Turn a Routine Layover into a Mini Birding Adventure

These five avian hotpots near major airport hubs make for easy mid-trip departures.

A long layover is hardly something that most people look forward to, much less seek out. But that downtime can be a boon to birders. A few free hours mid-journey offer a great opportunity to explore some fantastically birdy areas near airports.

As with any type of travel, preparation is key. Always have binoculars in your carry-on bag, even if you don’t expect to use them, and regardless of the season, a lightweight, waterproof windbreaker will extend the range of conditions in which you can be comfortable outdoors. Save space in your luggage by installing a field guide on your phone (we hear Audubon has a free one with more than 800 species). If you unexpectedly find yourself with time to spare en route, simply pull out your smart phone, navigate to the Explore Hotspots map at eBird.org, and then zoom to look for potential birding sites nearby. And avoid the hassle of a rental car by using an on-demand transportation company like Lyft. Just remember: Always allow enough wiggle room for traffic and security lines.

With a little planning, you can leave the endless drone of boarding announcements and CNN behind, and instead spend your layover searching for new species.

John F. Kennedy International Airport
One of New York City’s most famous birding sites, the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is only 15 minutes away from JFK. Foot trails from the visitor center provide access to ponds, marshes, and tidal flats that attract great numbers of waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds throughout the year, while the woods and gardens are productive for songbird migrants in spring and fall. More than 300 species have been recorded here, including many rare visitors.

Miami International Airport
Because of its location, isolated at the south end of Key Biscayne some 17 miles from MIA, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park can be loaded with warblers and other migrants during certain weather conditions. It’s always a good place for general birding, with typical south Florida birds like White Ibises and Gray Kingbirds. Rare strays from the Caribbean, including Thick-billed Vireos and La Sagra’s Flycatchers, occasionally visit.

Bonus tip: Get yourself a grail bird! The Gray-headed Swamphen is an Asian rail native to the Middle East, India, and southern Asia. The bird was established itself in Florida since escaping from captivity in the late 20th century and was just recently deemed “countable” for life lists. One of the most reliable spots to see it is on ponds around the Dolphin Mall, only 10 miles west of MIA.

Denver International Airport
One of the better birding spots on the plains northeast of Denver, Barr Lake State Park is an easy 20-minute drive from the airport. The lake attracts plenty of waterbirds, including Western and Clark’s Grebes, and American White Pelicans in the warmer months, and a good variety of ducks year-round. In the woods and fields around the lake, Swainson’s Hawks, Western Kingbirds, and Bullock’s Orioles are all common in summer.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
A $5 entry fee provides access to seven miles of well-marked trails through woodland, prairie, and marsh habitat at Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, located a few miles north of DFW. Red-shouldered Hawks and Eastern Bluebirds are among the more common year-round resident birds. The park also hosts a good mix of mid-continent specialties, including Franklin’s Gulls in migration, Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in summer, and Harris’s Sparrows in winter.

Los Angeles International Airport
Practically next door to busy LAX, Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve and Playa Del Rey Beach protects some of the most important remaining wetland habitat in the Los Angeles Basin. With marshes, mudflats, dunes, beaches, and coastal scrub, the area hosts an array of shorebirds, gulls, and terns, including threatened species like the Least Tern. West Coast specialties such as Black Oystercatchers and Surfbirds are often easily seen.