When it comes to winter birding, you have two options: Embrace the cold weather or avoid it entirely. For a full dose of winter birding in crisp temperatures, Sax-Zim Bog, northwest of Duluth, Minnesota, is the place to be. You might not tally more than 50 species during your visit, but the unique birds you will find, including snowy owls, great gray owls and northern hawk owls, will more than make up for it.
If you’d rather migrate south like the birds, try Florida or the desert southwest. Birding locations in these areas are almost as abundant as the birds themselves. Florida’s Everglades National Park, J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the first National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Island, are ideal destinations for water birds such as the roseate spoonbill and the sanderling.
In the Southwest, some of my favorite places for winter birding are Saguaro National Park in Arizona, home to vermilion flycatchers, and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.
Really get in the spirit of winter birding with the Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running citizenscience project in the world. This partnership among the National Audubon Society, Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology began in 1900. Now there are nearly 2,500 count circles each winter.
Whatever you do, don’t step outside in spring without binoculars. Spring is the best season for migration, and one of the earliest migrations is the most spectacular. In March, more than 500,000 sandhill cranes, along with ducks and geese, congregate along the Platte River in central Nebraska. It might not feel like spring behind the bird blind, though; temperatures often dip below freezing, so bundle up for this incredible experience.
Watching a concentration of spring migrants, you’ll feel as if you’ve won the birding jackpot. Dozens of songbird species refuel along the coast in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi after making the nonstop flight over the Gulf of Mexico. Northwest Ohio has birds galore, especially warblers, which cluster on the southern shore of Lake Erie before moving north.
Even if you can’t go far this spring, you can search for the migrating birds that come your way. Hit your local park; scope out your neighborhood. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see birds on the move. I’ve nearly been late for work because I couldn’t tear myself away from the constant movement of migratory birds flitting through the trees in my own backyard. One spring, I spotted magnolia, black-and-white, Canada and yellow-rumped warblers in a single flock.
A trip to a classic vacation destination can easily turn into a unique bird-watching opportunity. The western mountain national parks, including Glacier in Montana, Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming, and Rocky Mountain in Colorado, are great places to see highelevation species. Look for red-naped sapsuckers and black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers while you hike through the forests. Keep an eye out along mountain stream rapids in case an American dipper is bobbling along with you.
Prefer the coasts? National wildlife refuges dot the Pacific and Atlantic shorelines like pearls on a necklace. You can explore urban nature habitats, including San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge in California and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, by bicycle.
The Midwest is the ideal region for fall. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in central Kansas are legendary stopover locations for shorebirds, ducks and geese, which gather by the thousands. These areas also see the occasional whooping crane. And don’t forget the Mississippi River, which is like an interstate highway for birds in fall.
To see birds against a vibrant backdrop of fall color, head to Acadia National Park in Maine or the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Or follow migrants down the Atlantic Coast to Cape May in New Jersey and Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia. An array of migrants, from piping plovers to peregrine falcons, move south along the East Coast all autumn.
Whether you tally the birds visiting your feeder or explore the back roads of the count circle, make your local Christmas Bird Count a yearly tradition. One of my favorite memories was spotting a pine grosbeak while snowshoeing in Wyoming for a Christmas Bird Count. What a great end to a year of bird-watching!
TOP BIRDING DESTINATIONS
Visit these locations when the bird-watching is at its finest.
Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota
Platte River, Nebraska
Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Magee Marsh, Ohio
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Denali National Park, Alaska
Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin
Acadia National Park, Maine
Rio Grande Valley, Texas
A local Christmas Bird Count