Flight paths for species spotters To see avian wonders year-round, visit prime sites at peak times

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Wilson
Globe Staff / May 22, 2005

So, you and the cardinals and blue jays at the backyard feeder have survived another interminable New England winter. Unlike the cardinals, however, you've got the urge to leave New England, at least for a couple of weeks, to find some new birds in exciting landscapes.

Cabin-fevered New Englander, sit tight this month, since migration is in full swing and the local woods and marshes are fertile grounds for birding. (See Page M13 in today's New England Travel section.) In June you may let your avian wanderlust bloom.

What follows is a selective, diverse dream list of birding locales that have something to offer beginner and expert birders alike. Some spots are remote, others are close to amenities, but all offer great birding. Since the season of your visit can make all the difference in the species you will find, peak times are noted.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. At nearly 20 million acres, this wild, remote area is almost four times the size of Massachusetts. Few would argue it is the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system. In contrast to Massachusetts' 6 million-plus residents, the Arctic Refuge has only one village, Kaktovik, population not quite 300. Outside of town, you find no roads, no hotels, no airport. In short, this is true wilderness. Many refuge visitors don't even go to Kaktovik, instead taking commercial flights from Fairbanks to Arctic Village, a small village near the refuge. From there they catch bush plane flights into the refuge.

For the adventurous birder, a summer visit north from the Brooks Range can be most rewarding. This is the 1002 Area, and if that sounds familiar, it's because Congress is debating whether to allow oil drilling there. It is an area of heartbreaking beauty.

Be warned. To see those nesting gyrfalcons, gray-headed chickadees, yellow-billed loons, snowy owls, bluethroats, yellow wagtails, buff-breasted sandpipers, long-tailed jaegers, golden eagles, and northern wheatears, you have to fly in by bush plane and be dropped off. Then, float by canoe or raft northward from the mountains or backpack on your own route and timetable. Many visitors opt for a guided trip. A few adventurers go it alone.

You need to be self-sufficient in every sense since fog, snow, and high winds (in any month) can make for delayed pickups. Wilderness first-aid training is a good investment before you go.

The mammalian life of the Arctic Refuge is as impressive as the birds: Musk ox, barren ground grizzly bear, polar bear, timber wolf, arctic fox, caribou, and wolverine call this place home. A trip to the Arctic Refuge is the trip of a lifetime. Few people make the effort to visit it, which is part of its wilderness allure.

Sanibel Island, Florida. For a midwinter retreat from New England to warm weather and easy birding, consider Sanibel Island. It's just outside Fort Myers, connected to the mainland by a causeway.

While the birding is easy, don't think it's pedestrian. Don't miss a drive around the 4-mile, one-way auto loop at J.N. ''Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. You may see scores of big waders -- roseate spoonbills, wood storks, great egrets, snowy egrets, reddish egrets, white ibis, great and little blue herons, and brown pelicans -- jockeying for fish in the shallows by the road. A magnificent frigatebird may soar overhead.

Ospreys and bald eagles fish the shallows of the mangrove estuary, taking their catch to nearby nests and hungry young. Remarkably tame red-shouldered hawks often perch at eye level in mangroves beside the road. As is the case in most good birding spots, you might be distracted by other wildlife; a bobcat, a gopher tortoise, or an eastern indigo snake could appear at any time.

Alligators are a common sight from the road. One lone female American crocodile has been at the refuge since 1980.

A separate parcel of the refuge, known as the Bailey Tract, features freshwater marsh, and it is here that birders occasionally see smooth-billed ani. Also look for mottled duck, wood stork, pileated woodpeckers, and, in migration, warblers. If you book ahead in winter, Sanibel Island offers many choices for lodging. Getting a good meal is easy, though you just might forget to eat with so many good birds close by.

Everglades National Park, Florida. A winter or early spring trip to the ''sea of grass" should be required for anyone even remotely interested in birds. Spanning the southern tip of the state, the park protects a fascinating mix of sawgrass prairies, cypress swamps, mangrove estuaries, subtropical hardwood hammocks, and upland pine forest.

Birders come to this part of Florida to find species that might otherwise prove elusive. Birders may find more to study in the park by entering at the east entrance, near Homestead and Florida City. Several excellent boardwalks allow easy access to wetlands and their great birds. No trip to the Everglades is complete without a walk on the 0.8-mile-long Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center. From the raised boardwalk, one can watch wood storks, limpkins, purple gallinules, and of course anhingas, often at close range. The varying water levels determine what birds will be found here. Check the parking lot at the visitors center if it's spring: Short-tailed hawks sometimes gather moss from the trees for their nests.

Drive farther into the park. Depending on the water level, ponds during winter can be jammed with long-legged waders: ibis, herons, egrets, storks. Check this area, too, for black-whiskered vireo.

Between the turnouts for Mahogany Hammock and Paurotis Pond (wood storks nest here), check the prairies of grass you'll see from the road for Cape Sable seaside sparrow. However, as ranger Alan Scott warned, this sparrow ''is very hard for a beginning birdwatcher to identify. It's one of those little brown jobs."

Whether by canoe or trail, one should plan on exploring Snake Bight. On shore in the woods, it's a good place for mangrove cuckoo, short-tailed hawk, and maybe white-crowned pigeon. Out on the vast tidal flats, you may see thousands of birds, including plovers, sandpipers, spoonbills, herons, and egrets.

Don't miss checking Pahayokee Overlook (for limpkin) or any trails in the pine forest areas, which are likely spots for swallow-tailed kite, and, if you are living right, a Florida panther.

If you've come to the Everglades to see a snail kite, you might have better luck looking for one on the Shark Valley side of the park.

Cape May, New Jersey. For truly spectacular birding, head for the southeastern spur of New Jersey in spring and fall migration months. More than 400 species have been seen at Cape May. Spotting more than 200 species in a day is regularly accomplished by seasoned, caffeinated, sleep-deprived birders.

Spring migration brings hundreds of thousands of shorebirds to the beaches of Delaware Bay, on the west side of the peninsula. While numbers of some species have dropped alarmingly in recent years, impressive groups of ruddy turnstones, red knots, short-billed dowitchers, sanderlings, and semipalmated sandpipers can still be seen. These shorebirds are here to gorge on the freshly laid eggs of horseshoe crab, an important high-energy food that fuels the shorebirds' long flights northward to breed in the Arctic.

This month, check for shorebirds on the beaches facing the bay.

Songbird migration can be impressive at the Cape in spring and fall, but it's the fall hawk migration for which Cape May and the New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory are famous. Over an average autumn, more than 54,000 hawks move south over Cape May, some 16 species in all. Some years, hawk counts approach 90,000 birds. The official count season runs from Sept. 1 through November. Late September and early October are great times to visit.

Head for the Cape May Hawk count platform to rub elbows with other watchers and counters. If the winds blow from the west or northwest, you might be in for a traffic jam of raptors as they pile up in Cape May, hesitating to fly south over the cold waters (for a bird, that means poor lift) of Delaware Bay. At times, the sky seems to swarm with hawks: sharp-shinned, Cooper's, broad-winged, peregrine falcon, northern harrier, red-tailed, and others.

Two events worth catching are the Cape May Spring Weekend (move fast -- it's today) and Autumn Weekend (Oct. 28-30). Both weekends feature bird-intensive workshops, field trips, boat trips, live hawk and owl demonstrations, and a lineup of guest speakers.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Picture a morning blizzard under a blue sky. Thousands of snow and Ross's geese rise in unison from a marsh, their wings creating a collective roar, their honks drowning out human conversation. It's just another spectacular day at Bosque del Apache (''woods of the Apache" in Spanish), a refuge that offers up winter birding spectacles that even the avowed non-birder will appreciate. South of Socorro in south-central New Mexico on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, the refuge's 57,191 acres include large, low-lying areas and freshwater impoundments along the Rio Grande River. The freshwater pools and marshes are a magnet for a staggering variety of birds, particularly sandhill cranes (as many as 17,000), snow geese and Ross's geese (nearly 60,000), bald eagles, and myriad waterfowl species. The refuge boasts a list of more than 340 species recorded there.

Birders and photographers access the refuge most easily by a 15-mile auto loop. Savvy bird photographers often use their vehicle as a rolling blind to get close to birds at the edge of the marsh and pools.

Cranes and geese are the big draw for many visitors. Both species usually head out from their overnight roosts in the morning, flying north to feed on grain fields planted for them. Late in the day, the geese and cranes return to settle on the pools of the refuge. It takes only a coyote skulking nearby to set the geese off in a frenzied flight.

Bring warm clothes on a visit to Bosque, since dawn and dusk are good times to be out to observe the action. Winter visits from mid-November to mid-February are the best times to see jaw-dropping numbers of birds.

Mark Wilson can be reached at

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