Getting on the Trail of America's Birds

State agencies and private groups have mapped out driving routes for birding, providing new opportunities for families to see wildlife

  • Doug Stewart
  • May 01, 2006

MORE THAN 50 MILLION Americans now enjoy watching birds, from antic chickadees to patient, fish-stalking herons to slow-circling hawks. Nearly 20 million of these birders pursue their sport away from home, as opposed to just staking out a backyard feeder. In 2001, according to a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly 5 million people traveled to other states specifically for birding, the country’s fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation.

With Americans in ever greater numbers looking for birds to watch, it is no wonder that state agencies and private groups have decided to make it easier for them. In the past decade, some two dozen states have mapped out detailed long-distance routes known as birding trails. “Birding drives” might be a more apt term, since these are not walking paths but self-guided, point-to-point driving tours that cater to families’ growing thirst for wildlife-watching. The paths also boost local economies by attracting tourist dollars.

To green-minded purists, the whole notion of establishing motor routes for birders—which necessarily involve automobiles, asphalt, petroleum and exhaust—may seem a step in the wrong direction. But if birding trails boost car travel at all, it is imperceptible. “We’re not creating anything that didn’t already exist,” says the American Bird Conservancy’s Bob Altman, who helped organize Oregon’s new Cascades Birding Trail. “We’re not putting in new roads. People are already traveling. We just want them to broaden their experiences while they’re out here.”

Moreover, Altman says, designing a birding trail gives wildlife experts a chance to redirect where the public wanders. “In some fragile ecosystems, like alpine meadows and wetland bogs, we don’t want people tromping around and making new trails. These habitats can’t tolerate much in the way of a human presence.”

The first of these routes, the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, was established in 1995 and spans some 2,000 miles from Louisiana to the border with Mexico. Serious birders have flocked to the Texas gulf coast for generations to see the hundreds of avian species that live, gather or pass through there, ranging from waterfowl to Neotropical migrants, many of them rare in the United States. “Birders used to come to a handful of well-known sites along the coast, but there were spectacular sites in between that no one really knew about,” says Ted Eubanks, an Austin birder and tourism consultant who helped lay out the trail. “We said, ‘Let’s connect them. Let’s put them together in a trail.’” Among the off-the-beaten-path stops are Galveston’s Corps Woods, where springtime mulberries provide a haven for migrating indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers and rose-breasted grosbeaks, and Estero Llano Grande State Park in the Rio Grande Valley near McAllen, where ibis and wood storks consort in restored wetlands, and the rarer groove-billed ani and Altamira oriole can be spotted in thorn-scrub uplands.

Aided by federal transportation money—a trail is for travel, after all—Texas produced a series of large-scale, full-color birding maps and put up special road signs featuring a black skimmer in silhouette. “The idea is to let people make maximum use of their outdoor time when they’re bird-watching,” says Madge Lindsay, now director of Audubon Mississippi, who collaborated with Eubanks on the Texas trail. The target audience is not hardcore birders, the kind of folks who keep records of every species they have seen and hop a plane to add those they have missed. It is the casual nature lover, either a local or someone who just happens to be in Texas.

“If you’re on a business trip, and you take an extra day to go birding, it adds a lot of pleasure,” says Lindsay, a longtime birder who likens the colorful patterns and textures of a bird’s plumage to intricate works of fine art. “For people who have learned their own backyard birds and want to see new ones, this is another world to explore.”

Other states have quickly followed Texas’s lead (see "Ten Trails Worth a Trip" below). In most cases, birding trails highlight so-called portal species: large and easily identifiable fliers, perchers and swimmers—such as snow geese in Vermont and pelicans in Georgia—as well as such spectacular species as the sandhill crane in Nebraska, which gathers there in the tens of thousands during migration. “These are things you don’t need a 50-power scope to enjoy,” says Georgia wildlife biologist Terry Johnson, who helped set up his state’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail.

Just because these trails are mostly roads does not mean you are expected to bird-watch from your car seat. A trail’s designated stops are places to get out and walk, climb, canoe or bike, as the case may be. To be sure, birding trails often have sections that are handicapped-accessible, including roadside overlooks. “Actually, if you’re watching birds at wetland ponds, you sometimes see more if you stay in your car,” says Deborah Oberbillig, coordinator of the new Bitterroot Valley Birding and Nature Trail in Montana. “If you get out, you can scare the birds away. Your car becomes your viewing blind.”

Some birding trails exist only on paper or online. A map assigns known birding spots a number and highlights the roads connecting them. At the other, better-funded, extreme are trails with visitor centers that hand out free birding checklists and loan out binoculars.

Such centers typify parts of tourist-savvy Florida, which, like Texas, hosts a cornucopia of bird species, including seasonal migrants along both coasts. The Great Florida Birding Trail is something of a departure for the Sunshine State, which has traditionally lured tourists by creating artificial landscapes—theme parks and beach resorts. “The kind of people who are out on the birding trail,” says Mark Kiser, the trail’s manager, “are looking for what you might call the real Florida, the wild Florida, the way it was a long time ago.” The trail includes private as well as public land, and trail guides include details about any entrance fees and by-appointment-only sites. “We want to show people here that you don’t have to pave or drain a piece of property in order to make it profitable,” Kiser says.

Indeed, a second goal of birding trails, beyond bringing birds and birders together, is to induce visitors to spend some of their money nearby. A good birding-trail guide lists the kind of amenities for which birders are happy to open their wallets: camera and sporting-good stores, bed-and-breakfasts that offer predawn coffee and check outs, and restaurants that sell lunches packed to go. Birders in many ways make ideal tourists: They are quiet and go to bed early, yet they typically have plenty of money to spend. Florida tourism officials peg birding-related retail spending in the state at close to a half-billion dollars yearly.

“Birders don’t just bird,” says Jeff Trollinger, manager of Virginia’s Watchable Wildlife program. “After ten or ten-thirty in the morning, the birding kind of dies for the day.” At that point, you need something else to do. Why not visit a fort or a museum? The birding and wildlife trail that Trollinger manages in Virginia has a Civil War theme cleverly woven into it—the Appomattox Courthouse Loop, the Bull Run Loop and so on. “We designed the loops to keep tourists in a particular area for two to three days,” he says. This was a key selling point for local communities that might otherwise turn over undeveloped land to another Wal-Mart or subdivision.

Perhaps the most important benefit of creating birding trails is neither recreational nor economic. It is philosophical. “Experiencing wildlife firsthand is a powerful tool,” says Austin birding-trailblazer Eubanks. “If we can provide that opportunity by inviting people into the wild, then we can build a constituency that supports conservation, which is our goal.” Most Americans now live in or near cities, he points out. “You can’t just throw them into the unfamiliar outdoors and hope they’ll sort it out on their own. At a lot of national wildlife refuges, you drive in the gate, and they say, ‘Good luck. We hope you see something.’” He laughs. “People want to get connected with the outdoors. They’re curious. They’ve made the effort to get there. We need to help them.”

Massachusetts writer Doug Stewart is a frequent National Wildlife contributor.

How Not to Ruffle Feathers on a Birding Trail

Birding-trail etiquette is more than just not littering. Here are some commonsense dos and don’ts:

1. When walking, stay on footpaths or boardwalks. When driving, stay on the road. Obey all traffic and parking rules, no matter what you just saw fly past.

2. Keep your distance from birds. Don’t get too near nest sites, courtship-display areas or busy feeding sites. Never handle eggs or try to “save” a baby bird.

3. Be unobtrusive. Keep talk to a minimum. Leave pets—and unenthusiastic small children—at home. If you travel in a group, make it a small one.

4. Don’t feed the birds, and don’t overdo the use of vocal calls or recordings to attract them. Birds are busy, and interruptions are biologically costly.

5. Be considerate of property, public and private.

Ten Trails Worth a Trip

The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail: The one that started it all. Texas has more than 600 bird species, and most can be seen somewhere along this trail. Its three sections meander more than 2,000 miles from Louisiana to the Mexican border. Highlights: birding tours of the sprawling King Ranch and ferruginous pygmy-owl watching at the Inn at El Canelo. For more information, go to
The Great Florida Birding Trail: Move over, Disney World. Florida is a birder’s paradise, with a huge variety of birds, plus occasional strays from the West Indies and beyond. The trail’s nearly 200 sites range from world-famous birding areas like Sanibel Island to hidden spots best known—until now—to locals. Common sightings include roseate spoonbills, magnificent frigatebirds, wood storks and swallow-tailed kites. For more information, visit or call 850-922-0664.
Lake Champlain Birding Trail: This 300-mile loop links nearly 100 birding sites in mainland Vermont and New York and islands in between. In fall, snow geese converge by the thousands. Also plentiful are migrating hawks and eagles and shorebirds like great blue herons, wood ducks, sandpipers and plovers. For more information, see
Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail: The first leg of Virginia’s ambitious watchable-wildlife network includes 18 driving loops connecting more than 200 coastal birding sites. Most sites are within 30 minutes’ drive of the next, so casual bird-watchers will not lose interest. Loops have historical themes, such as Civil War battlefields. Highlights: eastern bluebirds, American woodcocks and ospreys. For more information, go to
Georgia’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail: Designed with beginning birders in mind, this blend of wildlife habitats and historic sites offers painted buntings in summer, shorebirds in winter and Atlantic Flyway migrants in spring. The trail roughly parallels I-95, where personnel at visitor centers have been trained to answer basic birding questions. For more information, see
The Great River Birding Trail: The Mississippi River Valley is a major flyway for migrating birds spring and fall. The upper portion of this Audubon-organized trail, starting at the Mississippi headwaters in Minnesota, winds 1,366 miles through five states. In the works: a lower section ending at the Gulf of Mexico. For more information, visit
Milwaukee’s Oak Leaf Birding Trail: This unusual urban birding trail is visited by sea ducks, Neotropical migrants and raptors of all kinds, thanks in part to the lakefront location of this greenest of cities. Even in Cathedral Square downtown, you can spot orange-crowned warblers, belted kingfishers and peregrine falcons. For a map, call 414-257-6100. For information, call Wehr Nature Center, 414-425-8550.
Montana’s Bitterroot Valley Birding and Nature Trail: Watch birds from roadside pullovers or get the full Montana wilderness experience by hiking, canoeing or rafting. The Bitterroot Valley is home to flammulated owls, among other rare species. At the Broad Axe Restaurant, where bighorn sheep graze outside, binoculars are part of the table settings. For more information, go to
Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail: If you can stand the heat, summer birding here is terrific. The more than 400 species frequenting this dry, mountainous corner of Arizona include flycatchers, painted redstarts and hummingbirds of many kinds—18 species at last count. For more information, see
Oregon’s Cascades Birding Trail: Spectacular scenery with a huge diversity of bird life, from a dozen species of woodpecker to an aviary’s worth of wood warblers. Opened in 2003, the Cascades trail stretches 1,200 miles and includes wetlands, alpine meadows, volcanic slopes and old-growth forest. For more information, go to

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