Birding Trails

Great Florida Birding Trail

In 2001, one segment of the proposed four-part Great Florida Birding Trail had been completed: the East Section, which includes such excellent destinations as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Disney Wilderness Preserve, and Highlands Hammock and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve state parks. Since then, two more parts of the trail have opened.

The West Section was dedicated in 2002, covering 117 sites in 18 “clusters” from the Georgia state line south to Tampa Bay and Bradenton. In the north, you’ll find Mississippi kite, wild turkey, red-cockaded woodpecker, brown-headed nuthatch, pine warbler, and Bachman’s sparrow at Osceola National Forest. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, near Gainesville, is known for its impressive wintering flocks of sandhill crane, along with nesting least bittern, purple gallinule, and king rail, and various wintering wrens and sparrows.

Lower Suwannee NWR provides access to bald cypress swamps and bottomland hardwoods, good for everything from anhinga and swallow-tailed kite to barred owl and northern parula. The causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park hosts good numbers of waders and shorebirds throughout the year, and the island itself is home to nesting osprey, snowy and Wilson’s plovers, American oystercatcher, gray kingbird, and black-whiskered vireo.

Officially opened in May 2004, the Panhandle Section of the Florida trail includes 78 sites from the Aucilla River westward. Within this area is the expansive Apalachicola National Forest, with its important population of red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as nesting swallow-tailed kite, brown-headed nuthatch, Swainson’s warbler, and Bachman’s sparrow.

On the Gulf Coast, St. Marks NWR is productive for waterfowl, shorebirds, and all sorts of marsh birds, from bitterns to marsh wren to seaside sparrow. Look for snowy plovers at St. George Island State Park and Gulf Islands National Seashore, and for limpkin at Wakulla Springs State Park.

The South Section of the Great Florida Birding Trail, which will encompass the Everglades and the Keys, is scheduled for completion in 2006.

Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail

The Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail eventually will have three sections; in 2001, the Coastal section had been inaugurated, featuring bird hotspots such as Chincoteague NWR, Kiptopeke State Park, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Now, the Mountain section has been added-covering, as its name indicates, western Virginia’s Appalachian region, including such celebrated destinations as Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and sections of the Appalachian Trail.

In southwestern Virginia, 5,729-foot Mount Rogers stands as the highest point in the state. It also may be the best spot in Virginia for high-elevation species whose ranges extend southward in the Appalachians. At Mount Rogers itself and sites such as nearby Grayson Highlands State Park and Whitetop Mountain, look for northern saw-whet owl, common raven, black-capped chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, Swainson’s thrush, veery, cedar waxwing, warblers including chestnut-sided, black-throated blue, black-throated green, Canada, magnolia, and Blackburnian, and purple finch.

North of Roanoke, the route that has come to be known as “Warbler Road” climbs from the James River nearly 2,700 feet to the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Peaks of Otter area. It’s an excellent roadside birding drive, offering a range of birds at different elevations, such as ruffed grouse, yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos, yellow-throated and blue-headed vireos, winter wren, prairie, prothonotary, cerulean, black-throated blue, and Canada warblers, scarlet tanager, dark-eyed junco, and rose-breasted grosbeak.

The northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway is Rockfish Gap, at Alton on I-64. Here, hawk watchers gather from late summer into fall to watch southbound raptors following the ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Broad-winged hawk is the most abundant species, with good numbers of sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks and various other hawks, falcons, and vultures.

These are just a few of the sites covered in Virginia’s mountain region, which offers not only great birding but some of the finest scenery in the eastern United States, for hikers and motorists alike.

Audubon Niagara Birding Trail

Developed by Buffalo (New York) Audubon Society in cooperation with various public and private organizations, this 115-mile route begins at Woodlawn Beach State Park, on the shore of Lake Erie just south of Buffalo. Continuing northward alongside the Niagara River to Lake Ontario, the trail follows its shoreline eastward before turning south to Iroquois NWR.

For birders as well as nonbirders, the highlight of this region is the world-famous spectacle of Niagara Falls. Among the most popular tourist destinations in North America, the falls are also known for astounding concentrations of gulls. As many as 100,000 gulls might be present in the vicinity at the winter population peak.

An incredible 40,000 Bonaparte’s gulls have been found here in a single day during migration. Of course, with this many gulls present, rarities show up regularly. Twenty-four gull species have appeared at Niagara Falls over the years, attracted mainly by the fish they catch in the whirlpools and upwellings below the thundering cascades.

Several viewing areas both above and below the falls allow observation of not only gulls, but also loons and waterfowl, purple sandpiper on rock ledges, and peregrine falcons nesting on the gorge cliffs.

There’s more to the Audubon Niagara Birding Trail than Niagara Falls, of course. Among other worthy sites are Tifft Nature Preserve, great for spring migrant songbirds; Times Beach Nature Preserve, good for waders, gulls, terns, and shorebirds; and Iroquois NWR (with two adjacent state wildlife areas), a productive mix of freshwater marsh and hardwood swamp with nesting pied-billed grebe, least and American bitterns, bald eagle, wood duck, rails, and a variety of songbirds.

Connecticut River Birding Trail

Dedicated in 2002, the Connecticut River Birding Trail encompasses sites in both Vermont and New Hampshire, west and east of the river in the central parts of the two states. Within this relatively compact area, the well-designed map leads travelers to sites with hardwood and coniferous forests, ponds, marshes, fields, and mountains, hosting an appealing range of species.

Among the trail highlights are famed Herrick’s Cove on the Connecticut River, a Vermont Important Bird Area where marsh and mudflats attract American bittern and other waders, waterfowl, rails, shorebirds, black tern, marsh wren, and swamp sparrow. At the southern end of the trail, the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch Site may have up to 14 raptor species, plus turkey vulture, in fall migration. Mount Moosilauke, near Woodstock, New Hampshire, features alpine vegetation atop its 4,802-foot peak, and its spruce-fir forests are home to spruce grouse, black-backed woodpecker, yellow-bellied flycatcher, boreal chickadee, and Bicknell’s thrush.

Many of the trail’s 46 sites offer typical north-country birds such as ruffed grouse, alder flycatcher, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren, hermit thrush, and warblers including black-throated blue, black-throated green, Blackburnian, blackpoll, and magnolia.

By the time this article appears, a second section of the trail will have been established, continuing northward to the Connecticut Lakes area of northern New Hampshire, bringing an even greater concentration of boreal species such as spruce grouse, northern saw-whet owl, yellow-bellied flycatcher, and rusty blackbird.

Great River Birding Trail

This ambitious project has as its goal the creation of a birding route running the entire length of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota south to Louisiana. Far-reaching the plan may be-but it’s already well under way. Ten maps covering the northern four states (south to Iowa and Illinois) are available now; another five will be issued in late 2004 or early 2005, continuing south to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers at Cairo, Illinois, across from Missouri.

Planning is proceeding for routes connecting the southernmost states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Great River trail, in other words, will link nesting common loons, boreal chickadees, and Blackburnian warblers with nesting brown pelicans, swallow-tailed kites, and Swainson’s warblers.

The Great River Birding Trail generally follows long-established highways designated as the Great River Road, though it expands on that concept to include birding locations within about 30 miles of the Mississippi. The detailed maps cover such sites as Itasca State Park in Minnesota, headwaters of the Mississippi; McGregor Marsh, home of nesting yellow rails; Minnesota Valley NWR, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area; Wisconsin’s Rieck’s Lake Park, known for winter swan viewing; Trempealeau NWR, with diverse habitats of woods, prairie, and wetlands; and Wyalusing State Park, known for “southern” warblers.

The 10 maps now available cover 244 sites, with directions, birds of interest, and miscellaneous notes. Scores of additional sites will be included in the maps yet to be issued.

Although few of us will have time to drive the entire length of the Mississippi River, the Great River Birding Trail will be an excellent resource for anyone traveling in the vicinity of this grandest of all American waterways.

Birding Drives Dakota

A fine brochure is available giving details of six routes in east-central North Dakota, home of some of the most-wanted birds of the Great Plains. Based in the cities of Jamestown and Carrington, the drives explore the landscape known as the Missouri Coteau, a hilly region formed by glacial action and melting during the most recent ice age.

Set in the prairie potholes country, these drives are noteworthy for extensive shallow wetlands and grassland both grazed and natural. A few areas of shrubby thickets and deciduous forest add diversity.

On the drive from Carrington to Chase Lake NWR, you might find nesting Le Conte’s, Nelson’s sharp-tailed, Baird’s (a scarce regional specialty), and clay-colored sparrows, along with other prairie specialties such as ferruginous hawk, Sprague’s pipit, and chestnut-collared longspur.

Arrowwood NWR’s 16,000 acres encompass riparian woods along the James River as well as lakes, ponds, and grassland. Look here for nesting great egret, American bittern, wood duck, gray partridge, sharp-tailed grouse, upland sandpiper, black tern, willow flycatcher, Say’s phoebe, and bobolink.

Chase, Arrowwood, Alkali, Juanita, and other lakes host grebes, American white pelican, double-crested cormorant, waders, waterfowl, shorebirds (including piping plover), gulls, and terns. Marshy spots throughout may have breeding American bittern, rails (including, rarely, yellow), marsh and sedge wrens, and yellow-headed blackbirds.

For more information on Birding Drives Dakota, see “Almost Heaven: North Dakota” (March/April 2004).

Winding through northeastern South Dakota, this trail makes 38 stops within a relatively small and easily accessible area. The trail is well named: Highlights include prairie potholes, lakes and ponds formed when glaciers melted at the end of the most recent ice age, as well as remnant tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies. In addition, sites on the trail feature deciduous and coniferous forests, marshes, and riparian areas.

When you think of prairie potholes, of course, you think of ducks, shorebirds, and other waterbirds, and these species are certainly conspicuous along the route. Long Lake, Oakwood Lakes State Park, and Waubay NWR, for example, offer a diversity of nesting and migrant waders, waterfowl, shorebirds, and other water and marsh birds. The map for this trail is invaluable for leading birders to small, out-of-the-way game and waterfowl production areas off the main roads, which can be excellent for all sorts of wetlands species.

Hartford Beach State Park is known for nesting pileated woodpeckers, an occasional whip-poor-will, and good songbird migration habitat. Sica Hollow State Park offers another tract of deciduous woods, excellent for a variety of songbirds and migrants not usually associated with South Dakota. The Ordway Memorial Prairie is home to nesting Baird’s sparrow, along with other grassland species throughout the year.

Great Plains Trail of Oklahoma

One of America’s newest wildlife routes, the Great Plains Trail covers the Oklahoma Panhandle and, generally speaking, the western half of the “pan.” In a region in which the traditional businesses of agriculture and oil have suffered serious decline, the ecotourism potential of the trail has brought together a great number of public and private groups, including the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the State Parks Division, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, the Northwest Cattlemen’s Association, and several local chambers of commerce.

The trail comprises more than 130 sites, divided into four ecoregions (Western High Plains, Cimarron Gypsum Hills, Mesquite/Shinnery Oak, and Red Canyon/Granite Hills), and further divided into 12 driving loops. Birds are only part of the focus here: Other species of interest include bison, elk, prairie dogs, horned lizards, and bats, and some sites emphasize geology (Alabaster Caverns State Park is the largest gypsum cave in the world open to the public, for example).

Among the trail’s best birding destinations are Black Mesa, at the extreme western tip of the Panhandle, where sought-after species include golden eagle, scaled quail, ash-throated flycatcher, pinyon jay, western scrub-jay, Chihuahuan raven, black-billed magpie, and juniper titmouse; Salt Plains NWR, with its nesting snowy plover and least tern and wetland habitat for flocks of waders, sandhill crane, and shorebirds; and Wichita Mountains NWR, where the endangered black-capped vireo nests. Other notable species found along the trail include scaled quail, lesser prairie-chicken, greater roadrunner, burrowing owl, scissor-tailed flycatcher, curve-billed thrasher, rufous-crowned sparrow, and lark bunting.

Great Pikes Peak Birding Trail

This fairly new eastern Colorado trail covers sites from the high Rocky Mountains to the arid grasslands of the Great Plains. Within the region, birders can visit alpine tundra, extensive spruce-fir forests, mid-elevation deciduous woods, sagebrush hills, riparian areas, and shortgrass prairie.

Rocky Mountain National Park, for one beautiful example, offers not only some of the best scenery in North America, but also birds including white-tailed ptarmigan, blue grouse, northern pygmy-owl, Williamson’s sapsucker, three-toed woodpecker, gray jay, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain chickadee, Townsend’s solitaire, pygmy nuthatch, American dipper, pine grosbeak, red crossbill, and brown-capped rosy-finch. To the east, Pawnee National Grassland is home to ferruginous hawk, mountain plover, long-billed curlew, burrowing owl, lark bunting, Cassin’s sparrow, and thick-billed and chestnut-collared longspurs.

In the extreme southeastern corner of Colorado, Comanche National Grassland is best known for its population of the declining lesser prairie-chicken; males “dance” on display grounds called leks in early spring. The grassland also hosts scaled quail, burrowing owl, black-chinned hummingbird, ash-throated flycatcher, Cassin’s kingbird, Chihuahuan raven, juniper titmouse, and rufous-crowned sparrow.

Southwest New Mexico Birding Trail

Beautiful highland forests, lovely rivers and creeks, wilderness areas, and striking geological formations are found in southwestern New Mexico, an underbirded part of the country. The combination of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation, mid-level habitats, and coniferous woodland means a long list of possible birds. The new Southwest New Mexico Birding Trail undoubtedly will help more people discover the variety offered by this region.

At lower-elevation arid sites such as City of Rocks State Park (worth visiting just for its amazing rock formations), the Bureau of Land Management’s Granite Gap, Redrock Road, and the Gila River Bird Habitat, you can find common black-hawk, zone-tailed hawk, scaled and Gambel’s quails, greater roadrunner, black-chinned hummingbird, gila woodpecker, brown-crested and vermilion flycatchers, Bell’s vireo, Bendire’s, crissal, and curve-billed thrashers, phainopepla, Lucy’s warbler, Abert’s towhee, and Scott’s oriole.

Moving up into the mountains of the Gila National Forest, such as at Cherry Creek and McMillan campgrounds, look for species including band-tailed pigeon, flammulated owl, white-throated swift, broad-tailed hummingbird, acorn woodpecker, Steller’s jay, mountain chickadee, Grace’s and red-faced warblers, painted redstart, and hepatic tanager.

Nonbirding companions will enjoy visiting such sites as Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, with its ancient ruins, and, near the town of Glenwood, the Catwalk Recreation Area, where a suspended path leads into spectacular Whitewater Gorge (listen for the song of canyon wren here, and watch for American dipper).

Adding variety to this New Mexico trail are sites such as Mount View Cemetery in Deming, a fine migrant trap, and Lake Roberts, north of Silver City, an unexpectedly good spot for ducks and other waterbirds.

Great Montana Birding and Wildlife Trail

As the name implies, this trail, which eventually will cover all of Montana, focuses not just on birds but on a range of wildlife, including such charismatic mammals as elk, bear, bighorn sheep, moose, and pronghorn. The first segment of the trail, established in the fall of 2004, is a pilot project in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. Twenty-five sites from Lost Trail Pass to Lolo Pass will be connected with the theme “Discover the Nature of Lewis and Clark.” The great explorers, of course, traversed this region in their historic expedition of 1804-06. (Birders remember them every time they see a Lewis’s woodpecker or a Clark’s grebe.)

Not far south of the city of Missoula, Lee Metcalf NWR is one of the Bitterroot Valley’s birding highlights. The refuge is known for its nesting osprey; other notable species include American bittern, wood duck, cinnamon and green-winged teal, bald eagle, sora, Virginia rail, Calliope hummingbird, Lewis’s woodpecker, and marsh wren. Waterfowl (including tundra swan) can be abundant on the refuge in migration in wetlands alongside the Bitterroot River, and winter brings interesting raptors including golden eagle and rough-legged hawk.

At Lolo Pass (5,235 feet), west of Missoula, and the even higher Lost Trail Pass (7,014 feet), at the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley, you’ll find high-country birds such at northern pygmy-owl, boreal owl (rare), three-toed woodpecker, Hammond’s flycatcher, gray jay, Clark’s nutcracker, American dipper (in Lolo Creek), Townsend’s solitaire, Cassin’s finch, and red crossbill.

Canyons in the Bitterroot Mountains, west of the river, are home to golden eagle, peregrine and prairie falcons, white-throated swift, western screech-owl, red-naped sapsucker, and rock and canyon wrens. At Lake Como, look for pileated woodpecker, olive-sided flycatcher, Cassin’s vireo, mountain bluebird, and western tanager.

Utah Birding Trails

Three birding trails will eventually help visitors explore much of the Beehive State. The first to be established was the Great Salt Lake Birding Trail, covering northern Utah and centered on the vast lake northwest of Salt Lake City. The second, the Southwest Utah Birding Trail, was inaugurated in June 2004. The Eastern Utah Birding Trail is still under development.

Birding access to the Great Salt Lake area includes famed Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, usually at its best in spring and fall migration, when waders, waterfowl, shorebirds, and other waterbirds can be present in great numbers. At the southern end of the lake, Antelope Island State Park and Causeway is known as a viewing spot for the huge flocks of eared grebes and Wilson’s phalaropes that gather in fall, along with a variety of other waterbirds. Nesting species on the island include chukar, burrowing owl, Say’s phoebe, and sage thrasher.

A number of migrant traps are included on this route, such as the extremely remote Fish Springs NWR, isolated in the Great Salt Lake Desert of western Utah. In contrast, sites such as Big Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Range provide access to high-country birds including blue grouse, three-toed woodpecker, Williamson’s sapsucker, Hammond’s flycatcher, Townsend’s solitaire, and pine grosbeak.

The Southwest Utah area encompasses not only excellent birding but also some of the most scenic areas in the country, including Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef national parks, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Kodachrome Basin State Park. Among the sites is famed Lytle Ranch Preserve, where birds of the Mojave Desert species extend their ranges into Utah. Look here for common black-hawk, white-winged dove, Costa’s hummingbird, ladder-backed woodpecker, brown-crested flycatcher, cactus wren, and hooded oriole.

More than 280 species have been found in Zion National Park, including such appealing birds as peregrine falcon, wild turkey, spotted owl, gray vireo, pinyon jay, crissal thrasher, western and mountain bluebirds, and black-throated gray warbler. At Cedar Breaks National Monument, highland coniferous forest hosts birds such as blue grouse, three-toed woodpecker, Clark’s nutcracker, gray jay, Lincoln’s sparrow, red crossbill, and pine grosbeak.

Great Washington State Birding Trail

Eventually the Great Washington State Birding Trail will include six driving tours throughout this very birdy state in the Pacific Northwest. For now, colorful foldout maps are available for two completed routes: the Cascades Loop, covering the north-central part of the state (west to Puget Sound), and the Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway, in central Washington. Both offer species to tempt any traveler to visit the Evergreen State.

A project of Audubon Washington, in cooperation with public and private agencies, the GWSBT features site descriptions with detailed directions, useful bird lists, and other helpful information. A total of 121 sites are included in the two completed loops.

Sites within the Cascades Loop range from Puget Sound shoreline to shrub-steppe habitat to mountains covered in ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir. Blaine’s Marine Park has excellent winter birding for loons, grebes, ducks, and gulls. Units of the famed Skagit Wildlife Area offer some of the best raptor viewing in the country, including a good chance to see wintering gyrfalcon, as well as trumpeter and tundra swans.

Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area hosts stunning numbers of wintering bald eagles. Farther east, high into the mountains, sites such as Upper Meadow Creek, Silver Falls Campground, and North Cascades National Park are home to species including harlequin duck, Calliope hummingbird, Vaux’s and black swifts, red-breasted sapsucker, Hammond’s flycatcher, Townsend’s warbler, and Cassin’s finch.

The Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway route encompasses spectacular canyons, agricultural areas, riparian woodlands, arid sagebrush habitats, and wetlands where herons and egrets nest. This loop brings home the importance of birding trails to visiting birders, because a high percentage of its sites are out-of-the-way locations that someone from outside the region might never come across on his or her own. Interested in finding snowy owl?

Site 24 on the Coulee Corridor provides a good chance throughout the winter. Units of Columbia NWR offer excellent viewing of migrant and winter waterfowl, sandhill crane, and shorebirds, along with a diverse assortment of breeding birds. In the coniferous forest of Steamboat Rock State Park’s Northrup Canyon, you’ll find northern saw-whet owl, white-throated swift, Calliope hummingbird, red-naped sapsucker, mountain chickadee, and an occasional Clark’s nutcracker.

Next up for the Great Washington Birding Trail: a loop through the beautiful Olympic Peninsula, including the beaches and rainforests of Olympic National Park.

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