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When I trekked among the stark cactus gardens of the Arizona borderlands for the first time, I saw a dozen new birds for my life list in the first half-hour: quirky roadrunners, noisy cactus wrens, sleek phainopeplas, and enough others to make my head spin. The same thing happened when I hit central California’s rockbound coast, with its tattlers and surfbirds clambering over the boulders, gulls and terns swarming offshore. In the flower-filled meadows of the Colorado Rockies the source of my vertigo was the dazzling hummingbirds, elusive grouse, and ethereal mountain bluebirds. I felt like it was 1848 and I was in the creek at Sutter’s Mill, discovering gold.
The astonishing diversity of birdlife in the West mirrors the extreme variety of conditions. California’s Death Valley may broil at 115 degrees while the peak of Mount Whitney, less than 100 miles away, is still covered with snow. Washington State can boast temperate rainforest to the west of the Cascades and desert to the east of those same mountains. No wonder I sometimes lost my way en route to a rare bird.
But those days are over. Today we avian explorers have maps to help us find our treasures. Built on a concept pioneered in Texas in the 1990s, birding trails link sites where the public is welcome and the birding is superb. These routes have become a bonanza for birders and for local communities that have profited from ecotourism. The trails featured here are among my favorite Westerns, but there are plenty of others to discover, and a lot more in the works. So grab your binoculars and one of these guides—X marks the spot where you might strike it rich. ([doc:11331|link:Click here to download the guide.])
Great Washington State Birding Trail: The great state of Washington is too diverse to be encompassed by one birding trail, which explains why Audubon Washington has established a series of looping trails and mapped them independently. Seven proposed loops will cover the entire state. Four are already completed, and they furnish a spectacular cross-section of a remarkable set of landscapes. The outer coast of Washington hosts a wide array of migrating shorebirds, including huge flocks of western sandpipers and lesser numbers of Pacific Coast exclusives like surfbirds and black turnstones. Fog-shrouded forests that cover the coastal slope and the Olympic Peninsula echo with the ethereal whistles of varied thrushes, while richly colored birds like red-breasted sapsuckers, Townsend’s warblers, and chestnut-backed chickadees hide in the shadows. Ascending toward the high peaks of the Cascades, you’ll find black-backed woodpeckers, gray jays, and many other birds of northern affinities lurking in the forest. East of the mountains, the landscape changes abruptly to drier settings, with different birds. Rock wrens bounce and chatter along the edges of craggy arroyos, while long-billed curlews stalk over the open grasslands. Sage thrashers and Brewer’s sparrows, plain but tuneful birds, sing surprising melodies from the sagebrush flats, and golden eagles wheel overhead. For more information, visit Audubon Washington and contact 866-WA-BIRDS to order maps.
Oregon Cascades Birding Trail: The mighty Cascade Range stretches the length of Oregon, from north to south, separating the interior’s arid country from the coast’s rains and lush forests. These mountains are rightly famous as a place of awe-inspiring scenery, from the deep-blue Crater Lake to the towering snowcapped Mount Hood. Follow the Oregon Cascades Birding Trail and you will get to enjoy both the amazing scenery and a brilliant bevy of colorful birds. The trail, designed by a consortium of groups including the Audubon Society of Portland, features nearly 200 stops. Some are in the lowlands at the base of the mountains, such as along the edge of the Columbia River, where bald eagles and ospreys are celebrities. But most of the real stars are at higher elevations. Brushy thickets may hold bright golden Wilson’s and MacGillivray’s warblers and the elusive but smartly patterned mountain quail. The tall conifer forests are home to the hermit warbler, a striking bird with its center of distribution in the Oregon Cascades. Up at treeline, you may have to search carefully to find the gray-crowned rosy-finch, but the brash, noisy Clark’s nutcracker is more likely to find you. For more information, visit The Oregon Cascades Birding Trail or contact The Audubon Society of Portland (503-292-6855).
Montana Birding and Nature Trail: In Big Sky Country big plans are afoot to provide birding trails throughout six major regions of the state. Routes are already completed for the northwestern and northeastern sections, and more are coming. In the northwest, where the Bitterroot and Missoula loops are finished, magnificent forests and meadows along clear streams are inhabited by everything from massive pileated woodpeckers to tiny Calliope hummingbirds. Brilliantly colored western tanagers flash through the pines, and violet-green swallows circle overhead. In open forest stands you might spot both Lewis’s woodpeckers and Clark’s nutcrackers, named for the intrepid explorers who passed this way two centuries ago. In northeastern Montana’s high plains, the surroundings and the birds are completely different. Swainson’s hawks in summer and rough-legged hawks in winter soar and hunt in the prairies. The wide-open sagebrush flats here are among the last strongholds of the greater sage-grouse, and if you visit in spring, you may get to watch the bizarre courtship dances of the males on their traditional lekking grounds. For more information, visit the Montana Birding and Nature Trail or contact the Montana Natural History Center (406-327-0405).
Idaho Birding Trail: Its license plates may still talk about famous potatoes, but Idaho is a place where birders should keep their eyes on the skies (and leave the fries for later). The plains and canyons along the Snake River are renowned for their concentrations of birds of prey, making Idaho a mecca for raptor biologists and birders from around the world who are drawn to the state’s hawks, eagles, and falcons, and hundreds of other bird species. The Idaho Birding Trail features 173 sites in four sections of the state, from north to south. If you hike through the forests of northern Idaho, you’re sure to notice many of the smaller songbirds, from hyperactive mountain chickadees to Townsend’s warblers and Cassin’s finches, all adding their sparks of color to the dark conifers. Get out into more open areas, though, and chances are you will be distracted by the big birds. Powerful golden eagles and ferruginous hawks, dashing peregrine falcons and prairie falcons, and more than a dozen other raptors are the star attractions here. Water birds abound as well. Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge hosts trumpeter swans and one of the largest nesting concentrations of sandhill cranes, as well as Franklin’s gulls, ducks, and geese. For more information, visit the Idaho Birding Trail or contact the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (208-334-3700).
Utah’s Great Salt Lake Birding Trail: The Bonneville Salt Flats of northwest Utah may be some of the most lifeless acres on the continent, but the nearby Great Salt Lake and the mountains to the east are teeming with life, including more than 200 species of birds. The Wasatch Audubon Society created a partnership that assembled a set of birding trails that encompass more than 50 of the best sites in this region. A number of the richest sites are on the Great Salt Lake itself, including the marshes of the fabled Bear River Refuge, where great flocks of white pelicans, marbled godwits, yellow-headed blackbirds, western grebes, and numerous other birds swarm in the shallows, vying for your attention. Even on the lakeshore’s more open or barren parts, you can find pale little snowy plovers, elegant American avocets and black-necked stilts, and other shorebirds. The mountains that rise to the east of the lake, famed for their skiing in winter, offer an array of different habitats for birds in all seasons. Shady canyons filled with cottonwoods give way to spruce forest, with typical montane birds such as the elegantly patterned Williamson’s sapsucker and Cassin’s finch. At the highest levels, patches of tundra above treeline are among the likeliest places in the world for you to find the rare black rosy-finch. For more information,visit the Great Salt Lake Birding Trails or contact the Wasatch Audubon Society (801-621-7595).
Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail: Southeastern Arizona, where isolated mountain ranges rear up like islands in a sea of desert grassland, lures you with more than 400 bird species, including dozens that spill across the border from Mexico. This birding trail, sponsored by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory with help from the Tucson Audubon Society, identifies 52 key sites for finding those birds. If you go expecting to find only desert, you’ll be in for a shock. Magnificent desert vistas are here, of course, but the lowlands also have riverside forests, home to specialty birds like sleek gray hawks and noisy Abert’s towhees. The mountain summits are draped in pine and fir forests, habitat for stunning red-faced warblers, Mexican chickadees, and other prized finds. Many of the sites on the birding trail are noted for hummingbirds; more than a dozen species occur here—the highest concentration in the United States—from the minuscule Calliope hummingbird to the blue-throated hummingbird, which is as big as a sparrow. Some of the most exciting birding awaits you in rocky tree-lined canyons that snake through the foothills. These are the haunts of such Mexican-border rarities as the sulphur-bellied flycatcher, the buff-collared nightjar, the thick-billed kingbird, and the fabulously colorful elegant trogon, the northernmost member of a purely tropical family of birds. For more information, check out the Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail Map or contact the Tucson Audubon Society (520-629-0510).
Colorado Birding Trail: You may be lured to Colorado by the high peaks of the Rockies, which dominate the state, dividing the mesas of the west from the short-grass prairies to the east. But you won’t be able to avoid falling in love with other landscapes along the Colorado Birding Trail. In the treeless terrain of the prairies, many songbirds take to the sky to sing, and the air is often filled with the flight-songs of lark buntings and chestnut-collared and McCown’s longspurs. These short-grass plains are also the haunt of the rare mountain plover, a poorly named bird that sees mountains only from a distance. When you wind into the mountains you can discover red-naped sapsuckers and sky-blue mountain bluebirds in the aspen groves, and pine grosbeaks and red crossbills chattering in the conifer forests. At the high summits, where the open tundra comes alive with wildflowers in summer, you may be lucky enough to find the white-tailed ptarmigan, a master of camouflage, which is near its southernmost limits here. Everywhere in Colorado, from mountains to plains, you’ll find peak experiences. For more information, visit the Colorado Birding Trail or contact Audubon Colorado (303-415-0130).
California Central Coast Birding Trail: Some of the most beautiful coastline on earth lies between San Francisco Bay and the Los Angeles basin. Not so well known—except among serious birders—is the fact that these four counties also hold hundreds of avian species. This trail, sponsored by Audubon California, leads to 83 prime birding locations. The sites are scattered through an incredible array of landscapes, from the coast to redwood forests and marshes. And this trail doesn’t end at the ocean’s edge; it leads you to explore offshore waters as well as the Channel Islands, where you’ll find the island scrub-jay’s entire world population. Back on the mainland you will see other treasures, including the flashy yellow-billed magpie, found nowhere in the world but California. A high point—literally—is the top of Mount Pinos, at almost 9,000 feet; this was one of the best places to see wild California condors before the last ones were captured for captive breeding in 1987. Today the program’s offspring have been reintroduced to the wild and can be seen at other sites along the trail. For more information, visit the Central Coast Birding Trail or call Audubon California (916-649-7600).
California’s Eastern Sierra Birding Trail: Less than a generation has passed since heroic birder-conservationists, led by the late David Gaines, won the fight to save Mono Lake from being drained. Mono Lake remains a mecca for birders because of this proud chapter in conservation history, as well as for the abundance of birds found here. About 50,000 California gulls nest on its islands, but they are outnumbered by the concentrations of eared grebes (close to a million) and Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes (tens of thousands) that stop over during their annual migrations. Mono Lake is just one of the attractions in this region, where the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada meets the edge of the Great Basin. Thickets in the foothills are home to green-tailed towhees, lazuli buntings, black-headed grosbeaks, and other colorful songbirds. In open pine groves you may chance upon a roving flock of pinyon jays, harsh-voiced birds named for their taste for pinyon seeds, while at higher elevations you could find the soft-voiced Townsend’s solitaire or the flashy western tanager. Along rushing streams you might even be lucky enough to spot the American dipper, an odd aquatic songbird that once captivated John Muir. For more information, check out the Eastern Sierra Birding Trail Map or contact the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society (P.O. Box 624, Bishop, CA 93515).
Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail: Sites on most birding trails are linked mainly by paved roads, but the Inside Passage segment of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Trail offers a special treat because its sites are connected by ferries traveling the Alaska Marine Highway System. In this setting of forested islands and spectacular fjords, stretching from Skagway to Ketchikan, it’s not surprising that water birds provide much of the excitement, with loons, cormorants, ducks, gulls, terns, and others passing in a constant parade. Horned and tufted puffins nest on the islands and fish in the surrounding waters. Pairs of marbled murrelets are everywhere, but their rarer cousins, Kittlitz’s murrelets, are likely to be seen only where huge glaciers come down to the ocean’s edge, as in Glacier Bay National Park. Of course, there are plenty of land birds in this region as well, and nine communities along the trail offer detailed information on birding sites in the forests, rivers, and marshes nearby. Highlights include flocks of migrating sandpipers on the Stikine River near Wrangell, and the world’s largest concentrations of bald eagles, on the Chilkat River near Haines. And you can take non-birding companions along, too, for the chance of spectacular sightings of bears, whales, and other megafauna. For more information, visit The Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail or contact the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation (907-465-4190).
Chicago Region Birding Trail, Illinois and Indiana: Chicago was not founded by birders, but it could have been. Here, where the eastern forest meets the prairies and the Great Lakes, is the heart of an exciting territory for naturalists. This regional trail, sponsored by the City of Chicago, the Bird Conservation Network, and Chicago Wilderness, leads to 58 of the best birding sites in the seven Illinois counties surrounding the city and in two counties in northwest Indiana. On native prairies in summer, rare Henslow’s sparrows sing their flat hiccups, while meadowlarks and bobolinks deliver more melodious tunes. Forest preserves host flashy treetop birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers in summer, while remnant marshes still support nesting herons, ducks, and all sorts of water birds. During spring and fall migration, gulls, hawks, and other migrants sweep along Lake Michigan’s shoreline when the winds are right. But birders in the know may follow the guide to downtown Chicago, where, in the shadows of skyscrapers, parks along the lakefront provide stopover habitat for thousands of migrant travelers, including everything from blackburnian warblers to Virginia rails. For more information: Visit the Chicago Region Birding Trail or call the City of Chicago 312-743-9283.
Kansas Birding and Natural Heritage Trails: Mountains and canyons are fine for picture postcards, but the prairies’ subtle beauty and variety must be experienced to be understood. Follow this trail’s four sections—scheduled to be fully completed in 2010—and see for yourself. In the Flint Hills’ magnificent tallgrass prairies, breathy whistles of upland sandpipers float down from on high, while chunky little dickcissels sing choppy buzzes from the roadsides. Farther west, in sandsage flats near the Colorado border, you may find regal ferruginous hawks and some of the rare lesser prairie-chicken’s last remaining populations. The central part of the state’s vast wetlands serve as a stopover for tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds, especially in spring, when colorful Hudsonian godwits, American golden-plovers, and others pause here en route to the Arctic. The woods and thickets of southeastern Kansas are brightened in summer by the spectacular colors of painted buntings, indigo buntings, and blue grosbeaks, while these same thickets in winter hold throngs of big, boldly patterned Harris’s sparrows. For more information: Call Audubon of Kansas at 785-537-4385.
Minnesota’s Pine to Prairie Birding Trail: Remarkable bird diversity abounds where northwestern Minnesota’s great coniferous forests yield to a narrow band of deciduous woodlands and then the wide-open prairie farther west. This trail, the first established in the state, links 45 prime sites along the transition zone, offering the chance to see almost 300 bird species. If you are visiting from points south, you may be most intrigued by the possibilities in the region’s evergreen forest: the powerful northern goshawk, the quiet, elusive spruce grouse, and the oddly tame gray jay. The deciduous woods provide a summer home for black-billed cuckoos, brilliant scarlet tanagers, and many other migratory birds, while the grasslands just to the west offer everything from buzzy-voiced grasshopper sparrows to greater prairie-chickens. Some of the best birding is around marshes and lakes, where you may find American bitterns stalking slowly in the shallows and common loons nesting in the wilder and more remote bays. With luck, you might even spot the elusive yellow rail, or hear its odd ticking song. For more information: Visit the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail or call the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at 800-433-1888.
Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail: Minnesota may be famous for its 10,000 lakes, but the state’s rivers make the best routes for birding trails. This particular one, a project of Audubon Minnesota, follows its namesake river valley from the South Dakota border through the state’s southern part to the heart of the Twin Cities area. An expansive trail, it is thoughtfully divided into 11 distinct loops, each of them compact enough to provide a full day of birding. In summer many of the trail’s highlights are in the more open habitats. Clay-colored sparrows sing their funny flat buzzes from atop low thickets in the prairie, while bobolinks bubble and chime in flight above damp meadows. Open marshes are the places to hear yellow-headed blackbirds attempting to sing, although their hoarse strangled squawks are anything but tuneful. Black terns, graceful and sleek, fly above these same marshes. You might want to try the trail in winter. Your bird list will be shorter than it would be in summer, but it may include such prizes as the golden eagle or the northern shrike. For more information: Visit The Minnesota River Valley Birding Trail or call Audubon Minnesota at 651-739-9332.
Nebraska Birding Trails: The state license plate a few years ago featured flying sandhill cranes, and for good reason: Half a million of these regal birds stop over on the Platte River in southern Nebraska every spring, attracting thousands of birders and tourists from around the world. But if you explore this statewide series of 15 trails, encompassing more than 400 sites, you’ll realize that Nebraska has a lot of birds besides cranes. With its broad stretch from west to east, the state takes in species typical of areas beyond the Great Plains in both directions. Northwestern Nebraska’s pine ridge region has birds straight from the Rockies, like hyperactive pygmy nuthatches and flocks of blue-gray pinyon jays. At the state’s opposite corner, bottomland forests ring with the songs of typical southeastern birds, like Kentucky warblers and Louisiana waterthrushes. Visiting birders may be most excited about the grassland species inhabiting the wide-open spaces between these extremes. Among the distinctive denizens waiting to be discovered are droll burrowing owls nodding next to prairie-dog towns, sharp-tailed grouse strutting on their display grounds, and long-billed curlews showing off their namesake scimitar beaks. For more information: Visit Nebraska Birding Trails or call 402-471-7755.
Birding Drives Dakota (North Dakota): The phrase “birding drives Dakota” is a clever play on words and an optimistic claim about the importance of ecotourism in this state. Plus the “birding drives” themselves make up an excellent trio of birding trails. Centered around several national wildlife refuges in southeastern North Dakota, they take in some of the most beautiful and bird-rich prairies and marshes anywhere. The abundance of birds here in summer may be a shock when you see it for the first time. There are ducks on every pothole and pond, often including pintails, gadwalls, teal, canvasbacks, and many more. Clouds of Franklin’s gulls, patterned with black hoods and frosted wingtips, circle and soar over marshes a thousand miles from the coast, firmly putting the term seagull to rest. Western grebes splash noisily across open lakes in fast-moving courtship dances. At the same time more sedate Wilson’s phalaropes pirouette on smaller ponds. The area also holds elusive grassland species that are prize finds for traveling birders: Nelson’s sharp-tailed, Baird’s, and Le Conte’s sparrows all sing from the tops of weed stalks, while Sprague’s pipits pour out their liquid songs as they flutter high above the swaying grasslands. For more information, visit Birding Drives Dakota or call 888-921-2473.
Hocking Valley Birding Trail, Ohio: Mention of Ohio may evoke images of flatland and farms, but take a trip through Hocking Hills in the state’s southeastern quadrant, and prepare to be surprised. Here steep cliffs tower above clear rushing streams and waterfalls, hemlocks stand tall in rocky glens, and profusions of ferns grow in the shadows of forested ravines. Birding is good all year here, with permanent residents like pileated woodpeckers and barred owls lurking in the dense forests and red-headed woodpeckers drumming in the open oak groves. Still, summer is the most exciting season, because the mix of habitats supports such a wide variety of nesting birds. In the cool shade of the conifers in narrow canyons, many birds typical of Canadian zones have southern outposts, and you may find hermit thrushes, Canada warblers, blue-headed vireos, and others. Just a few miles away, in swamps and sycamore groves along the larger rivers, you can see many birds of southern affinities: the yellow-throated vireo, with its rich colors and husky voice, and the beautiful cerulean warbler, patterned in sky-blue and white—a declining species that may be more common here than anywhere else. For more information, visit Hocking Valley Birding Trail or call 740-385-8003.
South Dakota Great Lakes Birding Trail: The first birders to follow this trail were Lewis and Clark, journeying up the Missouri River in 1804. They wouldn’t have called it a “great lakes” trail then—the name comes from three large reservoirs behind modern dams on today’s river. Other aspects of the landscape have changed as well, but it is still rich with habitats. East meets west here, with eastern bluebirds and western meadowlarks singing alongside the same fields, and eastern and western kingbirds nesting in the same cottonwood groves. Visitors from afar may be most fascinated in the grasslands. Marbled godwits, big cinnamon-tinged sandpipers, nest around prairie marshes in summer, sharing the skies with colorful little chestnut-collared longspurs and an array of other open-country species. Local birders are more likely to check out the reservoirs’ edges, especially during migration, when rare water birds may drop in. On the Missouri’s undammed stretches, piping plovers and dainty least terns nest on the sandbars, while many other shorebirds stop over on migration. Search along this trail’s byways and you’ll agree that the area remains, even two centuries after the first explorers, a fabulous region for discovery. For more information, download the South Dakota Great Lakes Birding Booklet or call 800-732-5682.
Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail: Read the slogans and you might not associate this state with anything but dairy farms and cheese. But by looking through their binoculars, birders will see that Wisconsin is a microcosm of the entire Midwest. Typical habitats and birds from all compass points are represented among this statewide birding trail’s 368 sites. To explore the spruce and pine forests in the trail’s northern section is to evoke an ineffable sense of the great north woods, and you might find nesting pine siskins, boreal chickadees, or northern saw-whet owls. A full complement of eastern North America’s woodland birds may be found in eastern Wisconsin’s hardwood forests, with everything from ruffed grouse to tiny blue-gray gnatcatchers. The central region’s damp meadows are the places to hear the chatter of fidgeting sedge wrens by day and the bubbly aerial flight songs of American woodcocks at dusk. The edge of Lake Michigan produces concentrations of migrating hawks and songbirds plus a chance to see rare water birds. Great flocks of ducks and geese gather on small lakes in the state’s interior. For more information, visit the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail or call the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at 608-266-0545.
Great River Birding Trail: America’s greatest river is the centerpiece of this ambitious birding trail, designed by National Audubon to follow the mighty Mississippi all the way from its headwaters near the Canadian border to its delta on the Gulf of Mexico. When completed, the trail will include county-level maps of birding sites all along the river’s course, with the Midwest portion covering parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. Appropriately, many of the birding highlights along this section of the big river involve large birds. In summer great blue herons and other long-legged waders are common. Migration seasons bring a surge of snow geese, Canada geese, and other waterfowl. Midwestern populations of American white pelicans have been increasing, and flocks of these huge birds now follow the river in spring and fall, pausing on backwaters or wheeling in ponderous flight overhead. In the cold months, much of the Upper Mississippi Valley becomes a major wintering area for bald eagles, as these magnificent birds gather around the river’s locks and dams. You may find dozens together in some locales, a spectacle that has inspired several towns and cities to establish eagle festivals. For more information, visit the Great River Birding Trail.