There’s nothing quite like spring migration for a birder, with April showers delivering an onslaught of tanagers, warblers, grosbeaks, and buntings. No matter where you live in the United States, there’s the potential for great birding between the months of March and May.
When it comes to quantity and quality though, there are a few spots that have it better off than the rest. Here are five places that would suit any vernal birder who’s eager for some intra-continental travel.
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
This one’s a bit of a watery trek, but it’s worth it. The Dry Tortugas consists of seven small islands about 70 miles off of Key West, Florida. The park usually hosts fewer than 50 species, but in April and early May it can yield over 200 species. For unobstructed views of Black-throated Blue, Cerulean, Kentucky, or Chestnut-sided Warblers, this is the place to visit. And if that isn’t enough to make birders come a runnin’, there are two species of boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Sooty Terns, and Brown Noddies that often swing by before heading to the mainland.
South Padre Island, Texas
The Rio Grande Valley provides fabulous birding year round, but April at the South Padre Island Convention Center is completely crazy. The ground is carpeted with flocks of Indigo Buntings and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks; the shrubs are dotted with orange halves, as well as Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Scarlet Tanagers. Even skulky birds like Worm-eating and Hooded Warblers can be found nibbling on the citrus. The vibe is friendly and low-key, with a generous dose of local birders and journeymen who are eager to help everyone find their target birds.
Once you’ve had your fill of songbirds, head to Estero Llano Grande State Park and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge to check off some other southern Texas specialties, like Aplomado Falcons and Green Jays.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah
Utah is one of my favorite states for birding; the scenery is just as gorgeous as the birds themselves. The Bear River refuge is located roughly 1.5 hours away from the Salt Lake City Airport. April pulls in a bonanza of shorebirds to the area, like Willets, Marbled Godwits, and Long-billed Curlews. Other prizes include Western and Clark’s Grebes, Soras, Eastern and Western Kingbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, as well as a host of egrets and herons. Ducks have their heyday in March, but Cinnamon Teals, Gadwalls, Canvasbacks, and Common Goldeneyes tend to stick around.
If you’re looking to hang with other birding enthusiasts, try booking a trip during the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival in May. But if you’re going solo or with a small group, a driving tour is the best way to mine the refuge. You might notice small clouds on the road—midges. Don’t worry; they don’t bite. All they do is attract a gigantic swarm of swallows—a welcome distraction from the tranquil mountain vista.
Sixty miles away, Antelope Island plays host to Golden Eagles, Western Meadowlarks, and Chukars. But bring some insect repellent: The gnats on the island mean business.
Magee Marsh, Ohio
Imagine hundreds of warblers—Golden-winged, Prothonotary, and Black-throated Green—hamming it up for thousands of birders on a 6-foot-wide boardwalk. That’s the insanity of spring migration in northeastern Ohio. Every May, a 10-day event called the Biggest Week In American Birding turns Magee Marsh into a spectacle. The festival uses social media and hashtags to direct people to key species, and a series of numbers on the boardwalk act like mile markers. Just about every famous birder shows up at some point, including Kenn Kaufman, Laura Erickson, and Richard Crossley. Keep an eye to the ground, too: American Woodcocks and Whip-poor-Will’s are frequently found roosting next to the boardwalk.
If the idea of large crowds makes you shiver, consider visiting Tawas Point in Michigan or Presque Isle in Pennsylvania around the same time. You can still get great flocks of warblers, vireos, and tanagers, but will be spared the huddled masses of bird geeks.
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include my home base: the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Set along the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers—a superhighway for passerines, raptors, and waterfowl—the refuge hosts nesting Bald Eagles, Prothonotary Warblers, and Indigo Buntings. It all lends to an awesome birding experience, right on the fringe of Minneapolis.
What are some of your favorite migration hot spots? I’m always looking for strange new places to go birding. Leave your suggestions in the comments below!