The art of birdwatching isn't just for binocular-wearing septuagenarians anymore. Birding is also a millennial-approved pastime, and it may be the stress relief many travelers in America need to get through the pandemic.
Just ask Jason Ward, 33, who got hooked on birds at age 14 while living in the South Bronx. "I saw this peregrine falcon eating a pigeon about 30 feet from me, and it blew my mind. For me, it was National Geographic in HD. It happened during a really dark time because the window I was looking out of was the window of a homeless shelter. I realized that no matter what my situation, birds could bring me out of a dark place."
Fast forward two decades and Ward is now the host of "Birds of North America," a documentary series that extols the virtues of birding. "We are fortunate to have such a diversity of species in North America," he says. "There are so many jewels to be found no matter what corner of the country you're in."
While travel might be paused for many people in America, there's no better time to marvel at the feathered jet setters traveling outside our windows. Luckily for us, "birds aren't discriminatory," says Ward. "Birds show up wherever there are resources for them, and that might be right in your backyard."
Here are seven of the best birding locations that might be right outside your doorstep, recommended by some of America's most knowledgeable birders.
1. Harlingen, Texas
For birding, Ward thinks the southern tip of Texas is tops, mainly when Harlingen hosts the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival during fall’s migration season. A good day of birding on the east coast usually means Ward sees 50 to 60 different species. In Harlingen, he saw 94 species after only three hours.
"Not only are you going to see a lot of breeding birds making their way back south," Ward says, "but you're going to see some species from Central America and Mexico that sometimes stray a little further north and wind up someplace they aren't supposed to be. That's when everyone loses their mind in Texas."
With a unique list of birds that can't be found elsewhere in the country, the Lone Star State has reason to lose their minds year-round. Noteworthy residents include the green jay – which flashes a brilliant set of emerald, saffron, and navy plumage – and the chachalaca. This pheasant-sized bird "looks like a velociraptor," says Ward, and screeches like a remedial trumpet player.
Welcome to the West: discovering Texas' best national parks and reserves
2. New York, New York
Molly Adams, the 30-year-old founder of the Feminist Bird Club, was surprised when she opened the app eBird and found that Brooklyn's Prospect Park is named one of the state’s most ecologically rich hotspots for birdwatching. Although the pigeon reigns supreme on NYC's streets, it's got stiff competition in the 1700 parks around town.
New York's urban green spaces provide a much-needed respite for over 200 species of migratory birds traveling throughout spring and fall. "These pocket parks are part of the Atlantic Flyway, so during migration, you can see close to 100 species in one day," Adams says.
Adams, who creates inclusive birdwatching opportunities for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folx and women, loves how long the birding season lasts in autumn. Still, "there's nothing better birding-wise than going through the winter and having spring come," she says. "There are all these colorful birds.” Be it a scarlet tanager in Central Park or a ruby-throated hummingbird flitting through Jamaica Bay, America's most populous city boasts an equally dizzying amount of biodiversity. “It really invigorates my passion for birding," Adams notes.
The Detour: How to explore Central Park in New York City
3. Toledo, Ohio
Toledo might not be high on most travelers' to-do lists, but the surrounding region is bar-none for birders visiting the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival. Lake Erie's southern shores become the unofficial warbler capital of the world every May as over 300 species make their way from South America to the Great White North.
"These birds are migrating," says Ward. "They're exhausted, and then they have to cross Lake Erie into Canada, and before they do that, they have to fatten up." As a result, they take a break in places like the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, where visitors can walk along a boardwalk to view the avian Elysium. "It's great to stop anywhere on that boardwalk and watch a warbler – or two, or five, or ten,” Ward says. Magee Marsh gets particularly busy, "but no matter where you are, you have a good seat because there are birds near you."
Offbeat Cincinnati: Going deep in Ohio's quirkiest city
4. Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Thirty miles north of San Francisco, the San Andreas faultline splits the California coast in two to form the Point Reyes National Seashore. Rolling hills stretch to the east, ocean waves crash on unspoiled beaches to the west, and nearly 500 species of birds soar around the 70,000 acres of protected land all year long. With its abundance of forests, estuaries, and grasslands, this area is a winged wonderland for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Of particular note is the endangered snowy plover, a small, cream-white creature that skitters along the shoreline.
According to the National Audubon Society, many birders also check out nearby Bolinas Lagoon, "where a tidal estuary attracts waterfowl, wading birds, and, when the tide is right, large flocks of shorebirds."
Glamp of approval: 8 luxury spots to camp in California
5. Everglades National Park, Florida
Gators may be the crowning glory of the Everglades, but North America’s wading birds are also an essential part of Florida’s wetlands ecosystem. Kayakers and canoeists can float along the Gulf Coast's waters to watch egrets, ibis, and roseate spoonbills pick through the shallows for food. The biking and hiking trail at Shark Valley, a one-hour drive from Miami, also offers an easy escape from South Florida's suburban sprawl if you’re looking for ornithological entertainment.
Winter is an ideal time to visit, as it offers "the highest diversity of birds and the best conditions for birding," says Brian Rapoza, the Tropical Audubon Society's Field Trip Coordinator. "One of the season's highlights is when the swallow-tailed kites come back to Florida from their wintering grounds in Central and South America, usually in the second or third week of February."
Build the perfect Everglades adventure
6. Tucson, Arizona
From Saguaro National Park to the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, Tucson and the surrounding area sport an abundance of species that can't be found elsewhere in the US. Because of this, Will Russell, owner of the local bird tour company Wings, says, "It's a popular place for people who keep national lists with the number of birds they've seen in North America."
While spring is prime birding time, July's monsoon season brings a set of international fliers to the region. "Hummingbirds that bred in Mexico disperse north, so instead of having six or seven kinds of hummingbirds, there are sometimes twelve or thirteen," says Russell.
Birds aren't the only thing that makes Tucson's bird scene spectacular, though. "Tucson is a place where many bird people come to retire," says Jennie Macfarland, Bird Conservation Biologist for the Tucson Audubon Society. "It's got a strong birding community." Local birders can often be found at the Sweetwater Wetlands, scaling Mount Lemmon, or checking out the bird feeders in Madera Canyon.
North America's best national park day hikes
7. Cape May, New Jersey
If Hitchcock's 1963 thriller about an avian apocalypse leaves you feeling uneasy, you may want to skip Cape May during October’s migration season. The local Audubon festival's tagline, "So Many Birds," is an understatement.
Cape May "is a peninsula on the southern tip of New Jersey, and birds get funneled there if they're following the Atlantic Coast at nighttime," says Ward. "It's a traffic jam of birds." Whether you're watching warblers from the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge or raptors along Higbee Beach, Ward says you can "look at any point in the sky, and 15-20 birds are trying to figure out the next leg in their journey."
His favorite bird to watch is the one that got him hooked in the South Bronx all those years ago – the peregrine falcon. "You have this pandemonium going on," he says. "You witness a lot of birds struggling with the wind, and then you watch a peregrine falcon fly over the horizon, and it's as if there's no wind. It's flying and doing whatever it pleases."
If that's not the kind of freedom travelers want right now, I don't know what is.