More than 700 distinct bird species can be found in America’s national parks. Exploring this incredible array of wildlife is a great reason to visit national parks, and the fall migration—when millions of birds are heading south from northern breeding grounds—is the perfect time to do it. Here are some of the best places to find different types of birds at national parks across the country.
1. Marbled Godwits: Point Reyes National Seashore, California
A large number of bird species have evolved to take advantage of food-rich seashores, including sandpipers, stilts, avocets, and plovers. Godwits are some of the largest of these shorebirds, with huge bills that enable them to reach deep into the sand for worms and mollusks. Hundreds of godwits and other shorebirds move through Point Reyes National Seashore each fall on their way to southern wintering grounds. For more shorebirds, try: Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina.
2. Bald Eagles: George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Virginia
Because it’s impossible to grab fish out of frozen lakes, many bald eagles move south in fall and winter to find open water. Eagles congregate in large numbers in places with open water and lots of fish. These wintering spots often provide the best places to see one of America’s most impressive birds. Try George Washington Birthplace National Monument in late September or October for a very patriotic experience! For more eagles, try: Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area, Minnesota.
3. Prairie Falcons: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Large American falcons like the peregrine and its western cousin the prairie falcon have evolved into some of the fastest creatures in the world. They need this speed to sneak up on and capture their primary prey: other birds. Seeing a falcon on the hunt can be a breathtaking experience, and the Mount Fremont Trail or the Sunrise area at Mount Rainier National Park offer a great chance of seeing it happen. For more falcons, try: Death Valley National Park at Furnace Creek.
4. Green-Winged Teals: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, Washington, D.C.
After spreading out in summer to breed in the prairie potholes of the upper Midwest and Canada, ducks ride out the winter in huge flocks in warmer parts of the country. In fall, millions of ducks follow flyways south, resting on virtually any expanse of open water along the way. Fall is a great time to see ducks at urban national parks, including D.C.’s Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens. For more ducks, try: Gateway National Recreation Area, New York and New Jersey.
5. Chestnut-Sided Warblers: Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Georgia
Streaming northward in spring, warblers dazzle with their bright and varied plumages. In fall, their breeding plumage is gone and their muted colors make for of one birding’s most delightful challenges. Getting prolonged looks at these birds is important, and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park outside of Atlanta is one of the East Coast’s best fall migration spots, where more than 30 species of warbler can be found in September. For more warblers, try: Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio.
6. Short-Eared Owls: Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts
Seeing an owl is an experience few forget. Most of the 19 different species of owl found in the United States migrate to some extent, and the fall and winter is often the easiest time to see them outside of their normal breeding grounds. Short-eared owls are big, beautiful birds that are best found at dawn or dusk, cruising around open areas like dunes or marshes. For more owls, try: Yosemite National Park, California.
7. Eastern Bluebirds: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia and Tennessee
Bluebirds are some of the most beautiful species. There are three species of bluebird in the United States: the eastern, the western, and the all-blue mountain bluebird. On the East Coast, bluebirds prefer large open fields, and can easily be seen in protected battlefields–often nesting right in cannons! For more bluebirds, try: Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland.
8. Ferruginous Hawks: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
The fall migration of hawks is one of birding’s greatest spectacles. When conditions are right, hundreds of hawks of several different species can be seen riding air currents southward. Established “hawkwatches” are the best places to witness this sight. Hawk Hill at Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of the West Coast’s most famous hawkwatches, and provides a great shot at seeing the massive ferruginous hawk, as well as many other birds. For more hawks, try: Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
9. Trumpeter Swans: Saint Croix National Scenic River, Minnesota and Wisconsin
Swans are the biggest waterfowl in North America, and they use their long necks to reach aquatic vegetation that no other bird can reach. Though the East Coast’s familiar mute swan was actually introduced from Europe, other species are native, like the tundra and trumpeter swans. Once hunted to near-extinction, the massive trumpeter swan has strongholds along the Saint Croix National Scenic River and in several parks in the Rockies. For more swans, try: Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland.
10. Barn Swallows: Everglades National Park, Florida
Swallows are incredible fliers, using speed and agility to capture flying insects. In fall, America’s swallow species move south from their breeding grounds, following the bugs. The long, forked tail of the barn swallow is distinctive, and these birds can be seen in large numbers wintering in the Everglades. For more swallows, try: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, California.
11. Black-Throated Sparrows: Coronado National Memorial, Arizona
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Often overlooked because of their drab appearances and shy demeanors, sparrows are actually an incredibly diverse and beautiful group of birds. Take, for example, the black-throated sparrow, a specialty of the desert Southwest, with its rich, black-and-white face. Learning sparrow plumages and successfully identifying a bird is a reward of every beginning birder’s experience. For more sparrows, try: Manassas National Battlefield, Virginia.
About the author
Nicholas Lund Former Senior Manager, Landscape Conservation Program
As Senior Manager for the Landscape Conservation Program, Nick focused 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.