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Birding Takes Flight

Interest in our fine feathered friends is huge — whether it’s petite hummingbirds weighing less than an ounce or giant California condors with 9.5-foot wingspans. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey showed that 96 million people in the U.S. watched, fed or photographed birds, visited public lands to see them or maintained landscapes to benefit them in 2022.

“[With a boost from COVID], birding is more popular than ever,” said Rob Ripma, whose Sabrewings Nature Tours leads outings for serious birders in a dozen states and 15 countries.

That popularity means birding activities integrate well with almost any itinerary. Walks in the woods, visits to observation platforms or strolls on the beach — all with the prospect of discovery — can be highly anticipated events. Birding opportunities are everywhere. Here are five, from east to west.

Northern Alabama

Joe Watts is a passionate birder (he’s on the boards of the National Audubon Society and its Alabama unit) who is quick to highlight Alabama Birding Trails, a series of eight trails across the state that lead people to 280 publicly accessible sites with good birding opportunities.

“Anywhere in the state, you’re within 30 minutes of a birding site,” he said before focusing on locations across Alabama’s northern counties, a region of gentle mountains and massive TVA lakes.

The federal government created Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge at Decatur in 1938 partly to see whether migratory waterfowl could be attracted to an artificial impoundment of the Tennessee River (Wheeler Reservoir). The experiment succeeded on a grand scale.

The 35,000-acre refuge attracts 30 waterfowl species, 295 other bird species and — to everyone’s delight — towering sandhill cranes and even whooping cranes.

“From December through February, there’s no better spot than Wheeler,” Watt said. “It attracts 30,000 sandhill cranes [up to five feet tall] and perhaps 10 to 20 whooping cranes, whose total population in 1941 was only 15 birds. Whooping cranes are a great example of how humanity can correct one of its mistakes.” The current population remains small, perhaps 75 in all.

The Wheeler refuge has a two-story viewing building with one-way glass so visitors can watch cranes and other birds without disturbing them. Microphones in the wetlands pick up the birds’ chatter that is beamed into the viewing building.

Rangers lead walks to look for other species such as greater white-fronted geese, teal, mallards, American coots, American kestrels and bald eagles. Elsewhere in north Alabama, Watt speaks highly of Monte Sano that rises near Huntsville as a place to see migrating songbirds and Guntersville State Park, which is known for bald eagles. That park is along another TVA lake.

Ohio’s Lake Erie Coast

Despite having a population of almost 12 million people, Ohio has abundant bird-friendly habitat and some true birding hotspots. One is in northwest Ohio just east of Toledo, where birders speak both reverently and excitedly about places such as Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Maumee State Park and McGee Marsh State Wildlife Area.

“Three migration routes converge in northwest Ohio,” explained Jasmine Cupp, outreach director for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), an organization that shorthands its mission to “connecting people with the joy of birds.” BSBO, putting modesty aside, organizes a 10-day event every spring that it calls “the Biggest Week in American Birding.” It coincides with songbirds’ peak migration, and 90,000 humans come to see the spectacle and learn more about birding.

Birders have identified more than 300 species during spring and autumn migrations, including 150 species of songbirds. Bald eagles, owls, ospreys and several types of hawks join the mix, too.

The lodge-style visitor center at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge can be a focal point for tour groups. In addition to its static displays, its boardwalk makes a one-third mile loop over a wetland, through shrub terrain and into a woodland, all of which is reminiscent of the Great Black Swamp.

Refuge manager Jason Lewis explains that the Great Black Swamp once covered almost a million acres from today’s Toledo to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Only 30,000 acres remain, which make the refuge and surrounding parcels of public land magnets for birds and important for humans’ recreation and restoration.

Lewis also points to another boardwalk at the 2,202-acre McGee Marsh State Wildlife Area. It leads to a forested beach ridge that the area’s managers say has “some of the best bird-watching opportunities in the Midwest.”

Coastal Maryland

“Being on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is like watching ‘Wild Kingdom’ almost every day,” said Cassandra Vanhooser, as she described watching an osprey slap a tidal river in Talbot County to claim its dinner and then have a bald eagle swoop in and steal the osprey’s fish.

Vanhooser is director of economic development and tourism for Talbot County (Easton is the county seat), and she brags about the quantity and variety of birds that pass through or live in her county and the rest of the Eastern Shore.

“Considering we have Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, tidal rivers, marshes and other wetlands, the Eastern Shore is heaven for many bird species, especially waterfowl,” she said, recalling her excitement of once watching thousands of Canada geese assemble overhead to begin an en masse migration.

The Chesapeake Country All-American Road, which garnered that designation in 2021, offers a framework for an Eastern Shore itinerary, taking you to numerous natural and historic locations, including avian destinations such as Bohemia River State Park to the north, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge and Pickering Creek Audubon Center near Easton. The Pickering Creek site has six miles of trails, 90 acres of freshwater wetlands and volunteers who enjoy meeting tour groups.

Salisbury is one place you don’t need binoculars for an avian activity because the attraction here is the Ward Museum of Waterfowl Art. 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.

Coastal Texas and Louisiana

Because birds don’t care about political boundaries, it’s no surprise that birding abounds along the upper Gulf of Mexico coast.

Only about 150 miles separate Galveston, Texas, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, and millions upon millions of migratory birds cross through this two-state region. Year-round species are numerous, too. This is the last place for resting and refueling before crossing the Gulf of Mexico southbound and the first place to stop headed north. Various habitats make many species feel comfortable.

Bird tour operator Rob Ripma calls the upper Gulf Coast “one of the hot migration locations in the U.S. [and] a great place to see a huge number of species.”

One popular spot is Cattail Marsh in Beaumont. The Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that 358 bird species — that’s almost half of all bird species in Texas — have visited the lush and wild-looking marsh, but it’s not totally natural. The 900-acre site is a project of Beaumont’s water reclamation department, which added platforms, boardwalks and levee walkways for birdwatching.

The Beaumont CVB’s extensive birding resources include a publication identifying 28 birding trails within a 40-mile radius, all accredited by Texas Parks and Wildlife. They highlight places such as High Island, Big Thicket National Preserve, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and Shangri La Botanical Gardens.

Farther east is the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, a 180-mile driving route into the “Louisiana Outback.” Regardless of how much of the route you cover, you’ll find unexpected variety — freshwater marshes, saltwater marshes, cypress swamps, coastal prairies and even beaches.

Among the birds to look for are pink-billed roseate spoonbills, herons, sandhill cranes, kingfishers and more, plus wildlife such as alligators, turtles, otters, muskrats and deer. Nature-oriented outfits such as Grosse Savanne Eco Tours have naturalist guides to help.

San Francisco Bay Area

Visitor activities in San Francisco include riding cable cars, admiring the Golden Gate Bridge, shopping at Fisherman’s Wharf and birdwatching at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Although the wildlife refuge with the long name is about 35 miles from the cable cars, it’s proof that excellent birding opportunities exist even in the middle of significant human development. The site covers 30,000 acres and was the first urban national wildlife refuge when established in 1972.

Don Edwards Refuge, which is part of a larger complex of six more nearby refuges, has its headquarters and visitor center at Freemont. The visitor center offers some of the refuge’s 38 miles of trail. A notable one is the LaRiviere Marsh Trail (0.8 miles) that goes through a restored tidal salt marsh and probably is the best place on the refuge to view the endangered Ridgway’s rail. The chicken-sized Ridgway’s rail has a long, narrow beak and comes out at low tide to feed in muddy slough channels.

A second focal point is the refuge’s Environmental Education Center in Alviso, which has more trails and a butterfly garden.

Refuge interpretative specialist Sirena Lao notes that the protected lands encompass 15 habitat categories, meaning that visitors can see many types of birds. Millions of migratory birds pass through here in spring and fall, and the refuge’s list of species totals 280.

Serious birders want to sight endangered species such as the Ridgway’s rail, western snowy plovers and California least terns (among the smallest terns). More casual visitors delight at learning to distinguish shorebirds such as willets, sandpipers and greater yellowlegs.