Experts’ Picks: Top Spring Birding Spots

Six distinguished birders reveal their favorite places to watch birds during spring migration

  • Cynthia Berger
  • Mar 12, 2010

Tim Gallagher: 

Copper River Delta

It’s not exactly easy to get to Cordova, Alaska, on the shores of Prince William Sound. “The last time I visited it took me four different flights and 17 hours to get there,” says Tim Gallagher.

When he arrived, the spring weather felt familiar: “cold and rainy, just like Ithaca, New York,” where Gallagher is editor-in-chief of Living Bird at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But for shorebird enthusiasts, the long flight to reach Alaska’s Copper River Delta is well worth it. “In May,” says Gallagher, “basically the entire Pacific coast population of western sandpipers (above) and dunlins goes through there.”

Add cranes, tundra swans and other shorebirds and waterfowl, and you get an estimated 16 to 20 million birds touching down on the 65-mile-long swath of sloughs, ponds and marshes each spring—resting and refueling on their way to Arctic breeding grounds. What do millions of birds look like? “So many more birds than you have ever seen before,” says Gallagher. “Wall-to-wall. Spectacular. Mind-blowing.”

No wonder the coastal town of Cordova celebrates by putting on the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival each spring. “It usually attracts a decent crowd,” says Gallagher, “which is amazing considering how remote it is.”

The shorebirds are nice, but “personally,” says Gallagher, “I’m a raptor freak.” As it turns out, the largest wetland on the west coast of North America is also an outstanding place to see peregrine falcons. The delta extends to the base of the jagged Chugach Mountains—where cliffs make ideal peregrine nest sites.

“If you’re lucky, you’ll spot them hunting,” Gallagher says. “I remember one time, scanning with a scope and spotting a whimbrel in with a bunch of other shorebirds. Suddenly, it crouched down and lay flat on the ground”—very peculiar behavior for any bird.

Gallagher looked up and saw a peregrine blast by, a mere 30 feet above the sand. The flock of shorebirds exploded in flight, and the whimbrel remained, alone on the shore. “I figure it knew it was bigger and slower than the other shorebirds,” Gallagher explains. “So it just lay low.”

Cordova, Alaska, is on Prince William Sound, at the head of Orca Inlet. The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival takes place in early May.

Kenn Kaufman:

Magee Marsh Wildlife Area/Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

Five years ago, when Kenn Kaufman left Arizona for Ohio, the move surprised some fans. After all, Arizona is a top birding destination, and Kaufman is a top birder, author of the Kaufman Field Guide Series as well as Lives of North American Birds. But he’s happy with his new home, near Magee Marsh Wildlife Area on the shore of Lake Erie. “I’d put it among the top five spring birding destinations in North America,” says Kaufman.

What exactly is so great? “Most people come in May for the songbirds,” he says. “We call it ‘the warbler capital of the world.’” You can expect to see 20 or more different species of the tiny, colorful birds in a single day—and hundreds to thousands of individuals.

Why are spring warblers so abundant? It’s the location, on the south shore of an ocean-sized lake. “Most songbirds are nocturnal migrants,” Kaufman explains. “They’re flying north, and at dawn, they drop down and look around. If they see the lake ahead, they’ll land rather than try to make it across.”

Most people say the place to see warblers is the Magee Marsh boardwalk. “Five or six bay-breasted warblers in one tree!” Kaufman enthuses. “Magnolias and blackburnians together! Conveniently, the boardwalk has numbers on the railing, so you can tell people exactly where you saw a good bird. You can say, ‘The worm-eating warbler was back by number thirty-one.’”

Though they cover thousands of acres, Magee and Ottawa are merely fragments of the vast wetlands that once lined Lake Erie’s shore. The marsh was managed as a private hunting ground until 1951, when the state bought the land. An adjacent tract was established as Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in 1961.

Come in May for free, guided birdwalks offered daily by the local Black Swamp Bird Observatory. And after an exhilarating day of birding, head to nearby Port Clinton, where birders tend to flock to a little place called Mango Mamas. You might get lucky and make another rare sighting: Kaufman’s in a band that sometimes plays there.

Magee Marsh is on the shore of Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland. Migration is at its peak in late April and May. Learn more about Kaufman’s field guides.

Stan Temple:

Leopold Memorial Reserve

Stan Temple remembers the first time he saw the Leopold reserve. It was the mid-1970s, and he was a young ecologist interviewing for a job at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. As part of the visit, his host took him to see a famous shack: the setting for conservationist Aldo Leopold’s 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, a touchstone for the country’s growing environmental movement.

More than three decades later, Temple says the 1,700-acre reserve—and the 11,000-acre Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area surrounding it—are still his favorite places to see birds in spring: sandhill cranes on Wisconsin River marshes, woodcocks in floodplain forest, red-headed woodpeckers in oak savannahs. “And right around the shack are the woods and prairies Leopold restored with his family,” says Temple, “where you might see Baltimore orioles nesting in trees Leopold planted 70 years ago.”

That job interview panned out, by the way. Temple spent 32 years in the faculty postion once held by Aldo Leopold and became one of the United States’ foremost ornithologists. Two years ago, he retired from academia and became a senior fellow and science advisor at the Aldo Leopold Foundation on the reserve. So now, his favorite birding place is just down the road from his office.

Temple often leads birding trips on the reserve. “People enjoy birding in a location that has such a rich history in wildlife conservation,” he notes. “And it’s really special to hear woodcocks peenting in the very spots where Leopold wrote about them.” Because Leopold kept meticulous field notes, Temple can tell visitors which birds the famous naturalist saw 70 years ago and what they’ll see today.

Some changes are sobering. “Short-distance migrants are coming back a week or two earlier than in Leopold’s time—because springs are warmer,” says Temple. But a few differences are encouraging; though Leopold wrote movingly about sandhill cranes, the big birds never touched down on his personal marsh in spring. Because crane populations have increased tremendously in the eastern United States since the 1930s, they’re now regular visitors.

The Leopold reserve is northeast of Baraboo, Wisconsin. A good time to visit is late March to mid-April, when sandhill cranes are setting up territories and woodcocks are mating.

David Sibley:

Dry Tortugas National Park

David Sibley thinks fondly of the days before he became the famous author of several popular field guides: back in the 1980s, when he was just a guy following his passion. Like a modern John James Audubon, the young Sibley roamed across America, studying birds, painting their portraits and selling an occasional canvas to support his travels.

For a while, Sibley led birding trips for a tour company, and one of his favorite destinations during spring migration was a cluster of seven small islands and associated coral reefs, called the Dry Tortugas, off the west coast of Florida. These islands are now protected by the federal government as Dry Tortugas National Park.

“For me, it’s a magical place,” Sibley says. “When the weather is fine, migrants fly over the islands without stopping. But when the winds change direction to north or northwest and you get some rain, huge numbers of birds drop down.”

Sibley remembers one such day, when it was 60 degrees F and drizzling. “Shocking weather for late April in Florida,” he says. “We were all in shorts and T-shirts and shivering, but the birding was spectacular. New birds dropping out of the sky everywhere we looked. We saw about a hundred species in one day on this tiny island. Incredible.”

A massive, pre-Civil War fort stands on one of the islands, and the Park Service maintains a fountain there. “You can sit and watch birds land thirty feet away,” says Sibley. “Yellow warblers, scarlet tanagers, blue grosbeaks, a rainbow of birds. They’re so focused on getting a drink, they’re oblivious to people. So you get fantastic views.”

Because it’s 70 miles offshore, getting to the Tortugas is a bit of an adventure. You can make a day trip on your own by ferry or seaplane. “A boat tour designed for birdwatchers is typically three days,” Sibley notes. “You sleep on the boat and spend your days on the island.”

Sibley’s greatest adventure was camping on the island. “To be there all night and experience the noise of the sooty tern colony on the next island . . . it was really great,” he remembers. “And of course, the stars were fantastic.”

Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles west of Key West and is accessible only by ferry, private or chartered boat, or seaplane. Learn more about Sibley’s field guides.

David Pashley:

Grand Isle

He’s now vice president for conservation programs at the American Bird Conservancy, but when David Pashley worked for The Nature Conservancy in the early 1990s, the group sent him to Grand Isle, Louisiana, to help residents protect habitat. “I was there to work,” says Pashley. “But you can’t go to a place like that in spring and not pay attention to the birds!”

Grand Isle is a magnet for migrating birds in spring because of the distinctive habitat that surrounds it: a kind of forest called oak chenier that sprouts only on very low, sandy ridges that parallel the coastline. As long as a ridge is a foot or two above the high-tide line, that’s enough to support live oaks and low-growing trees called hackberries. “Cheniers are common on barrier islands,” says Pashley. “Most cheniers in Louisiana are hard to get to. You have to go by boat. But there is a bridge from the mainland to Grand Isle.”

The Grand Isle chenier forms a very narrow strip—little more than 150 yards wide. “But it spreads down the coast quite a distance, about a mile and a half,” Pashley notes. So tiny warblers that have been flying through the night make it across the Gulf of Mexico and see what looks like quite an expanse of forest. It invites them to drop down and refuel.

“From late April to May 5th, it’s really good birding,” says Pashley. “You can see virtually any of the eastern warblers, vireos, both tanagers, both eastern orioles, rose-breasted and blue grosbeak.” The colorful list—about 300 species in spring—goes on and on.

Launched in 1998, the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Festival raises money to protect more habitat—and it’s another reason to visit. The three-day event in mid-April includes expert-led tours by foot, boat and kayak.

When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana nearly five years ago, thousands of humans lost their homes. But Grand Isle’s oak chenier weathered the storm just fine. “Think about it,” Pashley says. “Those coastal live oaks have evolved with hurricanes for millennia. It’s a testimonial to the resilience of a native ecosystem.”

Grand Isle is in Jefferson Parish; the town occupies a barrier island in the mouth of Barataria Bay. Visit in mid-April, when the birding festival is in full swing. Learn more about Grand Isle State Park.

Ned Brinkley:

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

“My favorite place for spring migration? That’s easy—I’ll be there soon,” says Ned Brinkley, making a pit stop to take a phone call while on his annual pilgrimage to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Author of the National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America and editor of the journal North American Birds, published by the American Birding Association, Brinkley has a longstanding connection to this migration hot spot on the state’s Outer Banks. “I’ve been coming here since I was three months old,” he says.

That first trip was a conventional family vacation. But soon, Brinkley was bitten by the birding bug. “By the time I was eleven, I was going on offshore pelagic trips,” he says.

Seabirds you’re most likely to see include big flights of jaegers—“so powerful,” he says, “the falcons of the sea!” And expect plenty of terns. “We can see 13 species in one trip,” says Brinkley, “which is a lot!”

Landbirding around Cape Hatteras is equally exciting. “People love Bodie Island and Pea Island,” says Brinkley. “I’m partial to Pea Island myself. In fact, I’m about to go over the bridge right now. It’s customary to check the log at the visitor’s center. Before cell phones, that was how you learned what birds were around.”

The conversation pauses while Brinkley finishes his drive. Back on the line, he reads the log. “Let’s see, stilt sandpiper, red-necked phalarope, swallow-tailed kite and gray kingbird. Those would have been pretty good birds years ago,” he says, “but now they’re pretty much regulars.”

Cape Hatteras is popular with regular tourists as well. “The water is intensely sapphire blue,” Brinkley says, “the breezes are balmy, and you can get a piece of watermelon and a beer at the end of the day.” Some beach areas are closed to vehicles in spring to protect nesting piping plovers. “There’s a little bit of an anti-birder backlash because of that,” Brinkley admits. “But generally it’s a very hospitable place for a weekend getaway.”

Cape Hatteras National Seashore consists of a narrow band of barrier islands that, together, make up the eastern border of Pamlico Sound; the islands extend from Ocracoke Village north to Nags Head. Spring migration peaks in early May.

Frequent contributor Cynthia Berger is a public radio producer in State College, Pennsylvania.


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Find more places to watch birds during spring migration.
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