Best Bird Watching Destinations
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Birdwatchers Flock to These 15 Prime Spots Across America

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Best Bird Watching Destinations
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A Bucket List for Birders

For many, birdwatching is a casual backyard diversion; for others, it's a hobby that demands top-notch binoculars and a good travel rewards credit card. If you're the latter kind of birder — or better yet, you aspire to be — there are plenty of places across the U.S. to find a dazzling array of bird species. We consulted bird-watching experts and publications to dig up some of the country's very best.

Cape Canaveral, Florida
Source: TripAdvisor

Cape Canaveral, Florida

For most folks, Cape Canaveral means rocket launches and cruise ships; for bird watchers and birders, it's an ideal spot to spy rare birds all year long. "During spring and fall migration, shorebird numbers and diversity can be spectacular, but throughout the year, long-legged waders are abundant, showy, and easy to find," says Dawn Hewitt, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest.

Cape Canaveral, Florida: Where to Go
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Cape Canaveral, Florida: Where to Go

The crown jewel of the area is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where 358 species have been identified. Hewitt recommends its 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive for both serious and casual birdwatchers. Close by, Canaveral National Seashore offers yet more chances to spy shorebirds and a big bonus: nesting giant sea turtles.

Cape May, New Jersey
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Cape May, New Jersey

If you only knew this seaside town for its charming Victorian architecture and pristine beaches, you're missing out. On your next visit, look to the skies, too. "It's a year-round destination for birders and is home to important nature reserves as well as a pioneering hawk watch and a nearby watch site for seabirds. And arguably no other place in the Americas is as steeped in the history of ornithology as Cape May is," says Matt Mendenhall, editor of BirdWatching magazine.

Cape May, New Jersey: Where to Go
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Cape May, New Jersey: Where to Go

Higbee Beach on Delaware Bay is a fall hotspot for warblers and hawks. Nearby Cape May National Wildlife Refuge offers similar variety and has become a home to nesting piping plovers, a threatened shorebird.

New York City
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New York City

If you're surprised to see the Big Apple on this list, don't be — it's on an important bird migration route, the Atlantic Flyway, and has a surprisingly diverse landscape friendly to way more birds than pigeons, including forest, shoreline, and marshes. According to New York City Audubon, more than 350 species have been spotted in the five boroughs. Moreover, its accessibility means a ready birding community, and public transportation means you don't even need a car to get around.

New York City: Where to Go
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New York City: Where to Go

Central Park — yup, right in the middle of Manhattan — is a microcosm of bird habitats with its meadows, large rocks, abundant trees and water. Look for plenty of warblers in the spring and birds of prey in the fall, including American kestrels and ospreys. And Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge sprawls over 9,000 acres in Queens and offers excellent chances to see waterfowl in particular.

Central New Mexico
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Central New Mexico

Got time for a trip during the winter months? Central New Mexico should be a serious contender, says Hewitt, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. "The spectacle of uncountable cranes and geese from November through January can be mind-blowing. At other times of year, southwestern specialties, including hummingbirds and desert species are a special treat."

Central New Mexico: Where to Go
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Central New Mexico: Where to Go

By far the area's most well-known birding destination, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is your go-to spot, Hewitt says. Wetlands, forests, and fields here provide an important refuge for more than 371 species of birds, including Sandhill Cranes. Further north, Sandia Crest is home to three species of rare rosy-finches.

Rio Grande Valley, Texas
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Rio Grande Valley, Texas

Want a good chance to spot a bird you probably won't find anywhere else? Head to the southern tip of Texas, Mendenhall recommends. "In the U.S., some birds are only found in southern Texas or they're rarely seen in other regions. These species include Roadside Hawk, Gray Hawk, Green Jay, Golden-Fronted Woodpecker, Clay-Colored Thrush, Least Grebe, and Great Kiskadee."

Rio Grande Valley, Texas: Where to Go
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Rio Grande Valley, Texas: Where to Go

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge's 12 miles of trails offer abundant birding, and the refuge even runs an open-air Nature Tram that traverses a 7-mile, 90-minute course, perfect for a quick overview. For a more intimate experience, McAllen's historic Quinta Mazatlan estate packs in a staggering number of species in its impressive 15 acres of gardens.

Central Kansas
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Central Kansas

A trip to the plains can yield rich rewards for bird watchers. Hewitt recommends saving this trip for early spring, when different species are most abundant. "Visit in March or April, when nearly half of North America's shorebirds stop over, plus waterfowl, sandhill cranes, raptors, songbirds and more," she says.

Central Kansas: Where to Go
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Central Kansas: Where to Go

Your bucket-list destinations should be Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Hewitt says. Cheyenne Bottoms, part of a massive natural land sink, provides an important wetlands habitat and has hosted at least 350 different birds. At Quivira, salt marsh and sand prairie have sheltered a similar number of species.

Coastal Maine
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Coastal Maine

Go for the lobster and dramatic coastal scenery, but stay for some of the East Coast's best birdwatching. One of the most famous feathered residents is the Atlantic puffin, several colonies of which nest offshore and require a summer boat tour out to coastal islands. Bald eagles are also abundant here.

Coastal Maine: Where to Go
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Coastal Maine: Where to Go

At least 338 bird species have been spotted at Acadia National Park. Head to the park's famed Cadillac Mountain in the fall to watch birds of prey including eagles and hawks migrate through the park. If you're lucky, you may even spot a peregrine falcon, one of the world's fastest birds and a species that is under study in the park.

Southeastern Arizona
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Southeastern Arizona

Arizona's stark landscapes can make for surprisingly fertile birdwatching, and you can expect to spot some fairly rare species amid the natural beauty. "The area south and east of Tucson is a birder's paradise," Mendenhall says. "A dozen hummingbird species, Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, Elf Owl, and many other birds make the region a must-see."

Southeastern Arizona: Where to Go
Source: TripAdvisor

Southeastern Arizona: Where to Go

Cave Creek Canyon, known as "Arizona's Yosemite," is a prime spot to spy hundreds of species, especially in spring and fall. Saguaro National Park should also be on your "must" list, and is also home to stunning hikes, petroglyphs, and some of the nation's most dazzling sunsets.

Northeastern Minnesota
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Northeastern Minnesota

Anyone who's listened to the calls of loons while paddling across a quiet woodland lake knows northeastern Minnesota is a special place. For birdwatchers, the region is an especially great spot to find northern species that are hard to find anywhere else in the country, Hewitt says. Many boreal species from further north make this their seasonal home in the winter months.

ggow-szbog-2189
ggow-szbog-2189 by David Larson (CC BY)

Northeastern Minnesota: Where to Go

Sax-Zim Bog is the area's biggest hotspot for bird watchers, especially in winter. Look for seldom-seen northern owls including the majestic great gray owl and the smaller northern hawk owl. In May and June, spy songbirds including the hard-to-find Connecticut Warbler.

South Florida
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South Florida

Just as Minnesota's unique climate and landscape allows for rare northern visitors, South Florida's subtropical climate means you can find birds from closer to the equator. While flamingoes may spring to mind and are somewhat of an unofficial state symbol, numbers are just starting to recover from hunting and poaching more than a century ago. Much more common are roseate spoonbills, sometimes mistaken for their taller pink feathered friends.

South Florida: Where to Go
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South Florida: Where to Go

Everglades National Park has hosted 360 bird species, including large colonies of wading birds like the white ibis, wood stork, and several egrets and herons. And if you can make it out to the Keys, take a boat to Dry Tortugas National Park to spy nesting colonies of sooty tern and brown noddy, birds not found elsewhere in the U.S.

Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler by Matt Tillett (CC BY)

Northwestern Ohio

Lake Erie's shores and the marshes nearby offer some of the nation's best birdwatching in the spring, Mendenhall says. "There is no better place to see warblers and other migrants than the boardwalk at Magee Marsh." Black Swamp Bird Observatory at the entrance to the marsh hosts "The Biggest Week in American Birding" in May, drawing birders from all over the nation. This year, birders spotted 240 species, including 37 kinds of warblers.

Northwestern Ohio: Where to Go
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Northwestern Ohio: Where to Go

Besides Magee, the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge is another must-see, especially for bald-eagle lovers who want to catch a glimpse of the area's many nesting pairs.

Central California Coast
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Central California Coast

The dazzling scenery of Pacific Coast Highway is worth a trip in itself, but for birders, there are even more rewards along California's central Pacific coastline, especially just north of San Francisco, near Point Reyes. "Western pelagic species, waterfowl, gulls — nearly half of the species of birds found in North America have been reported in this area. Habitat diversity is the reason, along with unspoiled habit," Hewitt says. This is a year-round destination, she says, but is especially good in the winter, with consistently high Christmas bird counts.

Central California Coast: Where to Go
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Central California Coast: Where to Go

A staggering 490 bird species have been recorded at Point Reyes National Seashore, helped by the variety of landscapes including estuaries, forests, grassland and coastal scrub. Two threatened species, the snowy plover and the northern spotted owl, are under study here. Visit from January through April and you may also spot gray whales during their migration.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington
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Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Forests, soaring mountains, rugged coastline, peaceful lakes, rambling meadows — all of these habitats are easily found on the Olympic Peninsula, which means there's a wide variety of birds to find, too. Come in April for the Olympic Peninsula BirdFest for field trips to the region's many hotspots.

Northern Pygmy Owl
Northern Pygmy Owl by Ken-ichi Ueda (CC BY)

Olympic Peninsula, Washington: Where to Go

Olympic National Park dominates the region, and affords accordingly great bird-watching opportunities. Visit the park's Hurricane Ridge area for jaw-dropping mountain views and the chance to see an elusive Northern Pygmy Owl. The Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge is the place to spy waterfowl like brant and the showy harlequin duck.

Texas Gulf Coast
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Texas Gulf Coast

Texas' popular beaches offer top-notch birding, but this is a particularly good destination in early spring — provided, of course, you can get away from spring-break crowds and find your own patch of sand. "From South Padre Island to Port Arthur (and even farther east) is good birding at any time of year, but especially in March and April, when waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, hummingbirds are heading north and find this area to be a convenient stopover," Hewitt says.

Texas Gulf Coast: Where to Go
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Texas Gulf Coast: Where to Go

From fall through spring, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge near Galveston offers ample opportunity to find more than two dozen species of ducks and tens of thousands of snow geese; migrating songbirds also join the party. You'll likely also spot alligators aplenty. During winter, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the place to be for anyone who wants to see rare whooping cranes, Hewitt says.

Your Own Hometown
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Your Own Hometown

Truth be told, you don't need to travel for birdwatching, because where you live is an ideal place to start. "Birds are all around us — even in urban areas, but especially in suburbs, backyards, city parks and vacant lots," Hewitt says. "Keep your eyes open, but even more important, keep your ears open. Being attuned to the sounds of nature is key to spotting birds you've never noticed before." The National Audubon Society has more tips on how to get started birding.