Audubon's Field Guide to Birding Trails
California’s Eastern Sierra Birding Trail: Less than a generation has passed since heroic birder-conservationists, led by the late David Gaines, won the fight to save Mono Lake from being drained. Mono Lake remains a mecca for birders because of this proud chapter in conservation history, as well as for the abundance of birds found here. About 50,000 California gulls nest on its islands, but they are outnumbered by the concentrations of eared grebes (close to a million) and Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes (tens of thousands) that stop over during their annual migrations. Mono Lake is just one of the attractions in this region, where the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada meets the edge of the Great Basin. Thickets in the foothills are home to green-tailed towhees, lazuli buntings, black-headed grosbeaks, and other colorful songbirds. In open pine groves you may chance upon a roving flock of pinyon jays, harsh-voiced birds named for their taste for pinyon seeds, while at higher elevations you could find the soft-voiced Townsend’s solitaire or the flashy western tanager. Along rushing streams you might even be lucky enough to spot the American dipper, an odd aquatic songbird that once captivated John Muir. For more information, check out the Eastern Sierra Birding Trail Map or contact the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society (P.O. Box 624, Bishop, CA 93515).
Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail: Sites on most birding trails are linked mainly by paved roads, but the Inside Passage segment of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Trail offers a special treat because its sites are connected by ferries traveling the Alaska Marine Highway System. In this setting of forested islands and spectacular fjords, stretching from Skagway to Ketchikan, it’s not surprising that water birds provide much of the excitement, with loons, cormorants, ducks, gulls, terns, and others passing in a constant parade. Horned and tufted puffins nest on the islands and fish in the surrounding waters. Pairs of marbled murrelets are everywhere, but their rarer cousins, Kittlitz’s murrelets, are likely to be seen only where huge glaciers come down to the ocean’s edge, as in Glacier Bay National Park. Of course, there are plenty of land birds in this region as well, and nine communities along the trail offer detailed information on birding sites in the forests, rivers, and marshes nearby. Highlights include flocks of migrating sandpipers on the Stikine River near Wrangell, and the world’s largest concentrations of bald eagles, on the Chilkat River near Haines. And you can take non-birding companions along, too, for the chance of spectacular sightings of bears, whales, and other megafauna. For more information, visit The Alaska Coastal Wildlife Viewing Trail or contact the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation (907-465-4190).
The Fountain of Youth—that was Ponce de León’s quest in the early 1500s when he arrived in what is now the southeastern United States. Or at least that’s what the legends say. We know more about the intentions of another explorer who traversed the same region 300 years later. John James Audubon was seeking birds, and throughout the South he found them in dazzling abundance.
Watery realms that have long defined this region—iconic wetlands, vast salt marshes, trackless swamps, the great barrier islands of the Outer Banks, and the mighty Mississippi River—make it a dream birding destination. Contemporary explorers will revel in the sight of pelicans diving offshore, hordes of herons and egrets dancing in the shallows, blizzards of terns swooping over a beach, flashes of colorful songbirds adorning coastal trees like Christmas ornaments, and raptors wheeling and soaring where the woods give way to prairies.
Audubon had to cast about to find a roseate spoonbill and the other birds he brought to life in his paintings. Now we have the advantage of birding trails—well-marked paths highlighting the top spots. Best of all, the birds themselves get a boost from our visits, because ecotourism is increasingly helping to solidify the importance of preserving nature at its finest. So what are you waiting for? Stick this guide in your travel bag and come check out 10 of my favorite southern trails. (Click here to download the guide.)