Want to Visit a Birding Hot Spot This Winter? Here Are One Fanatic's Favorites.
visiting North America's top birding spots for a book I was writing. By the time I finished, I had driven more than 32,000 miles. But it hardly seemed like work. For me, bird-watching provides a relaxing prescription for good mental health. It also provides an excuse for escaping the cold winters of Wisconsin, where I've lived for the past 35 years.
During those years, I've repeatedly returned to a few locations that offer remarkable birding experiences. Needless to say, most are located in warm regions. But last year, I braved the cold and visited a place near home. Now, I include it in the following list of some of my favorite wintertime bird-watching sites:
Cassville, Wisconsin: Every January, the 1,100 or so residents of this tiny village, situated along the Mississippi River, sponsor Bald Eagle Days. It's one of the nation's finest eagle viewing experiences. As many as 260 of the magnificent birds concentrate there to feed on fish churned up in the open waters below a power plant located just north of the village. "Cassville is the premier, dependable place to see bald eagles in January," says Clyde Male, a bird specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Regardless of how bad the weather is, you can see eagles there."
During my visit, I saw dozens of the birds--both white-headed adults and all-dark juveniles. A newly constructed wildlife-observation platform provided good viewing of eagles perched in trees. While sitting in my car at the power plant, however, I got the best views of the raptors catching fish stunned by the plant's warm-water discharge.
Though the eagles were present all day, they were most active during early morning when the temperatures often dipped far below freezing. I was glad I had my thermals on. For more information, write Cassville Tourism, P.O. Box 576, Cassville, Wisconsin 53806; call 608-725-5855; or visit the web site: www.cassville.org.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: During winters when I want to get as far away from snow as possible, I retreat to this unique museum, 14 miles west of Tucson. Bird-watching in a museum? Though it has walk-through, live exhibits, including an aviary, 85 percent of this huge facility is outdoors. Its open-desert grounds provide a remarkable setting for seeing free-ranging species of desert birdlife. Native flowering desert plants lure hummingbirds, while verdins and hooded orioles sway in the palo verde and ocotillo.
On one visit, I saw cactus wrens nesting in the middle of one jumping cholla cactus, and a curved-billed thrasher's nest in another. On top of statuesque saguaros, gila woodpeckers and white-winged doves played tag. At night, elf and great horned owls hooted and chattered to the full moon. To find out more, call the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum at 520-883-1380; web address: www.desert museum.org.
There are roughly 500 national wildlife refuges throughout the United States and many of them offer extraordinary winter birding. Here are three of my favorites:
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge: Over the years, some of my most rewarding bird-watching experiences have been at this New Mexico refuge, located about 90 miles south of Albuquerque. Its 12-mile auto tour is dotted with large wooden observation platforms overlooking wetlands. From my car alone, I've seen tens of thousands of snow geese, sandhill cranes and ducks of many feathers. When the geese flush off the water, they form a great white wall of cackling motion against the rugged Chupadera Mountains to the west and the silky blue sky above.
On more than one occasion, I've spotted flocks of Rio Grande wild turkeys, and both bald and golden eagles. At sunset, I've seen large masses of roosting sandhills standing in the sun's orange reflection. As darkness set in, their voices joined the concert of honking, bugling, murmuring and quacking that echoed far into the night. For more information, contact the refuge headquarters at 505-835-1828 or call the Socorro, New Mexico, Chamber of Commerce at 505-835-0424; web address: www.socorro nm.com.
J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge: If you want to soak up some subtropical ambiance, head to this Sanibel Island refuge on the Florida Gulf Coast. On one of the country's best wildlife auto tours, I've photographed roseate spoonbills, white ibis, great and snowy egrets, great and little blue herons, and wood storks, all cruising the mangrove shallows in search of food. In trees along the five-mile drive, I've seen red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, anhingas and brown pelicans. The thickets at Ding Darling are almost always alive with smaller birds, including yellow-rumped warblers, mockingbirds and blue- gray gnatcatchers. For more information, call the refuge headquarters at 941-472-1100 or the Lee Island Coast Visitor and Convention Bureau at 1-800-237-6444; web address: www.leeislandcoast.com.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge: Located near Alamo, Texas, just across the Rio Grande River from Mexico, this refuge was a favorite birding spot for the late ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson. "In this unique area where, zoologically, East meets West and Mexico spills over the border," he once observed, "it is possible to see more birds in a day than in any other section of the United States." Indeed, this small, 2,000-acre patch of virgin river-bottom thickets claims one of the longest list of birds--397--in the entire national wildlife refuge system.
During my last visit there, I had traveled less than 100 yards inside the refuge's boundaries when a flock of plains chachalacas ambled across a gravel road in front of me. In the thickets, green jays, altamira orioles and golden-fronted woodpeckers were a delight to these northern eyes. However, I did most of my birding while driving along the seven-mile road that tours the site and while walking along the 11 trails that branch off the road. That helped swell my bird list to 70 in just two days.
The most unique feature of my Santa Ana experience was sitting in one of the permanent photo blinds set up next to bird feeders. One hour of peeking through a porthole at Mexican-style birdlife was well worth the trip to Texas. For more information, call the refuge headquarters at 956-787-3079; for advice on accommodations, call the McAllen, Texas, Chamber of Commerce at 877-622-5536.
Field Editor George H. Harrison is the author of a dozen books on birds and bird-watching.