The Best Places for Birdwatching in the United States
It's one of the most captivating phenomenons in the world: Without any sort of help, more than 5,000 species of birds manage to leave their nests and fly hundreds of miles southward to a new home each winter—some will even cross oceans and travel thousands of miles to reach warmer climates. Majestic songbirds, gamebirds, and even mighty birds of prey will make pit stops along their journey, giving us the chance to see some of the finest species in the wild each and every year.
Birds use clues in their surroundings to prepare for migration each year, but they rely on far more than just the shift in temperature; they gauge their food supply, wind patterns, and barometric pressure before taking off. According to Erik Johnson, the director of bird conservation at Audubon Louisiana, birds spend upwards of two months traveling across the United States towards different directions. Some will head to the northern tip of South America while others will make a beeline for tropical settings in the Caribbean or in Central America. In the spring, birds instinctively know to return to their natural nesting grounds, and they make the trip back in less than a month. Since some birds can travel from points as far as northern Canada, states along the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, and the Southeastern Atlantic coasts often play temporary host to many new birds each winter.
Each bird migrates differently, Johnson says. "Ducks, for example, are social creatures and they'll migrate together in large groups," he explains. But songbirds, like the Prothonotary Warbler, which travels from the Rocky Mountain range down to Central America, will migrate as individuals, taking advantage of weather conditions that better facilitate their trip.
Here, with the help of professionals from National Audubon Society, we're highlighting migration hotspots where birds travel for the winter season—or, in certain cases, as a stopover on their journey. We're sharing everything you need to know about the most common migrating birds, including tips for how you can spot unique species in the wild.
Cape May, New Jersey
Located on the shoreline of the Garden State, Cape May is a highly frequented migratory stopover site for birds headed south in the winter and those returning home come spring. Birds in the Northeast region often tend to flock to coastal regions during migratory seasons; Johnson says that most birds won't travel over open water unless absolutely necessary. In Cape May, visitors can spot up to 20 species of warblers, common songbirds that breed across the United States during the summer season. You can also spot shorebirds, waterbirds, hawks, and owls. In the water, you might spot Surf Scoters and black scoters, two different variations of sea ducks that travel to Central and South America in droves. Audubon experts say that visitors can spot these birds in spring and in late fall—visit the Cape May Hawkwatch, where you can watch as thousands of birds of prey travel in flocks in September and October.
Louisiana plays an important part to birds that are crossing the Gulf of Mexico. In the spring, however, the Peveto Woods Audubon Sanctuary in Cameron is a refuge for exhausted northbound birds who have just braved the open sea. More than two million songbirds rest here beginning in mid-March, with visitors peaking in late April before tapering off in May. Strong headwinds often force birds like Cerulean Warblers and Orchard Orioles to seek out the sanctuary in the spring, but you can spot some birds in the fall as well, with different species like the Vermillion Flycatcher and the Great Kiskadee making a pitstop here. These woodlands provide a home to a wider amount of wildlife, too, including monarch butterflies and other pollinators.
If you're a fan of the Sandhill Crane, which are often found in coastal communities in the Southeast, experts at the National Audubon Society share that these majestic birds migrate north in awe-inspiring flocks in the spring. In mid-March, they land in the Platte River in south central Nebraska on their journey back north from the beaches of Florida and Texas. Hundreds of thousands of birds will spend time feeding and resting in the adjacent fields, and bird spotters can see them in droves at early dawn and dusk from the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. While you can catch a rare glimpse of the mass migration in March only—the Nebraska Crane Festival is held annually during this month—you can spot smaller packs of cranes from February through April.
The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a major stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail for any visitor, which is more than 2,000 miles long and highlights federally-protected bird habitats in the state. While some birds stop here for a rest on their journey south, Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a year-round home for Wood Storks, tucked away in the folds of Southwestern Florida. But storks aren't the only species you can see here anytime of the year: Guests include the rainbow-hued Painted Bunting, and other wading and predatory birds, including Bald Eagles.
Maine's coastline is a haven for a rare bird that is often associated with the Artic: the Atlantic Puffin. Nestled in the heart of Muscongus Bay, just outside of Damariscotta, Eastern Egg Rock is home to the world's first restored puffin colony thanks to Audubon's Project Puffin. During breeding season, from April to mid-August, the Atlantic Puffin comes in from the open ocean (where they hunt for fish throughout the majority of the year) and nest in full view on Eastern Egg.
San Francisco, California
According to the National Park Service, more than 50 percent of all species of birds in North America visit the Point Reyes National Seashore park just outside of San Francisco throughout the year. From California Quail to the Chestnut-backed Chickadee and multiple varieties of woodpeckers, this site of largely untouched sanctuaries, estuaries, grasslands, and coastal scrub is the biggest span of land on this list for visitors to view all kinds of wildlife in any season. Audubon recommends more than just Point Reyes for diehard bird fans—here's their guide to bird watching in the state of California.
Situated halfway between Tucson and El Paso, the Chiricahua Mountains are very important to a few bird species that live year-round in Mexico, including the Elegant Trogon, Whiskered Screech-Owl, and the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Known as the "sky island" mountain range to experts, these species don't breed anywhere else but in this particularly arid climate. You'll catch birds migrate here in the summer and can expect them to return to Central America come September; a short commute of sorts.
If you've ever visited Big Bend National Park, just west of San Antonio, you may have heard of the Colima Warbler, which is one of the park's top attractions for conservationists and tourists alike. You can also spot woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, and the painted American Redstart bird, which often stops in Texas for a break before heading towards the northern areas of South America. Big Bend is made up of woodlands, rivers, and other spectacular floral blooms, but birds can only be found in the region during mid-April and May before temperatures become unbearable in June and July.
Prothonotary Warblers are some of the most alluring songbirds in North America, and you'd be hard pressed not to find one in the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in the springtime. Nestled on the southern shores of Lake Erie, northbound birds—which spend their winters in Central America—stop to rest here before continuing their journey to Canada. In the summer and fall, you can find swans and other waterfowl in the lush natural environment, and may even spot the rare Yellow-Headed Blackbird.
Great Bend, Kansas
Considered to be the largest marsh in the interior of the United States by Audubon staff, the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Management Area is a hub for migrating birds in the Western Hemisphere. Up to 90 percent of the entire population of certain shorebird species come here to rest, including the Piping Plover, which stops in Kansas as it makes its way toward the Gulf of Mexico. With more than 134 species that breed and nest in this area, there are permanent residents that you can spot year round. If you wish to see the widest variety of birds, know that peak season for a variety of birds ranges from early May through late September.