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5 Best Places to Watch Migratory Birds this Spring

Every spring, North America’s four main avian flyways—Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic—come alive with birds migrating north. Some estimates say 3.5 billion birds migrate north each spring. 

So pack your binoculars and get ready to scope out some of these avian wonders. Whether you’re a casual birdwatcher or a serious “birder,” here are the five best places around the U.S. to watch the migration this spring—plus five tips to up your birding game.

1. Platte River Valley, Nebraska

Image by Rowe Sanctuary

Each spring, more than a million sandhill cranes visit the Platte River Valley in Nebraska, pausing on their northward migration to eat leftover grain from fields before continuing their journey. Mid to late March is prime viewing time, though the viewing season can last throughout March and into April. Take a peek at the crane camera to see what’s happening at the moment.  

Rowe Sanctuary offers a variety of guided viewing experiences and even an option to spend the night in a photo blind right by the river near the birds. Crane Trust also provides birders with a number of tours, including photo blind and footbridge options. Be sure to reserve a spot well in advance for any of the tours.

If you would rather explore on your own, check out the free viewing decks located along the river in Gibbon and Alda. The best times to see a huge number of cranes at the river are sunrise and sunset as they settle in at the river each night before leaving in the morning in search of food. During the day, keep an eye out in area fields, where cranes eat leftover grain and spend time interacting. 

2. Central Park, New York City

Image by Jorge Vasconcelos

Believe it or not, New York City’s Central Park is a great spot for urban birding. Located on the Atlantic flyway, birders have recorded more than 210 species here. While many of these are migratory, others live in the park all year long.  

The park’s 843 acres features plenty of rich habitat, with trees, shrubs, insects, water and nesting spots. Inside the park, a number of popular birding locations beckon avian enthusiasts. Hallett Nature Sanctuary was closed to visitors in 1934 to protect it for birds, and it was closed for many decades before reopening in 2013. 

The Ramble is also a popular spot, which includes a few bird feeders, as well as a rich tree canopy and plenty of benches. Finally, The Pond includes water bodies to keep an eye on, and the North Woods provides 40 acres of habitat.

3. Tucson, Arizona

Image by Bill Frakes Photography

The Tucson area is home to around 500 species of birds, and the Tucson Birding Trail offers ways to peek at some of the over 350 bird species in the metro area alone, which contains more than 45 great sites. Join Tucson Audubon for field trips, events and festivals.

Mid-April to Mid-September is peak birding time in the area, and Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory offers tips for birdwatchers. Late April is generally the peak of spring migration, though some species, like the rose-throated becard, come to the area in May.

Check out Tucson Botanical Gardens or Agua Caliente Park for a partial day of birding, or for a full-day of exploration, try Madera Canyon, Catalina State Park, Sabino Canyon or one of the other nearby natural areas. Madera Canyon is a local birding hotspot with more than 250 bird species seen, including unique birds like the elf owl and sulphur-bellied flycatcher. The canyon is also home to 15 species of hummingbirds. 

4. Morro Bay, California

Image by Denise Taylor

Along the central California coast, the Morro Bay area is a haven for birdwatchers. More than 400 bird species have been spotted in San Luis Obispo County, and spring is nesting season for local birds and migrating species like pacific slope flycatchers. 

Morro Coast Audubon Society’s Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos is a fantastic spot for birding, with 32 acres and an abundance of avian species. White-crowned sparrows, juncos, woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, great-horned owls and hummingbirds are just some of the birds that nest here. 

Montaña De Oro State Park also contains a wealth of bird life, including black oystercatchers, cormorants and pigeon guillemots, which nest on the rugged cliffs. Be sure to also check out the iconic Morro Rock, where two pairs of Peregrine falcons nest. 

For an enhanced birding experience, join one of Morro Coast Audubon Society’s numerous field trips, or head to an event or festival. 

5. Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge 

Image by Mtruchon

Covering parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge offers prime viewing along the Mississippi Flyway. Each year, around 290 bird species use the refuge on their migratory journey. 

March is a great time to watch for red-winged blackbirds, especially in wetland areas. Keep an eye out for Canada geese nesting near the water. In April and May, watch for a variety of songbirds, like ruby-crowned kinglets, Cape May warblers and black-and-white warblers, which tend to spend a short amount of time in the area. American redstarts, great crested flycatchers, scarlet tanagers and other species spend a bit more time since they nest there. Watch also for migratory woodpeckers, and be sure to keep your ears out for the sounds of chimney swifts and common nighthawks near the river during the evening. 

5 Tips to be a better birdwatcher

1. Head out early

Early morning is a good time to see birds since the birds are often active as they look for food.

2. Pack good binoculars or a zoom lens

Bring along a good pair of binoculars so you can observe from a distance without disturbing the birds. If you plan on taking photographs, be sure you have a zoom lens to capture pictures from afar.

Image by Rowe Sanctuary

3. Use a birding guide or app

Pack a birding guide along to help identify the birds you see. Bring a paper guide or download an app on your phone to assist with bird identification and keep track of your birding life list. Audubon Bird Guide and Merlin Bird ID are popular apps, and many contain a variety of features, such as bird songs, maps and more.

4. Be a volunteer scientist

Consider participating in a volunteer science project while you’re out birdwatching. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology lists projects you can join, such as tracking bird sightings, monitoring nests, and recording activity at feeders.  

5. Join other birders 

Meet fellow birdwatchers by joining a birding group, club or organization, or consider attending a birdwatching event or festival to learn more. Audubon has over 450 local chapters and many ways to get involved.

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