Birding in Massachusetts

It's not only vacationers that are attracted to Cape Cod. Check out these great birding spots in Massachusetts.
National Wildlife Refuges National Parks Acreage of Important Bird Areas
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Though Massachusetts is a relatively small state, it boasts an extremely active contingent of birders, who trace their heritage back to the legendary Ludlow Griscom, a pioneer in field ornithology. (Fittingly, Griscom is buried in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, one of the state’s most popular birding sites.)

Massachusetts birders spend much of their time on or near the Atlantic coast, where sandy beaches, marsh, and rocky shores provide habitat for a long list of species. Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, near Newburyport, makes the list of the most productive birding destinations in the Northeast. The curving arm of Cape Cod encompasses several top sites as well.

Even the metropolis of Boston has many worthwhile parks and refuges, thanks to conservation-minded citizens who have fought to spare some of the best natural areas from development. Inland, sprawling Quabbin Reservoir is a fine location for both land and water birds.

For visitors, one benefit of the abundance of Massachusetts birders is the likelihood of running into a local at top destinations. Many a birding trip has been enhanced by a bit of expert advice—and with nearly 500 species on the state list, you’ll want to make the most of your time there. 

Massachusetts Birding Hotspots


Newburyport/Joppa Flats

Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport makes a great first stop for birders visiting this popular area. On Water Street beside the Merrimack River, the center offers advice, exhibits, programs, and good viewing of the Joppa Flats: an expanse of marsh, mudflats, and water that’s one of the state’s best birding sites.

Brant stop here in spring, and Osprey are present in summer. Joppa Flats is famous for shorebirds, with a list of around 35 species. In summer, wading birds include Black-crowned Night-Heron and an occasional Glossy Ibis. Roseate Tern drop by later, around August.

Many rare gulls have been recorded around Newburyport over the years, partly because so many birders keep watch. Species such as the Black-headed Gull and Little Gull show up often enough to keep hopes high.

One of the best ways to experience this area is to take one of the guided trips offered by the Education Center. You can find a full schedule on the website. Plus, the visitor center for the excellent Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (below) is just across the street.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge/Sandy Point State Reservation

One of the most famous birding destinations in the Northeast, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge occupies most of Plum Island, an 8.5-mile-long barrier island east of Newburyport. The refuge comprises more than 4,700 acres, nearly two-thirds of it salt marsh.

Other habitats on Plum Island, including dunes, bog, forest, shrub, and freshwater marsh, have helped the site accrue a bird list of more than 360 species. The refuge administers several miles of Atlantic Ocean beach, much of it closed from April 1 to late summer to protect nesting Piping Plover.

The visitor center is located on Water Street in Newburyport. There’s much to be seen on the 6.5-mile wildlife drive through the refuge; if you’d rather explore by foot, the site also has trails, marsh boardwalks, and two observation towers. The Salt Pannes area may attract shorebirds during migration. And the Hellcat Interpretive Trail, which passes through both dunes and marsh, is one of the best sites on the refuge for spotting King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Marsh Wren, and Saltmarsh Sparrow. (The Hellcat area alone has a bird list of almost 270 species.)

From late fall into spring, scoters, mergansers, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Great Cormorant, Dovekie, Razorbill, and Black Guillemot are a few of the uncommon to rare birds that might be seen offshore, along with Black-legged Kittiwake and many other gulls. Rough-legged Hawk, Snowy Owl, and Short-eared Owl patrol open areas. Look on beach rocks at the southern end of the island in winter for Purple Sandpiper. Beaches may have flocks of Snow Bunting in winter.

Be forewarned: An infamous insect called the greenhead fly makes summer unpleasant on Plum Island, but that’s not the best time to bird there anyway.

Manomet/Plymouth/Duxbury/Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary

The area around Plymouth offers some of the best birding in eastern Massachusetts throughout the year, particularly for ducks, shorebirds, terns, and various seabirds. At Manomet Point, just east of Plymouth, bluffs provide a lookout point from fall through spring to scan Cape Cod Bay for eiders, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-throated Loons, Red-necked Grebes, shearwaters, storm-petrels, Northern Gannets, Dovekies, Razorbills, and gulls. Purple Sandpipers spend the winter on the rocky shore below.

Long Beach in Plymouth is a thin barrier strip of sand that stretches into the harbor for more than 2.5 miles. It’s home to a vitally important nesting colony of shorebirds and terns, including Piping Plovers, Least Terns, Common Terns, Roseate Terns, and Arctic Terns. Many other shorebirds and waterbirds can also be seen here, usually concentrated by the high tide. In winter, Plymouth Harbor is home to Brant, Common Loons, Horned Grebes, Great Cormorants, and, often, Iceland Gulls. Just to the north, Duxbury Beach is an excellent spot for seeing many of the same birds.

A bit farther north in Marshfield, Mass Audubon’s Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary protects grasslands that are home to locally uncommon breeding birds, as well as other interesting species. In summer, visitors can see the Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Osprey, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and Baltimore Oriole. Visitors can explore the 578 acres on 3.5 miles of trails.

Fort Hill, Cape Cod National Seashore

One of the best birding areas on Cape Cod is Fort Hill, on the east side of Highway 6 between Orleans and Eastham. Many locals, in fact, consider it the best Cape Cod birding site.

The 1.5-mile trail here provides views over Nauset Marsh, passing through grassland, scrub, and trees. Nesting birds include Northern Bobwhite, Willow Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow Warbler, and Baltimore Oriole.

In the marsh in summer, birders find waders such as Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Black-crowned Night-Heron, as well as Osprey and Least Tern. In migration or winter, the marsh may have American Bittern, Clapper Rail, Virginia Rail, Marsh Wren, Nelson’s Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Seaside Sparrow. Shorebirds also frequent the marsh, especially in fall. High tide is the best time to observe many species, as higher water forces them closer to shore.

Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is located on the west side of Cape Cod, between Highway 6 and the Wellfleet Harbor area of Cape Cod Bay. The 937-acre sanctuary has a cumulative bird list of nearly 300, making it one of the hottest of Massachusetts’s birding hot spots.

Visitors should tour the nature center with its informative exhibits before setting out on the five miles of trails. These lead through salt marsh and pine woods to a sandy beach, creating habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and a diversity of land birds.

In some ways, late summer is the highlight season at Wellfleet Bay. At that time visitors can see wading birds such as Snowy Egret as well as the best variety of shorebirds, with as many at 15 species commonly seen in a day. As summer turns to fall there’s a chance of migrating Merlin and Peregrine Falcon.

The marsh is home to nesting American Black Duck, Clapper Rail, Piping Plover, Least Tern, Tree Swallow, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird. Other breeding birds on the sanctuary include Wild Turkey, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Yellow Warbler, Pine Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.

Quabbin Reservoir

In central Massachusetts, sprawling Quabbin Reservoir makes a great birding destination. Because it’s used as a water supply, the land around it is protected, making it a relatively undisturbed home for everything from waterfowl to Bald Eagles and nesting warblers.

Eighteen miles long, with 180 miles of shoreline, Quabbin offers a lot of area to explore. The visitor center, located at the southern end off Highway 9, has information, exhibits, and maps. Access is largely on foot, entering by more than 50 gates around the perimeter. Many of the trails favored by birders are reached via gates at the northern end of the reservoir.

Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Common Loon (near the southern edge of its breeding range), and Double-crested Cormorant are present much of the year. American Woodcock performs its spring courtship flight in open areas, and Wood Duck commonly nests along the shore. Other nesting birds include Bald Eagle, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Blue-headed Vireo, Common Raven, Brown Creeper, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole.

The notable list of nesting warblers includes Blue-winged Warbler, Cerulean Warbler (scarce), Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler.

Belle Isle Marsh Reservation

The entrance to Belle Island Marsh Reservation, off Bennington Street, is just a mile north of the runways of Boston Logan Airport. A marsh centuries ago, it was later the site of a drive-in theater. Thirty years of restoration have led to what is now one of the largest salt marshes in the Boston area and a local birding hot spot.

Trails and boardwalks wind across the marsh, through grassland with scattered trees, and across tidal channels to observation decks. Shorebirds are among the highlights of Belle Isle, with more than 30 species having been reported. August is generally the time to see the best variety.

Brant, Green-winged Teal, and Bufflehead can be common here in spring, and American Black Duck is present year-round. Great Egret and Snowy Egret are common in summer, with lesser numbers of Black-crowned Night-Heron and Glossy Ibis. Nesting birds include Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, American Oystercatcher, Willet, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, and Saltmarsh Sparrow.

In winter, Belle Isle can host Northern Harrier, Snowy Owl, Snow Bunting (scarce), American Tree Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

There aren’t many cemeteries with the pedigree and fascinating attributes of Mount Auburn in Cambridge, a little over a mile west of Harvard Yard. Founded in 1831, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is the final resting place of notables from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Buckminster Fuller.

From the beginning it was seen as a combination cemetery and garden-arboretum, and it now features 175 landscaped acres with more than 5,000 trees. This makes it a de facto bird sanctuary and one of the best “migrant traps” in New England, where traveling birds stop to rest and feed.

The peak season is May, when cuckoos, flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, and orioles of dozens of species may be present. At that time, birders are always on the trails at dawn, and they share sightings on bulletin boards at the visitor center. (Yes, Mount Auburn Cemetery has its own visitor center.) Local bird groups lead guided walks most mornings in spring, especially the first two weeks of May.

Fall migration can also be interesting, though not as spectacular as spring. The fall peak comes in September, with many birds singing far less and wearing their drab fall colors.

Cape Ann/Halibut Point

This peninsula about 30 miles northeast of Boston is a favorite destination from fall through spring. That’s when several lookout points around its shore offer chances to see ducks, loons, grebes, gulls, and seabirds.

In Gloucester, birders visit the Jodrey Fish Pier (off Parker Street) to see the raucous gatherings of scavenging gulls, often including Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, and a smorgasbord of rarities. A short distance east, the Bass Rocks area around the Elks Lodge on Atlantic Road provides a viewpoint for scoters and other sea ducks, loons, and grebes.

North of Gloucester, birders make a winter circuit of the Cape Ann peninsula on Highways 127 and 127A, stopping at various locations to scan the sea. A spotting scope is very helpful.

At the northern tip of Cape Ann, Halibut Point State Park is a favored spot for seabird watching. In winter, birds here can include King Eider, Common Eider, Harlequin Duck, all three scoters, Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper (on rocky shores), Dovekie, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, and Black-legged Kittiwake. To the east, Andrews Point is a residential neighborhood, but there are paths between the houses to reach the rocky shore for birding.

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge comprises several disjointed units about 15 miles west of Boston; some 85 percent of the total 3,800 acres are composed of wetlands. The most popular birding location is the Concord Unit, near the town of the same name. (It’s next door to the Old North Bridge, the historic site where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired.)

The Concord Unit offers visitors 2.7 miles of trails, which cross impoundments, wind along the Concord River, and pass through mixed pine-hardwood forest. It also features a wildlife observation tower. Heavily birded by locals, it boasts a species list of more than 260.

The area has good lists of wading birds and shorebirds, in large part because the refuge draws water off the impoundments in late summer, creating mudflats and shallows where the birds can feed. When the impoundments have water in winter, they attract numbers of ducks. This site is also excellent for marsh birds.

Summer birds of the Concord Unit include Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Wild Turkey, American Bittern, Least Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Virginia Rail, Sora, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler, Pine Warbler, and Swamp Sparrow.

Birding Trail

Essex National Heritage Area Birding Trail 

Essex County, Massachusetts, is not a huge tract of land, but it encompasses some of the country’s most renowned birding spots. Inland forests and grasslands support a wide variety of nesting birds in summer, as well as longdistance migrants like brilliant scarlet tanagers and flashy black-and-buff bobolinks. Nearby, the coastal regions come into their own during spring and fall migration seasons and especially in winter. The riverfront at Newburyport is thronged with gulls and waterfowl during the colder months, while nearby Plum Island’s dunes, fields, and marshes often play host to snowy owls, ghostly visitors from the Arctic. Rockport’s stony coast offers superlative birding in winter: Little flocks of intricately patterned harlequin ducks hug the shoreline and seabirds like razorbills, kittiwakes, and gannets come in close to shore when the wind is right. For those who wish to pursue seabirds in their own element, this trail includes information on boat trips out to Stellwagen Bank, a marine sanctuary frequented by deep-water birds like shearwaters or storm-petrels (as well as whales).

—Kenn Kaufman