Birding USA, Part 2: 10 Central US Hotspots for Photographing Birds

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This article is the second of a three-part series covering the best locations in the United States for birdwatching and bird photography. Be sure to check out 10 Eastern Hotspots and 10 Western Hotspots and don’t forget to keep a field guide handy for identifying what you encounter.

Lucifer Hummingbird

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park welcomes a staggering 450 species of birds into its 800,000 acres each year, making it the most bird-rich national park in the United States. More than 100 miles of river corridor along the Rio Grande, combined with expanses of Chihuahuan desert and transition zones leading to the Chisos Mountains, are the reason for the impressive range of species.

Along the river, you can find heron, duck, and kingfisher. Frequent visitors to the surrounding brush include Bell’s Vireo, Yellow-Billed Cuckoo, Painted Bunting, Orchard Oriole, and several species of flycatcher. Cooper’s, Sharp-Shinned, Red-Tailed, and Common Black Hawk may be spotted in the skies above. Additionally, a number of species of owl nest in the park including Great-Horned, Burrowing, Elf, Flammulated, and Eastern and Western Screech.

The Chisos Mountains and surrounding foothills provide woodland habitat to Mexican Jay, Bushtit, woodpecker, vireo, and tanager. Northern rarities such as the Colima Warbler; Lucifer, White-Eared, and Blue-Throated Hummingbird; and Zone-Tailed Hawk can occasionally be spotted in Boot Canyon during the spring and summer.

In addition to birds, Big Bend is also home to mountain lion, coyote, black bear, rattlesnake, centipedes, and scorpions, so maintain an awareness of your surroundings and use common sense. Learn more about Big Bend National Park here.

Great Gray Owl

Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota

Northern Minnesota is not a destination likely to top many winter getaway lists. However, if you are capable of braving some serious cold, the Sax-Zim Bog presents a unique opportunity to experience birds that rarely venture south of the Canadian border, including the magnificent Great Gray Owl. A mixture of bog, swamp, and woodland habitat provides a winter home to Black-Backed and American Three-Toed Woodpecker; Boreal Chickadee; and Northern Hawk Owl.

The cold here is no joke. When visiting a location that can reach -50 degrees Fahrenheit, you will want to make sure you layer your clothing, wear insulated boots, and bring hand/toe warmers. Refer to Todd Vorenkamp’s Tips for Cold-Weather Photography if you plan on taking photos.

Friends of Sax-Zim Bog keep an updated Bird Report for a more comprehensive listing of the avian population. Visit the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center to find out about up-to-the-minute sightings and get tips on the best locations to check out on your visit.

Great Blue Heron on Big Salt Marsh, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Kansas

Nestled in the heart of landlocked Kansas is Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, a mix of salt marsh and sand prairie that attracts of 340 species of birds. Situated along the Central Flyway, thousands of Canadian Geese and duck pass through each year, as well as a variety of species of shorebirds and the endangered Whooping Crane.

Quivira is an oasis in the prairie for birds of prey. Bald and Golden Eagle frequent the Big and Little Salt Marshes during early winter. The refuge serves as nesting habitat for Mississippi Kite, Northern Harrier, as well as Cooper’s, Swainson’s, and Red-Tailed Hawk.

The summer brings Black-Necked Stilt, Snowy Plover, and the endangered Interior Least Tern. Wading and shorebirds can be found in the mudflats, while the sand prairie attracts Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Bobolink.

In addition to hiking trails, the refuge’s “Wildlife Drive” provides an accessible vantage of the Big Salt Marsh by car. Plan your visit here.

Observation tower at Grand Isle State Park

Grand Isle, Louisiana

Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island is a popular resting spot for migrants crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Grand Isle crams a range of habitats, from live oak forest to coastal, into a modest seven and a half miles. The spring migration is especially plentiful, with mid-April the best time to visit. Days following bad weather tend to turn up the most plentiful “fallout” of migrating species.

Gull, tern, pelican, skimmer, cormorant, and egret can be found along the water. Painted and Indigo Bunting provide splashes of color to the woods and are joined by oriole, tanager, warbler, flycatcher, and others. Rarities for the area like the Gray Kingbird, Whimbrel, and Black-Whiskered Vireo keep local birders on their toes.

Each year the Grand Isle Migratory Bird Celebration offers bird-centric tours of Grand Isle and the surrounding on foot and by kayak.

Sandhill Cranes roost on Platte River

Platte River, Nebraska

Each spring, more than half a million Sandhill Cranes visit the Platte River during their trip north to nest. Occasionally, endangered Whooping Cranes join in, making an already incredible experience even more memorable. February through March is the best time to catch the spectacle. During the day, the cranes fuel up on agricultural leftovers in the fields before retiring by the river at night. Dawn and dusk provide the best time (and lighting) to photograph the birds by the water. Popular viewing locations include Fort Kearny State Historical Park, Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary, and Iain Nicholson Audubon Center.

Looking for a truly unique experience of the cranes? The Rowe Sanctuary has photo blinds set up where you can arrange to spend a night among the cranes. The catch is that you must remain inside the blind from roughly 5:00 P.M. to 9:00 A.M. Each blind is equipped with a porta-potty but, come prepared, because the temperature can get pretty chilly during the night—they recommend two sleeping bags per person and lots of layers.

Click here for all things crane-related in Nebraska.

Snow Geese at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Established in 1939 to protect migrating waterfowl, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds. The wetlands along the Rio Grande Valley provide an attractive habitat to a changing cast of characters, while the surrounding desert and Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains offer beautiful scenery for landscape photographers.

Tens of thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Crane winter in the refuge, as well as Ross’s Geese and many species of duck. Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge host a Festival of the Cranes in November that includes events, classes, and even a photography contest.

In the spring, sandpiper, stilt, plover, dunlin, curlew, avocet, and a variety of other shorebird feed in dried-out wetlands. Summer is a great time to test your reflexes shooting Black-Chinned, Calliope, Broad-Tailed, and Rufous Hummingbird. Quail, flycatcher, warbler, and cuckoo can also be found during this time– as well as the year-round resident Greater Roadrunner.

A 12-mile auto tour, as well as multiple hiking trails, are the primary means of exploring the refuge. Check in with the Visitor Center before embarking on your journey.

Gulls at Whitefish Point

Whitefish Point, Michigan

Whitefish Point faces Lake Superior from the northeastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The location serves as a launch point for Canada-bound migrants during the spring. April is the best time to catch migrating raptors, including Northern Harrier, Goshawk, Red-Tailed and Rough-Legged Hawk. Northern Saw-Whet, Boreal, Great Gray, and Long-Eared Owl also pass through during this time. Canada Geese and Sandhill Crane mark the beginning of water birds in mid-April. By May, warbler, sparrow, and shorebird arrive in large numbers. Among the most anticipated visitors is the Whimbrel, which stops by for a few days late in the month. Migrants continue to pass through in smaller numbers into the summer.

By late summer, the southward push begins. Red-Necked Grebe appear in greater numbers than anywhere else in the country. September welcomes numerous species of warbler, sparrow, duck, and gull. The fall migration ends with more waterfowl and sometimes includes Boreal, Northern Hawk, or Snowy Owl. Whitefish Point has acquired a reputation for rare stragglers appearing near the end of the season, including Lucy’s Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, and Ancient Murrelet.

Click here to learn more about Whitefish Point.

White-Tailed Ptarmigan in winter plumage

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park offers some of the most enchanting environments for birdwatching in the country. Opportunities abound, with 147 lakes, 473 miles of streams, lush coniferous forests, towering rock formations, and everything in between. More than 280 species of birds can be found in the park.

The Western Tanager and Mountain Bluebird count among the most colorful visitors to the area, while Three-Toed Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Pine Grosbeak, and American Dipper are among the most rare.

Exceptionally lucky visitors may spot an elusive White-Tailed Ptarmigan, hiking the higher elevations around the Rock Cut turnout. A year-round resident, ptarmigan display beautifully camouflaged plumage for both summer and winter environments.

The cliffs of the Lumpy Ridge Loop are the best place to encounter falcon and hawk. Note that access may be limited due to nesting activity.

Be aware that Rocky Mountain National Park is home to some large mammals including elk, moose, bear, mountain lion, and coyote, so keep an awareness of your surroundings and maintain a safe distance if you are lucky enough to spot one. Plan your trip to Rocky Mountain National Park here.

The Magnificent Frigatebird is among the very-out-of-range sightings at Montrose Point.

Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, Illinois

On the north side of Chicago, a small patch of land curling out into Lake Michigan has acquired legendary status among local birders. More than 340 species of birds, including serious rarities for the area, such as Burrowing Owl, Magnificent Frigatebird, Reddish Egret, Purple Gallinule, and Painted Bunting have all taken turns amazing and confounding birdwatchers over the years.

The spring and fall migrations are the best times to visit the area. You will definitely want to spend some time scoping out the “Magic Hedge,” which earns its name each year for its ability to attract an endless parade of tired and hungry birds. Migrating passerine are among the major draws of the area, but don’t overlook the many shorebirds present along the beach. Once the fall migration ends, you might even encounter a Snowy Owl wintering on the Point.

For more information on Montrose Point, click here.

A pair of Trumpeter Swan with baby cygnets in Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area

Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area, Wisconsin

Crex Meadows consists of 30,000 acres of restored wetland and prairie habitat, home to 270 species of birds. Phantom Lake is frequented by Red-Necked Grebe, Least Bittern, Marsh Wren, Black Tern, Sora, Virginia Rail, and Osprey, among other wetland inhabitants. An original release site for the Wisconsin Trumpeter Swan Recovery Program, a healthy population remains in the area.

Fields are planted each year to attract migrating waterfowl. Late fall is particularly boisterous when Sandhill Crane visit to feed in the area. Crex Meadows serves as a breeding ground for Sedge Wren, Swamp and Field Sparrow, and Brown Thrasher. Sharp-Tailed Grouse hit the “dancing grounds” in the spring, where males vigorously defend their territory while trying to attract a mate.

A 24-mile driving tour, as well as multiple walking trails and lookouts, provide ample opportunities to observe the inhabitants of Crex Meadows. Plan your visit here.

What are your favorite places to see birds in the Central United States? Add to our list in the Comments section, below!

Click on the links to read Birding USA, Part 1 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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