By Laura Newcomer on January 5, 2021 in travel
Birdwatching is booming.
A 2016 national survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 45 million Americans watch birds around their homes and farther away. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the popularity of birdwatching has soared even higher as people have sought out safe activities closer to home. The American Birding Association reported that its podcast grew from 5,000 downloads per week in February (pre-pandemic) to around 8,000 downloads per week in May, reflecting the growing interest in this outdoor hobby.
Not only does birdwatching serve as a safe and enriching activity in pandemic times (and in general), but it’s also accessible and economical. There’s no need to get on a plane in order to go somewhere to enjoy birdwatching. Strike out on a road trip or stay as close to home as you’d like, and leave the flying to the birds.
There are approximately 10,000 bird species all over the world and around 1,000 in the U.S. and Canada (including more than 400 at-risk species in North America). So, no matter where you live, you’re bound to learn a lot and spot some incredible species.
Whether you’re looking to stick close to home or wander farther afield, here’s how to plan a scenic birdwatching adventure — plus why it’s worthwhile to start birdwatching in the first place.
The Benefits of Birdwatching
There are several reasons why a soaring number of people are taking up birdwatching. While pandemic boredom might have something to do with it, the benefits go far beyond a temporary reprieve from reality.
Per the Audubon Society, here are six good reasons to make a hobby out of watching birds.
1. It sharpens your senses.
By tuning in to the subtle details of birds’ songs, colorings, and so on, you train your mind to observe closely and notice even the tiniest differences. These are skills that can serve you both outdoors and in.
2. It provides a means of exploring the world.
Birdwatching motivates you to explore new areas, which can help you learn more about the region where you live — and beyond! Popular birding destinations exist all over the world, so the sky’s the limit when it comes to exploration.
3. It connects you to nature.
Fresh air and sunlight do a body (and mind) good, and you’ll find both when you venture outside to go birdwatching. Many birdwatchers also find that they’re inspired to advocate for the importance of nature so that bird species and wildlife refuges survive for generations to come.
4. It’s a year-round outdoor activity.
A lot of outdoor recreational activities are confined to one season: We ski in winter, trail run in summer, go leaf-peeping in fall, and so on. Birdwatching can be enjoyed year-round in all kinds of climates and environments. You’ll always have a good reason to get outside.
5. It can connect you to like-minded people.
It takes a certain kind of person to slow down enough to engage in an activity that mainly involves waiting and looking. Birdwatching can connect you to a variety of contemplative folks with a fierce appreciation for nature.
6. It’s accessible and economical.
Birds are amazing creatures in that they exist virtually everywhere. This means you don’t need to have a personal vehicle or the funds to travel abroad in search of birds. You can get started simply by walking outside your home, and maybe investing in a pair of binoculars and a field guide.
Premier Birding Spots Across the U.S.
Since you can spot birds just about everywhere, anywhere is a great place to start birdwatching. As your enthusiasm for this hobby grows, you may want to venture to locales that are known for splendid birdwatching opportunities. To get started, check out any of these premier birding spots.
Barr Lake State Park, Colorado
Colorado is host to more than 400 bird species, and Barr Lake State Park in northeastern Colorado is one of the best places to view almost all of them. More than 370 species of migratory and resident birds — including Bald Eagles, cormorant, egrets, and white pelicans — make this park their temporary or permanent home. The park is also home to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory’s headquarters, so it’s a great place to learn more about the art and science of birdwatching.
Best time to visit: Spring, summer, and fall
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Located a few miles south of San Antonio, this expansive desert destination offers stellar birding year round. Here, you’re liable to spot Gambel’s Quail and a variety of waterfowl including ducks and geese. In winter, don’t miss the arrival of majestic Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese.
Best time to visit: November through mid-May
Cape May, New Jersey
Located in the southern tip of New Jersey, this area is such a hotspot among birdwatchers that New Jersey Audubon founded the Cape May Bird Observatory in 1976, which has the Cape May School of Birding and several migration watches throughout the year. Amateur and pro birdwatchers alike can spot a variety of buntings, hawks, shorebirds, songbirds, sparrows, swallows, warblers, waterfowl, wrens, and more. One of the area’s biggest draws is the October raptor migration.
Best time to visit: September and October
Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Southeastern Arizona is home to 24 notable birding hotspots, and Cave Creek Canyon is one of the best of the best. Located near the border of New Mexico, the area hosts a variety of bird species including Elegant Trogon, Gray Hawk, Mexican Jay, Painted Redstart, and a whopping dozen hummingbird species. Newbie birdwatchers can learn more at the nearby Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory and the Tucson Audubon Society.
Best time to visit: April through September
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
The ever-popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes a broad range of habitats and is home to one of the greatest diversities of wildlife, which helps explain why the park offers some of the best birdwatching around. Keep an eye out for the likes of Acadian Flycatcher, Brown Creeper, Indigo Bunting, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruffed Grouse, Yellow-throated Vireo, and so much more.
Best time to visit: Summer
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, Washington
Washington’s Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is home to a variety of ecosystems in the form of estuaries, freshwater marshes, grasslands, tideflats, and woodlands, all of which provide stellar habitat for diverse waterfowl and shorebirds. Approximately 100 bird species nest on the refuge, and up to 180 species have been observed spending time there. Keep an eye out for Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, and Canada and Cackling Geese.
Best time to visit: Winter and spring
Platte River Valley near Kearney, Nebraska
Nebraska’s Platte River Valley is home to something truly spectacular: one of the world’s greatest migrations. Each March, more than 600,000 Sandhill Cranes gather in this valley to rest and feed along the Platte River. It’s a sensational birdwatching experience that shows up on many a birder’s bucket list.
Best time to visit: (not surprisingly) March
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Kansas
Located in south-central Kansas, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1955 to conserve critical habitat for migratory waterfowl traveling the Central Flyway. The refuge is home to more 22,000 acres of salt marsh, wetlands, and sand prairie, which host more than 340 bird species including Dickcissel, Eastern Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Mountain Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, Prairie Falcon, Upland Sandpiper, and Whooping Crane.
Best time to visit: Spring and fall
Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri
During peak waterfowl migrations in the fall and early spring, the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge’s main wetland is covered in white thanks to the presence of hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese. In winter, Bald Eagles use the wetlands as their migration grounds. They’re accompanied by a variety of waterfowl including Canada Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Ross’s Geese, Trumpeter Swans, and diving ducks.
Best time to visit: Year-round, but especially winter
Tips for Finding Stellar Birdwatching Locales
The birdwatching destinations listed above are just the tip of the iceberg (or, er, birdwing). Stellar birdwatching destinations abound, and it’s possible to find excellent spots close to home. Here are some tips to ID your next birdwatching destination.
Contact your local chapter of the Audubon Society.
Arguably, nobody knows birds better than the Audubon Society. The nearest chapter can provide you with resources and suggestions for birdwatching around your home and farther afield.
Explore a nearby wildlife refuge.
Local and national wildlife refuges are dotted all across the U.S., and odds are good they’ll provide safe habitats for birds — making them ideal locations for birdwatching.
Check out local birding trails.
Many states feature “birding trails” that have been suggested by local bird experts. In most cases, these trails are easily accessed by car and create a loop of varying lengths. A quick online search should help you identify birding trails in your area.
This online resource from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology allows visitors to enter their state and county and then browse a list of birdwatching hotspots that have been submitted by other users.
Books and Apps for Bird Identification
Once you’ve selected a birdwatching location, it’s time to watch some birds!
It’s pleasant enough to observe birds as they come and go and listen to their songs, but many birdwatchers derive extra satisfaction from identifying bird species. To do that, you’ll need a book, app, or other resource. Here are some great options to get you started.
The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley
This classic field guide was created by (you guessed it!) David Sibley, a lifelong birdwatcher and artist. The guide is packed with helpful identifying information and illustrations.
The Merlin Bird ID App
Another creation of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Merlin Bird ID app lets you input details about a sighting. Then it returns a list of bird species that match that description.
The Audubon Society App
This free app functions much like the Merlin Bird ID app. It also allows you to share photos with other users, which can help you grow your birdwatching community.
The American Birding Association’s Facebook Group, What’s This Bird?
As the name implies, this community of passionate birdwatchers is happy to lend a hand to anyone who wants to identify a particular bird. This is a great place to learn from other avid birdwatchers.
Not sure which kind of birding resource best suits your needs? Check out this resource from the Audubon Society: What Bird Guide Is Best for You?
Whether you take up birdwatching in your neighborhood or choose to set out on a more ambitious adventure, birdwatching offers a safe, educational, and scenic hobby.
As you cultivate an appreciation for the sheer variety of bird species on this planet — and add some rarer species to your birdwatching bucket list — remember that bird populations around the world are feeling the stresses of habitat loss and climate change. With that in mind, be responsible. Always keep your distance and make an effort not to stress out birds and other wildlife, and consider advocating for these amazing creatures when you can.
Birdwatching is a wonderful hobby that offers a ton of benefits, so share the love by giving back to the birds.