Great Refuges for Birding
For birding destinations, you can’t beat national wildlife refuges. Refuges’ concentration along the country’s four main flyways — Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific – make them natural bird magnets. Some refuges have been designated Important Birding Areas − sites that provide essential habitat for one or more bird species − by the National Audubon Society.
When the coming of spring and fall fill the flyways with birds, that’s a great time to follow. Stop en route to take in a refuge bird festival, often timed to coincide with the seasonal arrivals of migrating birds.
Which refuges are best for birding? The answer may depend on where you live and what birds you like to see. But you can’t go wrong with these:
Northwest and Pacific
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in southeast Oregon, hosts more than 320 bird species, including American white pelicans, snow geese and tundra swans. Its location on the Pacific Flyway and its abundant water and food attract both resident and migratory birds.
Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, NM, thrills birders in late fall and winter when sandhill cranes, snow geese and Arctic geese arrive by the tens of thousands. At dawn, hushed visitors gather to watch geese and cranes lift off as one from their marsh roosts. At dusk, visitors gather to watch the birds return. The annual Festival of the Cranes (this year’s event is November 19-24, 2013) features many birding tours, talks and wildlife experiences for all levels of experience.
Hundreds of bird species, migrating to and from Central and South America, funnel through Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern tip of Texas, making this Central Flyway starting point one of North America’s most biologically diverse regions. Many bird species also reach their northernmost range here along the Rio Grande.
More than 250,000 ducks use the refuge in peak season in November; an estimated 80 percent of the North American population of redhead ducks winter in the area. The refuge is a vital stopover for migrating neotropical songbirds, such as painted buntings, Bullock’s oriole and various warblers and hummingbirds. The refuge is also well known for its raptors, including migrating peregrine falcons in the spring and fall. The once-rare aplomado falcon can be seen hunting the refuge’s grasslands.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, TX, on the southernmost stretch of the Rio Grande, is a top birding destination, home to species such as green jays, chachalacas and great kiskadees. The refuge is important habitat for birds from the Central and Mississippi flyways that funnel through the area on their way to and from Central and South America. Other bird species, like the groove-billed ani, reach the northern limit of their range in this area.
Hundreds of thousands of migrating raptors − including broadwing hawks, northern harriers and peregrine falcons − fly over the refuge in spring and fall. Santa Ana Refuge’s rarest raptors, the hook-billed kite and gray hawk, are seen occasionally. Abundant spring warblers include: golden-winged warbler, magnolia warbler, northern and tropical parula, American redstart, palm warbler and yellow-breasted chat.
An ebird Trail Tracker station shows visitors what birds are being seen when and where.
Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, MN, provides habitat for migratory birds including trumpeter swans. In the late 1880s, trumpeter swans disappeared from Minnesota. In 1987, the refuge teamed up with the state to restore these magnificent birds. Today, more than 30 pairs nest on the refuge. April through October is the best time to see them. The refuge also provides vital breeding habitat for golden-winged warblers, declining throughout their range.
Florida Keys Refuges: Key West, National Key Deer, Great White Heron and Crocodile Lake Refuge provide critical nesting, feeding and resting areas for more than 250 species of birds in south Florida. Among them: great white herons, mangrove cuckoos, Antillean nighthawks, gray kingbirds.
J.N. ‘Ding Darling’ National Wildlife Refuge, on popular Sanibel Island in south Florida, hosts large numbers of colorful wading birds, such as roseate spoonbills, pelicans, wood storks, white ibis and snowy egrets. Shorebirds such as Wilson’s plovers, American oyster catchers, and black-necked stilts also are drawn to the refuge mudflats. Other species seen in abundance include red-shouldered hawks and osprey. Spring and fall migrations bring eastern flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, orioles and buntings.
The Scrub Ridge and Pine Flatwoods trails offer your best bets for seeing the Florida scrub jay, a species found only in Florida. The Oak Hammock and Palm Hammock trails provide great viewing for a variety of songbirds and raptors. Two other hiking trails − Cruickshank and Wild Birds trail − provide wildlife viewing platforms and photography blinds.
The legendary Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Georgia and northern Florida, is one of America’s oldest and best preserved freshwater systems. The ‘Land of the Trembling Earth,’ as Native Americans called the Okefenokee Swamp, provides cypress, marsh, lake and island habitat for many bird species. Wading birds, such as herons, egrets, sandhill cranes, ibises and wood storks, abound. Other birds found here include red-cockaded woodpeckers, osprey and prothonotary warblers.
Migrating and wintering waterfowl flock to Bombay Hook Refuge each fall. Common species include northern pintail, American black ducks, green-winged teal, Canada geese and snow geese. The refuge’s vast expanse of tidal salt marsh is home to many species of conservation concern, such as American black ducks, salt marsh sparrows and sharp-tailed sparrows.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, off the coast of Cape Cod, MA, provides important resting, nesting and feeding habitat for migratory birds, including the federally protected piping plover and roseate tern. More than 10 species of seabirds, shorebirds and waterbirds nest on the islands. The refuge also supports the second largest nesting colony of common terns on the Atlantic seaboard with more than 8,000 nesting pairs.
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, MA, provides prime Atlantic coast habitat for more than 300 species of birds. Hundreds of migratory shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds use its salt marsh and freshwater impoundments. In spring, warblers migrate through the refuge, and American woodcock begin their showy mating rituals. In summer, federally threatened piping plovers and state endangered least tern nest on refuge beaches. In late summer, tens of thousands of tree swallows gorge on bayberries. Shorebird migration begins in July, with numbers peaking in August.
Waterfowl and songbird migration peak in the fall. Peregrine falcons can be seen on the refuge from mid-September through November. In winter, the snowy owl returns. Rough legged hawk and short eared owls can also be seen. Loons, grebes, scoters, and other waterfowl winter along the refuge shore.
Shorebird migration peaks in mid-August, when avocets and stilts congregate and numbers of dabbling ducks like cinnamon teal, green-winged teal and northern shoveler start to build. Large flocks of snowy egret and white-faced ibis feed in the shallows and along shorelines.
In late March, waterfowl migration peaks, with as many as 440,000 ducks. April sees the arrival of many colonial waterbirds such as great blue heron, snowy egret, cattle egret, black-crowned night heron, and white-faced ibis.
Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole region, provides breeding and resting habitat for more than 293 bird species. One of two wilderness refuges in North Dakota, Chase Lake Refuge has been designated one of America’s Top 100 Globally Important Bird Areas (IBA) by the American Bird Conservancy. The refuge was established in 1908 primarily to protect the native American white pelican, then threatened by hunting. The refuge is great for viewing grassland birds.
Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, ND, has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. The refuge provides breeding habitat for the Great Plains population of the threatened piping plover. Many declining grassland-associated bird species, such as Baird’s sparrow, benefit from the refuge’s intensive grassland management programs.
Waterfowl and other water-dependent birds found here in abundance include blue-winged teal, mallard, gadwall, widgeon and lesser scaup. Grassland birds include Baird’s, savannah, and grasshopper sparrows; upland sandpiper; and Sprague’s pipit. In early spring, sharp-tailed grouse stage elaborate courtship rituals. Northern harriers, or marsh hawks, drift low over the prairie in search of meadow mice. Giant Canada geese, once thought to be extinct, were reintroduced on the refuge in 1964 and nest on the prairie.
Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the world’s largest collections of water birds. Each spring, a spectacle unfolds as millions of migratory ducks, geese and other water birds return to the refuge to nest. The refuge also supports one of the most important shorebird nesting areas in the United States. Summer residents include emperor geese, trumpeter swans, tundra swans, puffins and arctic terns.
Each winter, waterfowl throng here, with numbers ranging between 45,000 and 75,000. More than 500,000 wintering shorebirds meanwhile use refuge mud flats and salt ponds. Great ‘rafts’ of surf scoters, lesser scaups, ruddy ducks and bufflehead float along the bay, while flocks of eared grebes drift in nearby salt ponds. With luck, you may see a golden eagle soaring overhead.
Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, in the southwesternmost corner of the contiguous United States, maintains key habitats for many migrating shorebirds and waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway. More than 370 species of birds have been sighted on the refuge, designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy.
Within the refuge, one of southern California’s largest remaining salt marshes without a road or railroad trestle running through it provides critical habitat for the federally listed endangered California least tern, light-footed clapper rail and least Bell’s vireo. The western snowy plover, a threatened species, is a year round resident and nests on refuge beaches.