North America’s New Birding Trails
New birding and wildlife-watching trails have sprung up like wildflowers along the major flyways of North America. The trails are self-guided routes along the nation’s interstates and byways that link premier birding habitats in convenient loops and spurs.
They are becoming increasingly popular because of the benefits to both bird watchers and towns along the trails. Communities with trail sites, often wildlife-rich but unable to attract tourists, have learned that birders are a boon to their economies. Trail users spend freely on travel expenses, optics, photographic supplies, and souvenirs. Local business leaders and private landowners have forged strong alliances with conservation organizations and state wildlife or tourism agencies toward mutual goals of habitat protection and ecotourism promotion.
For birders, trails open new horizons of discovery and exploration, especially in unfamiliar territories. Readily accessible trail sites on public and private lands offer a greater range of habitats in which to find specialties and rarities. Beyond the enjoyment of birding, trail users know that each purchase is an investment in local conservation efforts.
More than a dozen birding and wildlife-watching trails now crisscross the country and more are on the drawing boards in various stages of development. Most have signs with a distinctive logo, printed maps, and an Internet web page.
According to some sources there are four major migratory flyways in the United States: The Atlantic, the Central, the Mississippi, and the Pacific. Others break the flyways down even further into individual regions. However, for the sake of clarity we will examine some of these trails in three distinct groups centered around three major migratory flyways; the Central, the Atlantic, and the Pacific flyways.
BIRDING THE CENTRAL FLYWAY
Of the major migratory routes, the Central flyway has the most birding trails, stretching from the Gulf Coast northward along the Mississippi River.
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail-Texas
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail (GTCBT), six years in the making and completed in 2000, is the granddaddy of trails and has become the blueprint for trail developers from other regions. It follows the Gulf of Mexico coastline southward from the Louisiana border to the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas and heads northwest to Laredo. Three color-coded maps with numbered sites guide birders along the many loops and spurs to stops marked with a prominent logo featuring a black skimmer.
The Texas trail draws thousands of wildlife watchers each year, who drive among its 308 hotspots in search of desert and tropical flora and fauna. For birders the main attraction is the list of 611 recorded species along the Gulf Coast and in the Rio Grande Valley.
Many of the bird-watching sites along the GTCBT have achieved legendary status, drawing a huge number of visitors especially when popular nature festivals are held in Rockport, Port Aransas, McAllen, Galveston, or Harlingen.
Along the upper Gulf Coast, Bolivar Flats is renowned for shorebirds, and the rich mixture of grasslands and wetlands of Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is well known for a wide variety of waders and waterfowl. High Island is famous for spring warblers and dense nesting colonies of roseate spoonbills and herons, and a pilgrimage to this site is one that every birder should take. Along the central Texas coast, you’ll be amazed at the richness of Aransas NWR, with waders, waterfowl, many songbird species, hummingbirds, wintering cranes, and plentiful raptors.
Along the lower coast and Rio Grande Valley, you can look forward to finding rarities at such prominent sites as Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana NWRs, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, and Bentsen State Park. The lower coast attracts many “snowbirds”-winter refugees from the cold northern states and Canada-who enjoy birding and camping along the trail. You can boost your life list dramatically by quietly sitting with the snowbirds at Bentsen. Their RVs are outfitted with a variety of bird feeders, and I vividly remember one warm winter morning when I spied my first blue bunting in the company of several Wisconsin snowbirds.
Heart of Texas and High Plains Wildlife Trails-Texas
Two more highway nature trails are under way in Texas; the Heart of Texas and High Plains wildlife trails. Sponsored by Texas Parks and Wildlife, the two trails will stretch from Laredo on the Rio Grande to the Texas Panhandle through 100 counties of the state. The list of nominated sites is huge and includes a number of gems on the Edwards Plateau and the Texas Hill Country. Most of the nominated sites on the High Plains trail have been visited, and site visits for the Heart of Texas Trail are in progress.
The new wildlife trails will take birders through some of the most picturesque countryside in Texas along the Guadalupe River, as well as plains and desert habitats. There will be opportunities to find golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos at Lost Maples State Natural Area and Kerr Wildlife Management Area, and splendid desert birding at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
Texas Parks and Wildlife has also opened site nominations for two more viewing trails; the Prairies and Pineywoods Trail in north and east Texas and the Mountains and Basins Trail in west Texas.
Creole Nature Trail-Louisiana
The 180-mile Creole Nature Trail is located in the heart of Louisiana and includes some of the best refuges along the Gulf Coast. The wildlife-watching trail follows the coastline with several large loops northward.
Along the trail’s 11 hotspots, you’ll visit Sabine and Cameron Prairie refuges, homes to huge numbers of migratory waterfowl and waders. At Holly and Rutherford beaches, two famous migrant traps, a spring morning is a joyous experience with the thickets and dense vegetation filled with colorful songbirds. It is estimated that as many as half of all land birds that breed in eastern North America pass through Louisiana during migration, and more than 250 species have been documented along the Creole Nature Trail.
John James Audubon Birding Trail-Kentucky
North along the central flyway, the John James Audubon Birding Trail in Kentucky has four driving tours through the western portion of the state, including the Trace, a popular outdoor vacation spot on the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
The trail sections take you through sloughs, cypress swamps, grasslands, and marshes. The trail’s bird checklist notes more than 200 species for the area.
Of the four trail sections, the Audubon trail offers a wider selection of bird life. At Audubon State Park in Henderson is a museum that houses the nation’s largest collection of authentic Audubon prints, paintings, and artifacts. A hiking trail nearby circles Wilderness Lake, where you can search for woodland birds.
The best bird watching on the 60-mile Audubon trail loop is at Henderson-Sloughs Wildlife Management Area (WMA), west of Henderson along the Ohio River. In early spring and fall you’ll find a number of shallow ponds and wetlands teeming with wigeon, teal, avocets, and snipe. The Jenny Hole-Highland Creek site has the largest heron rookery in the state.
By driving and walking along the shelterbelts (narrow rows of trees and thickets between ponds) you’ll find many songbirds as they make their way along the flyway. The variety of birds in the spring can be stunning, and I remember a cold, early spring morning when I bumped into a Nebraska birder who’d come to the Sloughs WMA to see its grand variety of migrating warblers.
On Trace trail you can explore the famous Land Between the Lakes, a peninsula between Kentucky and Tennessee that is a favorite destination of summer vacationers. The national recreation area is honeycombed with nature trails, and visitors can easily spend days exploring its nooks and crannies in search of regional birds. The area also has several nature centers, Civil War sites, an elk and bison prairie, and numerous commercial facilities.
The Great River Birding Trail-Mississippi River
A five-state birding trail beckons bird watchers to follow the Mississippi River from its northern Minnesota headwaters at Lake Itasca to its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. The Great River Birding Trail (GRBT) covers roughly 1,700 miles of the Great River Road (marked with a logo of a ship’s wheel), where birding sites can be found along the riverfront in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri.
A series of maps for the GRBT cover 60-mile segments along this 60-year-old highway network championed by Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930s. The trail closely follows the recreational river road, giving birders access to a number of national wildlife refuges: Minnesota Valley, La Crosse, McGregor, Savanna, Wapello, Clarence Cannon, Annada, Cypress Creek, and Mingo.
More than 250 bird species have been recorded along the Great River Road’s Mississippi River, the heart of the central flyway, and spring migration of warblers and songbirds can be spectacular amid the river bottomland forest patches and dense thickets. Bald eagles are common and tundra swans are easy to spot when they arrive in mid-October from the tundra on the Alaskan and Canadian coast near the Arctic Circle. They rest and feed along the riverbanks and protected marshes until the end of November when they head for the mid-Atlantic states for the winter.
Pine to Prairie Birding Trail-Minnesota
At the northern reaches of the central flyway in Minnesota, the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail offers a grand mix of bird species at the edge of their ranges. Here you’re likely to find eastern and western species whose ranges meet, and boreal species that stray southward during winter irruptions.
Known as Minnesota’s first birding trail, it has 43 sites and covers more than 200 miles along the western side of the state. Beginning near the Canadian border it stretches southward almost to the North Dakota line. The trail includes five wildlife refuges along with many state natural and wildlife areas.
What attracts 275 species to northwest Minnesota is the wide diversity of habitats. There are huge pine forests, native tallgrass prairies, sand dunes, fens and bogs, extensive marshes and wetlands, and mixed deciduous woodlands. Depending upon when you visit the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, you’re apt to find a number of species such as northern goshawk, ruffed grouse, American woodcock, snowy owl, greater prairie-chicken, three-toed and black-backed woodpecker, boreal chickadee, red and white-winged crossbill, yellow rail, and more than 20 species of nesting warblers.
Of the 43 trail sites, several prairie grassland areas and the five national wildlife refuges often prove to be best for finding local specialties. Agassiz NWR has 61,000 acres of forest, wetlands, and grasslands at the edge of Mud Lake. Although duck species are most common, the refuge hosts a Franklin’s gull colony with 20,000 breeding pairs. It’s possible to spot five species of grebes, along with yellow rails, short-eared owls, sedge wrens, sandhill cranes, and shorebirds. Agassiz is also one of the few refuges with resident packs of eastern gray wolves.
Northeast of Detroit Lakes is Hamden Slough NWR, a preserve with tallgrass prairie and lots of hardwood forests that is managed to restore prairie wetlands for waterfowl. The mixed habitat, however, gives birders the opportunity to find grassland sparrows, yellow-headed blackbirds, sedge and marsh wrens. The locally rare birds spotted on the refuge include piping plover and cattle egret.
A gem of the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail is Tamarac NWR near Detroit Lakes. The area is dotted with lakes and prairie potholes and hosts an abundance of rivers, marshes, and swamps. Moose are sometimes seen on the refuge, and bald eagles are common. Visitors can search for 25 species of warblers, ruffed grouse, broad-winged hawks, and winter, sedge, and marsh wrens. An impressive number of rare birds have been spotted on the refuge including boreal chickadee, Townsend’s solitaire, great gray owl, and cerulean warbler.
Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail-Minnesota
The proposed Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail, which is being developed, will stretch across the Minnesota River watershed from Big Stone Lake near the South Dakota border, south to the Iowa state line and northeast to the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers south of Minneapolis.
More than 320 species of birds have been recorded in the Minnesota River Valley. The western part of the state attracts many grassland and prairie species absent in eastern Minnesota, as well as boreal forest and arctic birds. Local specialties include cerulean warbler, upland sandpiper, Swainson’s hawk, nesting white pelican, pine grosbeak, and bald eagle.
The Minnesota River watershed includes several national wildlife refuges, and the trail will soon guide visitors to sites across the entire state.
BIRDING THE ATLANTIC FLYWAY
The Great Florida Birding Trail-Florida
Another grand self-guided wildlife-watching trail, the Great Florida Birding Trail (GFBT), offers birders new opportunities to explore the avian-rich Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the trail showcases more than 470 verified species over a 2,000-mile route around Florida’s perimeter. Many loops and spurs are planned from the coastal trailhead to interior sites, with nearly 800 locations slated for the completed trail.
The newly opened East Florida section, the first of four, stretches from the Georgia border north of Jacksonville to St. Lucie County on the Atlantic Coast. Erection of highway signs for this section will begin in October. Next in line are the West Florida, Panhandle Florida, and South Florida sections, with completion of the entire trail in 2006. Site nominations for the west Florida section of the trail closed earlier this spring, and site visits will be conducted between October 2001 and March 2002.
The GFBT will include the Keys and Dry Tortugas as well. The logo for the trail signs is a swallow-tailed kite, and flip-chart maps help visitors find the many birding sites.
The 240-mile East Florida section includes several excellent spots from Clinch State Park at the mouth of the St. Marys River to Merritt Island NWR. At the northern trailhead at Clinch State Park you’ll see wintering purple sandpipers and painted buntings, and at the southern terminus at Merritt Island you’ll find one of the highest and richest concentrations of bird life imaginable. Sprinkled in between are excellent bird-watching sites: the sprawling Timucuan Ecological Preserve, Little Talbot Island State Park, and a string of small beachfront parks and refuges south of St. Augustine. The commemorative guide to the East Florida Birding Trail is available online at the trail website.
Simmons, Weaver, Redfield, and Eagle Optics have made optics available for loan to birders at the East Florida gateway sites, and each scope or pair of binoculars is accompanied by information on specifications, price, and contact information,
The South Florida section has its own treasures, with Sebastian Inlet, Pelican Island NWR, and Loxahachee NWR-the home of crested caracaras-a resident flock of sub-species Florida sandhill cranes, and huge numbers of waders. When water levels are adequate, there are more than 250 rookeries with thousands of nesting pairs of egrets, spoonbills, ibises, and herons-a stunning sight.
But the crown jewel of southern Florida has to be Everglades National Park and the adjoining Big Cypress National Preserve. In this huge wetland area, dubbed the “River of Grass,” you may find wood storks, short-tailed hawks, white-crowned pigeons, American flamingos, smooth-billed anis, gray kingbirds, and black-whiskered vireos. You’re also likely to see a variety of seabirds and possibly find a rarity that’s strayed inland.
A number of unusual birds are possible at the Florida Keys NWR: great white heron (which is a morph of the great blue heron), Antillean nighthawk, and mangrove cuckoo.
The East Florida and Panhandle Florida sections of the GFBT also have an abundance of sites to tempt birders. Along the Gulf of Mexico, “Ding” Darling refuge on Sanibel Island and Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary will put you in unique environments for intense and lively bird watching. Several national wildlife refuges, among them the Chassahowitzka, Lower Suwannee, St. Mark’s, and St. Vincent, have remarkable flocks of waders, shorebirds, waterfowl, and passerines to enjoy on vast tracts of wetlands and wilderness. Inland, the Paynes Prairie Preserve south of Gainesville hosts large numbers of sandhill cranes that can be seen up close as they fly into the tall grasses to roost after feeding in nearby fields-an enthralling sight at sunset.
Colonial Coast Birding Trail-Georgia
Georgia’s Colonial Coast Birding Trail, sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, follows the coastline along Interstate 95. Along the 18 designated birding sites, you’ll find 75 percent of the state’s species (out of a list of 300).
At the northern trailhead just east of Savannah, Skidaway Island State Park and Tybee Island are considered to be spring migrant traps. Midway you’ll find the Harris Neck NWR with many wader and shorebird species and the state’s largest wood stork rookery. Near the Florida state line two spurs lead east to Cumberland Island National Seashore and west to the Okefenokee NWR. Cumberland Island, an excellent site during migration, has 16 miles of pristine beaches and maritime forests with cypress and gnarled oak stands. The Okefenokee refuge is a vast wetland wilderness dotted with large prairie hummocks, and it hosts many species of warblers, resident sandhill cranes, and an enormous variety of unique plant life that thrives in swampy wetlands.
Alabama Coastal Birding Trail-Alabama
The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail, located in two counties in the extreme southwest corner of the state near Mobile, is composed of three loops. The loops guide bird watchers to 31 trail sites through various coastal parks, mudflats, and the swampy marshes of Mobile Bay.
A well-recognized trail stop is Dauphin Island, the home of a large Audubon sanctuary and probably one of the most popular places on the Gulf Coast for birding during spring migration. The area’s checklist has an impressive 345 species, which is about 85 percent of the Alabama state list. Dauphin Island is one of the best migrant traps on the Gulf Coast, and it can be a heady experience to see abundant migrants virtually fall from the sky when a cold front moving southward brings rain and northerly winds.
Bon Secour NWR, composed of 6,500 acres of dunes and woodlands, is also an excellent site for enjoying spring and fall migrations. Several winding trails take birders to important areas used for feeding and resting during migratory flights.
Charles Kuralt Trail-Coastal/Piedmont North Carolina & Southeastern Virginia
The Charles Kuralt Trail in eastern North Carolina and Virginia links nine national wildlife refuges and is a memorial to the late nature lover and CBS broadcast journalist. Championed by the Kuralt family and the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society, this wildlife-watching trail meanders nearly 400 miles through the largest wetlands in the mid-Atlantic region. Spring and winter bird watching can be exceptional.
Of the nine refuges, several are crown jewels. The Great Dismal Swamp, excavated and drained long ago under George Washington’s supervision, is a spring migratory paradise for birders who can easily find more than 20 species of warblers. Alligator River teems with spring songbirds as they fan across the Piedmont heading northward. In the winter huge flocks of tundra swans, snow geese, and at least 20 species of ducks settle onto Lake Mattamuskeet and Pea Island preserves.
Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail-Virginia
Virginia’s fledgling route will soon connect the Eastern Shore, the James River, the nation’s capital, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. A metropolitan Tidewater loop, where you can join a whale-watching excursion, has already been established.
Virginia’s checklist of bird species totals 424. You will find trails that connect popular spots on the Eastern Shore such as Chincoteague NWR and Kiptopeke State Park, where saw-whet owls, terns, songbirds, and raptors are banded. Elsewhere in the state, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel islands are renowned for visits by exotic migrants. Along the Blue Ridge foothills and Virginia highlands are plentiful raptors during fall migration.
The Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail is designed to combine birding with heritage tours, including Civil War sites and battlefields, colonial exhibits at Yorktown and Williamsburg, and plantations with grand antebellum homes.
Lake Champlain Birding Trail-New York & Vermont
Lake Champlain, the 110-mile oval-shaped body of water between Vermont and New York, now has a 300-mile birding trail around its entire shoreline, stretching into uplands of the two states. The trail connects roughly 100 bird-watching sites through some of the most picturesque landscape imaginable. Along the western portion of the trail is the six-million-acre Adirondack Park with 2,000 mountain peaks and vast forests of pine, maple, and birch. The Green Mountains are to the east in Vermont.
The area has a checklist of 220 bird species, with considerable numbers of bald eagles during spring and summer and several winter boreal specialties-more than 190 species nest in the area. Lake Champlain is a popular summer vacation destination, but birders who visit during the rest of the year will be in for exceptional bird watching.
At the northern edge of Lake Champlain you’ll find Missisquoi NWR, a 6,000-acre preserve of wetlands, marshes, and wild rice for migratory waterfowl such as goldeneye, hooded merganser, wood duck, green-winged teal, and ring-necked and American black ducks. In fall the birds amass here before heading south along the Atlantic flyway. The refuge also has a large great blue heron rookery and hosts breeding black terns, bank swallows, common moorhens, ospreys, and songbirds.
Greater Eastern Ontario Birding Trail-Southern Ontario & Quebec
The Greater Eastern Ontario Birding Trail is a pioneer wildlife-watching effort, and its developers are working with tourism officials to establish Canada’s first self-guided birding trail.
Starting just east of Toronto, the Greater Eastern Ontario Birding Trail runs through Ottawa to Montreal and links nearly 30 sites along the way. The trail will include eight nature festivals held in the provinces during the year, providing birders an opportunity to enjoy ecotourism events as well as excellent trail sites.
There are a number of well-known provincial parks along the 500-mile trail, and the habitat ranges from agricultural and prairie pothole in Ontario to alpine and boreal along the Laurentian Range north of Montreal. Nearly 300 species can be found along the route.
FOLLOWING THE PACIFIC FLYWAY
Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail-Arizona
Southern Arizona is a favorite destination for bird watchers, especially the southeastern corner and the White Mountains, where specialties abound. The Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail traverses four geological regions, creating a unique environment for a wonderful mix of bird species: the Rocky Mountains join Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts merge.
You’ll find a bird diversity of more than 500 species in very distinctive habitats along the 50 trail stops, which include all the important sites from Tucson to the Coronado National Forest. The area hosts a tremendous variety of unusual species.
Sabino Canyon is notable for its Lucy’s warblers, elf owls, and black-tailed gnatcatchers, and Madera Canyon may bring elegant trogon, sulphur-bellied flycatcher, flammulated owl, and red-faced and Grace’s warbler. White-tailed kite, Baird’s sparrow, and four species of quail are possibilities at the Buenos Aires NWR and Grasslands. The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area has a small stream that draws green kingfishers and varied buntings, with crissal thrashers in the desert nearby and gray hawks overhead.
Ramsey Canyon Preserve and Beatty’s Orchard are famous for up to 15 species of hummingbirds-close enough to easily photograph. And at Chiricahua National Monument you’ll find Arizona woodpecker, Mexican jay, Mexican chickadee, and painted redstart.
Central Coast Birding Trail-Central California
The Central Coast Birding Trail follows scenic Highways 1 and 101 through the mountains and coastline of four counties in central California. This breathtaking coastal route has at least 80 birding sites along the trail and a checklist of more than 300 species.
Monterey County is known for Elkhorn Slough, with its vast numbers of waders and shorebirds in an estuarine environment, and fantastic pelagic trips on the ocean to find seabirds such as shearwaters, kittiwakes, fulmars, and albatrosses. San Luis Obispo County is renowned for Morro Bay, with huge numbers of shorebirds and gulls, as well as high plains and desert areas such as Carrizo Plain near the San Andreas faultline where you can find white-tailed kites and mountain quail.
Santa Barbara County is a rich mix of seacoast, mountains, and valleys. There are many splendid canyons in which to find California gnatcatchers, Hutton’s vireos, and at least five species of wrens. This is one of California’s premier wine-growing areas, and the canyons above the region’s vineyards, such as Refugio and Happy, teem with a variety of bird life.
In Ventura County, northwest of metropolitan Los Angeles, you can visit Santa Clara Estuary and Mugu Lagoon for waders and shorebirds or explore La Jolla Canyon for chaparral species. The Sespe Condor Sanctuary can be found along the Santa Clara River, but you’ll be extremely lucky to spot one of the huge birds.
The Central Coast Birding Trail combines pounding surf, grand mountain vistas, chaparral valleys, and desert high plains to give the visiting bird watcher an enjoyable experience.
Birding and wildlife-watching trails in North America are poised to become one of the dominant forces in ecotourism, with a payoff to birders as well as communities along their byways. A few of the new trails-Texas, Florida, and Arizona-are considered the crown jewels among the burgeoning network across the continent. But others now in their early stages, whether in Oregon, Southern California, Ohio, Washington, Maryland, or the Carolinas, will certainly establish their own niches and become favorites with birders looking for regional specialties.
Bird watchers can look forward to a vast network of trails, stretching along both coastlines, across the southern states, and crisscrossing the nation’s heartland.
International Selkirk Loop Birding Trail
Lying within the Pacific Flyway, the major north-south route of travel for migratory birds in the Americas, the International Selkirk Loop offers bird watchers an extra incentive to visit and make a vacation of it.
The Loop is a 450 km/280 mile National Scenic Byway and All-American Road that encircles the Selkirk Mountains, a frontal range of the Rocky Mountains in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and southeast British Columbia.
Following river and lake valleys through these snow-capped granitic peaks, the Selkirk Loop hosts more than three dozen identified birding sites to explore, including three national refuges, with over 250 species of birds.