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Backpacker Magazine – April 2003

10 Best Bird Watching Hikes In America

Spring is for the birds. Here's where to find a flock near you.

by: T. Edward Nickens


New Mexico
Sandia Mountain Wilderness

Just east of Albuquerque, the spine of the Sandia Mountains rises to more than 10,000 feet, with plenty of open places to chill out and watch the thousands of raptors that pass through from February to early May. To beat the crowds, hike toward the east side of the wilderness, away from the tram that carries most visitors to the top of the ridge. With about 117 miles of trail, plenty of weekend hikes are possible.

guides: New Mexico's Wilderness Areas: The Complete Guide, by Bob Julyan ($25). Sandia Mountain Wilderness map is available at the Sandia Ranger station ($7).

contact: Sandia Ranger District, Cibola National Forest, (505) 281-3304; www.fs.fed.us/r3/cibola.

Pennsylvania
Appalachian Trail

Many sites along the Appalachian Trail are well suited for birding, but at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, eyebrows don't rise until single-day hawk-sighting totals crest the 5,000 mark. Here, crosswinds slam head-on into the Kittatiny Ridge, creating updrafts on which the raptors soar. Dayhikers who pay the Sanctuary's $7 entry fee can enjoy an afternoon of bird-watching along the ridge. Backpackers can detour to Hawk Mountain during a 2- or 3-day hike along the AT. The best raptor watching starts in September and extends through November. Songbirds pass through in early May.

guides: Pennsylvania Appalachian Trail Guide, available through the Appalachian Trail Conference (888-287-8673; www.atctrailstore.org; $32, includes maps).

contact: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, (610) 756-6961; www.hawkmountain.org.

Virginia
Shenandoah National Park

In the first flush of daylight, birdsong rises from the trees and rains down from the boughs above. Black-and-white warbler. A flicker's wicka-wicka song. White-breasted nuthatch. Hooded warbler. Cedar waxwing. Towhee. Twelve species of birds sing from the woods, and that's just in the first 2 minutes of dawn. Many songbirds trickle into southern states as early as March, and by April and May the trickle has become a steady downpour. A network of 500 miles of trail is your gateway to hearing the Shenandoah birds yourself.

guides Hiking Shenandoah National Park, by Bert and Jane Gildart ($13). Trails Illustrated's Shenandoah National Park #228 map (800-962-1643; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10).

contact: Shenandoah National Park, (540) 999-3500; www.nps.gov/shen

West Virginia
Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory

The view from Peters Mountain and its observatory is one of the finest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Below the 62-mile ridge, valleys unfurl in checkerboard plains and twinkling ponds. Atop it, portions of the 330-mile Allegheny Trail climb nearly 4,000 feet into one of the great hawk migration corridors of the South. On a good day, the birds flow around you, wheeling and gyring like cinders from a fire, seeking updrafts of sun-warmed air. There are broad-winged hawks, Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, a sprinkling of tiny kestrels. Bald eagles, too, some so close you'll instinctively duck. The best viewing is in late September.

guides: West Virginia Hiking Trails, by Allen de Hart ($16.95).

contact: Jefferson National Forest, (888) 265-0019; www.southernregionfs.fed.us/gwj.




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