Glaucous-winged Gull at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo: Benjamin Olson/Minden Pictures

Year of the Bird

10 National Parks That Are Surprisingly Great for Birding

You don't have to visit Yosemite to see a lot of species.

The National Park Service manages 417 of the most beautiful landscapes and important historical and cultural sites in America. Many of these national parks are world-famous for their wildlife. For birders, however, the most popular national parks aren’t always the areas with the largest bird diversity.

A big plot of land does not guarantee a big list of birds. Features like high habitat diversity, whether a park is a migrant trap, and the “Central Park” oasis effect can all lead to a large number of different birds. The same goes for national parks, where sometimes the parks with the most bird species aren’t the biggest or most famous—or even set aside to conserve nature in the first place. 

I’ve combed through eBird hotspots and determined how many different bird species have been seen in all 417 of America’s national parks, and the parks at the top of the list aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect. Below are 10 of the most surprisingly bird-rich parks in the country.

10. National Mall, Washington DC—260 species 

An aerial view of the National Mall, where you can spot a lot more than just tourists if you know where to look. Photo: mariordo59/Flickr CC (BY-SA 2.0)

Most people visit the National Mall to see its famous monuments, statues, and memorials. Others visit this green expanse in the center of our nation’s capital to seek wildlife. The Potomac River flows along the western edge of the Mall and is home to waterfowl in all seasons. Parts of the Mall with extensive vegetation, especially Hains Point, act as migration traps in spring and fall. In all, at least 260 different bird species have been recorded in this patriotic urban oasis.

9. Cabrillo National Monument , California—262 species

Brown Pelicans flying along the cliffs at Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma, CA. Photo: Michael Brant/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nature isn’t the primary purpose of this small site near San Diego. Rather, Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the site of the first European expedition to reach what became America’s Pacific Coast. Still, the location is a nature-lover’s dream. Visitors can explore tide pools along the rocks, watch the passage of migrating whales in the right seasons, and of course scan the waves for seabirds. Plus, as a peninsula sticking out into the Pacific, Cabrillo is a perfect trap for vagrants migrating up and down the coast.

8. Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Maryland—265 species

Birders scan the waters off of Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine during Audubon's Baltimore Birding Weekend. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

O say, can you see . . . lots of different birds? The sight of the bedraggled American flag over this Baltimore fortress inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became the National Anthem in 1814. Nowadays this historic site inspires birders to scour the grounds and look out over the Chesapeake Bay. The fort juts out into the Bay, acting as a perfect migrant trap and an urban oasis for birds flying over Baltimore City. At least 265 different species have been spotted at Fort McHenry, despite it being the smallest national park on this list at just 43 acres.

7. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona, Nevada—268 species

If you're striking out in Las Vegas, head to Lake Mead National Recreation Area, where you'll have plenty of birding luck. Photo: Chris Moran/Travel Nevada/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A man-made lake in the middle of the Mojave Desert might not seem like a birdwatcher’s dream, but truth is, the National Recreation Area is an actual oasis for birds, providing a vital water source in a parched landscape. At least 268 different birds have been spotted in the park, including dozens of species of ducks, geese and other waterfowl that don’t have many options for resting and refueling in the desert. Most of the best birding is on the western shore of the park, just upriver from the Hoover Dam and less than an hour’s drive from Las Vegas. 

6. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana—285 species

Spring and fall birding is superb at Indiana Dunes, where migrants stop on their way north and south. Photo: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Situated along the otherwise industrialized Lake Michigan shoreline east of Gary, Indiana, this National Lakeshore protects 15 miles of dunes, wetlands, forests, and prairies. The park is a haven for the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly and has hosted at least 285 bird species. The park is especially hopping during spring and fall migrations, when thousands of birds pause along the shorelines before continuing to their breeding or wintering grounds.

5. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico—310 species

Every species reported at Carlsbad Caverns National Park has been seen at Rattlesnake Springs. Photo: Associate Press

Birders have recorded at least 311 bird species at Carlsbad Caverns—not bad for a park most famous for what’s happening underground. In fact, all 311 species have been reported at just one hotspot: Rattlesnake Springs, just a few miles east of the main body of the park. Rattlesnake is another true oasis in the desert, and an officially recognized Important Bird Area. The place is a magnet for eastern vagrants, and just about every Eastern warbler—including Cape May, Prothonotary, and Kentucky—has been seen in spring or fall.

Related: Carlsbad Caverns and two other national parks on this list were part of a recent Audubon climate study looking at the future of birds in our national parks. Discover which species could arrive and which species could leave 274 of our most famous parks here.

4. Death Valley National Park, California, Nevada—357 species

Find the water in Death Valley, and you'll find lots of birdlife. Photo: Beau Rogers/Flickr CC (BY-NC 2.0)

Who knew that a place named Death would contain so much life? Indeed, the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the country—and the largest national park in the lower 48—is also one of the birdiest. As with some other desert parks on this list, birders should look for water to find wildlife. At Death Valley, the best spot is the Furnace Creek area, which has hosted more than 330 different species.

3. Big Bend National Park, Texas—360 species

The Lucifer Hummingbird is just one of the many types of hummingbird species one can spot in Big Bend National Park. Photo: Andrea Driggs/Audubon Photography Awards

The lower Rio Grande Valley might get all the accolades as a national birding destination, but this national park, located a ways north along the river, is just as much of a goldmine. Here, habitat diversity is key; Big Bend protects desert, river edges, desert springs, oak-pinyon woods, and the high-elevation woodlands of the Chisos Mountains. The result is an incredible diversity of birdlife, highlighted perhaps by the only known American breeding location of the Colima Warbler.

2. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York, New Jersey—375 species

The East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York City. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Gateway National Recreation Area is composed of a few bits of greenery clinging like barnacles to the hull of New York City, but those bits make up some incredibly important bird habitat. Jamaica Bay is a world-famous wetland complex where birders have spotted all manner of shorebirds and waterfowl. The Sandy Hook unit, on the other side of Lower New York Bay in New Jersey, is a classic migrant trap. The 356 species seen at Sandy Hook make it one of the birdiest single spots in the nation.

1. Point Reyes National Seashore, California—444 species

A Burrowing Owl stands guard next to its burrow in Point Reyes. Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Point Reyes National Seashore has recorded more species of birds than any other national park in the nation. The seashore, on the California coast just above San Francisco, hits all the requirements for a birdy park: great diversity of habitat that includes coastline, forest, wetland, and open fields; a jutting peninsula serving as a migrant trap; seawatch promontories; and proximity to a big city (with lots of birders). Point Reyes perhaps isn’t as famous as Yosemite or Zion, but to a birder, it’s absolute heaven.

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Hold up! Before heading to any of these parks, download our free Audubon bird guide app for profiles of more than 800 North American species. 

 
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