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The 10 Best Places to Visit in the U.S. for Birdwatching

Experts say amateur ornithologists should be flocking to these destinations.

Taking in nature can be more than just seeking out the best views or stunning foliage. In many cases, spectacular wildlife can provide the most dramatic sights—especially of the winged variety. Staking out to catch of glimpse of rare or dazzling species of birds remains a timeless hobby for passionate outdoors enthusiasts with a keen eye and iron-clad patience. And if you're looking for the best places to be on the lookout, there are a few locations that should be on your list. Read on for the best places in the U.S. you should visit if you're passionate about birdwatching.

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North Platte River Valley (Nebraska)

A photo of Chimney Rock in North Platte River Valley, Nebraska

Just as birds flock with the change of seasons, there are some areas where birders flock to when trying to catch a glimpse of the animals in transit. And according to experts, Nebraska provides one such opportunity.

"From February to April, this Midwestern state serves as one of the nation's most incredible birding destinations, with roughly one million migrating sandhill cranes touching down across the North Platte River Valley to rest before heading north," Jared Ranahan, a travel writer and avid birdwatcher, tells Best Life. "In addition to cranes, central Nebraska is also home to the prairie chicken, an eccentric bird renowned for its fascinating mating dance and booming call."

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico)

A flock of birds in a pond at Bosque del Apache Nature Reserve
Shutterstock / Patricia Thomas

While the Southwest is already known for its jaw-dropping landscapes and natural beauty, at least one location in the state provides the perfect environment to catch sight of fantastic fauna.

"The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico is an excellent place to go for birdwatching," Fred Baker, senior travel editor of Travelness, tells Best Life. "The refuge is situated on the Rio Grande and is teeming with waterfowl such as ducks, geese, and swans. In addition, there are many other types of birds that can be spotted there, including sandhill cranes, crissal thrasher, green-tailed towhee, and mallard."

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New River Gorge National Park and Preserve (West Virginia)

New River Gorge, West Virginia

The National Park System has no shortage of wildlife viewing opportunities, including its latest addition in West Virginia. Here, experts say you can get in plenty of hiking or white water rafting while also spotting some visitors who happen to be flying through.

"New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is amazing for watching our feathered friends," Geoff Heeter, a birding guide and expert with New River Birding and Nature Festival, tells Best Life. "The dynamic elevation change from rim to river creates different habitats that attract many birds. Over 30 species of warblers are common during spring migration, and many of them nest in and around the gorge."

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park (Big Island, Hawai'i)

An aerial view of Kaloko Honokohau National Historic Park in Hawaii

Travelers come from around the world to take in Hawai'i's jaw-dropping natural beauty, which spans from below the sea to high mountaintops. And of course, the stunning wildlife that inhabits the islands make for a viewing experience you can't get anywhere else in the world, let alone the United States.

"The largest Hawaiian island is home to a wealth of avian biodiversity, with no shortage of both native and introduced species to discover," Ranahan says. "Coastal destinations like Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park are rife with Polynesian shorebirds, while Volcanoes National Park is a paradise for indigenous species like the 'Akiapōlā'au, 'lo, and 'I'iwi."

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Plum Island (Massachusetts)

A snowy owl sitting on a dune behind seagrass

Thanks to geography, certain areas can enjoy a surprisingly abundant variety of bird life. And according to experts, this includes tiny Plum Island off the small town of Newbury, Massachusetts.

"Gorgeous shoreline and a diversity of marsh, open beach, scrub, and pine forest habitats make this a fantastic habitat for a huge diversity of bird species," Charles van Rees, PhD, conservation scientist and naturalist at the University of Georgia and former ornithologist, tells Best Life. "This includes rare ones like the endangered piping plover and a whole host of 'vagrants' (species that wander in from afar) because the landscape sticks out on the Northeast coast of the U.S. Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, where the mother of American environmentalism, Rachel Carson, worked for years, is a must-visit here."

And if all of your watching helps you work up an appetite, you're in luck. "You'll find great lobster, fried clams, and fish sandwiches in the area when you need a break from your birdwatching adventure," he adds.

Central Park (New York, New York)

new york city, central park, lake, bridge
GagliardiPhotography / Shutterstock

People often make their way to New York City to catch a Broadway show or explore the sights of some of the best museums in the world. What few travelers realize is that they can also catch a glimpse of some awe-inspiring wildlife right in the middle of town.

"For many people, the middle of the Big Apple is the last place they'd look for birds, but Central Park is actually a fantastic birding spot," says van Rees. "During fall (late August to early October) and spring (April to May) migrations, many birds get funneled into the oasis of green in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, and huge gatherings of brilliantly colored birds migrating up from countries like Guatemala and El Salvador show up almost magically overnight. The park also has a rich and diverse community of experienced birdwatchers who are always willing to show people where the coolest new arrival is on any given day."

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Yosemite National Park (California)

tunnel entrance yosemite national park
Gary C. Tognoni / Shutterstock

As one of the most recognized and highly-visited national parks in the entire system, Yosemite's reputation for natural beauty tends to precede it. Experts say this superlative extends to the local bird population.

"Yosemite National Park in California is yet another top destination for birdwatching," says Baker. "The site is home to over 250 different species of birds, including the white-headed woodpecker and the black swift. What's more, the Yosemite Valley provides one of the most stunning backdrops imaginable for spotting the animals."

Sanibel Island (Florida)

A flock of terns on Sanibel Island in Florida

Florida's Gulf Coast is teeming with fascinating wildlife both below and above the waves. And on Sanibel Island, migrating flocks show up in impressive numbers, making it easy to get a glimpse of them in their natural habitat.

"This beautiful island preserve is a winter paradise for many migrating sandpipers, and hosts a year-round group of cool herons and other wading birds," says van Rees. "Sanibel is also the site of Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a fantastic spot for shorebird watching. There are plenty of gorgeous and well-preserved beaches to enjoy when you're done watching birds, too!"

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Outer Banks (North Carolina)

north carolina, outerbanks, lighthouse
MarkVanDykePhotography / Shutterstock

Visitors to North Carolina's Outer Banks may know it as a beloved summer escape with seemingly endless stretches of coastline. But the same area that draws in thousands of seasonal human visitors is equally attractive to feathered wildlife.

"This massive chain of barrier islands is a haven for both migratory and resident shorebirds, with black skimmers, piping plovers, and American oystercatchers found in abundance throughout Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge," Ranahan says.

Magee Marsh (Ohio)

A Cape May Warbler perched on a branch in Magee Marsh, Ohio

While coastlines may feature prominently on birdwatchers' lists, it's not just the oceans that tend to come up big. The Great Lakes also support a thriving bird population—including one in Ohio that has become an epicenter for hobbyists at Magee Marsh.

"This near forest and wetland complex in the Southwest corner of Lake Erie is known as the 'warbler capital of the world' for the incredible variety of beautiful new-world warblers (Parulidae) that migrate through during spring," says van Rees. "With miles of boardwalks and fantastic canopies of trees, Magee Marsh can bring you face to face with an array of colorful and sometimes rare little winged gems. It's also the home of 'The Biggest Week in American Birding,' a massive birdwatching festival in early May each year."

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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