You don’t have to be a khaki-wearing, jumbo-binocular-toting, neck-craning, list-checking ornithologist to find inspiration in our feathered friends. Just consider the numbers. Each year, roughly 20 million shorebirds and 100 million ducks flood North American skies. On any given night between March and May, as many as 12 million songbirds may beusing coastlines in the eastern United States as rest stops on their way north.
Many will return to the same sandy beaches or rocky ledges where they hatched, negotiating ancient routes with remarkable precision. Come fall, the tide reverses, and the migrants soar south from the continent’s northern tier–from Arctic tundra, prairie pothole, and boreal forest river–bound for wintering grounds as distant as Antarctica. These high fliers log mileage that would make the toughest ultramarathoner quiver: Birds weighing mere ounces cover a thousand miles a day; Hudsonian godwits wing 8,000 miles without a stop; black brant take to the air in Alaska and cover nearly 2,000 miles of ocean before making landfall in northern California; ruby-throated hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight.
Why all the travel? For the fabulous food and long, sunny days, of course. Imagine yourself a bird with a taste for mosquitoes: Where else would you go in spring but Alaska, the mother of all bug buffets?
Chances are, you already have an Alaska adventure on your life list. But why wait another year to witness one of nature’s greatest wildlife spectacles? In the next few months, swarms of birds will pass through wildlands near you, bringing life and song back to silent forests. Here are 11 of the best places to catch the show.
Chiricahua Mountains, Coronado National Forest
From a seemingly endless landscape of flat desert, the Chiricahua Mountains rise like massive islands, their slopes harboring a climate that’s 20 degrees cooler and much wetter than their surroundings. Hidden in these hills is a birder’s pot of gold: a rare tropical bird called the elegant trogon. People flock to the roads around Cave Creek Canyon to see this summer resident, but fewer venture into the backcountry. Step off the roads and onto one of the 13 major trails, and you’ll still see the birds, as well as strange “standing rock” formations and terrain that resembles Colorado highcountry.
guides: 100 Classic Hikes in Arizona, by Scott S. Warren ($20). USGS topos Rustler Peak and Chiricahua Peak (888-ASK-USGS; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10 each).
contact: Coronado National Forest, (520) 670-4552; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coronado.