Ten Bird Watching Hotspots in Mississippi

When asked to name the best birding areas in the state the bird watchers of Mississippi were quick to name a variety of tried and true places. According to those who made the nominations, each should be ranked #1, but since we have thus far taken a south-to-north view of bird watching in the state, they will be listed that way, leaving it up to you to choose your own favorite.

Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Area

In its entirety the Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area (WMA) extends from Jackson to George Counties, but the focus here is Ward Bayou WMA, the southernmost area. Be aware that when entering any WMA, you must stop at an un-manned sign-in station; as you fill in the blanks, be sure to write in that you are there for bird-watching (WMAs are  popular with hunters and fishermen).

Ward Bayou WMA follows the course of the Pascagoula River, the largest un-dammed and un-channeled watershed in the continental U.S.  The river itself is a corridor for migrating birds; the rich stands of mature hardwoods, mixed pine/oak woodlands, and cutover areas make it ideal for nesting birds. It is most exciting in spring, summer, and early fall.   Bird watching in winter is far less productive.

From Interstate 10 in Jackson County, take Exit 57 north; it is 6.9 miles to a right turn onto Poticaw Bayou Road (the 2nd right after crossing Bluff Creek). If you need gas, eats, drinks, or other amenities, this is the last opportunity before entering the WMA.  After 0.5 miles, turn left on Old River Road; go another 2.7 miles. Just after the sharp curve that bears left, look for the brown sign to Ward Bayou and turn right onto Old River Road Loop; at 0.9 miles on the Loop road, turn right on Ward Bayou Road and follow the signs to headquarters. It is less than 3 miles to the gate and the trail which leads to the river. You may bird in stop-and-go style, but many prefer to drive to the gate and walk back along the road.

Nesting birds are typical bottomland species: expect to see various herons, among them yellow-crowned night-heron, also wood duck, swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites, red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks, yellow-billed cuckoo, ruby-throated hummingbird, hairy and pileated woodpeckers, Acadian flycatcher,  white-eyed and red-eyed vireos, northern rough-winged swallow, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, blue-gray gnatcatcher, wood thrush, northern parula, yellow-throated, prothonotary, and hooded warblers, summer tanager, northern cardinal, and indigo bunting  Other possibilities include American redstart and Kentucky warbler.

Variety increases during migration, especially in spring, when almost any insectivorous bird should come as no surprise. The best bird watching is in the morning, the earlier the better; the best time for soaring birds, such as vultures, kites, and other raptors, is from about 9 in the morning until midafternoon.

Harrison County Beachfront

This is the world’s longest human-made beach; though it may be crowded with beach goers during summer, it is worth some bird watching time in all seasons. The best way to see everything is to begin with the sun to the west; on cloudy days, that is a non-issue.  It is also a help if you can time your bird-watching so that the tide is not at its highest (without exposed tidal flats, birds that feed upon them are much harder to find).  If you own a scope, the higher magnification will help you to identify what you see, but, get close enough and binoculars will do nicely.

There are many parking bays and signed parking lots, and there are rest areas every few miles.  For practical purposes, this is routed from west to east with an afternoon sun.  If you do it right, it should take about 3 hours, longer in the fall months and during winter.  It begins at the small craft harbor in Pass Christian.  Highway 90 is the main thoroughfare.

In early fall (September), many species of terns are present and often side-by-side at various points along the beach, thus providing one of the best opportunities to study numerous species: gull-billed, Caspian, royal, Sandwich, common, Forster’s, least, and black terns. Some of the standout species that may or not be present include reddish egret, snowy plover, American oystercatcher, American avocet, and black-necked stilt.

Shorebirds are returning and permanent residents have left nesting areas for a winter on the beach. Look for black-bellied, semipalmated, and piping plovers, killdeer, willet, spotted, semipalmated, western, and least sandpipers, marbled godwit, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, dunlin, and short-billed dowitcher as well as brown pelican, laughing gull, and black skimmer.

In winter, many terns have migrated south, but the beach will still be an active place; add in the waters just offshore, as well as the harbors, and look for common loon, horned grebe, double-crested cormorant, various herons, lesser scaup, bufflehead, red-breasted merganser, and Bonaparte’s, ring-billed, and herring gulls.

Spring echoes late fall.  Summer attractions are large colonies of nesting least terns and black skimmers; spend an hour or so watching these birds from a distance and you will see every aspect of their courtship, nest building, egg laying, brooding, hatching, and fledging of the young.  There is no charge for admission.

Western Hancock County Bottomlands

Bird watching in these bottomlands is similar to that in Ward Bayou WMA, with summer and migration seasons the best. The Mississippi Welcome Center at Exit 2 from Interstate 10 is the last chance for amenities before entering the bottomlands. There are two areas within the buffer zone of Stennis Space Center from which all human habitation has been removed, leaving a few passable roads, old home sites, and fine bird-watching opportunities. The main roads within each lead to the Pearl River. Though uninhabited, these areas are still known by former names, Logtown and Napoleonville (that birders know as Spence’s Woods). They are invaluable to the bird watching community. Caution: hunters may be present in late fall and winter.

From the Welcome Center, Logtown is south on 607 and southeast on 604; from 604 take the first paved (and unsigned) road to the right, which leads to a 4-way stop.   Bird watching is fair to good to great along any of the roads once you leave 604. To reach Spence’s Woods from the Welcome Center, go north on 607 towards the Space Center; just short of the entrance to Stennis, take a left (west) turn onto an old paved road (also unsigned) which leads, roughly, southwest.

Once off the highway in either of these bottomland areas, bird watching is either stop-and-go, or park-and-walk.  In addition to typical bottomland habitat, these woods have  brushy clearings, second growth woodlands, and stands of pine, so in addition to species mentioned for Ward Bayou, one should look for most of our woodpeckers, great crested flycatcher, eastern kingbird, yellow-throated vireo, tufted titmouse, brown-headed nuthatch, eastern bluebird, prairie warbler, yellow-breasted chat, and orchard oriole.  During migration, look for olive-sided flycatcher (a rarity in August/September) and don’t be surprised to see any other migrant songbird.

Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge

224 Office Road, Brooksville, MS 39739

This refuge takes in parts of three counties, Noxubee, Oktibbeha, and Winston. From Starkville, take Highway 25 south toward Louisville, and look for the green highway sign indicating the refuge just after crossing into Winston County (directions to two other entrances are available on the web site).  About 44,500 of its 48,000 acres is bottomlands and upland forest, and well used by northern bobwhites, deer, and wild turkeys. It is used by neotropical birds, either as a stopover point or as a nesting area. It is the very best place in Mississippi to see the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Bluff and Loakfoma Lakes, 16 small impoundments, and assorted wetlands are important to species such as wood stork, American alligator, bald eagle, and wintering waterfowl.

One can pick up a bird list at headquarters, and ask the ranger on duty for current information on your own list of wanted birds. Comfort stations are adequate and well placed.

Although one might enjoy successful bird watching at Noxubee year-round, certain species have made it a must-visit place at certain seasons.  In addition to the red-cockaded woodpecker, the red crossbill (a species usually associated with far northern  evergreen forests) has been seen sporadically since 1972, and several nests have been found as well. In late summer wood storks and roseate spoonbills, two species not known to nest within the state are frequently seen.  The best bird watching is around the two lakes and the bottomland just to the north, featuring wading birds and shorebirds.  There are trails and overlooks, making this refuge as bird-watcher friendly as one could wish.

John W. Kyle State Park

4235 State Park Road, Sardis, MS 38666

This park lies below the dam at Sardis Reservoir. From Interstate 55, take the Sardis exit, which is 252, and proceed 8 miles east on Mississippi 315 to entrance sign. The park and its surroundings, while not solely intended as such, are favorable for birds and those who watch them. Comfortable cabins with kitchen facilities are available for visitors from elsewhere in the state (reserve yours in advance).  The park has camp sites, boat ramps, picnic areas, nature trails, and other amenities which make it one of the most pleasant recreational sites in the state. It affords very good birding year-round.

The best places for interesting birds include Sardis Dam, the Lower Lake, the spillway, the parklands themselves, and the Clear Springs Nature Trail, which is downstream about 1.5 miles.  A map of the area is available at park headquarters.

The dam and spillway are ideal for studying gulls; at times a steady stream of gulls feeds at the spillway, and, though  a common species such as Bonaparte’s gull is the one most often seen, rarer gulls such as black-headed and little gull have occurred.  The lake itself is good for loons, grebes, and ducks in winter. Be prepared for winter conditions: take extra gloves, hats, and outerwear or you may be colder than you ever thought it possible to be in the Deep South.

In woods surrounding and within the picnic area, birds such as the brown creeper and rusty and Brewer’s blackbirds (winter), as well as the resident eastern bluebird and white-breasted nuthatch make it especially enjoyable for a more southern-based bird watcher.  The Clear Springs Nature Trail is a wonderful hike in any season; it is a woodpecker haven where wood ducks, red-headed, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers are at home and where summer residents such as northern parula and yellow-throated and prothonotary warblers nest.  Winter wren, hermit thrush, white-throated, song, and swamp sparrows are commonly found in winter.

Tunica County

Tunica County sprawls over much of northwest portion of the state; it is within that area called the Delta. It is sparsely settled open land and is punctuated with numerous fish ponds; any amenities would likely be found in commercial establishments. Although the area presents many opportunities for bird watching, those in the know suggest that the best areas are along Mississippi Highway 4 within a 2 mile radius of the town of Little Texas, which is east of US 61; major roads that intersect Hwy 4 are US 61 and Interstate 55.

There are some big reasons to visit Little Texas. The fish ponds are productive of ducks in winter, terns in late summer, and large numbers of double-crested cormorants and great blue herons all year. The ponds are private, but the owner of those on Little Texas Road has graciously allowed bird watchers to drive around the ponds (if we always behave like good guests, perhaps other landlords would put out the welcome mat).

Great flocks of wintering geese are the biggest draw for bird watchers; they move around but are not difficult to find.  Little Texas Road north of the Battle Ponds, Beatline Road from Little Texas road to Hwy 3, and the Coldwater river levee from Hwy 3 at Beatline to Prichard Road are the hot spots in recent years. As many as 10,000 snow geese have been reported, and smaller numbers of greater white-fronted and Ross’s geese also use the area.  Migratory flocks of sandhill cranes have been seen fairly regularly in the Hambrick area, which is east of Hwy. 61, about a couple of miles south of Highway 304.  Winter hawk-watching is another good reason to visit  Tunica County, where, in winter and migration, large numbers of raptors such as northern harrier and red-tailed hawk have a fertile hunting ground.

Hugh White State Park

PO Box 725, Grenada, MS 66226

Grenada Lake and Dam combine with a beautiful park atmosphere to make Hugh White State Park equally as attractive to bird watchers as the Sardis complex to the north.  The amenities are every bit as good and access is easy.  Reach it via Highway 8 east; the road to the park, which is well signed, is 5 miles east of the city of Grenada. Like the reservoirs at Sardis, Enid, and Ross Barnett, this is a bird watching destination for those from the southern part of the state, mostly in winter, when it is invariably exciting.  It is also a virtual “haunt” for those who live close enough to put it on a regular itinerary.  The birdlife is much like that at Sardis, meaning that is has its fair share of migrants, and permanent and summer residents.

While not part of the park/lake system, the nearby Grenada Airport is one of the more dependable areas for finding horned lark, northern harrier, American kestrel, loggerhead shrike, eastern bluebird, eastern meadowlark, various blackbirds, and, just after dusk, short-eared owl. Once you get into sparrow-watching you will want to try identifying some of the more open-country species, such as vesper, Savannah, and field sparrows in brushy areas near the airport.

Vicksburg National Military Park

Just imagine watching birds at a relaxed pace in a setting of quiet beauty and historic significance, and go directly to Vicksburg National Military Park, which is easily accessed from Interstate 20 or US 61 in the city of Vicksburg.  There’s a Visitor Center at the entrance and a couple of picnic areas and comfort stations along a route which can be driven throughout the park.  Pick up a park map before you begin.

The park is a good place to watch birds year-round; some species among the most frequently encountered birds: resident Carolina wren, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, and northern cardinal and summer resident chimney swift, barn swallow, blue-gray gnatcatcher, indigo bunting, summer tanager, and brown-headed cowbird are all common in the park.

During migration the park is extra special for bird watchers because its lawns, roadside plantings and large shade trees attract many colorful birds, especially in spring.  An April or early May visit is recommended as a time when you might just see some of the neotropical birds that either stay to nest or are merely passing through the state: red-eyed and white-eyed vireos, Tennessee and hooded warblers, and orchard oriole.  Those less common, or harder to find, are worm-eating, Swainson’s and Kentucky warblers.

Spring and fall migrations include the spectacle of great numbers of hawks, predominately broad-winged hawks.  That species leaves the North American continent in fall and returns in spring; one could see many “kettles” of soaring broadwings in flight.

LeFleur’s Bluff State Park

2140 Riverside Drive, Jackson, MS 39202

In spirit and in actuality, LeFleur’s Bluff State Park and the Pearl River WMA/Refuge are “Important Bird Areas.” Located in Jackson, on the banks of the Pearl River, the park has easy access from Interstates 55 and 20. This is the largest public natural site in the state, with 300 acres of undeveloped area.  It is also home to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences.  The Jackson Audubon Society conducts bird walks on the first Saturday of each month, in varied habitats including oxbow lakes, cypress swamps, and uplands, guaranteeing a wonderful mix of water and land birds at any time, but especially during spring migration.  A bird list is available at the museum.

The refuge is thirty miles north, on Mississippi Highway 43, between the Natchez Trace Parkway (mile 115) and Ross Barnett Reservoir; it is well signed and the black top road leads to a parking lot, observation tower, and nature trail. If you have made a “day trip” from some distance, you might consider spending a morning at LeFleur’s Bluff and an afternoon at the Refuge.

The refuge itself is a place of varied habitats including open impoundments, bottomland hardwoods, tupelo-cypress swamps, and mixed pinewoods. The birds that use these habitats are of great diversity, from wintering waterfowl and birds of prey to numerous neotropical songbirds that are “funneled” along miles of Pearl River frontage.  Wood duck nesting boxes are placed throughout the refuge, and there is an innovative prothonotary warbler nest box trail as well.  A heronry where herons and egrets share the trees with the interesting anhinga (sometimes called “snake bird”) requires special permission from the management staff.

One visit and you will certainly want more. Its location is central to bird watchers from throughout the state, which makes LeFleur’s Bluff and the Pearl River Waterfowl Refuge a truly dynamic duo.

St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge

76 Pintail Lane, Sibley, MS 39165

In Adams County, about 7 miles south of Natchez via US 61, the 25,000+ acres (and growing) of waterfowl habitat, cypress swamps, and forests of hardwoods comprising oak, gum, elm, ash, and cottonwood trees, combine to make St. Catherine Creek NWR a place of great interest to bird watchers. There are modest amenities at the headquarters.

This refuge is a new one, having been established in 1990; much of the land was cleared for row crops in the 1960s and more than 11,000 acres have been reforested.  More than 30,000 waterfowl of various species winter at St. Cat’s; wood duck, northern pintail, and American wigeon are numerous.  There are two known nests of the bald eagle on the refuge, and other threatened or endangered species such as the big-eared bat and American alligator are being conscientiously monitored. There are self-guided tours, there are trails to follow, and, if you have found that you like the sociable side of bird watching, the annual Natchez Birding Festival is held in August.

August is an ideal month for a visit.  A spectacle occurs at dusk, when thousands of wood storks, in their post-breeding dispersal, come to roost in the giant cypress trees of St. Cat’s.  The sight of these magnificent birds in silhouette against the setting sun as they soar into the refuge is awesome and unforgettable.  Were that all, it would be enough, but add in roseate spoonbills garbed in hot pink, and herons and egrets of blue and white and you will understand completely why a hot and humid month in late summer holds such appeal to the bird watcher.

If you live close enough, you will put St. Catherine’s on a regular itinerary.  If not, plan to see this continent’s only stork species in August, and, by all means, visit throughout migration and during winter for waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, and open country land birds.

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