Top Ten National Park Bird-Watching Sites

Where to go to make your life list grow
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Balanced Rock in Big Bend National Park
Balanced Rock in Big Bend National Park  (Jeremy Woodhouse/Digital Vision/Getty)
Hawaiian Birds
The rarest birds in the National Park System are probably found in Haleakala National Park, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Native Hawaiian species have suffered severe declines due to habitat loss and introduced species. Among them are many species of Hawaiian honeycreepers: small, colorful birds once common across the islands. Some have already become extinct, while others are threatened or critically endangered. Haleakala pro vides a refuge for akohekohe (crested hon eycreeper), Maui par rotbill, and alauahio (Maui creeper). The nukupuu , believed extinct, may yet survive. The major stronghold for these birds is Haleakala's restricted Kipahulu Scientific Reserve, fenced to keep out goats and other non-native species. The diverse range of habitats within our national parks, from deserts to seashores to alpine peaks, means a correspondingly high diversity of birds. Some species are confined to small areas, while others can be found across large swathes of land. These parks offer a superb selection of environments to tempt traveling birders.

Big Bend National Park
Colima Warbler
More bird species have been spotted in Big Bend National Park than in any other National Park System unit except for Point Reyes National Seashore. Big Bend's number of specialty birds, however, gives this out-of-the-way site in western Texas the top spot on the bird-watching ranking. The park's list of more than 450 bird species owes its length in part to the fact that Big Bend is often described as "three parks in one": lush riparian vegetation along the Rio Grande, a vast area of Chihuahuan Desert, and the Chisos Mountains, rising to more than 7,800 feet in the center of the park. The star attraction is the little Colima warbler, which nests nowhere else in the United States. It takes some effort (and a little bit of luck) to fi nd such species as flammulated owl and black-capped vireo; more common and conspicuous are the colorful acorn woodpecker, Mexican jay, pyrrhuloxia, and Scott's oriole. The secret to finding a lot of bird species is visiting the park's many different habitats, spending time in places such as Hot Springs Village on the Rio Grande, lower Green Gulch in the desert, and Boot Canyon in the mountains.

Point Reyes National Seashore
Endangered Northern Spotted Owl
Around 490 species of birds have been seen at California's Point Reyes, which represents more than 40 percent of the total for North America. Many of those species are extreme rarities—birds that lost their way and ended up at this Pacifi c Coast peninsula, an hour north of San Francisco. Combining seabirds with birds of shore, grassland, scrubland, and forest, Point Reyes offers year-round interesting birding. Visitors to Bear Valley, Limantour, Abbotts Lagoon, and the cliffs around the lighthouse will possibly see such species as sooty shearwater, brown pelican, Brandt's cormorant, pelagic cormorant, osprey, California quail, black oystercatcher, common murre, rhinoceros auklet, tufted puffin, Allen's hummingbird, Nuttall's woodpecker, Pacificslope flycatcher, Hutton's vireo, chestnut-backed chickadee, wrentit, and California towhee. Point Reyes is also home to the endangered northern spotted owl (rare here) and the threatened snowy plover, which nests on park beaches. Peregrine falcons sometimes cruise along beaches and mudflats, looking for prey. But the real magic of Point Reyes is simply the fact that anything can show up here, anytime, making every birding visit an adventure.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Wintering Waterfowl and Migrant Raptors
America's first national seashore (established 1953), Cape Hatteras protects 70 miles of barrier islands on the North Carolina coast. Bird-watchers know it as a place of wintering waterfowl and migrant raptors and shorebirds, often in significant numbers and variety. Contained within the national seashore is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (252- 987-2394,, where marshes and impoundments can host swans, geese, ducks, herons, ibises, rails, and shorebirds. Groves of trees, such as Buxton Woods, provide shelter for migrant songbirds in fall, when hawks and falcons appear, heading south along beaches. (October is a good time to see the magnificent peregrine falcon.) Nesting birds include the threatened piping plover, American oystercatcher, least tern, and black skimmer. The famed Cape Hatteras lighthouse is a good place from which to scan the Atlantic Ocean for northern gannets, shearwaters, jaegers, and gulls.

Rocky Mountain National Park
White-tailed Ptarmigan and Brown-capped Rosy-finch
Spanning the Continental Divide in northern Colorado, this park is home to a delightful variety of Rocky Mountain foothill and high-elevation birds. Driving Trail Ridge Road across the park means ascending to more than 12,000 feet, with amazing vistas of mountain peaks in all directions. Simply stopping along the way can bring sightings of birds such as Steller's jay, gray jay, Clark's nutcracker, pygmy nuthatch, Townsend's solitaire, and western tanager. Above tree line, lucky birders might find white-tailed ptarmigan or brown-capped rosy-finch. It usually takes a bit of exploring to find species such as dusky grouse, northern pygmy-owl, three-toed woodpecker, Williamson's sapsucker, Cassin's finch, and pine grosbeak. Look along streams for American dipper, and at blooming f lowers for broad-tailed hummingbird. The beautiful mountain bluebird frequents open areas at lower elevations. There may be no park in North America that combines such rewarding birding with such spectacularly accessible scenery.

Dry Tortugas National Park
Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies
For a few weeks each spring, this tiny island park—a few specks of land in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles west of Key West, Florida—provides an unparalleled spectacle. Thousands of birds fl ying northward from their wintering grounds in Latin America to nesting areas in the United States and Canada, tired and hungry after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, drop out of the sky at Garden Key (the main Dry Tortugas island), covering shrubs, buildings, and even the lawn, so unwary that they can be approached closely. There's no predicting what might show up at any given moment. In addition, thousands of sooty terns and brown noddies (also a type of tern) nest on Bush Key, just 200 or so yards from Garden Key. Magnificent frigatebird, brown booby, masked booby, and white-tailed tropicbird are among other seabirds that might be spotted here, and for the lucky, a black noddy might be found perched on the old coaling docks. For birders there's nothing like Dry Tortugas in Spring.

Published: 24 May 2011 | Last Updated: 3 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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