10 of the Best Places to See Migrating Birds

A flock of sandhill cranes flying above the Platte River at sunset with a silhouette of trees above the water line, an orange and red tinted sky at the horizon, and a blue sky with a sliver of moon visible above
The largest stopover of migrating sandhill cranes occurs on the Platte River in Nebraska.

Tyler D. Rickenbach / Getty Images

Ornithologists and serious bird-watchers take their binoculars to far-flung places in search of species they haven't yet seen. Although people often associate birding with scanning trees for a single rare avian specimen, in some places along migration routes, the experience is quite different.

If you find yourself on the banks of Nebraska's Platte River in springtime, for example, you won't be able to avoid seeing hundreds of sandhill cranes. A few of the world’s best destinations for viewing migrating birds are in the U.S. and others are across the globe. 

Here are 10 of the best places around the world to observe migrating birds.

1
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Heimaey (Iceland)

two puffins with white chests, black feathers, and orange beaks and webbed-feet standing on a green hill overlooking the ocean

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The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic) are located off the southern coast of Iceland. The chain's largest landmass—Heimaey, or Home Island—is best known for two things: its elephant-shaped rock and the millions of migrating puffins who breed on the island. Residents and tourists have embraced the plump, cartoonish birds. More than half of the world’s puffins spend the summer, from about May through August, on Heimaey, where they nest on the steep, rocky cliffs.

2
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Rome (Italy)

a large flock of European starlings cover much of the sky at sunset over a field to trees near Rome

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In addition to being one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations, Rome has become a haven for birds. The annual starling migration is an especially stunning spectacle, as the birds fly in such vast flocks that they look almost like an animation projected onto the sky. This phenomenon is called a murmuration. European starlings winter in Rome, so the best time to see them is in December and January.

3
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Rann of Kutch (India and Pakistan)

a flock of pink lesser flamingos with black-tipped feathers standing in the wetlands area of Kutch

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The Rann of Kutch is an enormous expanse of salt marshes on the border between India and Pakistan. Mostly located in India's state of Gujarat, the marshes are divided into the Great Rann and the Little Rann. The region includes the Arabian Sea coast and parts of the Thar Desert and a number of rivers flow into the large marshlands. This creates a unique set of ecosystems that draw many endemic and migratory birds and other animals. The best time to see migrating birds, including greater and lesser flamingos, cranes, storks, and bustards, is during the dry winter season.

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Platte River (Nebraska)

a large flock of sandhill cranes standing in a cornfield, while others take flight over the cornfield with a bright blue sky in the background in Platte River, Nebraska

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Each spring, more than half a million sandhill cranes stop on the Platte River in Nebraska on their way north for the summer. The large birds spend the spring, between February and April, resting and fueling up before they continue their migration. People can see the impressive creatures, which average between three and four feet in height with a six-foot wingspan, in spots along the river, such as the Rowe Sanctuary. Crane-watchers may also see the birds at the nearby Fort Kearny State Recreation Area.

The crane spectacle is impressive enough to draw birders and curiosity seekers alike, but there are plenty of other birds, including bald eagles, piping plovers, and bobwhites, along the river and in the nearby Sand Hills.

5
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Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico)

snow geese flying in a blue sky at sunrise above sandhill cranes standing in water amid small plants at Bosque del Apache

Danny Lehman / Getty Images

The 57,331-acre Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is a stopover point for geese, cranes, and other species that follow the Rio Grande to their wintering spots. The main bird-watching season is winter. Sandhill cranes spend the winter along this section of the Rio Grande as do flocks of snow geese. These large birds are the main attraction for casual birders and sightseers, but species like the Chihuahuan raven, black-tailed gnatcatcher, and Montezuma quail draw serious birders who want to check some rare birds off their list.

6
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Salton Sea (California)

four white pelicans with orange beaks and webbed feet in flight right above the flat water of the Salton Sea

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The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is an important stop-off in Southern California for migrating birds. Located within Riverside and Imperial counties, the Salton Sea—actually a salt lake—is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Despite this, the area, part of the Pacific Flyway, attracts a huge number of birds during the spring and fall migration seasons. Flocks of egrets, American white pelicans, and ibises spend time in the refuge, as do over 100 bird species that live in the area year-round.

7
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Lake Bogoria (Kenya)

An aerial of a huge colony of pink lesser flamingos gathering on the shoreline of Lake Bogoria with mountains and blue sky in the distance

Jami Tarris / Getty Images

While most animals avoid the water in Lake Bogoria, lesser flamingos are attracted to the caustic waters of this lake in the Great Rift Valley. The flamingos flock there during the winter to eat the algae that bloom in the water. These spindly-legged birds can even drink the saltwater and filter out the salt with glands in their heads. 

Designated as a Ramsar site as a wetland of international importance, the lake is also protected as part of Lake Bogoria National Reserve. Other birds, including greater flamingos and black-necked grebes, frequent the lake, but lesser flamingos, which number around one million individuals, are the predominant species.

8
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Extremadura (Spain)

a blue sky fading into orange at sunset with a view of stork nests at the top of 15 tall poles, each nest contains one or two storks

By Eve Livesey / Getty Images

Extremadura is an autonomous province in western Spain. Though the most famous animals here are Iberian pigs, the area is home to a huge number of birds, including the black stork and the azure-winged magpie. Birds of prey, like the Eurasian black vulture and Spanish imperial eagle, also thrive in the area. The warm climate and varying landscapes (mountains, agricultural land, forests) provide ideal conditions for different winged creatures.

The province also has a strong culture of conservation. Several nationally protected areas cross through the region, including the Monfragüe Biosphere Reserve and the Canchos de Ramiro y Ladronera Special Protection Area for Birds. Storks are a major attraction for bird-watchers and tourists in the province. You can find large stork nests on top of church belfries, in trees, and even on the columns of an ancient Roman aqueduct.

9
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Cape May (New Jersey)

large flock of birds taking flight over the ocean's shore at Cape May with blue sky fading pink

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Cape May is one of America's oldest beach destinations. Located near the edge of Delaware Bay, tourism is the dominant industry in this now-historic enclave. Birding has long been a major attraction, thanks to the area's diverse landscapes and location on migration routes.

The area attracts diverse species to its saltwater and freshwater marshes, forests, swamps, and grasslands. There are good opportunities for bird-watching every month of the year. Snow geese spend the winter in the salt marshes until they're replaced by herons, egrets, and ibises in the spring. More than a million shorebirds hit the beaches of Cape May in May and then return later in the year. August and September are among the best months to observe migrating birds.

10
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Beidaihe (China)

a flock of white birds in the air, on the ground, and in a small pool of water adjacent to a rocky hill in Beidaihe

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This popular coastal resort is also an important stop on bird migration routes. Due to the rare species that are found in the estuaries in and around Beidaihe, this is a destination for serious birders. The Siberian crane, Oriental stork, and relict gull are all rare birds, but birders have the opportunity to see them during migrations in Beidaihe.

Watchers have cataloged hundreds of species in Beidaihe, but only a handful stay all year. The best opportunity to see birds occurs during the spring migration between March and May or the autumn migration beginning in October. Raptors are common earlier in the fall, and white storks round out the birding season in late October or early November.