Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! And another bird! And another bird!
That’s the joy of bird-watching. It’s an easy-to-do, low-cost-of-entry outdoor activity that keeps on giving, and that makes it an excellent component of leisure tours, if not the primary focus.
Birds, of course, are everywhere, but there are destinations where you’re guaranteed birding success, whether success is seeing lots of birds or seeing unusual ones. Many of those destinations come with built-in advantages and expert assistance. Here are some examples. Pack your binoculars, a notebook and some walking shoes, and start looking.
On the Jersey Shore
Cape May, which bills itself as America’s first seaside resort, isn’t what many expect of New Jersey. Its Victorian architecture, structures built after a massive fire in the 1870s and now preserved, landed part of the town on the National Register of Historic Places, but the overwhelming majority of its visitors don’t care.
That’s because those visitors are avian transients headed north or south, depending on the season. They fly through Cape May because it’s effectively the bottom of a funnel as they travel along the coast. Multiple habitats — the Atlantic Coast, Delaware Bay, marshes, meadows — appeal to a variety of species.
“That’s why you’ll often see Cape May on top-10 lists of birding locations in the U.S. or even the world,” said Gretchen Whitman, director of the Nature Center of Cape May, one of several New Jersey Audubon facilities.
Experienced birders might count 200 species on a spring day, Whitman said, while adding that no experience is necessary to enjoy birding.
“The appeal is that it can be done anytime and anywhere,” she said. “It is an easy way to connect with nature, and it provides reasons to explore new places.”
The blue-roofed nature center itself offers a great introduction to area birding, and it has step-on guides to lead groups to various locations. Among them is the Hawk View Platform at Cape May Point State Park, which overlooks ponds, meadows and the beach. It provides visitors with perspectives on various habitats and the birds that frequent them.
Spring migration attracts humans, who particularly like seeing shorebirds such as red knots, a threatened species; semipalmated sandpipers; and ruddy turnstones, along with common songbirds such as warblers and robins, which almost everyone can identify. In fall, birds of prey such as eagles, hawks and ospreys command much attention.
“There’s a related bonus in Cape May in September when monarch butterflies pass through headed south, and everyone loves butterflies,” Whitman said.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Farther down the coast, the nine counties of Maryland’s Eastern Shore are famous for sailboats and crabs feasts — and year-round bird-watching, particularly waterfowl. That’s why tour leaders seeking to please and educate all clients visit the Ward Museum of Waterfowl Art in Salisbury. It showcases the world’s largest public collection of decorative and antique waterfowl decoys and is the site of the largest bird-carving competition in the world: the Ward World Championship.
Also in Salisbury is Pemberton Historical Park, with 4.5 miles of nature trails and an enviable variety of bird-friendly habitats: tidal and freshwater wetlands, freshwater ponds, upland pines, hardwood forest and meadows.
Opportunities to see waterfowl on the wing abound in winter, when Canada geese, trumpeter swans, snow geese and many kinds of ducks take up residence.
“We on the Eastern Shore are well positioned on the Eastern Flyway to see migrant and resident species,” said Mark Scallion of the Pickering Creek Audubon Center near Easton, which Scallion said has step-on Audubon guides and an array of volunteer experts that enjoy meeting tour groups.
The 400-acre Pickering Creek Audubon Center works well for groups. It offers six miles of trails and 90 acres of freshwater wetlands that once were farm fields. Scallion said his site offers five species of woodpeckers and many opportunities to listen for wood thrushes, whose call he described as the most melodic of all songbirds in summer. They winter in Central America and southern Mexico.
Scallion said a historic site, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park in Cambridge, doubles as an appealing birding location because of enjoyable walking paths and proximity to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
“The Blackwater Refuge is good for winter waterfowl, and it is a great location to see bald eagles,” Scallion said. “You often can see single eagles, and sometimes you’ll see groups.”
In the Heartland
For about six weeks every year in late February through early April, avian magic happens along the Platte River in Nebraska, and it’s a guaranteed way to show a group one of the world’s great migrations. More than 80% of all sandhill cranes converge in this river valley, along with millions of ducks and geese in a bigger time window, on the way north to their breeding grounds. It’s a refueling stop for 600,000 of the impressive birds, which can stand up to four feet tall and have wingspans of up to six feet.
Visit Kearney is well positioned to help groups see this spectacle by offering tips on locations, times and viewing etiquette. At the top of the list of viewing locations is the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, just 20 minutes from Kearney and directly along the Platte River. Another 15 miles away is the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.
If you’re extremely lucky, you may see a fellow traveler among the sandhill: one of only about 500 whooping cranes in existence. Roger Jasnoch, executive director at Visit Kearney, knows that excitement. It took him 20 years to spy his first whooping crane, and he’s delighted to report subsequent successes.
Out West at Point Reyes
You can’t go much farther west than Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better birding location, whether casual or expert.
Carlo Arreglo, a National Park Service ranger/naturalist, suggests starting at the Bear Valley Visitor Center for a 15-minute introductory film and immediate bird sightings. Among them right there are acorn woodpeckers, which Arreglo describes as loud and gregarious. Another species you may hear rather than see is the California quail, whose call is oddly Midwestern.
“‘Chicago, Chicago, Chicago’ is what the California quail sings,” Arreglo said.
Perhaps the most photographed spot here is the Point Reyes Lighthouse, and since your group is going there anyway, know what birds to seek. Expect brown pelicans in fall and migrating common murres — which Arreglo says aren’t really that common — pigeon guillemots, loons and surf scoters — a medium-size sea duck — in spring. Black oystercatchers are here all year, and you may see a peregrine falcon. Pat yourself on the back if you see a tufted puffin. It’s possible.
If you’re willing to walk the 1.5-mile trail to Abbott’s Lagoon, this is the place to see winter ducks and raptors. Black-shouldered kites, which are small raptors, are common in fall and winter. Walk carefully on the sandy beaches in spring and early summer because this is a nesting area for threatened western snowy plovers.
Be on the lookout, too, for the common yellowthroat. It’s a white, yellow and brown warbler with a distinctive black band across its eyes. You could almost think of it as an avian raccoon or, perhaps, the Lone Ranger.
In the Texas Sun
Rob Ripma is a Hoosier and loves birding so much that he created a tour company that takes him out of Indiana to show exotic locales around the world to dedicated birders and nature photographers. Texas is among his favorite U.S. destinations.
“The upper Gulf Coast absolutely is one of the hot migration locations in the U.S., and Beaumont is a great base of operations,” said Ripma, owner of Sabrewings Tours. “This is a great place to see a huge number of species.”
Beaumont’s region is famous because it features both the Mississippi Flyway and the Central Flyway, migratory routes thousands of miles long and traveled by hundreds of species. Complementing the migratory routes are multiple habitats that attract birds in transit: coastline, marshes, meadows, piney woods and more.
The Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau has published extensive resources for birders that are ready guides for tour operators. One publication features 28 birding trails, all accredited by Texas Parks and Wildlife, within a 40-mile radius.
They lead you to places such as High Island, Big Thicket National Preserve, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and Shangri La Botanical Gardens to see everything from bald eagles and pileated woodpeckers to roseate spoonbills.
One intriguing destination is Cattail Marsh, a 900-acre area of artificial and natural wetlands created by Beaumont’s water reclamation department. That might sound dull until you learn that Cattail Marsh provides habitat for 358 bird species — that’s almost half of all bird species in Texas — and that planners designed it with human visitors in mind. Boardwalks, viewing platforms and levee walkways guarantee sightings of birds and other wildlife.
Ripma puts all these birding opportunities in perspective: “Birding is enjoyable because people are innately interested in birds,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to find. It’s almost like your own personal treasure hunt. And you get to go places you might not see otherwise.”