Great Gray Owl in Alaska. Photo: Michael Quinton/Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative

Travel

Head to the North Woods—the Boreal Birds Are Waiting

Use this summer guide to explore the hidden treasures of the Boreal Forest.

For most of North America, the birds of the boreal forest—the vast swath of spruce woods, bogs, and northern hardwoods stretching across the top of the continent—appear only fleetingly, if they’re seen at all. You might find a flock of Common Redpolls feeding in a Minnesota field in January or a Blackburnian Warbler perched in a Tennessee treetop in May. But those moments are elusive, and some boreal birds never dip south. Take control of your destiny by heading north this summer to see these species where they nest and breed. You might hear the call of a Common Loon or the drumming of a Black-backed Woodpecker. Venture beyond the well-trodden boardwalks and pathways for a glimpse of the rare Bicknell’s Thrush. And while you’re traveling, there are plenty of other activities and attractions to explore. Paddle a kayak alongside beluga whales, search for seabirds on a whale-watching tour, visit craft breweries and museums, or even take a thrilling ride on a bobsled. You won’t be bored in the boreal. 

Grail Bird

Spruce Grouse

This elegant bird can seem hard to find—not because it’s shy but because it’s tame. Spruce Grouse may sit motionless as you walk by just a few feet away. Males sometimes stand along road edges at dawn, and hens with chicks prowl dirt roads and trails in midsummer.

5 Trips to Boreal Hotspots

Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, Maine

Magnolia Warbler. Photo: Sam Fried/Audubon Photography Awards

Established: 1973

Bird Species: 175

A diverse landscape of hills, shores, lakes, streams, and bogs makes Moosehorn a magnet for birds, including Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadees, and Blackburnian Warblers. Drive an hour south to the historic lighthouse at Quoddy Head State Park, the country’s easternmost point—and a perfect lookout for scoping seabirds.

Adirondack Park, New York

Adirondack High Peaks. Photo: Brett Maurer/Getty Images

Established: 1892

Bird Species: 200 

Listen for the call of the Common Loon in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park. See Gray Jays, Mourning and Canada Warblers, and, with luck, even a Spruce Grouse or Black-backed Woodpecker. Hike high peaks like Wakely Mountain in pursuit of the rare Bicknell’s Thrush. On breaks, stop at craft breweries or ride a bobsled in Lake Placid. The Adirondack Birding Festival happens in June, but guided warbler walks occur all summer.

Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

Algonquin Provincial Park. Photo: Design Pics Inc/National Geographic Creative

Established: 1893

Bird Species: 275

Algonquin is a place to find the “Big Four” boreal birds: the Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, and Boreal Chickadee. It is also famous for weekly “wolf howls” in August and for excellent hiking and canoeing. A park map highlights water routes, easy day paddles, and places to camp. The visitors’ center and nearby one-mile Spruce Bog Boardwalk Trail provide an introduction to the park’s rich wildlife and history.

Churchill, Manitoba

Boreal Chickadee. Photo: Rick & Nora Bowers/Alamy Stock Photo

Established: 1717

Bird Species: 195

The town of Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay, is the place to see polar bears in fall, but in summer, boreal birds are the big draw. Forest meets tundra here, providing habitat for Willow Ptarmigans, Parasitic Jaegers, Northern Hawk Owls, Bohemian Waxwings, and more. Summer bonus: several thousand beluga whales that gather in the Churchill River estuary.

Anchorage, Alaska

Mirror Lake, Chugach Mountains, Anchorage, Alaska. Photo: Alison Wright/Aurora Photos

Established: Circa 1914

Bird Species: 250

Imagine seeing Rock Ptarmigans, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, and White-winged Crossbills on a morning hike and dining on king crab a few hours later. Welcome to Anchorage, which offers excellent birding just minutes from downtown. Between bird quests, fly in a helicopter over a glacier, tour the kennel of an Iditarod “musher,” or visit the Anchorage Museum. —M.W.

4 Insider Tips

Wildlife Safety

As you’re traveling in the North Country, always follow rules about dealing with bears, and keep your distance from moose; they look docile, but they are extremely aggressive when disturbed or threatened.   

Biting Bugs

Big mammals may get all the publicity, but you’re far more likely to be bothered by mosquitoes, flies, and other pesky insects. Be prepared with long-sleeved shirts, repellent, and even a head net.

Train Travel

Most people visit Churchill by plane, but for a true adventure, consider the 48-hour rail journey from Winnipeg. The train departs Sunday and Tuesday mornings.

Trip Prep 

For more facts and information about boreal birds and high-latitude birding, visit the Boreal Songbird Initiative’s website: borealbirds.org.

Hit a Birding Trail

Common Loon. Photo: Jim Cumming/Audubon Photography Awards

North Huron Birding Trail Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or, as locals refer to it, “the U.P.,” offers remarkable scenery and legendary birding. The new North Huron Birding Trail highlights 30 of the best sites near the peninsula’s eastern tip. Boreal forest zones here offer a wide variety of nesting birds: Northern Goshawks hunt the forest interior, Blackburnian Warblers sing from the spruce tops, and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers lurk in the bogs. Search for Sharp-tailed Grouse in the open areas, and Sedge Wrens, Le Conte’s Sparrows, or even the elusive Yellow Rail in the meadows. At night, Common Loons serenade campers with their wild yodeling. Learn more at northhuronbirding.com, and explore other birding trails at audubon.org/travel

Gear: Comfort Zone

Big Agnes Krumholtz UL2 mtnGLO.

Camp in style with the Big Agnes Krumholtz UL2 mtnGLO ($650), a durable, two-person tent with LED lights and a Goal Zero solar panel, fan, and battery. Then hit the trail for a full day of birding: The Thule Stir 20L Hiking Pack ($100) is comfortable, has quick-access pockets, and weighs only a pound. You’ll forget you’re carrying the super-compact Patagonia Alpine Houdini jacket ($199)—until the wind picks up or it starts raining. Protect yourself from the sun while staying cool in the Outdoor Research Ensenada Sun Hoody ($79), which is made from with UPF 50+ rated fabric . The 18-ounce Yeti Rambler Bottle ($40) keeps coffee hot or water chilled all day. The fully loaded Boker Plus Tech-Tool Outdoor 7 ($73) features three blades, scissors, and an awl. Keep bugs at bay with Natrapel 8-Hour ($6 and up), a Deet-free, long-lasting insect repellant with picaridin. 

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