Birdwatching at national wildlife refuges: Eastern US

By | August 9, 2017

Aviaries and zoos are great places to see birds, but there’s nothing like seeing them in their natural surroundings. More than 200 of the national wildlife refuges in the US were founded to provide brief stopover spots or winter habitat for migratory birds, and some of these are particularly well-known for the richness of their avian biodiversity. These refuges are great destinations for bird-lovers. Here I describe three NWRs in the eastern US; future posts will cover the rest of the country.

Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, near the tip of Cape May, New Jersey, is a major stopping point for migrating shore birds, wading birds, and neotropical songbirds. The refuge was established in 1989 to protect habitat for migratory birds, which is vanishing as the Jersey shore is developed. Each spring, shore birds and wading birds eat and rest at the shoreline in the Delaware Bay division of the refuge before making their way north for the summer. (This is the second-largest staging point in the US for migrating shorebirds.) Songbirds that summer in Canada and winter in Mexico also make use of the refuge, primarily its forested areas, on their migration. There are two Visitor Stations where you can get the latest on conditions in the refuge and learn about the four walking trails. The Friends of Cape May NWR sponsor weekly nature walks (May to October) and other activities in the refuge.

Photograph of a Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler at Blackwater NWR.

Myrtle yellow-rumped warbler at Blackwater NWR. Photographed by Brian Ralphs and made available under a Creative Commons license.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, 12 miles south of Cambridge, Maryland, was created in 1933 to protect migratory waterfowl traveling the Atlantic Flyway. With forested areas as well as one-third of the tidal wetlands in Maryland, it offers valuable habitat. It’s one of the best places on the Atlantic coast to see bald eagles year-round. Various types of waterfowl spend the winter there (mid-October to March), and some stay through the summer; songbirds also nest there in the summer (see the Seasons of Wildlife page for information about what you can expect to find at the refuge throughout the year). The Visitor Center offers information, exhibits, picnic tables, and walking paths. You can drive, hike, bike, or paddle through the refuge on various trails and on the four-mile, paved Wildlife Drive.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel Island, off of Florida’s Gulf coast, as a wonderful spot for finding seashells. The refuge is part of the largest mangrove ecosystem in the US, and it’s also noted for its wildlife, including more than 245 species of migratory and native birds. Here you can see native birds such as the roseate spoonbill (and perhaps, if you’re lucky, the mangrove cuckoo) and migratory birds as they pass through from October through April (see Seasons of Wildlife). The Visitor & Education Center offers information about the natural history of the area, including bird migration; to go see the birds for yourself, you can walk, bike, or drive the four-mile wildlife drive and follow several hiking trails.

To learn more, visit the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Birding in the Refuge system, which has tons of information on birding in National Wildlife Refuges, including a list of birding festivals and events in or near refuges and information for kids and families. You may not have to travel far to find a refuge near you to explore.

To learn more about bird migration, see The Migration of Birds: Seasons on the Wing by Janice Hughes (find in a library) or Atlas of Bird Migration: Tracing the Great Journeys of the World’s Birds by Jonathan Elphick (find in a library).