Blog Post Nicholas Lund Apr 3, 2017

Get Your Binoculars: The 25 Best National Parks for Birding

Find out which national park sites have the most bird species, with a highlight of what you might see at each place.

Millions of people visit national parks each year for the chance to spot wildlife, including such iconic species as black bears, bison, pronghorn and wolves — but wherever you go, you are virtually guaranteed to see birds. Each year, people spot more than 900 species of birds in the United States, and national parks are among the top viewing destinations.

But which national parks have the most bird species? I wanted to know, so I dug into the data to find out.

Avid birders all over the world use eBird to record their sightings and maintain lists of what they’ve seen. The eBird website collects all the information in a massive, searchable citizen science database showing bird sightings and other information. To find the national parks with the most kinds of birds, I went in and tallied up the recorded sightings for each of the 417 national parks units (yes, all 417!).

A little bit about how this list works. First, birds sometimes wing themselves to unusual places, and birders love these rare sightings. Even if a particular species has only been spotted in a park once, it still counts for the park. Second, all these sightings are verified by eBird, which has pro birders that review sightings of rare birds in each state. So, we can trust these numbers.

Now, it’s not perfect. Some sightings, especially older ones, aren’t in eBird, and low species numbers for some parks, like those in Alaska, reflect a lack of birding access more than low species diversity. Still, I feel the final numbers are a good reflection of bird diversity in our National Park System.

For each park, I’ve included an example of a notable bird that, with a little luck, a visitor might spot there.

My favorite part of this list is the broad geographic diversity. Parks from every corner of the nation make the list, a true testament to the importance of protecting a variety of habitats, and to the birders who scour the country after their quarry.

The parks are listed from fewest species to most.

 

25. Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, Texas

253 species

There’s a nice mix of habitats in this north Texas site, including a big lake that attracts shorebirds and waterfowl from miles around. Keep an eye out for: cinnamon teal.

 

24. Fire Island National Seashore, New York

254 species

This is the first of several national seashores on this list. Seashore parks are great places to see a wide diversity of birds because they offer many different habitats in relatively small areas. These habitats include oceans and beaches and often fresh water, woods and grasslands as well. Keep an eye out for: piping plover.

 

23. National Capital Parks, Washington, DC

255 species

The parks* of eastern and western D.C., mostly along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, protect a variety of habitat in a densely populated area. Keep an eye out for: wood ducks.

 

22. Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

256 species

This rugged coastline is a hidden gem for naturalists and a great place to see southern birds in a tranquil setting. Keep an eye out for: brown pelican.

 

21. Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina

257 species

The coastal islands off North Carolina are a paradise for birders looking for massive flocks of shorebirds migrating up and down the coasts. Keep an eye out for: willet.

 

20. National Mall, Washington, DC

261 species

The District makes the list again! The waters of the Potomac and the trees along Hains Point provide a resting spot for lots of species. Keep an eye out for: Caspian tern.

 

19. Acadia National Park, Maine

261 species

This coastal park is a hotspot for migratory birds in spring and fall. Keep an eye out for: Blackburnian warbler.

 

18. Cabrillo National Monument, California

262 species

This small San Diego park has more bird species than acres. Its location on a peninsula gives birders a panoramic view of the Pacific. Keep an eye out for: black-vented shearwater.

 

17. Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Maryland

265 species

Here’s another small, urban park with a ton of bird sightings. Good thing Francis Scott Key was watching the star-spangled banner and not looking for warblers! Keep an eye out for: redhead.

 

16. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada, Arizona

268 species

A huge park with a diverse set of habitats equals a whole lot of bird species. Keep an eye out for: western grebe.

 

15. Everglades National Park, Florida

280 species

The Everglades might be the national park people think of most when they think of birds, and with good reason. The swamps and mangrove forests in the Everglades are critically important for millions of birds. Keep an eye out for: snowy egret.

 

14. Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Maryland, Washington, D.C., West Virginia

282 species

This long park winds its way across miles of land filled with migrant songbirds and overwintering waterfowl. Keep an eye out for: cerulean warbler.

 

13. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana

285 species

This lovely park on the south shore of Lake Michigan is a major hotspot for birders in Chicago and northwest Indiana. Keep an eye out for: pileated woodpecker.

 

12. Channel Islands National Park, California

290 species

Channel Islands has the distinction as being the only park with a species that lives ONLY within the boundary of the park: the island scrub-jay. Keep an eye out for that one, clearly.

 

11. Padre Island National Seashore, Texas

292 species

Year-round warmth on the Texas coast make Padre Island a good destination for birds in any season. Keep an eye out for: roseate spoonbill.

 

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

310 species

Water in the desert isn’t just good for thirsty travelers, it’s good for birds, too, and more than 300 different species have been recorded at the Rattlesnake Springs unit of this park alone. Keep an eye out for: vermillion flycatcher

 

9. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

310 species

San Francisco birders regularly scour this urban spot, which protects beaches, forests, lagoons and other important habitats. Keep an eye out for: white-tailed kite.

 

8. Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

325 species

Cape Hatteras is more easily accessible to birders than Cape Lookout, to its south, which I suspect is why more birds have been spotted there. Either way, coastal North Carolina is a wonderful birding destination. Keep an eye out for: greater yellowlegs.

 

7. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida, Mississippi

325 species

These coastal islands are the spot for incredible migratory birding. In the spring, these islands are the first dry land seen by thousands of songbirds making the long journey over the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula. Keep an eye out for: painted bunting.

 

6. Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland, Virginia

333 species

Most people come to Assateague to see the wild horses, but they should really be looking for birds. Dunes, ponds and forests all in a small area mean a wide variety of different bird species to see. Keep an eye out for: black skimmer.

 

5. Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

339 species

Extending far out into the Atlantic, Cape Cod serves as an important refueling spot for dozens of shorebird species and a great place to see numerous oceanic species that otherwise don’t come close to land. Keep an eye out for: great shearwater.

 

4. Death Valley National Park, California, Nevada

357 species

This large desert park, known for its foreboding landscapes, might seem like a surprise birding hotspot. But the Furnace Creek section of the park is an oasis for birds looking for water and shade, and has hosted 322 species in that small area alone. Keep an eye out for: greater roadrunner.

 

3. Big Bend National Park, Texas

360 species

Birders know Big Bend as one of the most unique birding destinations in the country. Its location on the Mexican border means that many species that are uncommon further north often show up here, including the Colima warbler, which is regularly found nowhere else in the United States. Keep an eye out for: Colima warbler.

 

2. Gateway National Recreation Area, New York, New Jersey

375 species

Birders frequently talk of the “Central Park Effect” — birds migrating over urban areas seek out whatever green spaces can be found. Move the Central Park Effect a few miles south, include some really fantastic marsh and shoreline habitat, and add a lot of birders, and you’ve got Gateway National Recreation Area. Keep an eye out for: least tern.

 

1. Point Reyes National Seashore, California

405 species

Our winner! Point Reyes is the total package for a birder. It’s got incredibly varied habitat, including grassland, forest, beach, freshwater ponds and open ocean views. Plus, it’s at the end of a large peninsula, which means it can act as a funnel for wayward birds traveling down the coast. It all adds up to more than 400 bird species, the most of any national park in the system. Keep an eye out for: American kestrel.

 

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Do you want to see more? Check out my list of all the national park sites ranked by bird species diversity (though more than 100 sites, mostly small cultural and historical parks, don’t have bird data available).

*This grouping of smaller D.C.-area parks includes the Fort Bunker Hill Park, Oxon Hill Farm, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, Fort Reno, Battery Kemble Park, Fletcher’s Cove, Fort Totten Park, Anacostia Park, Fort Dupont Park, and several sites along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

About the author

  • Nicholas Lund Senior Manager, Landscape Conservation Program

    As Senior Manager for the Landscape Conservation Program, Nick focuses his efforts on oil and gas activities in and around our national parks. In his spare time, Nick writes silly things about birds for TheBirdist.com, Audubon, and Slate.