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8 Great Winter Birding Trails

Where to find North America's great diversity of wintertime birds.

Rhode Island Coastal Birding Trail

The Ocean State’s coastline, punctuated with endless bays and peninsulas, offers hundreds of miles for exploration. Concentrations of winter birds can be found at every turn. Flocks of Pintails, Mallards, and American Black Ducks find refuge in protected marshes and bays. Sharply patterned Harlequin Ducks ride like daredevils in the crashing surf, while Sanderlings and Purple Sandpipers skitter over the rocks. Offshore, Northern Gannets sweep by on long wings, and Common Eiders and three species of scoters bob about on the waves. Study the flocks of gulls found here, and you’re almost sure to find a rare bird among them. More information: bit.ly/RIcoastalbirdingtrail

Delaware Birding Trail

Delaware may be small, but it is brimming with birds. This trail divides the state into six distinct ecological regions, highlighting 27 prime birding sites. Follow the route through fields and forests, where you’ll find woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Delaware’s coastal zone is globally recognized as an Important Bird Area, and if you visit, you’ll know why. Along the shore, keep an eye out for gatherings of loons, gulls, and gannets. In the estuaries and inlets, look for large flocks of wintering ducks and geese. If you’re lucky, you may spot the rare “Ipswich” form of the Savannah Sparrow hiding among the dunes. More information: delawarebirdingtrail.org

Audubon Niagara Birding Trail

This trail, developed by the Buffalo Audubon Society, follows the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, stopping off at 13 prime sites for cold-weather birding along the way. Strategically placed overlooks above the river and lakes reveal flocks of wintering waterfowl, including mergansers, scoters, scaup, and Long-tailed Ducks. Sites away from the water’s edge feature open-country habitats where you might see Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Shrikes, or Common Redpolls. The trail's centerpiece is Niagara Falls, which is known as one of the best spots on the continent to see gulls. Among the swirling thousands, you might spot such rare northern visitors as Glaucous, Iceland, or Thayer’s gulls. More information: audm.ag/BuffaloBirdingTrail

Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail

Follow the birds to Florida in winter, and you’ll find one of the most ambitious trails on the continent. Covering 2,000 miles with more than 500 locations, the trail features spectacular sites and unique habitats, including Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Visit western Florida and the Panhandle for coastal refuges swarming with wintering waterfowl and shorebirds. Travel the trail to wooded sites in the state's central part to see the flashy but endangered Florida Scrub-Jay. Explore the Everglades; you’ll likely find Snail Kites, Wood Storks, and Limpkins. Journey south to the Keys for birds with a Caribbean flavor, including the Reddish Egret and White-crowned Pigeon. More information: floridabirdingtrail.com

Great Plains Trail of Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s Western High Plains take on a special grandeur under winter skies. Explore any of this trail’s 13 loops and prepare to be surprised by the variety and large numbers of birds. Along the meandering rivers, thickets ring with the calls of boldly patterned Harris’s Sparrows. On several of the loops, including Hackberry Flats and Salt Plains, large marshes and lakes host great wintering flocks of ducks, from Gadwalls to Common Mergansers; these wetlands also attract winter roosts of Bald Eagles, sometimes numbering in the dozens. Follow the trails to their western terminus in Black Mesa country to find more typical southwestern birds, including Pinyon Jays and Scaled Quail. More information: wildlifedepartment.com/greatplains/wildlifetrails.htm

Great Texas Coastal Birding Trails

This was America’s first birding trail project, and remains one of the best. Divided into sections—the Upper, Central, and Lower coasts—the trail features 308 sites, more than enough to keep a birder busy all winter. Along the Upper Coast section, prairies and rice fields host wintering birds of all shapes and sizes, from flocks of Snow Geese to elusive Le Conte’s Sparrows. The Central Coast’s beaches, ponds, and marshes provide refuge to Whooping Cranes, Roseate Spoonbills, and Piping Plovers. Follow the loops of the Lower Coast to find Plain Chachalacas and Green Jays. Many of the trail's sites have been designated as Important Bird Areas, which means they’re vital to conservation as well as productive birding destinations. More information: http://tpwd.texas.gov

Photo: Lincoln Agnew

Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail

A fabled land of specialty birds, Arizona offers rewards in all seasons. The 52 sites identified on the Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail offer plenty of choices for a winter retreat. Follow the trail to streams through arid country, lined with willows and cottonwoods, and you’ll find Abert’s Towhees lurking in the shadows and brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers in the treetops. Visit during the Wings Over Willcox festival to see Sandhill Crane flocks at dawn, and Ferruginous Hawks and other raptors soaring over the grasslands. Explore the lower stretches of the rugged canyons to find flocks of Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Bridled Titmice. More information: seazbirdingtrail.com/index.htm

Oregon Coast Birding Trail

Winters in coastal Oregon can be cloudy and rainy, but temperatures are mild, and birds are so abundant that they make up for a little wet weather. This trail, divided into four sections, will take you to 150 of the best birding spots. In shady groves of redwoods and Douglas fir, expect to find colorful Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Steller’s Jays in the treetops, while Varied Thrushes and Pacific Wrens lurk in the understory. On coastal points, wintering “rockpipers” such as Black Turnstones, Surfbirds, and Black Oystercatchers clamber about on the boulders. However, much of the action is just offshore, where you might see Common Murres, Brandt’s Cormorants, grebes, scoters, mergansers, gulls, and three species of loon. More information: oregoncoastbirding.com

Looking for more great routes? Check out Audubon’s Field Guide to Birding Trails at audm.ag/BirdingTrails.

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