Autumn is the perfect time for birding, one of America’s fastest-growing outdoor pursuits. It is also the second of the year’s two migratory seasons, when millions of avian travelers are spending weeks at a time winging their way across the landscape, from southern climes where they were growing up and getting strong and fat toward northern winter mating and nesting destinations. Libraries full of good guidebooks are available (we are especially fond of the Peterson Field Guide Series, paper and digital versions are available) to help you develop a keen eye for identifying the difference between an American pelican and an anhinga.
Just about everywhere can be a good birding location, including your own backyard or a local, regional, state or national park. However, some destinations are better than others. Here are five of our favorite bird-watching locations across the United States:
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pa.
Perched upon a 300-mile-long hog’s back mountain near Reading, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, is a hot spot for predatory birds. The 2,400-acre preserve is considered by some as the best place in the United States to see raptors, and the prime viewing spot is North Lookout, just one mile from the visitor center. Black vulture, bald, eagle, osprey, Cooper’s hawk and American kestrel are highlights.
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Fla.
North of the famous Everglades, and just next door to scenic Sanibel, the compact 6,000-or-so-acre refuge might bring you 250 bird species in a day during the winter. Darling is a mix of ocean, mangrove thickets, wetlands and upland forest. The site also features an observation tower. American bittern, wood stork and roseate spoonbill can be found here.
Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, Ark.
It just so happens that two of the largest migratory flyways across North America, the Central and the Mississippi, converge on top of this state, and it’s dense with hardwood forests, rivers, creeks, sloughs and lakes — all prime bird country. Our first choice is the 65,000-acre Felsenthal Refuge near West Crossett, which is highlighted by the 15,000-acre Felsenthal Pool. During recent years, its surface has been covered by more than 300,000 wintering waterfowl.
Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Refuge, Calif.
The Salton Sea, just south of Palm Springs, is considered a globally significant bird habitat, but is also an accident. Formed when Imperial Valley irrigation canals suffered a series of breaks, allowing the Colorado River to flood the then-Salton Sink during 1905-1906, the 35-mile long “sea” and surrounding briny habitat include about 38,000 acres of open water and salt marsh. During the winter months, the Salton Sea attracts a total of around 4 million birds, and more than 380 species have been recorded.
Olympic National Park, Wash.
Nearly 95 percent of Olympic National Park’s almost 1 million acres is wilderness. The terrain and habitat of this park on the Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle, is so diverse that visitors can drive from fog-shrouded coastline though temperate rainforest and over snow-capped mountain passes in this park alone. Ruby Beach is home to dozens of shore bird species and pink sand made up of tiny garnet crystals. The Hoh Rain Forest (American dipper, varied thrush, pileated woodpecker, or the endangered spotted owl) is a landscape of moss-covered trees and tropical ferns. 360-565-3130, www.nps.gov/olym
No matter where you are, observations of these beautiful, interesting, and often rare bird species can be difficult, if not impossible without the aid of magnifying optics such as binoculars. Here we gathered a quartet of high-quality binoculars to help you find just the right one for your birding adventures:
Nikon Travelite VI Series 5
The Nikon Travelite is compact, lightweight and easy to carry. Available in 8×25, 10×25 and 12×25 configurations, these models feature Nikon’s bright, multicoated optics and BAK-4 high-index prisms, delivering a brighter, sharper view during critical early and late periods of the day. The Travelite features turn-and-slide eyecups and a central focus knob; enhanced ergonomics and aspherical eyepiece lenses for an enhanced field of view.
MSRP: 8x: $99.99, 10x: $109.95, 12x: $119.95
Nikon: 631-547-4200, www.nikon.com
Bushnell Trophy XLT4
Bushnell’s affordable Trophy XLT Binoculars have a sleek, ergonomic build with fast focus capability, making these binoculars perfect for checking out wildlife on the move. The Dura-Grip coating with soft touch thumb grips makes them easy to hold for longer periods of time. The fully multi-coated lenses feature lead-free glass for greater clarity and light transmission. Trophy series binoculars are 100 percent waterproof and fogproof. Each pair also comes with a set of flip-up objective lens covers.
MSRP: 10×28: $99.99, 8×32: $119.99, 8×42: $189.99, 10×42: $199.99, 12×50: $219.99
Bushnell; 800-423-3537, www.bushnell.com
ZEISS Conquest 5 8×30
The Conquest 8×30 is a good binocular for those who prefer mid-size glass. Zeiss’ proprietary multi-coating on the lenses and its phase-coatings on the prisms improve light transmission for bright, sharp images and enhanced twilight vision. And the 17.46-ounce, rugged Conquest binoculars are ergonomically designed for comfort during extended use in the field.
Zeiss; 800-441-3005, www.zeiss.com
Celestron 10×50 Nature Series6
The Nature Series from Celestron feature an open-frame style with a rugged aluminum main body and a rubber covering for additional protection. Significant features include fully multi-coated optics and high-precision BAK-4 prisms to enhance the optical quality with maximum contrast and color rendition. Twist-up eyecups provide easy adjustment. The Nature series is waterproof, and nitrogen purged to be fog proof.
Celestron; 310-803-5955, www.celestron.com