These 10 Bird Havens Are Great for Bird-Watching

Flock of birds over a large body of water
Photo: Sarah Jessup/Shutterstock

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 bird-watching — also known as 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 hundred of sandhill cranes.

You'll have to bring your passport to visit some of the world's best destinations for viewing migrating birds, but if you live in the U.S. and time your visit correctly, you can enjoy world-class birding without leaving the country. Here are some of the best places to see migrating birds, both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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

Local guides can take tourists to the best spots for puffin sightings. Unfortunately, the puffin population has declined in recent years. Scientists blame this on changes in ocean temperatures, which can reduce the puffins' food supplies by killing key fish species. Islanders used to catch the birds in flight with long nets, but that practice is now heavily regulated. One tradition that remains, however, involves helping pufflings (baby puffins) who get lost during their first flight. Occasionally, a puffling mistakes the lights of Heimaey's main village for the reflection of stars on the ocean. Locals will catch the disoriented bird when it crash lands and release it in the proper location.

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Photo: Paolo [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

In addition to being one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations, Rome has become a haven for birds. Some species, such as scavenging seagulls, scarf up the city's garbage. The annual starling migration is an especially stunning spectacle, as the birds fly in such vast flocks that they look almost like an animation someone is projecting onto the sky. This phenomenon is called a murmuration.

Starlings winter in Rome, so the best time to see them is in December and January. The irony is that Rome's authorities actively try to keep the birds away because their oily guano is difficult to clean. City workers place fake falcons near known roosting sites, hoping the decoy predators will scare away starlings, and emit sonic waves from loudspeakers to frighten the flocks. These efforts have had some effect, but starlings, which spend summers in northern Europe, still flock to Rome in winter.

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The Rann of Kutch

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The Rann of Kutch is located in eastern India's state of Gujarat. Kutch is a region in the state that includes the Arabian Sea coast and parts of the Thar Desert. Rann means saltwater marsh. A number of rivers flow into the large marshlands, creating a unique set of ecosystems that draw many endemic and migratory birds and other animals.

Some experts recommend visiting during the dry season, between November and February, because travel is easier, and you will see migratory birds departing during the monsoon season that comes before these rainless months. Guides say you will see species such as storks, flamingos, ibises, pelicans and birds of prey including eagles and falcons. Different species of waterfowl, flamingos and storks spend time in the wetlands during the summer monsoon season (July through September).

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Platte River

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Each spring, 600,000 sandhill cranes stop on the Platte River in Nebraska on their way north for the summer. The large birds spend the spring, between late February and early-to-mid April, resting and fueling up before they continue their migration. People can see the impressive creatures, which average between 3 and 4 feet in height with a 6-foot wing span, in spots along the river such as the Rowe Sanctuary. You can even rent a bird blind to get an up-close view. 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 along the river and in the nearby Sand Hills. According to Audubon, spring fliers include waterfowl, birds of prey (including bald eagles) and prairie birds.

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Bosque del Apache

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New Mexico's 57,000-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 name Bosque del Apache, which means Apache's Woods, refers to cottonwood trees that grew in abundance along this stretch of the Rio Grande. Many of these trees still stand inside the refuge, though most of the wilderness away from the river is arid scrubland.

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, who may rise up en masse when they think they've spotted a coyote or other predator nearby. 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.

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Salton Sea

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The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is an important stop-off in Southern California for migrating birds. Located in Riverside and Imperial counties, the Salton Sea — actually a salt lake — is saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Despite this, it 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, and over the course of a year more than 400 species can be spotted in and around the refuge.

Interestingly, the harsh surroundings and salinity keep both people and predators away, making this a safe pit stop for birds. Bird watchers can take kayak excursions to see wading shore birds foraging for brine shrimp. The Salton Sea was formed by a flood and is now fed by the area's rivers and by runoff from the irrigation systems of nearby farm fields (features that also attract birds during migration seasons). Though tilapia, which were artificially introduced, can tolerate the salty water, freshwater fish thrive in the canals and rivers that feed the lake, but avoid the lake itself.

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Lake Bogoria and Lake Natron

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Lesser flamingos are attracted to the caustic waters of the lakes in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya and Tanzania. While most animals avoid the water in Lake Bogoria in Kenya and Lake Natron in Tanzania, the flamingos flock there in great numbers during the winter to eat the algae that bloom in the water. These amazing, spindly-legged birds can even drink the saltwater and filter out the salt with glands in their heads. They like the lakes because they don't have to compete with other animals for food or fear most predators in the area.

The Great Rift Valley is a haven for safari-goers. Despite the relatively harsh conditions (the water in Lake Natron can strip human skin), people flock to these lakes to see the amazing flamingo spectacle. Lake Bogoria is a Ramsar site, and much of it is protected as part of Lake Bogoria National Reserve. The lake has hot springs and geysers, as well as other bird species such as the greater flamingo. More than 400 species have been cataloged in nearby Lake Baringo, a freshwater lake that has fewer flocks, but more avian species diversity.

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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 golden eagles, rare Spanish imperial eagles and several vulture species. There are also birds like the azure-winged magpie, which does not live anywhere else in Europe. 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, with 69 special protection zones for birds that collectively cover more than a quarter of Extremadura's total land area. Storks are a major attraction for bird-watchers and tourists in the province. You can find large stork nests on the top of church belfries, in trees and even on the columns of an ancient Roman aqueduct. The town of Malpartida de Cáceres hosts a celebration called the Week of the Stork. This part of Extremadura features Dr. Seuss-like stork nests mounted on poles.

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Cape May

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Cape May is one of America's oldest beach destinations. Located in New Jersey near the edge of Delaware Bay, it hosted well-heeled tourists from Philadelphia in the mid-18th century. Tourism remains the dominant industry in this now-historic enclave, and birding has long been a major attraction thanks to the area's diverse landscapes and location on migration routes.

Cape May has both saltwater and freshwater marshes, forests, swamps and grasslands. This diversity means there are good opportunities for bird-watching in every month of the year. Snow geese spend the winter in the salt marshes, until they're replaced by herons, egrets and ibises in 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 for both migrating birds and species that spend the winter.

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Photo: Lip Kee [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia

Beidaihe is a coastal resort in China. It has long been popular with elites from Beijing, but it's also an important stop on bird migration routes. This is more of a destination for serious birders because of the rare species that stop in the estuaries in and around the town. The Siberian crane, oriental white stork, hooded crane and relict gull are all rare birds, but birders see them regularly during migrations in Beidaihe.

Watchers have cataloged hundreds of species in Beidaihe, but only a handful stay all year. You need to come during spring migration between March and May or 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.