The best things about birdwatching? You can do it at almost any time of the year, it can be a relaxing break from a packed travel itinerary, and it's often a fairly low-cost activity. With migratory birds on the move or already at the their winter habitats, now is the perfect time to grab a pair of binoculars (and field guide) and explore some of the nation’s best bird watching destinations. Here are some of our favorites...
Platte River, Nebraska: From late February to mid-April (and again for a few days in the fall), roughly 80 percent of the world’s half-million sandhill cranes descend on the Platte River in central Nebraska. Stake out a place at the Rowe Sanctuary or near Grand Island at daybreak, or as the sun goes down, for optimal viewing. The cranes aren’t the only migrating birds around. Watch for trumpeter swans, tundra swans, Canadian geese, canvasback ducks, bald eagles, herons, and whooping cranes.
Cape May, New Jersey: The coastal woods and marshes along the southeastern tip of New Jersey acts as a rare bird magnet, drawing more than 120 species on a good migration day although more than 400 have been spotted here. Fall is an especially active time with flocks following the coastline south through November. Watch for raptors in Cape May Point State Park and songbirds such as warblers and orioles in Belleplain State Forest. We like 47,000-acre Edwin Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, though, because you can find geese, swan, and other waterfowl throughout the year.
Everglades National Park, Florida: Even a novice birder can have a great experience at this national park. Herons, egrets, and other wading birds abound along the Anhinga Trail, and you can spot the anhingas themselves during the winter. Mahogany Hammock provides a refuge for Cape Sable seaside sparrows, bald eagles, warblers, and barred owls while four ponds --Eco, Mrazek, Nine Mile, and Paurotis -- draw Roseate spoonbills, wood stork, and wading birds. Shark Valley Tram Road, Snake Bright Trail, and the Gulf Coast Visitor Center also offer great viewing.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas: The only remaining wild population of whooping cranes in the world winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. View them from the refuge’s 40-foot observation tower from mid-October to March or at close range on a boat trip through the refuge’s intercostal waterway. Several trails offer excellent birding opportunities, including Birding Trail #2, known for its songbirds, and Heron Flats, with its wood storks, roseate spoonbills, waterfowl, and shorebirds.
Southeast Arizona: Hummingbirds from Mexico and Central America populate the border lands that Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Geronimo once rode. Check multiple varieties off your birding list at Ramsey, Madera, Cave Creek, and Guadalupe canyons. For a chance to see early migrating North American varieties, plan to visit in late summer. Of course, these tiny flappers aren’t the only birds around -- watch for hawks, woodpeckers, owls, warblers, and more.
Klamath Basin, California: Waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds flock to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, a watershed divided into six national wildlife refuges: Tule Lake, Lower Klamath, Upper Klamath, Clear Lake, Bear Valley, and Klamath Marsh. With a high concentration of geese and ducks, Tule Lake and Lower Klamath are extremely popular, but you won’t want to miss Bear Valley during January and February when it’s possible to see some of the area's 300 bald eagles. Upper Klamath, home to a variety of woodpeckers, is also worth the stop.
Nome, Alaska: Three distinct habitats -- ocean, wetlands, and high alpine tundra -- make the area around Nome, Alaska a birding mecca with more than 150 migratory species. We like that you can do most of your birding from the comfort of your own car. Strike out on Safety Sound & Council Road to see shorebirds, waterfowl, and several species of gulls. On Taylor Road, look for the elusive bristle-thighed curlew, gyrfalcons, and other varieties. Teller Road boasts larks, eagles, and hawks.