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.
Copper River Delta
In late April and early May, the Copper River Delta near Cordova hosts 6 million squawking visitors--the largest gathering of shorebirds in North America. Throughout the year, about 20 million shorebirds and waterfowl will take a rest break or nest here. But the birds are just one of many amazing sights. The Copper River is Alaska's fourth largest and drains all the wild mountains in the southeastern corner
of the state, including the Wrangell, St. Elias, and Chugach ranges. Best bet: Take a multiday float trip, then head for the hills, where hundreds of miles of trail and several backcountry cabins await.
guides:Trails Illustrated maps Prince William Sound-Eastand Prince William Sound-West (800-962-1643; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10 each).
contact: Chugach National Forest, (907) 743-9500; www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach.
Assateague Island National Seashore
This barrier island may be famous for its wild horses--and the hordes of summertime tourists--but it's pleasantly quiet during the springtime arrival of migrating birds. Off the coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, the island includes 37 miles of dunes, marshes, beach grass, and pine forest with room to roam. Backcountry camping is allowed, and a handful of trails will take you to prime viewing spots for tricolored and little blue herons, great and snowy egrets, pelicans, clapper rails, osprey, loons, American oystercatchers, and dozens of songbird species.
guides:Assateague Island Handbook (available from contact below; $8). A free map is available at the park headquarters.
contact: Assateague Island National Seashore, (410) 641-1441; www.nps.gov/asis.
Acadia National Park
More than 250 bird species, including half the warblers found in the United States, can be seen along Maine's battered coast. Rugged cliffs above the ocean offer great views of shorebirds, while a handful of freshwater lakes, salt marshes, and a dozen forested mountains harbor trails that will let you see and hear the park's land birds. Acadia's best birdwatching is from May to September. Look for ruby-throated hummingbirds in the low branches of trees or shrubs. Or, beginning in May, attend a guided peregrine falcon watch or bird walk (for more information, contact the park).
guides:Hiking Acadia National Park, by Dolores Kong and Dan Ring ($17). Trails Illustrated map Acadia National Park #212 (800-962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com; $10).
contact: Acadia National Park, (207) 288-3338; www.nps.gov/acad
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area
Between March and May, nearly half of North America's shorebird population flies over the marshes, grasslands, and sandhills of Cheyenne Bottoms in south-central Kansas. In May, more than 100,000 northbound white-rumped sandpipers stage here, 600 miles from salt water. Other species include black-necked stilts, ruddy ducks, piping plovers, and the Gadwall. Much of the wildlife area is open to foot traffic, and dayhikers flock here, but camping is allowed only at one designated primitive site.
guides:Where The Birds Are: The 100 Best Birdwatching Spots in North America, by Robert M. Brown, et al ($30). A free map is available at the
contact: Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, (620) 793-7730; www.cheyennebottoms.net.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
Stretching 150 miles from Cat Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in Florida, this chain of islands is one of the busiest rest stops in the East for migrating birds. Kayak the 6 to 10 miles from the mainland to the shores of Horn, Petit Bois, or East Ship Islands, where primitive camping is allowed and several trails tour white beaches, coastal marshes, and dense stands of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Backpackers can hire a boat or hop on a ferry and explore many of the islands on their own. Early spring and fall are ideal for spotting birds such as brown pelicans and painted buntings on their way to and from South America, and for seeing the Gulf of Mexico at its clearest.
guides: Free trail guides are available from the visitor centers.
contact: (850) 934-2600 in Florida; (228) 875-9057 in Mississippi; www.nps.gov/guis/.
Cape Lookout National Seashore
For undisturbed views of herons, egrets, ibis, terns, piping plovers, and gulls, kayak 3 miles from the mainland near Morehead City to the chain of islands and marshes that make up this 55-mile-long national seashore. The sound's waters are too shallow for most powerboats, which keeps (human) crowds to a minimum. Migrant ducks and geese, on the other hand, winter here by the thousands. Primitive camping is allowed on all of the islands.
guides: Free guides and USGS topos ($10) are available at the visitor center. USGS topos Cape Lookout, Harkers Island, Horsepen Point, Davis, and Styron Bay (888-ASK-USGS; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10 each).
contact: Cape Lookout National Seashore, (252) 728-2250; www.nps.gov/calo.
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.
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.
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.
guidesHiking 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
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.