Growing up, Sarah Toner often went on bird walks with her grandfather and quickly developed a passion for birding. Toner, now 22, recently graduated with a biology degree from Cornell University, where she traveled all over the world researching birds.
Today, she works in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, largely considered the world’s preeminent bird research center, and spends much of her free time traveling to new places to discover birds and their habitats.
“Birding makes you pay attention to your surroundings and oftentimes, it’ll take you off the beaten path,” she said. “I love getting the chance to explore a new landscape, a new area and use birds to help me learn about the place I’m visiting.”
Toner is not alone in her love of birding. Long considered a hobby pursued mainly by the well-to-do or retirees, birding is becoming more diverse and inclusive, particularly among young outdoor enthusiasts.
Birding for the new millennium
Birding is also showing up in pop culture, with movies like The Big Year introducing audiences to the competitive, treasure hunt-like nature of the sport. Birdwatching has also drawn in young people who are concerned about climate change and conservation since declining bird populations are directly linked to habitat loss and pollution.
Birding organizations are making a concerted effort to diversify and bring more young people into the fold. The National Audubon Society, for instance, launched birding-focused student groups at colleges and universities across the country.
Technology is also making it easier to birdwatch, anywhere and at nearly any time. Instead of remembering to carry a printed field guide with you, all you need today is your phone, thanks to several handy mobile bird identification and tracking apps. Social media has made it easier to share rare bird sightings and inspiring photographs with fellow birders, creating an authentic sense of community.
“It’s just easier than ever to figure out what you’re seeing and share your observations with people,” said Jennie Duberstein, who volunteers as a young birder liaison for the American Birding Association.
Above all else, birding simply enhances other outdoor adventures. Hiking instantly becomes more interesting when you’re keeping an eye out for tiny hummingbirds and dazzling mountain bluebirds. Standup paddle boarding turns into an opportunity to spot new species of shorebirds and waterbirds. Walking the dog transforms from a daily chore into a bald eagle-spotting expedition.
Even skiing pairs nicely with birding. Alta Ski Area in northern Utah, for instance, hosts regular “Birding on Skis” outings led by experts from Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City. During the free tours, participants spend three hours skiing the resort’s diverse terrain in search of the birds who live there or are passing through.
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Birding while social distancing
These days, birding is an ideal hobby to take up because it lends itself so well to social distancing.
All you really need for a birding expedition are your eyes and ears (and a pair of binoculars if you've got them). Phone apps like Merlin Bird ID can also be useful, as they can tell you which birds you're most likely to see given your location and the time of year. As the weather warms, many birds are migrating back north right now, which means you’re likely to spot a diverse array of species.
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US birding destinations for your bucket list
Birding can serve as an unexpected source of travel inspiration. Start researching your next trip with this list of top birding destinations across the country — or bookmark it for later. And in the meantime, you might be pleasantly surprised at the diversity of wildlife right outside your windows. Animals of all shapes and sizes are enjoying social distancing most of all.
Though the Rocky Mountains tend to get all the attention, the high plains of southeast Colorado are equally as beautiful (and interesting!). This region is home to John Martin Reservoir, a prime birding spot where some 400 species have been recorded. During the winter months, thousands of bright white snow geese take up residence here, congregating in huge numbers on the water or in fields. There’s even a special festival to celebrate their presence: the High Plains Snow Goose Festival. Snow geese aside, many other migratory birds stop in southeast Colorado on their way north or south, including many types of shorebirds, grebes, flycatchers, vireos and warblers.
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Nebraska often flies under the radar as a travel destination (pun intended), but during the late winter and early spring months, people from all over the world arrive to catch a glimpse of the majestic sandhill crane migration. These leggy brown-gray birds with red crowns — some 600,000 of them — stop to recharge along the Platte River in Nebraska, creating a true spectacle. Even Jane Goodall makes a point of visiting Central Nebraska to see the cranes.
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Since Texas is the first piece of land many migratory birds see after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, it can a popular place to stop and refuel. This is especially true during the spring, when windy, rainy weather can zap birds’ energy as they cross the gulf, causing them to seek shelter and food as soon as they reach land. The small peninsula northeast of Galveston is an especially good place to plan a birding vacation, with world-renowned birdwatching spots like Bolivar Flats, High Island and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Here, you can see warblers, shorebirds, gulls, herons and rails.
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Southern New Jersey
Head to the southern tip of New Jersey and you’ll find yourself at the Cape May Bird Observatory, a world-renowned birding destination. If you want to see many species of birds at one destination, plan your vacation to southern New Jersey during the fall, when tens of thousands of birds are heading south. This location is a prime spot for seeing a diverse array of migratory birds, including 20 species of warblers, hawks, shorebirds, waterfowl and many others.
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Ask any avid birder for their travel recommendations and you will invariably hear Magee Marsh. Located along the southern edge of Lake Erie in northern Ohio, the marsh is a 2202-acre wildlife area with some of the best birding around. This wetland habitat appeals to a variety of shorebirds, songbirds, waterbirds and waterfowl, but warblers are the main attraction for many birders. Some 36 species of these small, colorful songbirds have been recorded at Magee Marsh, which serves as a safe place for them to rest and recharge during their migration. In addition to warblers, you’re likely to spot osprey, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, green-winged teals, red-breasted mergansers, pintails and hundreds of other fascinating species.
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California is huge and has a wide range of bird habitats, which is why it’s such a popular spot for birdwatching (more species have been recorded in California — 660 — than any other state). But the Central Coast is a particularly good birding destination, thanks to its craggy rocks and protected coastal areas. Morro Bay, for example, is just a short drive from downtown San Luis Obispo and is home to nesting peregrine falcons, brant geese, several types of cormorants and many waterfowl and shorebirds. Boardwalks and viewing platforms make it easy to get close without disturbing the birds. Plus, the weather in “SLO Cal” is mild and perfect.
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Thanks to its diverse terrain, which includes mountains, deserts, grasslands, forests and riparian areas, southeast Arizona offers some truly legendary birdwatching. Some 550 species have been recorded throughout Arizona, which is impressive for a state without a coastline. Birders like to visit the southeastern region of the state because they can see a high number of rare birds in a relatively small geographic region, including hummingbirds, warblers, woodpeckers, hawks and sparrows. The warm weather and access to other vacation-worthy amenities don’t hurt, either.