National Wildlife Refuge System

For the Pros


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The National Wildlife Refuge System Birding Team has identified dozens of ways refuges and other public outdoor places can work with birders to enhance their visit, contribute to citizen science projects and promote bird conservation.

The 20 features below have been identified by birders as important to making their visit to refuges more enjoyable and productive. Not all components will be appropriate for all refuges, but this list provides a starting point for staff, Friends and volunteers to address the unique needs of birders. High priority items are in italics.

  1. Bird checklist
    An up-to-date bird checklist is extremely important to birders and should always be available at the visitor center, entrance kiosks, and/or on Web sites. There are three kinds of checklists:
    • the Service standard checklist that many refuges already use,
    • a shortened guide with pictures of common or specialty birds (good for casual or beginning birders), or descriptions of where to find birds on the refuge, and
    • several refuges are pioneering bar-graph formats (avid birder preference)

    J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL, provides visitors with a Common Bird Identification Guide. Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, OR, also offers a pictoral guide.

  2. Public Use Facilities for birding
    Birders appreciate safe, well-maintained towers, boardwalks, blinds and structures which allow for vistas not otherwise available. Well-planned visitor facilities direct visitors to appropriate areas, provide protection from the elements, and may minimize wildlife disturbance.
  3. After-hours contact point
    When the visitor center is closed, or if one is not available, an information kiosk at the refuge entrance, fee booth or outside the visitor center is essential to communicate important information for all visitors (rules and regulations, hours of operation, emergency contacts). Birders appreciate copies of: a bird checklist, maps, sightings list, and, if available, a refuge birdfinding guide. (See #1 & #14.)
  4. Clearly state/publicize why areas are closed (nesting, hunting, management, etc.)
    Birders want to know why they cannot enter a particular part of the refuge. If they know the reason, they will be more likely to be supportive of the refuge goals. Mention comparable alternate sites that are open and available.

On-site programs and activities

  1. Offer bird walks for families, school groups, etc.
    To introduce the next generation to birding and bird conservation, refuges can work with Friends, volunteers, or local bird clubs to schedule walks for families and schools groups. Consider loan programs (see #8). Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA, produced a Junior Birder Activity Booklet.
  2. Active bird feeing station at the visitor center
    Feeding stations - appropriately maintained and with accompanying interpretation - are an ideal introductory feature at almost any refuge. These will often attract species that are less visible to inexperienced visitors (e.g., quail, thrashers, towhees, and sparrows) and provide an opportunity for interpretation.
  3. Identify ways that adult visitors, birders, and kids can contribute to conservation efforts
    Any real contributions - at all levels of complexity - are important. These can be helping staff in avian inventory and monitoring (in harmony with the Comprehensive Conservation Plan); involving volunteers in citizen science projects; removing invasives; or as simple as buying and promoting the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation (Federal Duck) Stamp.
  4. Optics and field guide loan program
    Loan programs including both binoculars and bird guides should be considered. This is particularly helpful for family groups (see #5). This can be excellent when done in conjunction with a local specialty checklist (see #1) and a refuge birdfinding guide (See # 14). Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex lends Stuart Keebler Memorial Backpacks filled with birding supplies.
  5. Identify local birder resources
    The community, region, or state will probably have a set of bird-oriented organizations or networks with which to partner on specific projects. They might be the local bird club or Audubon society, the regional listserv (see #18), or even a bird observatory. A list of local birding resources for visiting birders should be made available, i.e., rare bird alerts, schedule of bird club meetings, schedule of local bird club field trips, etc.
  6. Have field guides, other books, and other birding tools available to buy at the refuge
    If there is a visitor center shop, appropriate bird-oriented books and tools should be available. (See also #1 and #8.)
  7. Nest-box program (multi-species) involving volunteer stewards
    Many refuges build nest-boxes for wood ducks and bluebirds. These are wonderful for volunteer involvement as long as there is a commitment to long-term monitoring/care. (This can also involve citizen science in #7 above.) Nest-boxes for other species (e.g., prothonotary warblers in the Southeast, American kestrels in the Northeast or burrowing owls in the West) can also make real contributions to species involved.
  8. Birding information podcasts
    Podcast mini-tours are great ways to highlight birding opportunities (including bird sounds) and can be spin-offs of the refuge birdfinding guides (see #14). They are easier to create than many people think. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, NC, has developed a podcast and instructions to make your own.


  1. Current, accurate information on refuge Web site
    Many birders plan their visits using the internet and appreciate an easily-found checklist, refuge map, and location/directions. Seasonal bird-highlights on the website are a bonus.
  2. "Birdfinding Guide to Your Refuge"
    Develop a three- or four-page summary of exactly where to go on the refuge to observe bird concentrations, specialties, or other highlights. Seasonal hints, combined with specific directions, will give the visitor the best information on how to maximize the birding visit. The guide should incorporate a map and supplement the refuge checklist. (See also related podcasts in #12.) Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, TX, and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, NJ, have produced such guides. John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, PA, has produced a basic guide to birding.
  3. Refuge Friends group which embraces birding elements
    An engaged Friends group can provide funding, volunteer, and partnership support to local and visiting birders, implement conservation projects, and work with communities to enhance facilities for birders. Recruiting birders for board or committee positions may be an effective way to establish relationships with the birding community. Friends-operated stores may carry birding supplies (see #10) and/or operate optics/field-guide loan programs (see #8).
  4. Active participation in birding trails and Scenic Byways
    Many refuges are on birding-trail routes in over 20 states, but don't necessarily get the full exposure they deserve. The idea is to raise the profile of the refuge in the context of the route. The same goes for increasingly important Scenic Byways.
  5. Participate in bird-related "Celebration Days"
    Every opportunity to broaden the exposure of the refuge during a particular celebration is important. Such events could include a Christmas Bird Count, International Migratory Bird Day (in May), The Big Sit! (in conjunction with Refuge Week), or local birding/nature festivals.
  6. Refuge staff visibility to birder groups
    Staff should be engaged with and recognized by local birder groups at their meetings, conferences, and events. Visibility through the state- or region-based listserv (reporting on local bird sightings) is also very important. (See #9)
  7. Promote refuges that are particularly good for beginners.
    All refuges can be great to learn about birds, but some may seem better for beginners than others (e.g., J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL, where the long-legged waders are easily observed). Often, waterfowl in numbers and near existing public use facilities can provide the same kinds of close study and identification for visitors.
  8. Publicize refuges that are Important Bird Areas, WHSRN sites, etc.
    The special status of refuges - Important Bird Areas (IBAs), Western Hemisphere Reserve Network (WHSRN) sites, Ramsar sites, and other classifications -- should be highlighted and celebrated.

Click here for view the Birder Friendly Refuge Checklist in pdf format.

Last updated: October 28, 2010