Birding In The National Parks: Where The Birds Are

Spring is an exciting time for both birds and birders across North America. The colorful songbirds are on their way back to their northern nesting grounds after spending a lazy winter in the tropics. Warblers, with a rainbow of plumages and equally diverse collection of songs, are the most sought-after birds during migration.

When the warblers and their fellow migrants fly north from South and Central America, they face a choice in southern Mexico. They can take the short route - a perilous crossing of the Gulf of Mexico - or fly around the west shore of the Gulf through Texas. A birder with good timing can be there to greet them along either route.

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A Prairie-warbler./Kirby Adams

In April, two of the best spots to view migrants are Padre Island National Seashore in Texas and Gulf Islands National Seashore that spreads across the Gulf shore in Mississippi and Florida. At Padre Island, the birds will be following the coast closely as they skirt the edge of the Gulf. Thousands of songbirds can be seen resting in vegetated areas while tens of thousands of shorebirds cover the beach. The park offers free guided bird tours six days a week through April.

The birds that choose to migrate across the Gulf of Mexico face a daunting task. After flying through an entire night and morning, they are running low on fat reserves and desperate to find land and food. The first dry land they see is usually where they drop and immediately search for food. The long barrier islands of Gulf Islands National Seashore provide that life-giving resting and feeding spot. Throughout April, days following nights with favorable south winds will find many thousands of migrants foraging through the vegetation on the islands. The birds will be nearly starved and are not generally concerned with humans. It’s important to not get close enough to stress migration-weary birds. Their energy reserves are often so low that being flushed from a foraging spot can push them over the edge.

After refueling, the birds continue northward. By the first two weeks of May, parks all across the eastern United States will be bustling with migrants. At Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, as many as 25 species of warbler can be tallied in a single day at the peak of migration. Most of these are just passing through, with only a handful lingering to nest in the dense deciduous forests and wetlands. The period in May just before the deciduous trees leaf out is ideal for warbler viewing in this region. Once the leaves fill in, it’s much harder to spot the birds.

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A Chestnut-sided warbler./Kirby Adams

Later in spring, many of the migrants are settling into their nesting territory. This is an exciting time at some northern parks where many of the warblers decide to settle down rather than pushing on into Canada. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan is the nesting warbler champion of the National Park System with 23 species known to call the park their summer home. By late May, they will be building nests, singing through the day, and foraging aggressively. A birder with a good ear for warbler songs will be able to pick out many of the species on any of the popular hikes in the park. 

One southern park has recently tied Pictured Rocks for highest number of nesting warbler species. Great Smoky Mountains National Park also has 23 species, though the roll call has a few different names than the northern park, thanks to the diverse elevation in the Great Smokies. Some of the northern warblers, such as the Chestnut-sided, Canada, and Blackburnian, are found in the high fir forests, while the distinctly southern Yellow-throated, Swainson’s, and Hooded warblers are just a few miles away in the hardwood lowlands.

Check your local park’s bird checklist and head out there with a field guide and binoculars this spring. Spring migration only happens once a year after all!