While most of us have been sticking close to home this year, bird watching has taken flight. The outdoor activity, which naturally encourages social distancing, has soared in popularity.
“We’re going back to our roots to reconnect with nature,” says Stan Tekiela, a naturalist and the author of seven regional birding guides, “Birding for Beginners: California, Northeast, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, Midwest, South, and Southwest “(Adventure Publications, $16.95). “It really touches our souls.”
He says wildlife refuges and parks around the country make it easy to see a wide variety of fliers, and shares some prime locations with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Located in a popular Gulf Coast vacation area, this refuge makes it easy to see wildlife with a boardwalk, tram, kayak trail and nature cruises. Many come to see the colorful roseate spoonbill, which thrive in an area considered the nation’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem. “You can see a variety of long-legged wading birds,” Tekiela says. “It’s easy access, which is a big thing for a lot of people.”
Status: Open (visitor center closed; Wildlife Drive closed on Fridays)
More information: fws.gov/refuge/jn_ding_darling/
Maryland and Virginia
Located along the Atlantic migratory flyway, the area’s beaches, forests and bays see a wide variety of birds, including raptors, shorebirds and waterfowl. “It’s very popular with migrating ducks. You get a lot of waterfowl coming through,” Tekiela says.
More information: nps.gov/asis
Commerce CIty, Colorado
Once a chemical weapons manufacturing area, this 15,000-acre refuge north of Denver has seen a remarkable turnaround. Today it offers 10 miles of trails and a self-guided wildlife driving tour. The sanctuary’s home to 330 species of animals, including bison, black-footed ferrets and bald eagles. “It really good for prairie birds like burrowing owls. They’re tiny little owls and they’re adorable,” Tekiela says.
More information: fws.gov/refuge/rocky_mountain_arsenal/
Morris County, New Jersey
Just 26 miles west of Times Square, this New Jersey refuge feels far away from the crowds of Manhattan. “It’s a great place for warblers in the springtime. Birders love them because they’re small and colorful and they’re a lot of fun,” Tekiela says. With nearly 8,000 acres, the area sees 244 bird species, along with river otters, mink and muskrats.
More information: fws.gov/refuge/great_swamp/
Klamath Falls, Oregon
With 23,000 acres of marshland and open water, this Pacific Northwest park offers nesting areas to American white pelicans and several heron species, along with wood ducks and other waterfowl. Tekiela has visited in search of the Lewis woodpecker, named by Meriwether Lewis, who spotted it during the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.
Status: Open but air quality may be unhealthy at times due to wildfires
More information: fws.gov/refuge/Upper_Klamath/
With more than 350,000 acres, you’ll have no trouble finding birds – or social distancing – at this southern Georgia preserve. “It’s famous for a variety of wetland, wading birds. There are a lot of boardwalks and a canoe trail,” Tekiela says. Park visitors can see endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker. And there are plenty of great egrets and American alligators, too.
Status: Open (visitor center and other services closed)
More information: fws.gov/refuge/okefenokee/
Stretching along 50 miles of Maine coastline, this refuge preserves salt marshes and estuaries favored by migrating birds. Visitors find coastal meadows, beaches and rocky Maine coast, where they can spot saltmarsh sparrows and piping plovers, a shorebird that nests on beaches.
Status: Open (visitor center closed)
More information: fws.gov/refuge/rachel_carson/
Although named for a mammal, this 25,000-acre preserve near Jackson Hole is a great place to see prairie birds like the sage grouse, Tekiela says. “They’re large obvious birds that look like chickens. They’re big, and there aren’t a lot of them.” It’s also a good place to spot trumpeter swans and bald eagles.
Status: Open (visitor center closed)
More information: fws.gov/refuge/national_elk_refuge/
Rodanthe, North Carolina
This coastal barrier island offers habitat for migratory birds from snow geese to raptors. Visitors come to see American coots, great blue herons, peregrine falcons and tundra swans. “The shore birds are really good,” Tekiela says. The area’s brackish waters – a combination of fresh and salt – helps account for the diversity.
Status: Outdoor areas open during daylight hours; visitor center closed
More information: fws.gov/refuge/pea_island/
Tekiela loves this Pacific coast preserve, home to bobcats, hawks and falcons, and much more. The park has recorded nearly 490 bird species, which it says is half of those found in North America, giving it more avian diversity than any other national park. “It’s a very unusual place. It’s great for raptors, and it has some really nice ocean birds,” he says. It’s also home to the western snowy plover, an endangered species.
Status: Visitor center and several areas closed due to COVID-19 precautions and wildfires
More information: nps.gov/pore