours of operation may be more limited (for example, restaurants may be closed on Sunday or stores close earlier). Some refuges have staff or volunteers on site daily; others are not staffed at all. Be sure to have some of the basics with you before your trip:

  • Plenty of gas
  • Drinking water (you're more vulnerable in both hot and cold weather if you're dehydrated; bring more than you think you'll need.)
  • Insect repellent
  • Dress for the weather and know the forecast. Always have rain gear, an extra jacket or layer, and a hat regardless of the season.
  • Snacks, especially if traveling with children
  • Maps of the area and the refuge
  • First aid kit

Entrance and User Fees

Some refuges charge an entrance fee or user fees for special types of use. Duck Stamps, and interagency Annual, Senior, and Access Passes are accepted at all locations that charge an entrance fee.

Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (Duck Stamp)

Birders who frequently visit refuges may purchase a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp. It allows access to all national wildlife refuges that charge a fee and 98% of the proceeds go directly to purchasing and maintaining wildlife habitat. It's a birder's best opportunity to contribute directly to more lands and waters for wildlife.