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A dream birding year

birding, Snail Kite
A Snail Kite takes wing at Everglades National Park. The raptor is found from Mexico and Cuba south to Argentina, and in the U.S., the only reliable place to add it to your life list is Florida. Photo by Rob Stokes/Shutterstock

Given no encumbrances, somebody else’s expense account, and perhaps a private jet, I have summarized here the birding locations I would wrap into my perfect birding year. It’s not a Big Year but an itinerary tailored to engage the birding spectacles of the continent, starting with Newburyport, Massachusetts, on January 1. Yes, it’s cold, but species like Little Gull, Snowy Owl, Great Cormorant, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, and white-winged gulls (i.e., Iceland and Glaucous) are cold-weather birds, and Newburyport is where you find them. The chowder is pretty darn fine, too. What kind of chowder? You jest!

Then, to thaw out later in the month, I’d probably head for southern Florida, home to birds of a semi-tropical flavor, and perhaps tuck in a winter pelagic trip out of New Jersey or North Carolina en route (for assorted Atlantic alcids). Florida is not a place to hurry your enjoyment of Limpkin, Snail Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Mangrove Cuckoo, and assorted wading birds, and nothing really stirs the birdscape until March, so dawdle … but go.

In March, it’s on to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and its bounty of Mexican specialties: Hook-billed Kite, Muscovy Duck, Ringed Kingfisher, Green Jay (OMG!), and whatever south-of-the-border rarities turn up this year. Blue Bunting, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Yellow-green Vireo, who knows?

March also sees the beginning of the region’s spectacular raptor migration as Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks and Mississippi Kites begin surging across the Rio Grande, turning weather radar screens and hawk watchers across North America green. But, sadly, much as we’d like to, we can’t dawdle in the Valley. Spring is moving on, and so must we.

Nebraska’s Platte River calls, for the spectacle of half a million staging Sandhill Cranes (plus a side trip or two for lecking prairie-chickens). Then in April or early May, we’d backtrack to Kansas and the hosts of northbound shorebirds packing into Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms. The prairies are the spring mecca for shorebird watchers. May? Hard to beat Crane Creek, Ohio, for migrating warblers in breeding plumage, full song, and at eye-level.

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June? I love the prairies in spring, even wrote a book on the subject. Lark Buntings and Thick-billed Longspurs all going ballistic. Ridge-cruising Ferruginous Hawks making ground squirrels wish they were elsewhere. Upland Sandpipers yodeling from fenceposts, Common Nighthawks booming overhead. Then, maybe we’ll head west to Yuba Pass in the Sierras for Mountain Quail, White-headed Woodpecker, Hermit Warbler, and other western forest specialties.

Monsoon season (July-August)? It’s got to be southeastern Arizona with its hummingbird hosts and sky-islands specialties like Hepatic Tanager and (gasp, sigh) Red-faced Warbler. Meanwhile, out on the flats where riparian water courses abut grasslands, there are Gray Hawks, Vermilion Flycatchers, and Chihuahuan Meadowlarks to savor. (Just stay out of the tall grass. Chiggers, you know.) Then it’s back to California for a pelagic trip out of Monterey and rafts of Sooty Shearwaters spiked with Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses.

Fall? Has to be Cape May, New Jersey, the “migration mainline,” although come November, it’s imperative we take a little side-trip to Duluth, Minnesota, to catch the southbound parade of Northern Goshawks.

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Another winter closing in? How about heading for Tule Lake or Sacramento National Wildlife Refuges and Washington’s Grays Harbor, for the hosts of wintering waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds.

Yes, Grays Harbor is better known for its spring shorebird concentrations (but you can’t be everywhere in May, and shore- birds winter there, too, as does the occasional Gyrfalcon).

Then, as real winter closes over the land? Why not savor the birds and sunshine and cuisine of the southern and central coast of California, maybe take in the Morro Bay Bird Festival in January, then stick around for the San Diego Birding Festival in February. Great weather, oodles of birds (including a few endemics like California Gnatcatcher and Yellow-billed Magpie), and the Central Coast is smack dab in wine country. The Central Coast reds are especially scrumptious. Cheers! Here’s to your year of birding.

I apologize to those many other favorite birding destinations not included in this fantasy itinerary. But if you happen to find yourself on the coast of Texas in April or in the southern Appalachians in May (say around Roanoke, Virginia), you owe it to yourself to catch the surge of north- bound songbirds. And if, come June, you choose to bypass the grasslands and head up to Churchill, Manitoba, to enjoy arctic and sub-arctic breeders, nobody can gain-say that decision.

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Alaska? Worth a year’s travel all by itself (well, maybe half a year) with stops at Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Nome, Gambell, Cordova, and maybe a wilderness river trip or two courtesy of Wilderness Birding Adventures. Try the Marsh Fork and Canning River rafting trip, out of the Brooks Range and onto the Coastal Plain. You even float through Gray-headed Chickadee country (arguably North America’s most-sought-after breeding bird).

If you find yourself in southern California in April, Butterbredt Spring draws migrants out of the thin, parched Mojave air the way blue velvet finds lint. However, nearby Audubon Kern River Preserve offers safer and much easier access to birds seeking shelter at this desert oasis, and Kern will save wear and tear on your tires.

Deadheading in North Carolina while the family does the beach thing? Consider a pelagic birding trip out of Hatteras. How else are you going to get a Bermuda Petrel in ABA waters?

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Point Pelee, Bolivar Flats, Monhegan Island, Hawk Mountain, Riding Mountain … There are so many stellar points on the birding circuit. It’s lucky we have a lifetime and not just a year to fit them all in. Bird on! And never forget all those bird festivals. They are timed to celebrate the best birding a region has to offer. Attend all, and you are in the instant 700 Club.

What you do with the rest of your life is up to you. Me? I just watch the same birds over and over again.

This article appears in the “Birder at Large” column in the January/February 2023 issue of BirdWatching.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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