Grab your binoculars! Let's hit the road to find the 20 birds our readers say they want to see most
By Matt Mendenhall | Published: 10/20/2006
“You want to do what?” asked my travel agent, Robin Redstart of ACME Birding Tours, over the phone, sounding more than a little perplexed. “You want to see an Elegant Trogon, a Painted Bunting, and a Gyrfalcon? On one trip?”
I understood her puzzlement. The trogon is found in the United States only in the sycamore canyons of southeastern Arizona, while the bunting nests in about a dozen states farther east. And the falcon appears rarely south of the U.S.-Canada border – and only long after the bunting has flown south for the winter. Seeing them all would mean travel, and lots of it.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered cautiously.
“You see, to celebrate our 20th anniversary, we asked our readers to tell us which birds they want to see most. Then we tallied the votes. Now we want to plan a dream trip to find the birds our readers mentioned most often.”
“So you’ll want to see more than the trogon, bunting, and falcon, I take it?”
“You bet. We want to see 20 birds in all – 20 birds for 20 years of Birder’s World. We want to see two puffins – Atlantic and Horned – and three hummingbirds: Violet-crowned, Magnificent, and Blue-throated.”
I heard a pencil scratching on paper.
“And Bohemian Waxwing, Arctic Loon, and Harlequin Duck. And four owls – Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy, Great Gray, and Elf.”
More pencil scratching.
“Then there’s a handful of extra special birds – Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Kirtland’s Warbler, California Condor, and Whooping Crane. They’re endangered, you know. And to top things off…”
“Let me guess,” the travel agent interrupted. “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker.”
“That’s right,” I said. “The Ivory-bill was at the top of almost everyone’s list, as you might expect. It makes 20 in all. Can we see them all?”
“Well, the trip won’t be for the faint of heart, and I can’t make any promises about the Ivory-bill. You’ll have to put more than a few miles on your car. And you’ll have to pay close attention to breeding seasons and migration times, so you’re in the right place at the right time. That means you won’t be able to see the birds in the order of their ranking in the poll.”
“Not a problem,” I said. “They’re all great birds.”
“And speaking of time, you’ll have to get lots of it off from work. And you’ll have to pack for cold as well as heat. And… ”
“But it could be done?”
“I think so.”
“Where would we go first?” I asked.
Aransas NWR, Texas
Endangered Whooping Cranes make headlines each fall when they follow ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida. But the eastern flock numbers only 63 birds, so your chances of seeing them are low, and you wouldn’t be able to count them anyway.
More productive would be 115,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the Texas Gulf Coast near Corpus Christi. It is the wintering home of the world’s largest wild flock of Whooping Cranes, which, after a great breeding season this year, is expected to exceed 230 birds. In November they will have just arrived from their Canadian nesting grounds. You could go to the refuge to look for them, but the most satisfying views often come from a tour boat. Most boats operate from mid-November until late March or early April, departing from Rockport and other nearby harbors.
1 down, 19 to go. Next stop: the Florida Panhandle.
Every sighting of a California Condor or Whooping Crane is a thrill, no doubt about it, but not every sighting can be counted on your life list.
According to the American Birding Association, birders may not count birds that are being reintroduced into their historic ranges until the populations are considered established, or until “it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individuals from naturally occurring individuals.”
The condors are heavily dependent on humans and so are probably years away forming countable. You can count a Whooping Crane from the wild population that breeds in Canada and winters in Texas. But if you see a member of the resident Florida population or one of the cranes that migrate between Wisconsin and Florida, you’ll have to wait.
Apalachicola National Forest, Florida
The endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker can be found year-round in dozens of breeding groups in 11 states, all of them in the southeastern United States, but the largest population is in Apalachicola National Forest, southwest of Tallahassee.
From Bristol, head south on Highway 12 for about 14 miles until you enter the forest. Trees painted with white bands are Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavity trees, but birds do not roost in every one. Look closely at individual cavities for signs of fresh resin flow and reddish underbark. The best times to observe the birds is shortly after sunrise or an hour before sunset. For their protection, stay at least 100 feet away, and remain hidden.
2 down, 18 to go. Next stop: south-central Florida.
Corkscrew Swamp, Florida
“There was a picture of a Painted Bunting on the cover of the field guide my father used when we would look up birds together when I was very young,” wrote reader Bonnie Collins of Monkton, Maryland. “Fifty-some years later, I’ve yet to see one, even though I have traveled to a few spots where one might be seen. It remains my No. 1 bird to see.”
The dazzling buntings breed along the southeastern Atlantic coast and from Kansas and Missouri south to the Gulf Coast, but the only place to find them in the United States in winter is in southern Florida. One of the best spots is Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, about 11 miles east of Bonita Springs. The birds come to feeders just off the boardwalk and in the picnic area, especially in the morning and late afternoon from October to April.
3 down, 17 to go. Next stop: Minnesota.
Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, Gyrfalcon, Northern Hawk Owl
“I am now 88 years old — have been a dedicated birder for many of those years, and my most-wanted birds are ones I have ‘missed,'” says Lucile Spain of New Braunfels, Texas. “I can’t tell you how many times I have just missed a Great Gray Owl!”
Many birders can say the same about the Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, and Gyrfalcon. All are unpredictable, but you will have a decent shot at seeing each near Duluth in winter.
The waxwing can usually be found in mountain ash or other fruiting trees and shrubs in the city or along the north shore of Lake Superior from late October to February. Gyrfalcon, the world’s largest falcon, hunts over open country or along coastal areas in search of gulls, ducks, and other large birds. It doesn’t show up every winter, but when it does, it’s most likely to be seen in the harbors of Duluth or its neighbor, Superior, Wisconsin.
No one expects another owl invasion on the scale of the irruption two years ago, when birders counted more than 5,200 Great Grays and 475 Northern Hawk Owls. The birds seemed to be everywhere; most years, you have to look for them. A good place to check is the Sax-Zim Bog, about 50 miles northwest of Duluth. Great Grays hunt from low perches along field edges or roadsides, and hawk owls hunt from high branches.
Look for the Snowy at both the Duluth-Superior harbor and the Sax-Zim Bog. It preys on a variety of mammals and birds and is most active in early morning or late afternoon.
With luck, you now will have seen 8 birds and have 12 to go. (If you missed any, don’t worry. You’ll get a second chance down the road. See the box below.) Next stop: Arizona.
Second chances for unpredictable birds
If you miss Duluth’s unpredictable winter birds, you can look for them in California and Alaska in summer.
Great Gray Owls live year-round in Yosemite National Park, the southernmost point of their range.
Gyrfalcons, Northern Hawk Owls, and Bohemian Waxwings can be seen at Denali National Park.
Elegant Trogon, Elf Owl, and Magnificent, Violet-crowned, and Blue-throated Hummingbirds
Eighteen hummingbird species have been recorded in the canyons, mountains, and creeks of Arizona southeast of Tucson, and at least 13 species are seen each year, including the three on our most-wanted list.
The Violet-crowned Hummingbird, rare in most of the region, is seen from March to September at Marion Paton’s backyard feeders in the town of Patagonia, about 59 miles south of Tucson. She generously welcomes birders to watch Violet-crowns and the many other species that come to her yard.
You can see the two largest hummingbirds in the United States, Blue-throated and Magnificent, in spring and summer at the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge in the heart of Madera Canyon, 38 miles north of Patagonia. Also look for them in Portal, 185 miles northeast of Madera Canyon, and in nearby Cave Creek Canyon, especially along South Fork Road. Listen for Blue-throated’s loud, sharp seep notes and Magnificent’s chip. (By the way, check feeders in Portal and in the canyon for Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, as well.)
Cave Creek is also the place to find the Elegant Trogon and one of a handful of reliable spots (including Santa Rita Lodge) for the Elf Owl. Up to 10 pairs of trogons nest along the South Fork, and the birds are seen somewhat regularly at the picnic area at the end of the road. To locate an Elf Owl, look for nest holes in sycamore trees next to the Portal Post Office and in the canyon. Listen for the owl’s calls – described as “high-pitched, puppy-like yips” — and wait for the bird to emerge at dusk.
13 down, 7 to go. Next stop: the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
After nearly 20 years of captive breeding, the endangered California Condor now numbers 289 individual birds: 151 in captivity and 138 in the wild. Condors roam three regions: mountainous areas north of Los Angeles, Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, and the Grand Canyon, where they’re easiest to see from April to September (though not countable).
Kathy Sullivan, condor recovery coordinator for Arizona’s Game and Fish Department, suggests arriving in Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim before 8 a.m. in May or June. “If you get there early, you can usually see them come off their roost in the morning,” she says. “They literally fly right over your head.”
14 down, 6 to go. Next stop: Washington State.
Olympic National Park, Washington
The male Harlequin is a show-stopper: slate-blue body, chestnut sides, assorted white spots. More than 360 pairs breed in Olympic, and the park’s Lower Elwha River Valley is the most accessible spot to look. The males hang around from April to early June before departing for the Pacific Coast.
15 down, 5 to go. Next stop: Michigan.
Mio or Grayling, Michigan
To find North America’s rarest warbler, you have two choices: You can fly to Eleuthera in the Bahamas to search for overwintering birds, or you can drive to Michigan, where the bird breeds. Your chances are best in the jack pine forests of the Great Lake State, where males sing reliably, loudly, and conspicuously each spring.
Both the Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service offer guided tours from May 15 through early July, and there’s even an annual Kirtland’s Warbler Festival at Kirtland Community College in Roscommon. What could be easier? This spring’s event will take place May 19, 2007.
16 down, 4 to go. Next stop: Maine.
Coast of Maine
“My husband would probably be with me to see this one even though he is not a birder,” says Karen Carbiener of Plano, Texas. “Even he wants to see one of these little guys!”
Who doesn’t? The orange-billed, black and white seabirds certainly are cute, and their recovery since the early 1900s from habitat destruction and overhunting is an undeniable success. Today 337,000 pairs breed at 77 North American colonies, most of them off the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
The colonies most accessible to U.S. birders are off the coast of Maine — on Machias Seal Island and Eastern Egg Rock, where staffers, interns, and volunteers associated with the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin have worked tirelessly since 1973 to reestablish them. Now more than 6,300 visitors a year ride tour boats out to the islands from June to August to see the little guys.
17 down, 3 to go. Next stop: Alaska.
Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Horned Puffin is one of Atlantic Puffin’s two western cousins. (The other is the more widespread Tufted Puffin.) Horned nests on many coasts and islands of western and southern Alaska but is seen the easiest on St. Paul, one of the Pribilof Islands, located in the Bering Sea a four-hour flight from Anchorage. Look for it (and thousands of Red-legged Kittiwakes, murres, cormorants, Tufted Puffins, and other seabirds) in summer at Ridge Wall, atop the cliffs lining the southwestern edge of the island.
18 down, 2 to go. Next stop: Nome.
All five loons are emblems of the Great North, but the Arctic Loon, the loon most of us have to travel the farthest to see, is the ultimate icon of unspoiled wilderness. It occurs across much of Eurasia but is seen in North America only in far western Alaska. It breeds at Cape Prince of Wales on the tip of the Seward Peninsula and farther north, at the north side of Kotzebue Sound. To find it from late July to mid-September, fly to Nome. It’s rare but can be found. Go east on Council Road, stop between mileposts 25 and 28, and scan Safety Sound. And don’t be fooled by look-alike Pacific and Red-throated Loons, which are fairly common.
19 down, 1 to go. Next stop: the Deep South.
Your choice: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, or Cuba
Several voters asked, “Who doesn’t want to see an Ivory-bill?” Everyone rejoiced when it was announced that it had been rediscovered in Arkansas in 2004, but the Big Woods have been worked pretty hard for two years, with little to show for it. Fortunately, recent reports from Florida are promising. You can find suitable Ivory-bill habitat, or something close to it, there and in about two dozen other locations, listed below. So pull on your waders, grab your canoe, and ask the locals about the large woodpeckers they’ve seen. And by all means, no matter where you decide to search, always keep a camera close at hand. If you get The Picture, a future cover of BirdWatching awaits.
Where to search for Ivory-bills
Arkansas: White River National Wildlife Refuge
Louisiana: Atchafalaya Basin and the Pearl River area
Mississippi: DeSoto National Forest, where Black Creek joins the Pascagoula River
Georgia: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Florida: Panhandle rivers – Apalachicola, Chipola, Ochlockonee, Sopchoppy, Aucilla, and Choctawhatchee. Ocala National Forest and the Wekiva River, the Loxahatchee River, and the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.
Cuba: The Sierra Maestra, in Guantanamo province, at the far eastern end of the island, and Pinar del Rio, west of Havana.
Matt Mendenhall is the Managing Editor of BirdWatching magazine.
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