Audubon's Field Guide to Birding Trails
There are a lot of species to see out there. Here are four sets of regional birding trails to guide you to some of the country's great spots.
Kentucky's Audubon Birding Trail: Taken by itself, this is one of the shortest birding trails on the continent, with only three major stops. But it is a must-see historical complement to the 20 wildlife trails that wind their way around the Bluegrass State. It features the area of Henderson, where John James Audubon lived for several years while beginning his epic Birds of America. By following the hiking paths in the state park here, you can almost literally walk in his footsteps and perhaps watch descendants of the very birds that inspired the artist two centuries ago: kingly wild turkeys, coveys of northern bobwhites, brilliant golden prothonotary warblers, and shaggy-headed belted kingfishers. Along forest streams you're pretty sure to see Louisiana waterthrushes bobbing and teetering at the water's edge and little green herons lurking in the shadows, and hear red-eyed vireos singing repetitive whistled phrases from the treetops. Farther along the trail, lakes and marshy sloughs provide a winter home for migratory waterfowl, including wigeons, American black ducks, mallards, teal, and impressive numbers of Canada geese. Great blue herons stand at attention along the shorelines and build bulky stick nests in colonies high in the trees, just as they did in Audubon's day. For more information: Visit Trailsrus.
America's Wetland Birding Trail, Louisiana: Louisiana's Gulf Coast region forms a generous jambalaya of all the ways that water and land can meet: lakes and rivers, cypress swamps, gum and tupelo bayous, flooded rice fields, freshwater marshes, salt marshes, mudflats, and sandy beaches. When locals say this birding trail crosses "America's wetland," it's no idle boast. But don't take my word for it; find out for yourself by visiting any of the 115 sites along the trail's 12 loops. On the outer coast, brown pelicans have recovered from their population crash of decades past, and passing flocks can be seen constantly. Shallow lakes and swamps support a wealth of waders, including snowy egrets, little blue herons, and tricolored herons. Elusive marsh birds are easier to see here than practically anywhere else, and you may get your best looks ever at buffy little least bitterns, rusty-red king rails, and other skulkers. Easier to spot are the flocks of ducks and geese that arrive for the winter, including major populations of greater white-fronted geese and snow geese. If you can tear yourself away from the water, the trail also offers concentrations of warblers, vireos, thrushes, and other migrating songbirds during spring and fall. For more information: Click here or call the Louisiana Office of Tourism at 225-342-8100.
North Carolina Birding Trail: Natural features divide North Carolina neatly into thirds, with mountains in the west, the coastal plain in the east, and the Piedmont Plateau in between. Two sections of a statewide birding trail are finished, and the third, the mountain region, is scheduled to be ready for business by the summer of 2009. Travel this trio of trails for a cross section of some of the best birding on the continent. The coastal plain features the long sweep of the Outer Banks, where the Wright brothers made their first flight and where huge flocks of migratory shorebirds still gather in spring and fall. Waterfowl also abound, and wintering flocks of tundra swans provide a spectacle for winter trips. In the upper coastal plain and the Piedmont's tranquil pine forests, there are parties of brown-headed nuthatches chattering and clambering about the branches like little wind-up toys. Scarlet tanagers and rose-red summer tanagers sing from the woods, while indigo buntings and yellow-breasted chats add spots of color in the brushy edges. The western peaks have a Canadian flavor, with dark-eyed juncos and Blackburnian warblers singing from the spruces, a world away from the coast's subtropical feeling. For more information: Visit the North Carolina Birding Trail or call the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission at 866-945-3746.
Great Plains Trail of Oklahoma: Comprising 13 separate loops in Oklahoma's western half, the trail calls for weeks of exploration. Prepare to be surprised by the diversity of landscapes and their associated birds. Flocks of blue-gray pinyon jays swarm across the slopes in the far west's rugged Black Mesa country; elusive black-capped vireos and rufous-crowned sparrows chatter from thickets in the southwestern Wichita Mountains; and snowy plovers and stately American avocets parade across the glistening flats of the Great Salt Plains. During spring and fall, clouds of Franklin's gulls circle over the fields en route to or from the northern prairies. Winter flocks of bold Harris's sparrows, black-faced and pink-billed, swarm through the riverside thickets. Come anytime in the warmer months and you'll be greeted by Oklahoma's state bird, the gorgeous scissor-tailed flycatcher, pale with salmon-pink tinges and streaming tail feathers. Summer is also the time for Mississippi kites, graceful acrobatic raptors that are perhaps more numerous here than anywhere else, wheeling and diving above cottonwood groves on the plains. For more information: Visit the Great Plains Trail of Oklahoma or call the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department at 800-652-6552.