Birding USA, Part 1: 10 Eastern US Hotspots for Photographing Birds

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This article is the first in a three-part survey of the best locations for birdwatching and bird photography in the United States. Subsequent articles will cover Central and Western regions. Before visiting any of the destinations listed below, be sure you have a reliable field guide to help with identifying what you encounter.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Leading off the list is a World Heritage Site and one of the great natural treasures of the United States: the Everglades. Its 1.5 million acres makes it the third largest national park in the country and the greatest expanse of wilderness east of the Mississippi River. Home to eight distinct ecosystems, it warrants an article unto itself, but here are a few places to begin.

Most first-time visitors to the park start with the Anhinga Trail (0.8 mile). An accessible, paved path and boardwalk, its surroundings serve as prime habitat for aquatic birds, including the striking Purple Gallinule and the trail’s namesake Anhinga, which can be spotted diving into the water in search of prey or drying its wings in the canopy above. Watch out for the delinquent vultures in the parking lot, notorious for destroying the rubber trim on cars. Speaking of precautions, be mindful of the many, many alligators who call the Everglades home.

An equally accessible but slightly less crowded path can be found on the Mahogany Hammock Trail (0.5 mile), a meandering boardwalk providing views of freshwater marl prairie and hardwood hammock. In the morning you may encounter warblers or a rare Cable Sable Seaside Sparrow. Bald Eagles have been known to make an appearance in the sky above while Barred Owls may be heard in the evening.

Paurotis Pond is the premiere nesting spot in the park and year-round home to one of the most unusual birds in the United States: the Roseate Spoonbill. Be aware that in the winter and spring this area is closed beyond its parking lot to the public as it becomes a rookery for the threatened Wood Stork and other wading birds.

Rounding out this sampling is the Snake Bight Trail, another hardwood hammock trail (1.6 miles) that ends with a boardwalk over the water. Songbirds can be found along the trail while a variety of shorebirds and wading birds including the ever flamboyant Flamingo, the Roseate Spoonbill’s companion in pink, can be seen.

Alongside some of the most colorful and unusual birds in the country, the Everglades is home to a diverse population of wildlife including the endangered Green Sea Turtle, Florida Panther, and West Indian Manatee. Check here for more details about the park.

An Anhinga drying its wings in the sun

Cape May, New Jersey

In addition to quaint Victorian homes and beautiful beaches, Cape May is one of the most popular locations for experiencing the autumn migration along the Atlantic Flyway. The first location to check out is Higbee Beach. Situated near the tip of the peninsula facing the Delaware Bay, it offers an eclectic blend of habitats and a choice resting spot for avian visitors. Early autumn (August-October) is ideal for warblers, orioles, and other songbirds. Bring coffee, because some of the best activity and lighting is right around sunrise.

Cape May Point State Park provides an excellent vantage for catching Peregrine Falcons, Sharp-Shinned Hawks, Northern Harriers, and other birds of prey as they swoop in for a quick snack (see above) on their travels. Activity usually picks up around mid-September and continues through the beginning of October.

Avalon Sea Watch is the place to go if you want to see thousands of shorebirds. Gannets, cormorants, loons, scoters, and gulls fly through in big numbers from the end of October through November. Check out the New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory for more information.

Cape May Warbler during fall migration

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania

Nestled in Northeast Pennsylvania, this destination earns its name every year as tens of thousands of raptors pass through on their fall migration. Notable for being the first refuge dedicated to protecting birds of prey, it was officially founded in 1938, by the conservationist Rosalie Edge, to defend its inhabitants from sport hunting.

September is the time to see Bald Eagles, Sharp-Shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, and Osprey. October brings in Peregrine Falcons, Merlin, Red-Tailed and Red-Shouldered hawks. By November, Golden Eagles, Goshawks, and Rough-Legged Hawks arrive to close out the season. Learn more about the sanctuary here.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Massachusetts

“The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is New England’s most important contribution to the national effort to save the waterfowl of North America,” wrote Rachel Carson in a pamphlet for the Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1947, five years after its designation as a protected area. In part due to the conservation efforts of Carson and others, Parker River continues to serve as an important stop on the Atlantic Flyway used by shorebirds, songbirds, and falcons during their fall migration. The refuge crams a range of wetland habitats into its 4,662 acres, including both freshwater and saltwater marshes, bogs, swamps, and beaches. Find out more here.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

A favorite winter destination for birders, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge offers a blend of tidal marsh, freshwater wetlands, mixed evergreen, and deciduous forests. A 3.5-mile paved driving trail and a handful of walking trails keep the park accessible to visitors of all ages. November through February is the best time to see wintering duck, swan, geese, heron, and shorebirds. As an added draw, Blackwater is home to more than a hundred nesting bald eagles that make for a memorable experience.

Early spring welcomes nesting Osprey, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Wild Turkey, and Bobwhites. Late spring is peak songbird season. Summer brings in wading birds, waterfowl, and mosquitos. Finally, a population of White Pelicans, an uncommon sight for the region, have come to call the park home in recent years. Plan your visit to Blackwater here.

Bald Eagle in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia

Although most well-known for its population of grazing ponies, this refuge, located on the southern portion of Assateague Island, serves as both a permanent and seasonal home to more than three hundred species of birds. Located on the Atlantic flyway, the fall brings a smattering of migrating waterfowl. In the winter, Snow Geese, brant, and a variety of duck vacation on the premises. The spring brings shorebirds and nesting Piping Plover. The summer attracts tourists for festivities surrounding the annual pony-penning by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. Learn more about Chincoteague here.

A pair of cattle egrets accompany two of Chincoteague’s famous ponies

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Named after the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, who raised awareness about the effects of habitat loss on wildlife populations, this refuge is known for its mangrove habitat, which supports a diverse range of flora and fauna.

Winter is the best season to visit because a mix of neo-tropical migratory birds share the refuge with shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, and songbirds. Spring is nesting season throughout the premise with populations of Snowy Plover, Black-Necked Stilt, and Yellow-Crowned Night Heron claiming various parts of the refuge. Opportunities to see birds languish in the summer and fall while alligators, manatees, dolphins, and hatchling sea turtles provide opportunities for wildlife lovers. Find out more here.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Presque Isle State Park, Pennsylvania

Presque Isle, a narrow peninsula jutting into Lake Erie, is both a popular recreational area and birding destination for ocean-deprived residents of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio. Serving as a point of departure and first landing for migrants crossing the lake, more than three hundred species of birds pass by throughout the year. Rare birds known to visit in the area include the Sedge Wren, Common Tern, and Prothonotary Warbler. The Presque Isle Audubon Society leads bi-weekly field trips, free of charge, and hosts annual events such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, Christmas Bird Count, Hawk Watch, and Festival of the Birds. Find out more here.

Presque Isle State Park

New York City, New York

New Yorkers are notorious for projecting an air of cool indifference when in the presence of a celebrity—unless that celebrity happens to be an inexplicable Mandarin Duck living in Central Park. While it is easy to dismiss this very non-native waterfowl as yet another New York transplant trying to cozy up to the B&H SuperStore, the reality is that New York City has some prime bird real estate spread across its boroughs.

In the heart of Manhattan, Central Park is a patch of green wonder visited by more than two hundred species of birds each year. The Ramble, in the middle of the park, is where you will get your fix of the colorful and melodious: orioles, Indigo Buntings, grosbeaks, tanagers, warblers are scattered throughout the trees and brush in the spring. Swan, egret, heron, duck, and kingfisher can be spotted around Rowboat Lake. If you head farther north, the Reservoir is home to loon, duck, egret, and heron. Finally, Belvedere Castle’s viewing deck is the best place for watching migrating raptors in the fall.

Outside of the park, the city provides countless elevated vantage points for birds of prey. Peregrine Falcons nest on buildings and bridges around the city, to the dismay of local pigeon populations. Red-Tailed Hawks can sometimes be encountered nonchalantly dismembering prey on crowded streets.

Brooklynites flock to Prospect Park to escape from the chaos of city life—without the deluge of tourists traipsing through Central Park. Birds know this, too, and there are plenty of them scattered throughout the park. To see examples of some of its winter visitors, check out this article. An additional benefit of Prospect Park is its proximity to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which provides gorgeous foliage backdrops for photographs.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, only a couple of miles from JFK Airport, is where to encounter the largest variety of birds in the area. Numerous species nest here, from Tricolored Heron to Barn Owls. Visit in May for migrating shorebirds and songbirds, July-September for fall shorebirds, September-November for waterfowl.

One of the benefits that comes with the 8+ million human inhabitants of New York is that news of rare birds spreads fast. Neurotic – err – “thorough” birders will want to take note of the Manhattan Bird Alert for up-to-the-minute news of uncommon sightings. One last thing: if you stumble across an injured bird in the Big Apple, the Wild Bird Fund, located at 565 Columbus Avenue, provides medical and rehabilitation services for sick, injured, or abandoned birds. If you see something, say something.

Central Park’s most famous avian resident, the Mandarin Duck

Monhegan Island, Maine

Closing out the list is a wildcard destination. Monhegan Island, a little more than a mile and a half long and 11 miles off the coast of Maine, serves as an ocean buoy for stray migrants. The island is home to a variety of shorebirds and waterfowl year-round, but it is during the spring and fall that things get potentially wild. Birds who have wandered off course during their travels can descend on the island en masse at any time during the migratory seasons.

In addition to the usual Atlantic Flyway suspects, the island is known for head-scratching out-of-range surprises like Calliope Hummingbirds, Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, and Hermit Warblers who have appeared over the years. Accessible via ferry and home to fewer than a hundred full-time residents, Monhegan offers an alternative to many of the high-density locations listed above.

Coast of Monhegan Island

Where is your favorite place to see birds in the Eastern United States? Add to the list in the Comments section, below!

Click on the link to read Birding USA, Part 2 and Part 3

For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!

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