Bird-watching is an appealing hobby because you can do it anywhere and you don’t need special equipment. In fact, one of my favorite birding destinations isn’t a destination at all. As long as I’m a passenger, I love birding on the open road.
I’m especially fond of backseat or shotgun-seat birding in winter. You can visit some diverse birding sites in a hurry, and when you find birds, you’ve also got a built-in blind—and a heated blind, at that! So hop in the car, truck or van and let’s go find some birds.
Farmers’ fields are expansive and look quite barren in the winter, but on closer inspection you’ll usually spot thriving birdlife. Scanning the field with your binoculars will often reveal flocks of horned larks flashing black tail feathers that contrast with their light bodies. Occasionally you might find a pipit or a longspur flying along, too.
In cold weather, two unique snowbirds can sometimes be spotted in these plowed fields. Strikingly patterned flocks of snow buntings can be seen as far south as the plains of Colorado. And if you ever think you see a plastic grocery bag hung up on some corn stubble, look twice: There just might be a snowy owl looking back at you.
Prairies and Grasslands
I have a little confession to make: Sometimes I do some birding even when I’m driving. (No, I am not recommending this!) For me, Western road trips aren’t measured in miles but in black-billed magpies and American kestrels perched along the way.
I grew up in northern Wyoming, where the first sign of winter wasn’t a snowflake. It was the first rough-legged hawk I’d spot from Interstate 90.
You can often see raptors soaring high above the roadway, or those and other birds perched along fences and electric lines. Take a look along your drive, but don’t fret if you can’t always identify the birds. When you’re in the driver’s seat, it’s better to focus on the 18-wheelers zooming past than on even the most intriguing bird.
One of the most memorable bird encounters of my life happened while I was in my car. The first roadrunner I ever saw was perched in a tree. From there, it glided down and ran along the road right beside my vehicle.
Another bird to look for along desert roadsides is Gambel’s quail, which will often scurry along the side of the road, too. And it’s not just birds you’ll spot when you get off the beaten path. Look for javelina (similar to pigs, but in the desert), lizards and other critters. You can often get a better look at them along the road than when hiking.
Cattail marshes and open water are easy to scan from your vehicle. I’ve been known to stand on the door frame of my little car to get a better view of the scene. It’s not hard to get a panoramic view that lets you scope out ducks, herons, blackbirds and more. You might even spot a rail slinking along the shoreline.
Many National Wildlife Refuges have begun to embrace the concept of car birding. Auto tour routes are often near wetlands and can provide access to parts of the preserve that are more sensitive to human encroachment. Having visitors stay in their cars can minimize the disturbance. Car routes are also ideal for folks with limited mobility.
While summers at the coast are crammed with sunbathers, winters are packed with birds. I’ve spent many days car birding on the Ocean City, Maryland, inlet, where I marveled at the birds as the winter winds whipped and the surf pounded. The bobbing of brant, scoters, scaup and long-tailed ducks in the waves nearly made me seasick, but I stayed as cozy as could be in my truck.
Bird-watching on the shores of Lake Erie and Lake Michigan has always reminded me of oceanfront birding. So many species of gulls show up in the winter that I’m always thumbing through my field guide trying to ID them. This is something I’d be far less cheerful about doing if I didn’t have a cup holder for my coffee or if my fingers were numb from the wind chill.
True, many lots attract a limited variety of species, mostly gulls and house sparrows. But there are some real gems in surprising locations. Even if you’re just at the supermarket, get in the habit of taking a quick look around before you jump out of the car. You’ll be rewarded with birds that you’d miss otherwise.
Parking lots in rest areas can be real treasures. Often planted with the only trees for miles around, they provide shade for weary travelers as well as shelter for birds. Even a quick stop can be an exciting snapshot of the species of the region.
From city parks to backcountry byways, your vehicle can provide a bit of comfort and shelter for your next birding experience. You can pass the time by watching for birds while you zoom by, or you can get up close as you use your car as a mobile bird blind. Either way, you’ll be rewarded with great birding on the go.
THE ROAD GOES ON FOREVER
Car birding can be easier than exploring on foot. Here are a few ways to get involved in conservation efforts without ever leaving your vehicle.
Birdathons – These fundraising events rely heavily on car birding. To get thorough coverage, teams usually take to the road for at least part of the day. Look for one in your area.
Big Days – Big Day bird count efforts are designed to maximize coverage and minimize wasted time. Routes are meticulously planned, and truly hard-core teams barely slow down as they cross species off their day lists.
Birding Trails – Pioneered in Texas in the mid-’90s, birding trails are catching on around the country. These designated byways connect networks of birding hot spots. The roadways themselves are often just as rich with birds as the parks and nature centers they connect.
Photo: OB Rijnen/Minden Pictures