Bird Spring Migration: Where to Go

Spring means migrating birds are on the move! Find a bird spring migration hotspot near you to see them in all their glory.

The words bird spring migration is enough to bring a gleam to any birder’s eye. Spring birding is legendary. Birds are flaunting their very best and brightest feather colors as they prepare for mating season. Their journeys take them across hundreds and even thousands of miles giving birders a chance to see a wider variety of birds. Though migratory birds can (and do) show up anywhere some spots are better than others.

Things that make an outstanding bird spring migration hotspot include:

  • Resting places before or after water crossings: Areas on the edges of large lakes, gulfs, bays, or oceans draw migrants as they rest in anticipation of their crossing or recover from their extended efforts. Some examples include Magee Marsh and Point Pelee on the shores of Lake Erie.
  • Stands of trees or water in otherwise open spaces: When birds journey across places like the Great Plains, trees or bodies of water become an immediate draw. The same goes for parks in urban places.
  • Food and fresh water: When you’re crossing a desert or a large body of salt water, there’s little food and fresh drinking water to be had. That makes places like the Dry Tortugas a real attraction for migrating birds.

I’ve gathered a list of some of the best bird spring migration hotspots across the United States. Before you go, be sure to research any fees or restrictions. Review recent eBird sightings to see what’s been showing up recently. Once you’re there, chat with other birders and find out where the action is. Finally, remember to be considerate to other birders, natural areas, and the birds.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird migration hotspots can be divided into the following five regions:

  • Gulf Coast and Southeast Bird Migration Hotspots
  • West Coast and Southwest Bird Migration Hotspots
  • Rocky Mountains and Great Plains Migratory Birds Hotspots
  • Great Lakes and Midwest Bird Migration Hotspots
  • Northeast and Atlantic Coast Bird Migration Hotspots

Since our travels that coincide with spring migrations center mostly on the Gulf Coast and the Southwest, I will focus on these two regions.

Roseate spoonbills at South Padre Island Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf Coast and Southeast Bird Migration Hotspots

High Island, Texas

High Island is one of the most active spring bird migration hotspots on the Gulf coast. The whole High Island area is designed to be birder-friendly and is full of different hotspots.

Nearby: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Smith Point, Sabine Woods

If you need ideas, check out: World Migratory Bird Day: My 12 Favorite Birding Sites in Texas

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Dauphin Island sits just off the the coast of Alabama. It’s one of the first places that migrants make landfall after flying over the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Nearby: Fort Morgan, Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Gulf Island National Seashore

I have a helpful article on Dauphin Island: Marvelous Mobile Bay: Dauphin Island

More on birding the Alabama Gulf Coast: The Ultimate Guide to the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail

Whimbrel at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Padre Island, Texas

This is the place to go for early migrants, since it’s so far south. The best site on the island is the South Padre Island Convention Center trails.

Nearby: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Hugh Ramsey Park, Boca Chica National Wildlife Refuge

Check this out to learn more: Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

I have an article on a Texas birding trails: World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Remote Fort Jefferson is an amazing place to be when a fallout occurs. The only fresh water on the entire island is a small well and since all of the birds need water the well is the place to be!

Nearby: Fort Zachary Taylor (Key West), Bill Baggs Cape State Park, Everglades National Park

Little blue heron at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort De Soto County Park, Florida

The special secret that brings all the birds to this park in spring is the Mulberry bushes! The sweet fruit provides the sugar kick migratory birds need after crossing the Gulf of Mexico. The best spot is the fountain and bushes behind the Ranger’s House at East Beach.

Nearby: Sawgrass Lake Park, Lettuce Lake County Park, Circle B Bar Reserve

Here is another great birding site in Florida: Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Land of the Giants

Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

West Coast and Southwest Bird Migration Hotspots

Point Reyes National Seashore, California

This national seashore is large and you’ll need several days to really do it justice. It’s a renowned place to see Pacific Flyway migrants, especially on the outer peninsula that projects 10 miles into the ocean.

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, Arizona

Arizona is known as a birder’s paradise and the San Pedro valley in spring helps prove that point. In addition to migrants keep an eye out for area specialties like the elegant trogon.

Nearby: Patagonia Lake State Park, Whitewater Draw, Madera Canyon

Here are some additional resources:

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

In winter, the thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes are the draw for birders here. In the spring, as the water dries up, migrating shorebirds take their place, joined by warblers, vireos, and flycatchers.

Nearby: Rio Grande Nature Center, La Joya Wildlife Management Area, Caballo Lake State Park

Here are some helpful resources:

Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

Migrating shorebirds pass through Grays Harbor in enormous numbers each spring. Look for species like red knots which spend the winter in southern South America then fly all the way north to the Arctic Circle to breed each year.

Nearby: Ocean Shores, Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Pt. Brown Jetty

Gambel’s quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Butterbredt Spring, California

This is the place to go for warbler fans with more than 20 species regularly spotted during migration in late April to early June.

Nearby: Kern River County Park, California City Central Park, Kern River Preserve

With all the diversity to be seen among spring migrators, you might worry about how to make the most of your bird watching travels. My advice is to not stress out by trying to see everything at once but instead focus on one or two areas of travel.

Also, concentrate on several species and see if you can identify them. By comparing the birds you’re seeing to the ones you already know, you can start piecing everything together by color or size and develop birding skills that way.

The great thing about birding is that there’s no governing body to the enjoyment of bird watching.

Great kiskadee at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park/World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gather inspiration for birding and bird photography with these resources: 

Worth Pondering…

I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence―that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.

―Lynn Thomson, Birding with Yeats: A Mother’s Memoir

The Complete Guide to Bird Watching in South Texas

Birders come to South Texas to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country

In the next few weeks, the South Texas countryside will come alive with the arrival of the spring migration made up of many colorful bird species. South Texas is an awesome birding area all year long but spring is one of the best times to go birding.

Not only will the summer birds start returning but many species of waterfowl, warblers, and other seldom seen birds can be spotted as they work their way to their breeding grounds in the northern latitudes.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the past, birding was a pastime for just a select group of people. It has gained so much popularity that it is a major tourism draw to many areas of the country with South Texas being a top destination.

Texas is one of the top three birding states in the country based on species. Up to 250 different species can be found along the Gulf Coast areas. Several businesses offer guided birding tours from Houston through the Coastal Bend region to the Rio Grande Valley.

Birding is a simple and enjoyable activity that ranges from passively hiking or driving through the countryside to attracting birds with feeders.

Several area guides use an interesting technique to lure in birds by concocting a peanut butter spread and applying it to a log or tree trunk. The spread is made with a mixture of lard, cornmeal, and peanut butter and it works great at drawing in a variety of birds.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding doesn’t require a huge investment as a beginner. To start, beginners will need an inexpensive pair of binoculars and a birding field guide book.

Experienced birders will usually invest in better optics or even a good camera with a telephoto lens. Some experts with years of experience can tell a species just by the sounds the birds make.

Whether you are a novice or an expert birder, you’ll want to have a bird checklist to keep track of how many species you have seen. A great place to find a checklist is any local state park or national wildlife refuge. They’ll have a list of species native to that particular area.

Local residents and Winter Texans that are used to seeing strikingly colored, year round birds such as Green Jays, Great Kiskadees, Cardinals, Altimira Orioles, and Pyrrhuloxias can expect many more migrating birds over the next month or two.

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Black-chinned Hummingbird is a summer resident of South Texas, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will soon be passing through on their way north and you might get a glimpse of rare visitors to the area such as Rufous, or Buff-bellied Hummingbirds.

Like the hummingbirds, orioles will be arriving soon. A few will spend the summer but five different species can be seen in the area: Orchard Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Audubon’s Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole. Use oranges or grape jelly at your feeders to increase the odds of attracting them.

Many species of waterfowl can be found as they migrate through the area. Watch around water holes, area lakes, ponds, and coastal marshes for colorful teals, redheads, canvasbacks, and many others in doning their spring breeding plumage.

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorful and beautiful sounding warblers are commonly sighted as they rest up for a few days along their journey north. Some are year round residents but most are migrating through.

There are many species of warblers and it can be challenging to spot them. Some will forage on the ground in thick brush but most prefer trees. Watch for warblers high in the treetops as they glean for insects. Some warblers can have varying colors such as blue, green, and orange but the predominant color in warbler species is yellow.

Several species of sparrows also migrate through the area this time of the year. They are perhaps the most difficult to identify. To make it easier sparrows are usually found in groups of the same species. A good bird book is a helpful tool for identification.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last but not least and perhaps the most colorful bird that actually nests in South Texas is the Painted Bunting. These beauties can be found along woodland edges and brushy roads but will come to backyard feeders. Millet is a great seed for attracting Painted Buntings to a feeder.

Expect to see many other species of shore birds, wading birds, birds of prey, woodpeckers, and upland birds in the region as spring arrives.

April and May allow birders to see South Texas specialties and neotropical migrants at the same time. It’s possible to tally up over 100 species along the coast in a single day.

Spring migration here peaks approximately April 15th through May 10th. Bird diversity in the Valley is at its annual peak during this three week window.

The closer you get to the coast, the more neotropical migrants you see like kites, hummingbirds, thrushes, vireos, grosbeaks, and warblers.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending a day birding at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (right on the coast) along with South Padre Island could easily net over 100 species. You’ll get plenty of classic south Texas specialties along with all the migrating songbirds hugging the coast on their way north.

April 19 to May 7 is historically the busiest window for spring passage among a group of Neotropical migratory songbird species including American Redstarts, Cana­da and Cape May Warblers, and Balti­more and Bullock’s Orioles.

In addition, early April also marks the peak of wildflower season in Texas with fields and roadsides often blanketed with bluebonnets, phlox, paintbrush, and Gaillardia.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the coast near Rockport target specialties such as Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbills, majestic Whooping Cranes, up to 30 species of shorebirds, and eight species of terns. Under certain weather conditions, this area can host sizable fallouts of migrant land birds as well though this is a more common sight further up the coast. In addition, you’ll likely find White-tailed Hawks, Crested Caracara, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers by the dozens, and possibly Audubon’s Oriole.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas with its numerous refuges, state parks, and birding centers, harbors most of the Valley specialties including Plain Chachalaca, White-tipped Dove, Common Pauraque, Ringed and Green kingfishers, Aplomado Falcon, Green Parakeet, Red-crowned Parrot, Great Kiskadee, Couch’s Kingbird, Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole. Many accidentals have appeared over the years here as well. In the vicinity of Falcon Dam, seek out Red-billed Pigeon.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Great Spots for Birding in Louisiana

Louisiana’s subtropical climate, forests, and position within the corridor of a major North American migratory flyway make the state a haven for a huge variety of birds and RVers who want to see them in their natural habitat

There’s no city in the United States like New Orleans and there’s no culture more distinctive than that of the Cajuns of southern Louisiana. For an RVing bird-watching enthusiast those rewards add to the appeal of a state full of productive national wildlife refuges, pinewoods, barrier islands, and wetlands. Who doesn’t enjoy great food and music after a day of birding?

Many of Louisiana’s best birding sites are within 50 miles or so of the Gulf Coast—and some are on the coast such as famed spring fallout spots Grand Isle and Peveto Woods. Wildlife refuges in the southwestern part of the state including Lacassine and Cameron Prairie provide at least some dry-land access to Louisiana’s truly vast expanse of wetlands. (Some estimates assert that Louisiana’s wetlands comprise 40 percent of those of the entire continental United States.)

Birds that could be considered target species in Louisiana would include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Anhinga, Roseate Spoonbill, Swallow-tailed Kite, Yellow Rail (there’s an annual festival in the town of Jennings dedicated to this elusive species), Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Painted Bunting.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana birding hotspots

Grand Isle

On Louisiana’s southern coast lies a barrier island about seven miles long that holds a legendary place in the minds of the state’s birders. The woodlands here comprise one of the best fallout sites for spring migration where northbound birds that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico stop to rest and feed. Add that to the long list of vagrant birds that end up here and to the shorebirds and seabirds found along the coast and you have a species list that tops 300.

The peak for spring migration occurs around mid-April and it’s then that it seems every tree has a birder peering up into its branches. He or she may be looking at a limb loaded with Gray Catbirds Scarlet Tanagers or mixed warblers. The list of possible birds at Grand Isle in spring is essentially the list of all the migrant land birds of eastern North America and a substantial number of sea- and shorebirds.

Hardcore birders also know Grand Isle as a place where seeing a rarity is hardly rare. A Fork-tailed Flycatcher or Black-whiskered Vireo or Varied Thrush might appear anywhere. (While spring is the top time at Grand Isle, many rarities show up during fall migration.) Of course, Grand Isle is also a fine place to see shorebirds along the beaches and mudflats and wading birds in the marshes, and these birds aren’t so seasonal-dependent.

Various nature organizations have purchased land around the island as bird sanctuaries and a state park occupies the eastern end. As is usual with fallout sites, the day after bad weather is usually the best time to be out birding.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

Although this expansive refuge suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it still offers excellent birding near New Orleans. In total, more than 270 species have been observed here from waterbirds to migrant songbirds. Much of the refuge is wetland that’s not accessible to the public, but the Ridge Trail allows excellent wildlife viewing.

Parking for the Ridge Trail is on the north side of Highway 90 about four miles east of I-510. From here, a boardwalk leads through wetlands and scrub. The levee here can also be walked for additional viewpoints.

Another access area is located on the south side of Highway 90 just east of the Ridge Trail. More marsh viewing is possible by taking Highway 11 north from Highway 90 and stopping carefully along the roadside.

Some of the notable species seen often at Bayou Sauvage include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Anhinga, Brown Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, Gull-billed Tern (spring through summer), Black Skimmer (most common in late summer), and Painted Bunting (spring through summer).

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park / Barataria Preserve

A wonderful natural area just a short drive south of downtown New Orleans, the Barataria Preserve tract of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park protects around 23,000 acres of woods and wetlands. It’s not known for any particular rarity but for a rewarding day of birding in beautiful surroundings, it can hardly be topped.

Since it’s a unit of the National Park Service, Barataria Preserve has a fine visitor center on Highway 45 where you can get trail maps, a bird list, and advice. Many miles of trails wind through the preserve accessing live-oak woods, bald-cypress swamp, and marsh.

The woodland vistas here are truly sublime with the spreading limbs of live oaks covered in Spanish moss and dwarf palmettos in the understory. Some of the bald cypresses here are hundreds of years old. The Bayou Coquille Trail is a favorite of local birders. Parts of some preserve trails are wheelchair-accessible.

The preserve’s list of more than 200 species includes breeding birds such as Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Prothonotary Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting. Spring songbird migration can be good, too, although the birds aren’t as concentrated in this expansive forest as they are in small coastal woodlands.

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

New Orleans, on the south side of Lake Pontchartrain, gets all the publicity but the north shore is home to several appealing communities as well as worthwhile destinations for birders. One such site is Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.

A tour here might start with the refuge visitor center in Lacombe, for maps and local advice. From there it’s only about three miles to the boardwalk trail and hiking paths on Boy Scout Road. Other primitive roads are located off Paquet Road to the east.

The main attraction at Big Branch Marsh is a small population of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, an endangered species that depends on old-growth pinewoods. This refuge is one of many around the southeastern United States with a program to restore the species’s population. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers can be hard to locate so it helps to know their raspy call.

The refuge is also home to two other species associated with pinewoods: Brown-headed Nuthatch and Bachman’s Sparrow. Once again, it’s important to know the squeaky call of the nuthatch and the whistled song of the sparrow. Other species nesting around the refuge include Mottled Duck, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pine Warbler, and Blue Grosbeak.

On Lake Pontchartrain just five miles west of Lacombe, Fontainebleau State Park boasts a bird list of more than 220 species and makes a good birding destination (though it can be crowded on weekends). Waterfowl, wading birds, and Bald Eagle can be seen from shore and Brown-headed Nuthatch is sometimes seen in pines here.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Martin

Located just east of the city of Lafayette, Lake Martin and the associated Cypress Island Preserve host one of Louisiana’s greatest bird spectacles in breeding season.

Hundreds of wading birds—herons, egrets, night herons, ibises, and Roseate Spoonbills—nest here, easily visible from boardwalks, a road the hugs the eastern shore of the lake and a walking trail around the north end of the lake.

Peak season is about March through May although there’s always something to see at Lake Martin. The Nature Conservancy operates a visitor center on Highway 353 (open seasonally) where first-time visitors can get advice.

With a large protected area of bald-cypress and tupelo swamp as well as bottomland hardwood forest, Lake Martin hosts much more than wading birds. Some of the other species found here include Black-bellied whistling duck, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered hawks, and Common Gallinule in wetlands. Land birds include Barred Owl, abundant woodpeckers, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge

Southwestern Louisiana is home to vast areas of marsh and other wetlands but access to most of the region is difficult without a boat and local knowledge. Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge offers an easy way to enjoy typical wetland birds. With a list of more than 250 species, it’s one of the birding hotspots of southern Louisiana.

The refuge is reached from Highway 14. Once inside the area, the usual strategy is simply to drive the several miles of gravel roads stopping wherever the birds are to scan the open water and vegetation. An elevated viewing platform on the loop drive allows slightly wider coverage.

Possible birds here comprise practically every regional species of waterfowl and wader. A few notable species found year-round are Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Mottled Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, many waders including Roseate Spoonbill, Common Gallinule, Forster’s Tern, and Marsh Wren. Present in nesting season are Least Bittern, Purple Gallinule, and Painted Bunting. In winter, many thousands of geese and ducks are present at Lacasssine.

Although the waters of the refuge are the main focus be sure to stop at patches of willows and other shrubs and vegetation for songbirds in migration and take time to quietly stand and watch marshy areas for shy species such as bitterns and rails.

Pintail Wildlife Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge

Located on Highway 27 just north of the Intracoastal Waterway, Cameron Prairie Wildlife Refuge provides birders with a great way to experience Louisiana wetlands on its 3-mile Pintail Wildlife Drive loop.

Before beginning the route, stop at the visitor center on the highway to see exhibits and pick up a map and bird list. Then drive south two miles to the entrance to the wildlife drive on the east side of the highway. It can be tempting to stop along Highway 27 to enjoy birds in roadside wetlands but there are very few safe places to pull over.

More than 230 species have been observed on the Pintail Wildlife Drive with (as is usual in southern Louisiana) waterfowl and wading birds the most conspicuous. The drive passes more than wetlands. Especially in migration, take time to scan grassy areas and search roadside trees and shrubs. There’s a boardwalk path along the drive allowing a closer inspection of the marsh habitat.

Both species of whistling-duck breed in the area and in winter Ross’s Goose is regular among the masses of Snow Geese. The shallow water means mostly dabbling ducks here with relatively fewer divers. Roseate Spoonbill is one of many common species of long-legged waders. Purple Gallinule nests here and Black-necked Stilt and Marsh Wren are present year-round.

In recent years, Crested Caracara has boomed in numbers in southwestern Louisiana and is seen regularly at Cameron Prairie. Note that this area is one of many places now where both Boat-tailed Grackle and Great-tailed Grackle are found in proximity as the latter continues its range expansion.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge

Not much of the expansive Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is easily accessible to the public but one exception is found on Highway 27 about seven miles north of the coastal community of Holly Beach or about 14 miles south of Hackberry.

The refuge’s Wetland Walkway is simply an elevated path through a marshy area west of the highway, adjacent to a canal. Yet more than 200 species have been observed in this immediate area, testimony both to the richness of wetlands habitats and to the ability of the scattered trees and shrubs here to attract migrant songbirds, especially in spring.

The 1.5-mile path is handicapped-accessible and has an elevated viewing platform. Insects, heat, and humidity make a mid-summer visit inadvisable but the walkway is a delightful stroll in other seasons. The third week of April is the peak time for spotting migrant vireos, warblers, and other songbirds.
This is a good spot to look for Least Bittern in spring, among the many more-conspicuous waders. Roseate Spoonbill is present often.

While you’re in the area, it can be productive (from late summer through spring) to drive southeast to the town of Cameron. Though it’s less than 20 miles, you must cross the Calcasieu River on a ferry, which adds to the time. In town, turn south on Davis Road and drive about 2.5 miles to the end of the road. When the tide is right, very large numbers of waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns can be present here.

Sabine National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Peveto Woods Sanctuary

Like Grand Isle 200 miles to the east, Peveto Woods Sanctuary is a famed fallout site during spring migration where northbound birds that have crossed the Gulf of Mexico stop to rest and feed. This 40-acre woodland of live oak and hackberry trees on the Gulf Coast was saved from development and has long been a favorite birding location with more than 300 species recorded.

The spring rush begins about mid-March increasing to a peak in late April with some songbird migration continuing through May. The ideal time to visit is just after a front has moved through with north winds that tire trans-Gulf migrants and cause them to flock to the first coastal woods they see. At times a tree can be a temporary home to a half-dozen Cerulean Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, or Orchard Orioles.

Some birders wander through the sanctuary’s trails looking for flocks of birds in the trees. Others prefer to pick a spot and let the birds come to them. Often there’s a small pond in the center of the sanctuary with a water drip and nearby seating and spending time here is a favorite birding technique for some visitors.
Although dawn can be a good time for birding, the timing of waves of cross-Gulf migrants varies with conditions so it’s not unusual for a section of woods to come alive with recent arrivals in midday or mid-afternoon.

Fall doesn’t have the thrills of spring at Peveto but many rarities have shown up at that season such as Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Townsend’s Warbler.

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge

In north-central Louisiana, Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge is an excellent all-around birding destination with more than 210 species on its list. Although a major focus of the refuge is water management to attract wintering waterfowl it’s also managed to provide habitat for migrant shorebirds in late summe, and its habitats include extensive bottomland hardwood forest.

The most common way to explore Catahoula is to drive its 9-mile Duck Lake Wildlife route which encircles an impoundment where waterfowl hunting is not allowed. It’s easy to stop along this road and bird open water or woodland. The route also provides access to an observation tower and hiking trails. It’s a good idea to stop at the refuge headquarters just off Highway 84 to get a map and ask about trail conditions. Brochures are available if the office is closed. Keep in mind that hunting for deer and other species is allowed on the refuge seasonally.

Catahoula is a fine place to enjoy songbird migration in spring and its nesting species include Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Painted Bunting. August may be the peak time for shorebird-watching with 15 or more species present. In late summer, too, look for Wood Stork and Roseate Spoonbill among the many herons, egrets, and ibises.

Winter is the time for waterfowl at Catahoula, when common species include Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Ring-necked Duck. Wood Ducks is common year-round.

Birding trail

Wetland Birding Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

America’s Wetland Birding Trail, Louisiana  

Louisiana’s Gulf Coast region forms a generous jambalaya of all the ways that water and land can meet: lakes and rivers, cypress swamps, gum and tupelo bayous, flooded rice fields, freshwater marshes, salt marshes, mudflats, and sandy beaches. When locals say this birding trail crosses America’s wetland it’s no idle boast. But don’t take my word for it; find out for yourself by visiting any of the 115 sites along the trail’s 12 loops.

On the outer coast, brown pelicans have recovered from their population crash of decades past, and passing flocks can be seen constantly. Shallow lakes and swamps support a wealth of waders including snowy egrets, little blue herons, and tricolored herons. Elusive marsh birds are easier to see here than practically anywhere else, and you may get your best looks ever at buffy little least bitterns, rusty-red king rails, and other skulkers.

Easier to spot are the flocks of ducks and geese that arrive for the winter including major populations of greater white-fronted geese and snow geese. If you can tear yourself away from the water, the trail also offers concentrations of warblers, vireos, thrushes, and other migrating songbirds during spring and fall. 

Whether you are interested in spotting rare species or simply immersing yourself in the tranquil world of birds, Louisiana has something to offer for every birdwatching enthusiast.

Birding along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

FAQs:

Q: When is the best time to go birdwatching in Louisiana?

A: The best time for birdwatching in Louisiana is during the spring and fall migration seasons when a wide variety of bird species pass through the state. However, Louisiana’s mild climate makes birdwatching possible year-round, with different species present in each season.

Q: Do I need any special equipment for birdwatching in Louisiana?

A: While not necessary, a pair of binoculars and a field guide can greatly enhance your birdwatching experience. These tools allow you to observe birds from a distance and identify different species based on their physical characteristics and behaviors.

Q: Are there any birdwatching tours or guides available in Louisiana?

A: Yes, several birdwatching tours and guides operate in Louisiana, offering expert knowledge and guidance to enhance your birdwatching experience. These tours can take you to the best birding spots and help you identify various species.

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Close Focus Bird Portraits

Just like when you are photographing humans, your focus is on your subject and the background is for framing it. Your goal is to make the bird stand out from the background.

When photographing birds, it’s usually a matter of trying to get close enough to get a quality photo—and that’s even with the aid of a lens that provides ample magnification. Too often we get documentary photos of a distant avian subject but once in a while we get lucky and encounter a trusting bird, sometimes even a bird that walks, swims, or flies closer.

Having photographed extensively in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, I must say that wintering birds that get familiar with people walking by or photographing at birding hotspots are more common in these states with high human populations than anywhere else.

Roseate Spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From my experience, there is no question that Florida and Texas birds—some resident birds even more than wintering birds—lead the way in the trust department to the point where it’s possible to get especially close photos of some individuals. This is especially true at some of the well-visited birding hotspots like the Venice Audubon Rookery and the World Birding Centers in South Texas but it can happen anytime, anywhere.

And with many species taking advantage of wetlands and impoundments created to hold water in low-lying housing developments in many suburbs, the birds get very accustomed to people who generally are excited or uninterested in seeing them in their yards or near their property.

Great White Egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avian portraits

When I refer to the idea of close-up photos, I mean portraits of just the head, neck, and shoulders of the bird like your high school graduation photo so taking that kind of photo is usually going to be a larger bird to manage that level of close photos. The simple trick to taking advantage of such a trusting bird is to make the most of the opportunity.

Stay with it, don’t cause any level of alarm, and move slowly if you move. Focus on the bird’s eye and watch your background. In most cases, take some initial photos; then, if you have a chance to adjust it’s best to try to dial the aperture to f5 or a similar setting to reduce the area in focus. That technique will keep the bird in focus while blurring the background and it will increase the shutter speed to ensure the photos you take are sharper.

However, if your background is a uniform color, say a sky or water background, the aperture is less of a concern. The idea is to try to pop the bird apart from the background even beyond color differences. The bottom line is always “take what you can get and improve if possible.” In the moment it’s thrilling to be so close and to get optically closer yet with a telephoto or zoom lens zeroing in on the bird’s face, focusing on the eye.

Whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The key to sharing close photos of birds is that you need to have a photo of a bird with a sharp eye. That’s true if you are using a photo as is or if you are cropping the photo which is a secondary way to create a close-up of a bird’s face and neck, or face, neck, and shoulders—a portrait.

I must share that it’s especially fulfilling to take portrait photos like the images that illustrate this article. You feel close to the birds, in company with them as they permit you into their inner sanctum; and if you can just walk away without disturbing them or let them walk away as they wish, it’s especially gratifying.

The idea for this article came to mind after reviewing the photos of birds I had taken in various locations over our many years of RV travel. I noted the many large birds—the Wood Stork, Sandhill Cranes, Great White Egret, Great Blue Heron, Ibis, and a couple of others.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, we were casually driving along Lake Okeechobee when I spied a pair of wood storks resting in the meadow near the lake. We quickly pulled off the road and suddenly sighted more storks on the edge of a pond closer to the large lake.

Quickly parking, I checked my camera settings and walked cautiously from the car for a closer view of the birds. I was immediately surprised by how close I was to the storks, so quickly zoomed down from my 400mm magnification to 200mm and took a couple of initial photos.

Then I quickly zoomed out to get a full-sized view and photos of the impressive Wood Stork as it waded a couple of steps in my direction. The grand bird was surrounded by sky blue water with barely a ripple on it which made for an especially pleasing background that was emphasized by the beautiful late afternoon light.

Wood Stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chance opportunity to photograph the very trusting wood storks provided the best photos I’ve taken of the species to date of a bird on water or land.

Using a zoom lens was key to taking full-frame photos of the stork as well as being able to get portrait photos of the bird that show a lot of detail of the dinosaur-looking face of the big wading bird. Even I am impressed with the quality of sharp images produced during the few minutes I had in the stork’s company but you will find that the closer you are to a bird the better your lens seems to work. And if you are close, you don’t need to do any cropping to zero-in on the bird a bit more.

Before I sign off, I feel somewhat compelled to share with you that although the photos I selected to illustrate this feature are super-sharp on my big-screen laptop computer sometimes there seems to be a bit of a loss of image sharpness in the translation between my digital photos as viewed on my computer compared to when the same photos are published in a magazine publication.

That said, the birds’ eyes in each of these photos are remarkably sharp; if they don’t look absolutely sharp, it’s because of a difference between my original digital image and the online image but hopefully that won’t be a factor in the photos illustrating this article.

Sandhill Crane © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then too, maybe it’s because over the years of photographing birds, I have developed a fine-tuned eye for photo sharpness and that’s an important point to keep in mind; be sure that you don’t over-enlarge a given photo. Share sharp, clear photos that don’t show a grainy background or body lines which is a sure sign of over-enlarging a photo.

I find taking photos of birds entertaining partly because of the many variables. From dealing with awkward lighting conditions to creating blurs and flight shots the photography opportunities are endless. And any time we get close enough to take a head and shoulders portrait of a bird, it’s a great breakthrough that we will likely remember forever especially when you have a quality photo to share and display as one of your favorites.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although this niche is fun, it requires technical knowledge from every photographer. Go out and practice. Get familiar with your camera and play with the camera settings for bird photography.

Good luck as you search out photo opportunities and if you’re not in Florida or Arizona, stay warm!

Worth Pondering…

In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.

—Emile Zola

Carefree: An Idyllic Arizona Community with Hiking, Biking, and a Thriving Arts Scene

Now a hub for wellness, shopping, and outdoor adventure, Carefree, Arizona, was once a 400-acre goat farm

North of Phoenix and Scottsdale there is a small community that feels almost too good to be true. The town of under 4,000 people was once a 400-acre goat farm that the founders bought for $44,000 in 1955. Their vision was to start a community with an easygoing, airy vibe—so they named the plot of land Carefree.

Today, Carefree has the feel of a small town but is close to northern Scottsdale and less than an hour from downtown Phoenix. Because it sits at the edge of the urban area it’s easy to head north into the Sonoran Desert which has abundant hiking and camping

And while Carefree’s location is one of its standout qualities, the town itself offers a unique feel that draws visitors year after year. Its home to the third-largest sundial in the Western Hemisphere and has a desert garden in the downtown area. There’s plenty of shopping, great food, and an undeniable artist vibe, too.

Here’s everything you need to know to plan a trip to Carefree including what to do, where to stay, and when to go.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best things to do in Carefree

Spending time in downtown Carefree is a must. There are shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore but the area’s biggest draw is the four-acre desert botanical garden marked with a huge sundial—one of the world’s largest.

Once you’ve got the lay of the land, head to the surrounding hills for hiking, trail running, and biking. The desert landscape of the neighboring Cave Creek Regional Park is covered in hiking paths, picnic spots, and campsites. Most weekends, there’s a bird tour, fitness hike, or wildflower walk scheduled. The park offers over 11 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Park trails range in length from 0.2 miles to 5.8 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

If you are looking for an easy, relatively short hike the Slate Trail is recommended. If you are looking for a longer, more difficult hike, try the 5.8-mile Go John Trail. The trails within the Cave Creek Regional Park are very popular with dramatic elevations and spectacular views of the surrounding plains.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The campground consists of 55 campsites for tent or RV camping. The average site size is 40 feet; however, pull-through sites may accommodate up to a 60-foot RV with water and electrical hookups, a picnic table, and a barbecue fire ring. Cave Creek Regional Park provides clean restrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers. A dump station is available for use by registered campers at no additional cost.

Four miles north of town, Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area offers a similar cactus-covered landscape with seven miles of trails that are open to hikers, bikers, and people on horseback. Park trails range in length from 1.2 miles to 4.6 miles and range in difficulty from easy to difficult.

One of the last remaining year-round spring-fed streams in Cave Creek flows through Spur Cross. Its banks are covered with plants and trees including mesquite, cottonwoods, and willows. Abundant water and plant life make this a home to many species of animals including javelina, mule deer, and coyotes. Over 80 species of birds have been observed in this habitat, per Audubon bird counts. Beyond the banks of the stream lies one of the region’s densest stands of saguaro cactus.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park contains nearly 90 archaeological sites used by the Hohokam Indians between 700-1200 A.D. Hohokam petroglyphs dot the area. Both the Hopi and the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Indian communities have identified the Spur Cross Ranch as a sacred place.​

Meanwhile, 12 miles to the southeast, Brown’s Ranch Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is known for its unique rock features including the impossible-looking Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock. This trailhead features interpretive exhibits about the human history of the Preserve and serves as the major access point to the vast network of trails in the area. It provides access to such unique destinations as Granite Mountain, Cholla Mountain, and Brown’s Mountain as well as the before-mentioned Balanced Rock and Cathedral Rock.

Bartlett Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the mountains 20 miles east of Carefree, Bartlett Lake was formed by the damming of the Verde (Spanish for green) River. The pristine waters of the Verde were spoken of descriptively in legends of the Indians of the valley who called the water sweet waters. The lake is framed by Sonoran desert scenery with gently sloping beaches on the west side and the rugged Mazatzal Mountains on the east side, studded with saguaro, cholla cacti, mesquite, and ocotillo.

A fair portion of the west side of the reservoir is devoted to camping and picnicking. Bartlett has been a favorite with anglers since Bartlett Dam was constructed in 1939. Several state-record fish have been caught there.

If hiking and biking are not your thing, spend some time exploring the shops and galleries of Carefree. Start your day at the historic Spanish Village which is both one of Carefree’s oldest buildings and the community’s arts and culture hub. Inside the beautiful white stucco gates, you’ll find gems like the Desert Moon Market, an eclectic collection of women’s clothing, jewelry, home goods, and gifts, and the Grace Renee Gallery which showcases contemporary paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and jewelry. You also won’t want to miss a visit to the M & E Stoyanov Fine Art Gallery in downtown Carefree or The Lazy Lizard which sells a mix of new and used home furnishings.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to stay in Carefree

The above-mentioned Cave Creek Regional Park offers a clean and quiet family campground set among Saguaro cactus, mesquite trees, and cholla cactus. The park includes 2,922 acres with a visitor center, several hiking trails, equestrian trails, and various programs throughout the year.

The campground has 59 campsites all with electricity and water. Campsites 1-38 are larger campsites and also have paved parking pads. Campsites 30-55 (and E, F, G, H) are smaller and have gravel parking pads. Sites 10 and 20 have horse corrals. Each campsite also has a table, fire ring, and grill. Campground amenities include flush toilets, hot showers, a picnic area, and a dump station. Cell service is good.

Like Scottsdale, Carefree has become a hub for wellness seekers looking to reset and relax in the open desert atmosphere. Civana, a wellness resort and spa to the east of Carefree has been a top destination for many. Guests get access to more than 10 daily complimentary classes—from a desert hike to aerial yoga—and a spa with a hydrotherapy thermal circuit of hot and cold pools.

Just to the south of Carefree in Scottsdale is a property that’s worth a mention. The Boulders Resort & Spa has long been recognized for its 33,000-square-foot spa, two golf courses, six dining options, four outdoor pools, and a location at the foot of an eye-catching rock formation.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best places to eat in Carefree

For such a small town, there’s a surprisingly large selection of cafes, restaurants, and bars in Carefree. It’s all about healthy eats with big flavor at Confluence, a well-loved restaurant with open-air patio seating and a standout tasting menu—you can choose from four, five, or seven courses.

Those looking to fill up on protein following a long day on the trails should head to Keeler’s Neighborhood Steakhouse which has a meat-heavy menu and a rooftop deck designed for post-meal stargazing. Meanwhile, for an entirely different feel, book a table at the English Rose Tea Room which serves tea-time ready fare (think quiches, sandwiches, soups, and salads) in a beautiful, floral-laden tearoom with crystal chandeliers.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Carefree

Although Carefree tends to be cooler than Phoenix, it’s still super hot in the summer with the average temperature in June, July, and August in the triple digits. The best time to visit is easily the spring before the heat of summer sets in and in the fall when the weather cools down. Those looking for cooler weather should come during the winter when the average monthly temperature is in the mid-60s.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

Now is the Absolute Best Time to Visit Congaree National Park and Here Is Why

This National Park floods in winter and that’s when you should visit. Trust me.

The US has 63 national parks stretching north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and south to the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean. While some of these parks are massively popular (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains), other names barely register. Congaree National Park in South Carolina falls into the latter category.

The park, which is named after an Indigenous tribe that once lived in the region, is the largest intact example of what the Southeastern US used to look like before the landscape was logged and cleared, beginning in the 19th century.

By the 1950s, very little remained of the once extensive old-growth bottomland forests, and the tract in what is today the park is the largest intact section remaining. What’s more, the park’s lush floodplain forest is home to some of the tallest trees in the country and it has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world with the average canopy reaching 100 feet.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It doesn’t sound all that tall but when you consider that much of the forests of the eastern United States have been logged at one point or another in the past 400 years, it is pretty impressive. Indeed, few other deciduous forests even come close to that.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? You’d think that everyone would be rushing to visit this ecological blast from the past, wouldn’t you? Well, they’re not, because most people haven’t heard of it.

Despite being only a 30-minute drive from Columbia, South Carolina, Congaree is one of the least visited national parks in the country. According to official National Park Service data, Congaree received only 204,522 visitors in 2022 (2023 data was not available at the time of writing), about as many as the much-harder-to-reach Virgin Islands National Park.

More people visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park in six days than visit Congaree in an entire year. But as the only national park comprised mostly of floodplains, this swampy paradise has one big thing going for it that its big-name competitors don’t: Its off-season is the best time to visit.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What makes winter the best time to explore?

While most national parks see the highest number of visitors in the summer, June through August can actually be a pretty miserable time to visit Congaree because it’s so hot and humid there. Temperatures average in the 90s and mosquitos love the marvelously muggy conditions the park provides as breeding grounds.

As such, visitation numbers typically peak in spring and fall. But strangely enough, the winter months (and January, in particular) actually receive the fewest number of visitors. Use that to your advantage: These smaller crowds paired with daily temperatures hovering in the mid-50s, make for prime visitation time.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though many of the park’s bird species do fly south for the winter, birding is still possible. It’s much easier to see birds when most of the foliage has fallen off the trees and winter is a great time to spot blue-headed vireo, winter wren, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, hermit thrush, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and white-throated sparrows.

The rusty blackbird is another special bird to spot here in winter. Although the species has seen a long-term population decline due to habitat loss the winter environment at Congaree perfectly suits the bird so it is hoped the park will play a key role in ensuring its survival in the long run.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, floodplain forests like Congaree National Park are especially high in productivity and species diversity because of how rich the flood-deposited clay, silt, and sand deposits make the soil.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Regular flooding keeps the soil rich in nutrients which in turn help produce the park’s high number of champion-size trees—the largest documented specimen of their species. One of the park’s record-breaking champions is a 168-foot loblolly pine that can be found along Weston Lake Trail. It’s about as tall as a 17-story building.

Congaree typically floods 10-12 times per year—and it happens most often in winter. Any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels in the park without warning. Hiking through the flooded forest is impossible (or at least highly discouraged) as you may find yourself suddenly swimming with alligators and parasites.

Good thing the park’s best views aren’t from its forested trails. Even when those are flooded visitors can still access a 2.6-mile elevated boardwalk. It’s a great place to catch a glimpse of some river otters which are less out and about when the floodplain is dry. But if that idea doesn’t float your boat, you can always take in the forest views during flood season from the seat of a canoe or kayak.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayaking and canoeing in Congaree

Speaking of which, kayaking and canoe tours are offered in the park year-round though you can also rent a craft and head out on the water alone. As long as the water is above about two feet high—and it usually is—it’s a straightforward, scenic float down Cedar Creek and back up to the landing as opposed to a potentially annoying game of bumper cars with the tree roots that criss-cross the creek. Plus, the higher the water, the deeper into the park you can paddle.

A quick disclaimer: While a typical flood will raise the water level to around eight to 12 feet deep, sometimes there’s a borderline biblical deluge. In 2015, the flood was so intense that the water gauge broke making it impossible to measure the exact depth of the water though locals estimate it reached a whopping 17 feet.

Very high and rapidly flowing water can increase the chance of your craft flipping, so don’t attempt to kayak or canoe without a guide unless you have significant experience. As it’s easy to get disoriented in a sea of trees, any sort of paddling without a guide is discouraged even if the water isn’t rushing fast enough to flip your boat.

When the water level is low, you’re confined to Cedar Creek which runs through the park. You can still see out into the surrounding forest but you can’t paddle into it. When the surrounding rivers flood water level rises and the creek rises and spills out into the forest. Just imagine leaving the calm comfort of the creek and entering the enormous expanse of the floodplain.

Tupelo trees enshrined in Spanish moss welcome you to the forest as do 125-foot bald cypress trees and loblolly pines. Great Smoky Mountain National Park could never.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning your trip to the park

At around 26,000 acres, Congaree is the seventh smallest national park so you don’t need a full week here as you do with some of the larger ones. Paddling and hiking the boardwalk trail each take a few hours so you could easily do both of these popular activities in one day while still getting a good feel for what the park offers.

And because Congaree National Park is so close to Columbia, you could easily make a day trip from there after enjoying visiting the Columbia Museum of Art, biking along the Three Rivers Greenway, and (if it’s Saturday) perusing the 150 or so vendors a the Soda City Market.

Congaree is also only two hours from Charleston. Congaree could be easily tacked on any kind of road trip around South Carolina or the South in general. If you want to stay overnight in the park, you could stay at one of the park’s primitive campgrounds or in the backcountry— just keep in mind that reservations are required.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If the park isn’t flooded during your visit your kayaking or canoe tour will likely take a break halfway through so you can walk around a bit in the forest perhaps searching for evidence of the wild boar that likes to root around at night. For a proper hike, hit up some of Congaree’s 25-or-so miles of trails. Most hiking trails start at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center and are best explored when the park is not flooded.

In addition to the previously mentioned boardwalk loop, there are also a handful of proper forested hiking trails like the 4.5-mile Weston Lake Trail (a loop that offers regular views of otters and wading birds) and the 12-mile out-and-back Kingsnake Trail. The latter is the best for birding though some sections can be difficult to follow. The trail is marked with brown, numbered signs called blazes but if a blazed tree falls you could be in danger of getting lost. That is even more true if the vegetation is overgrown.

If the park is flooded, your only option may be the boardwalk trail but lucky for you it’s a beautiful walk that offers an excellent view of the seemingly endless forest of sky-high loblolly pine and cypress trees. Woodpeckers frequent the trail and you will probably hear them pecking before you see them so simply follow the sound to catch a peek. You’ll also see evidence of their work on tons of mangled trees.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Signs along the trail point out local flora, fauna, and unique items such as a rusted old still that was used by bootleggers who hid within the park during Prohibition. Other signs explain interesting phenomena like the knees of the cypress trees (knobby nodes shooting up from enormous tree roots). Sometimes rising several feet above the ground, these knees are generally found in swamps though their function is still unknown. If the park isn’t too flooded, you’ll see hundreds of them.

Spend some time in the Harry Hampton Visitor Center where thoughtful displays describe the area’s geography and early history including that of Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and enslaved Africans who were brought and forced to work on nearby plantations and farms and who sometimes escaped and sought refuge in the park’s wilderness.

Some who successfully escaped formed Maroon settlements and thriving communities in the forest where they relied on the rivers for food and the dense vegetation for safety and protection. Much of the land surrounding Congaree National Park is owned by the descendants of former farm and plantation workers, both free and enslaved.

As weekends tend to be the most popular days in the park this is when you’ll also find the most activities such as twilight hikes and owl prowls which are Ranger-led hikes to learn about the park (and its many residents) after-hours. Park programming depends on staffing levels and park conditions but be sure to check the park’s calendar which can include discovery hikes, nature walks, and yoga classes.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the backcountry

If you want to rent a canoe, check out a company like River Runner Canoe Center which can even deliver it to the creek for you and give you some tips before you head out. Canoeing the creek takes two to three hours but ambitious paddlers may also want to look into the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail.

This water trail begins at Bannister’s Bridge, meanders southeast, and ends at the Congaree River. To complete it, you’ll need an outfitter like River Runners to drop you at the starting point and pick you up at the end which costs about $175.

Paddlers should also consider that while the Cedar Creek portion of the trail runs 15 miles, it’s another 11 miles until the next pick-up point at Bates Bridge landing. As such, paddlers should expect to paddle about a marathon’s length in total.

While it’s possible to paddle the entire route in a single day, it depends entirely on the paddling conditions and the paddler’s experience. Say, if flooding has loosened trees in the floodplain and they’ve tipped over and blocked the route, you may have to get out and carry your craft around and over to the other side (which is called portaging).

While this can sometimes be a quick process, in other cases you may have to backtrack to find a spot. If you have to do this several times, it could add quite a bit of time to your excursion. Most paddlers do this as an overnight trip which requires a free backcountry camping permit that can take up to 72 hours for the park to process.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are some helpful resources on Congaree National Park:

By the way, I have a series of posts on South Carolina:

Worth Pondering…

For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

—Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Land of the Giants

Explore the natural side of the Sunshine State at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a biologically diverse Audubon property with the largest stand of old-growth bald cypress trees on Earth

The facility’s signage says it’s special because the endangered wood stork nested here and because it is the largest piece of ancient bald cypress forest preserved in the world.

But I think it’s special because walking its 2.25 mile boardwalk takes you into a green and liquid world where at every turn you see scenes so beautiful they could have been arranged by the world’s best floral designer. And, of course, they were.

On a warm, sun-splashed winter day, I stood on the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida and listened as the volunteer naturalist explained how the Gulf Coast is home to protected wetlands and untouched landscapes.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary protects approximately 13,450 acres prized as a fine stand of subtropical, ancient bald cypress forest where many of the soaring trees date back at least 600 years predating the arrival of Columbus in the New World.

Corkscrew Swamp is a freshwater wetland fed solely by rainwater covering thousands of acres of pristine cypress swamp. In this vast area known as the Corkscrew Watershed, a broad sheet of water flows over the land ranging from just a few inches to a yard deep.

This wetland is what south Florida looked like at one time: The fresh water is the lifeblood of the Corkscrew Swamp and of the greater Everglades ecosystem. Over the past century, people have altered the natural flow of the water to control flooding and to create land for development but now we need to restore the natural system.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Often misunderstood, swamps full of plants and insects were marked as areas rife with disease and decay and were quickly drained, stripped by clear-cut logging practices, paved over, and built upon eventually squeezing out wildlife and their natural habitats. But in a state known for rampant development and construction, the swamp and trees at Corkscrew were saved when the National Audubon Society realized the forest needed protection, stepped in, and stopped the logging.

The sanctuary is a popular destination for birders and hikers who walk along a 2.25-mile trail and raised boardwalk that twists and turns through marsh, pine flatwoods, stretches of wet prairie, around a marsh, and finally into the largest old-growth bald cypress forest in North America. These impressive trees, relatives of the redwood, tower 130 feet into the sky and have a girth of 25 feet. Their massive branches are draped with mosses, lichens, bromeliads, and ferns. 

The forest is also home to hundreds of alligators, otters, white-tailed deer, and red-bellied turtles. A wide variety of wading birds, songbirds, and raptors can be seen throughout the year while the fabulous Painted Bunting is one of many winter visitors. Photo opportunities are available at every turn of the boardwalk trail.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tree branches are draped with resurrection ferns; the roots of the strangler fig wrap around host trees and swamp plants like the waxy aquatic alligator flag tumble over the railings.

Volunteer interpreters stroll the trail explaining to visitors how the wetlands act as filters for pollutants, reduce flood damage by soaking up water during heavy rains, stabilize the soils against erosion, and recharge groundwater during the dry months.

National Audubon began protecting the wading birds nesting within Corkscrew Swamp in 1905. During the 1940s and ’50s, cypress forests in Florida were being leveled for their timber. At the time, Corkscrew was isolated and almost impossible to access. Today it is an oasis in a made-over landscape. In other areas, many of the wild swamps and much of the teeming wildlife that was characteristic of this region less than a generation ago are gone. Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s value thus becomes more significant with every passing year. 

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Florida, two extremes dominate the subtropical climate—wet summers and dry winters. The seasonal high and low water levels are a necessary part of the natural cycle and each is vital for life in Corkscrew.

Visitors load daypacks with sunscreen, water bottles, and binoculars. But according to the staff, they can leave the bug repellent at home because Corkscrew defies all swamp logic: mosquitoes are rarely a problem. A guppy-like fish called Gambusia holbrooki (mosquito fish) feeds almost exclusively on mosquito larvae.

The tiny mosquito-slurping fish get some help from the actual Corkscrew Watershed, a meandering river that flows toward the Gulf of Mexico. Although moving at a snail’s pace, the water in the swamp doesn’t become stagnant and combined with the fish this makes for a tranquil bug-free zone. The constantly moving water also is the reason Corkscrew does not have the dank smells usually associated with swamps.

According to one estimate, 98 percent of all ancient forests in the United States have been logged, so Corkscrew is a rare habitat—a combination of large trees, fallen logs, and standing dead trees that provide wildlife with a variety of places to find food and shelter. In the soupy, subtropical climate, the trees are draped with moss, lichens, orchids, air plants, and dozens of types of feathery ferns. This protected landscape is home to the United States’ largest collection of gangly looking wood storks whose nesting ground is the biggest tract of old-growth bald cypress forest in the world.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2000, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary including Panther Island received a Ramsar Designation as a Wetland of International Importance. Corkscrew is also a designated Important Bird Area and a major stop on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Corkscrew has also been recognized as a Wetland of Distinction by the Society of Wetland Scientists. 

Corkscrew Swamp draws birds and birders by the thousands. In addition to the endangered wood stork, the wetlands are home to more than 200 avian species including barred owls, painted buntings, red-shouldered hawks, white ibises, egrets, herons, and woodpeckers.

Other wildlife abounds as well. The dangling leaves and roots of the watermelon-scented lettuce plants create a safe place for small fish and crayfish to hide or nest. Alligators often sun themselves on the riverbank but they prefer the plankton-laden lettuce lakes— wide, shallow watering holes that are a favorite feeding site for wading birds, otters, and reptiles. The gators are efficient predators. They are one of the world’s largest reptiles but have a brain the size of a walnut—just enough to associate people with food if they’ve been fed by humans but not smart enough to know the difference.

The raised boardwalk makes the perfect way to observe nature from a safe and respectful distance. And it’s the ideal way to appreciate what southwest Florida must have looked like before civilization took hold and transformed the landscape.

Located northeast of Naples, Florida, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is open daily. The boardwalk is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Overview

Location: 375 Sanctuary Road, Naples, Florida

Length: 2.3 mile loop

Phone: (239) 348-9151

Open 7 am. Last admission 4:30 pm. Gates close 5:30 pm. Dogs are not permitted.

All visitors must pass through the Blair Audubon Center which offers a movie about the swamp, interpretive exhibits and wildlife art, a gift shop, and a snack bar. Pay your admission here.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admission: $14 adult, Audubon member $10, student with ID $6, ages 6-18 $4, under 6 free.

Your admission is good for two back-to-back days so you can show up one afternoon and come back the next morning.

Worth Pondering…

A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.

—John Muir, 1867

Top 10 National Parks for Spotting Wildlife

The chance to spot a bear, bison, or bald eagle in the wild is one of the major reasons RVers visit America’s 63 national parks

The sky is broad, the land is rugged, and the air fills your lungs with joy. But for many adventurers, the true appeal of a trek through a national park is the fine detail: the living flora and fauna often rare and unusual that quietly populate the landscape.

U.S. national parks are each home to an average of 415 species of wildlife—often hundreds more—and over a thousand different plants. Yet there’s not really such a thing as the average national park. Each has its unique characters, families, sights, and sounds. From tiny but tough pikas to trumpeter swans and Dutchman’s breeches, these wild expanses are full of surprises.

So where are most of those surprises found? A recent report from vacation rental site Casago analyzed National Park Service data to find out which parks have the most wildlife and plants per 100 km² (38.61021585 square miles) and which have the greatest biodiversity overall.

Casago sourced the number of species of amphibians, birds, fishes, mammals, and reptiles in each national park from the National Park Service’s Integrated Resource Management Applications (IRMA) portal. They combined the figures to give the total number of animals overall and per 100 km² in each park and calculated additional figures just including birds. And then they did the same for plant species.

Dear in Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key findings

  • Congaree in South Carolina has the greatest density of wildlife species with 362 per 100 km²
  • However, Biscayne in Florida has more overall: a total of 1,002
  • Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico boasts 194 bird species per 100 km², the highest density
  • Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio has the densest plant biodiversity of all at 935 species per 100 km²
  • The Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee have the highest number of plant species overall: 2,278.
Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Number of species per square kilometer: 362

Life of all kinds from tiny synchronous fireflies to 160-foot-tall loblolly pines crowds this park’s bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem 18 miles from Columbia, South Carolina’s capital. Congaree is also laced with rivers and lakes that sustain its astonishing biodiversity. 

Paddling the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is a great way to look for wildlife. Most commonly you see what we call the creepy-crawlies including fishing spiders with leg spans wider than your palm and red-bellied water snakes. Other residents you might encounter include barred owls, river otters, pileated woodpeckers, and sometimes, alligators gliding on the water.

2. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Number of species per square kilometer: 317

Located 20 miles southwest of Cleveland, Ohio, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a mixed ecosystem of oak-hickory forest, meadows, and wetlands sheltering a variety of animals. From the boardwalk at Beaver Marsh watch for water-loving mammals (river otters, muskrats, beavers) or snapping turtles that can weigh as much as 55 pounds each. It’s neat to see the old-timers covered in moss. 

More than 200 bird species live or migrate through the park including nesting peregrine falcons (near the Route 82 Bridge) and bald eagles (hike the Towpath Trail north from Station Road Trailhead). Check the park website for occasional birding walks or ranger talks.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Number of species per square kilometer: 286

The poster child for Carlsbad Caverns is the Brazilian free-tailed bat. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of the furry, big-eared creatures roost in these honeycombed limestone caves in southeastern New Mexico attracting crowds at sunset with their spectacular outflight. But it’s just as exciting to come just before dawn and watch the bats return; the bats tuck their wings and execute speedy dives back into the caverns.

The Brazilians are one of 17 bat species that nest at Carlsbad. You might also encounter ringtails (a small, raccoon-like mammal), porcupines, peccaries, and cave swallows.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Pinnacles National Park, California

Number of species per square kilometer: 255

Driven to the brink of extinction in the 1980s, the mighty California condor now soars again over this landscape of twisty volcanic peaks in central California. Intense recovery efforts including a captive breeding program and the establishment of two distinctive wild-flying populations have brought the population of the largest birds in North America from just 22 in in 1982 to 347 condors today. 

Eighty-nine of the birds are thought to live in and around Pinnacles. If you have binoculars, you have a good chance of seeing condors flying over the ridge behind the main campground in the mornings and evenings.

Other Pinnacles standouts include golden eagles, peregrine falcons, an exceptionally high density of prairie falcons, and more than 400 species of bees.

5. Acadia National Park, Maine 

Number of species per square kilometer: 242

The Atlantic Ocean meets the cliff-lined Maine coast at this popular park on Mount Desert Island providing habitat for wildlife with feet and flippers. From the shore or a sea kayak (try Castine Kayak Adventures or Coastal Kayaking Tours) scan the water for the dorsal fins of harbor porpoises and the sleek heads of harbor and gray seals.

On land, you might spot beavers, snowshoe hares, or if you’re lucky a mink or bobcat. In between in the intertidal zone tide pools hold translucent anemones, sea urchins, snails, and sea stars. Acadia also draws loons and songbirds and fall, rangers and volunteers conduct an annual hawk watch from Cadillac Mountain, Acadia’s highest point.

Pronghorns near Wind Cave National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Number of species per square kilometer: 235 

Located at the edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest this park may be best known for its unique boxwork cave geology. But wildlife watchers also come for the herds of American bison, elk, and pronghorns grazing above on the mixed-grass prairie. 

Wind Cave is part of an ecosystem restoration and species recovery program that’s been going since the early 20th century. Populations of all three ungulates have rebounded since then and in 2007, biologists also returned the critically endangered black-footed ferret to the grasslands. Drive the 3.7-mile Bison Flats Road or hike the steep, challenging Boland Ridge Trail for the best chance to see animals.

7. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Number of species per square kilometer: 223 

Contrary to its name, water makes up 99 percent of this park located on and around a seven-island archipelago some 70 miles off the coast of Florida. Visitors must catch a seaplane or ferry from Key West to get to this remote part of the Florida Keys but they’re rewarded with excellent coral reef and seagrass habitats. 

The part of the park’s name that does make sense: Five species of threatened or endangered sea turtles (Tortugas in Spanish) nest here; visitors might see them swimming or on the sandy beaches.

Book a snorkeling or scuba diving excursion to explore the reefs where green sea turtles, nurse sharks, barracudas, and decorator crabs live amid elkhorn and staghorn corals. Divers can also access the Windjammer wreck site where an iron-hulled ship that sank in 1907 provides a home for marine life. 

8. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

Number of species per square kilometer: 219

In western Colorado, the 2,722 vertical feet between this sparsley visited park’s canyon rim and the Gunnison River below support multiple wildlife habitats. Experienced climbers and hikers who venture into the inner canyon, find collared lizards and mule deer near the rim and bighorn sheep scampering along the middle of the cliffs. Trails are extremely steep, covered with poison ivy and require a wilderness permit to use.

It’s easier to access the Gunnison River by driving down East Portal Road where anglers fish for brown and rainbow trout and nature-lovers might run into river otters and ringtails. 

9. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Number of species per square kilometer: 217

Located in central Kentucky this national park holds the longest known underground cave system in the world. Mammoth’s 426 miles of caverns are home to 160 species from animals that merely visit (think bats) to those that can’t live anywhere else. Long-legged cave crickets pick their way up the walls, eerily eyeless white cave fish swim the underground waterways, and black-spotted orange cave salamanders lurk under rocks. 

If you’re going into the cave system, stop and slowly look around. You might see some of the small, inconspicuous vertebrates that are thriving in complete darkness.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Number of species per square kilometer: 215 

The glowing orange hoodoos and rocky walls of Bryce Canyon National Park might seem stark but the arid Utah landscape teems with life. Scan carefully for short-horned and side-blotched lizards basking among the boulders and look out for the venomous Great Basin rattlesnake under the canyon rim. 

Small, furry mammals like the golden-mantled ground squirrel, Uinta chipmunk, and Utah prairie dog are easy to see throughout the park but you’re less likely to spot larger predators such as mountain lions and black bears.

Take only memories

A wildlife trip to a national park makes for a welcome alternative to urban life and the computer screen. But to stand your best chance of spotting some gems and avoiding harm to the park’s natural life, leave no trace.

  • People only, no pets
  • Keep quiet and stay still where possible
  • Dress in natural tones and don’t wear scent
  • Keep your distance and never feed wildlife
  • Take only memories (and photos); leave only footprints
  • And don’t forget to look at the clouds

Worth Pondering…

Nature is a mutable cloud which is always and never the same.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Experience the Great Migration of the Sandhill Cranes as They Return to New Mexico

Southward migration: underway! Sandhill cranes, ducks, and geese are arriving at Bosque del Apache! It is likely you will view them during your visit soon.

The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things. 

—Excerpt from the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located in San Antonio, Socorro County, New Mexico. Situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the 57,331 acre Bosque del Apache was established in 1939 to provide a critical stopover site for migrating waterfowl. The refuge is well known for the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks who winter here each year. Over 30,000 acres of Bosque del Apache are designated wilderness.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seasons of wildlife

While there is always something interesting to observe, you will find the greatest numbers of birds at the refuge from early November to late January. In the spring and fall, migratory bird species are moving through the refuge resulting in high numbers of species. 

Each season, the Bosque del Apache offers unique bird and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak visitation occurs in winter when bald eagles and thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese flock to the fields and marshes. Plan to visit the first week of December during the annual Festival of the Cranes. This world-famous event includes speakers, special tours, and arts and wildlife displays. More on the festival later

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter (mid-November through late January) 

Thousands of snow geese, Ross’s geese, and sandhill cranes spend the night in water to protect themselves from predators. Near dawn, the geese take off in a group in search of fields throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley to feed in for the day. Smaller groups of sandhill cranes then leave the safety of the water for the same reason. Check the sunrise time and stop in the visitor center to learn the most recent roosting and feeding sites as they can change through the winter. 

In addition to viewing cranes and geese and many species of ducks, you can drive the auto tour loop or hike the trails and see hawks, eagles, blackbirds, ravens, coots, and other birds along with occasional mammals such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Check in with the visitor center staff for recent sightings. 

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring (mid-February through mid-May) 

The wetlands that were home to thousands of ducks, geese, and cranes all winter are slowly emptied of water in the spring providing prime feeding grounds for migrating sandpipers, stilts, plovers, dunlins, curlews, avocets, and twenty other shorebird species. Spring wildflowers add a bit more color to the landscape and greater roadrunners dart across and alongside the auto tour loop and Highway 1 in search of sluggish lizards and snakes.  

Spring is also when flycatchers, vireos, and a dozen species of warblers filter through either as a rest stop on migration or as they determine the best locations for their nesting territories on the refuge.  

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer (mid-May through mid-September) 

Summer is the time to see the colorful antics of black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds. The flowers of spring transition to the fruits of summer especially in the desert arboretum. Also look for the many young birds moving around the refuge. Some, like the quail, scurry around in long lines of a dozen or more. 

Mornings and evenings are good times to view wildlife in the heat of the summer—most creatures will seek shade in the middle of the day. Near waterways are good places to search for wildlife and signs of wildlife (such as tracks).  

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall (mid-September through mid-November) 

Late season sunflowers are a colorful contrast to the red-winged blackbirds that swoop and dart through the grasses. The first cranes and geese typically show up at the end of October during which time coyotes, mule deer, and javelina are moving through open fields as well. Wild turkeys begin moving to the northern part of the refuge to join up with other family groups in separate male and female roosting flocks.  

The Dabbler Deck or Willow Deck are good places to take a break and search for ducks dabbling in the water for food especially the northern shovelers and northern pintails.  

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Featured species

Because National Wildlife Refuges like Bosque del Apache are protected and managed lands, they can make ideal locations for the recovery of plant and animal species that are endangered, threatened, or have another special status through the Endangered Species Act. Bosque del Apache is a seasonal home to the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. Bosque del Apache is a year-round home to the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and Rio Grande silvery minnow.  

The waters, trees, and skies of Bosque del Apache yield a changing mix of birds throughout the seasons. Over 20 species of ducks and geese regularly spend part of their winters at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Seeds of grasses and sedges that have been growing all summer are the reward after migrating south for large numbers of northern pintail, northern shoveler, gadwall, and American wigeon. In summer, smaller numbers of Mexican duck, wood duck, and cinnamon teal may be found in the wetlands and ditches. Sandhill cranes are a winter visitor—typically from late October through late January. 

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023

Celebrate the return of the sandhill cranes at the 34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023 in Socorro. Join birding experts from near and far for a chance to learn about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and many of New Mexico’s overwintering birds. The Festival offers over seventy creative workshops in the field at Bosque del Apache and indoor workshops at New Mexico Tech.

The Festival celebrates the survival and yearly migration of the enigmatic sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is an ancient species of waterfowl that migrates from Canada and the northern U.S. to winter in the Rio Grande Valley. The oldest fossil on record is 1.7 million years old. Both cranes and snow geese begin arriving in smaller numbers at the refuge in late October. By early December, tens of thousands of cranes and snow geese make the Middle Rio Grande Valley their home until they migrate back north in mid-February. 

Snow geese and Ross’s geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular presenters will return to offer education and up-close viewings of wildlife. Festival workshops focus on photography, birding, and environmental education as well as offering hikes and historical tours of the area. Registration for the general public opened Wednesday, October 11. Workshops are filling up quickly but many still have plenty of space available. To register and learn more about this year’s Festival, click here (https://friendsofbosquedelapache.ticketspice.com/2023-festival-of-the-cranes-registration).

Field workshops will be outdoors at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with buses taking registrants to various locations. Additionally, there will be three nighttime photography workshops at the Very Large Array on the San Agustin plains, one hour west of Socorro. Indoor workshops will meet in classrooms at Macey Center on the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Expo Room located in the downstairs and upstairs lobbies at NM Tech’s Macey Center for the opportunity to meet and explore unique offerings from several vendors including camera and optics companies, eco-tourism partners, and this year’s art contest winner, Lisa Benham. The Expo Room is free to enter and open to the public. Anyone coming to the Expo Room on the first day of Festival will receive a welcome packet with great coupons and other goodies.

What do people love about Festival of the Cranes? Guests who attended the 2022 Festival shared that they loved the sense of community the festival provided. “Being able to gather with people from around the world and of all ages in a unique environment was an unforgettable experience,” said one attendee. Other guests were amazed by the educational quality of the workshops and the new skills they learned. Many attendees appreciated the opportunity to be outdoors and experience the amazing sites, wildlife, and healing energy of nature.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Festival Facts

Why: We gather to celebrate the annual return of sandhill cranes and the delicate oasis ecosystem that supports them at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Festival is an opportunity for people who care about New Mexico’s wildlife and wild places to have fun outside, meet like-minded people, and learn how to sharpen their birding and photography skills.

What: 34th Annual Festival of the Cranes

When: Wednesday, December 6-Saturday, December 9, 2023

Where: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (outdoor workshops) and New Mexico Tech (indoor seminars)

Sandhill cranes Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost: Varies with some events and activities cost-free.

Who’s Invited: EVERYONE! Visit the fragile oasis in the high desert—a rare jewel that has been cherished by New Mexicans from all walks of life for generations.

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

The Complete List of Bird Photography Tips for RVers

It’s an exciting time of the year with new birds arriving at favorite local birding hotspots as well as in your yard and at your feeders. Are your bird photography skills amped? Are you planning an RV road trip to an exciting birding location?

It has been a while since I’ve posted an article on bird photography due in part to not taking a recent road trip to a bird-rich area. But with a variety of bird photography opportunities ahead, I’ll provide photo insights in a concise, fairly organized list of tips and techniques.

When I bought my first DSL camera eons ago, I certainly wish someone had offered this photography list to me; then, or at any time since then, it sure would have come in handy and made me a better photographer much quicker.

With that in mind, I want to share my best bird photography resource, a list I’ve created based on years of experience mixed with tips shared with me over the years by professional and hobbyist friends and other techniques gleaned by reading extensively in books, photography magazines, and online. I hope this information will give the reader a basic introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting more quality bird photos—now and for years to come.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not every tip listed below will be useful for every photographer but anyone will be able to glean some valuable pointers and I hope this collection of photo methods also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm for you to search for your next photo opportunities on your next RV road trip. Many of these methods become second nature with time like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds; checking to see where your shadow is pointing periodically, and holding your breath when you press your camera’s shutter button.

This is the kind of article that offers such a variety and thorough collection of helpful tips that I encourage you to print it out and post a copy on your bulletin board, and fold another copy to make it easier to keep it in your camera backpack, glove compartment, or your back pocket; and share it with other bird photographers too. This list will truly help make you a better bird photographer and I hope it adds a new level of enthusiasm and enjoyment for you with renewed and improved production from your camera and lens.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird photography tips

Keep your camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”

Quality photos require good sunlight. For optimum lighting, I make every effort to position myself between the sun and the bird with my shadow pointing at my subject.

The best time to photograph during any given sunny day is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground starting an hour after sunrise and again during late afternoon until an hour before sunset. This practice will provide more direct lighting for bird photography while eliminating most shadows. Avoid photographing during midday when the sun is overhead or mostly overhead as that’s when the effect of shadowing on the bird and in the scene is greatest.

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing which may be caused by the overhead angle of the sun or when you’re not in the best position concerning the direction of the sunlight. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more pronounced in photographs, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check your own shadow periodically; try to keep your shadow pointing at the bird or birds you are photographing as this shows you are in the best position for optimum lighting and you are less apt to have shadows affecting the birds.

Keep in mind that when birding and especially when photographing birds, the welfare of the birds should be paramount. It’s always most rewarding if you can photograph birds without displacing them and you definitely want to avoid disturbing them if they are nesting, hunting, or feeding. Always live by the motto, “the birds’ welfare comes first.”

At the same time, there are always hyper-wary birds that will react to any outside activity and birds are constantly on the move so don’t over-react if a bird flies from a perch while photographing; often they just move to the next perch.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try not to get too close to birds; allow them to behave naturally. When you stop short of making birds fly, they may move closer in your direction. Give birds sufficient time to adjust to seeing you.

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly toward the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer. If necessary, walk slowly in a long zig-zagging fashion as you move closer while keeping the sun at your back.

Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing and be prepared to react to that fast action.

Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is centered on the bird. If the bird’s eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer overall.

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to help eliminate body motion.

Lightly squeeze your finger down on the shutter release button to reduce any jerky motion on the camera as you take photos.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that can be transferred as you hold your camera. Body shake includes your beating heart, other natural internal movements, and breathing.

To brace your camera, lean your lens against a tree, post, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest or sides to provide more stability as you handhold your camera and lens (rather than holding your elbows out to the sides).

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens but for many of us using a tripod is cumbersome at best especially when photographing flying birds. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much of the fun out of bird photography. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs to make sure the tripod is as stable as possible. When you use a tripod, you should also use a shutter release cable and that’s no fun either.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple camera tech

Please don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to Av (aperture priority) then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light. Watch how your shutter speed changes as you change the aperture setting in case you wish to use a faster shutter speed.

Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, and use an aperture of f8, and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion. Then, when I’m in a position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. I also adjust settings if a change in the sunlight level or weather indicates a need for change.

Blue-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions. I tend not to photograph birds during low light periods but if the sun goes behind a cloud I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight. I find that any setting above ISO 800 tends to produce grainy photos. Using an ISO of 200 or 100 provides better quality images but these settings tend to limit your shutter speed and/or aperture a bit so ISO 400 seems to be the best bet for me for bird photography with the sun at my back.

I keep my camera’s Al-Servo set so I can take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting, it’s possible to take a single photo but you can also take two or three at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active such as when it’s flying or displaying, you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of three to 10 photos or more per second depending on the camera model you use.

Using the Al-Servo setting, I tend to take two photos at a time which provides a second image that usually shows a wing position change during flight or provides two images as a bird turns its head.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing your photos

Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, swim into, or fly into. It tends to create a more pleasing composition.

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, I suggest taking a quick look at the rule of thirds which artists often use when composing their artwork. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design although it’s just a guide to be aware of when composing photos. Ultimately, do what looks best to you.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using a zoom lens can be helpful when positioning a bird in the photo frame, zooming in and out to include more or less background. But you can also reframe a photo and thereby reposition the bird in the frame by cropping it using photo editing software. By simply cropping extraneous sky, water, or plants surrounding the bird you can position the bird off-center, up or down as you wish by cropping the original photo and you will enlarge the bird’s size in the photo in the process.

Keep aware of the background as you are composing photos. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may simply be a matter of moving your camera to the right or left, up or down, or taking a step left or right to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases, a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a natural element to bird photographs.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area in focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. This blurred background effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f5. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background although this technique works best if there is ample space between the bird and the background elements.

Using a narrow f4 or f5 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which helps stop any motion and create sharp images.

Plants and other natural elements are often a welcome background for bird photos. When that’s the case, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14 as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work with—say above 1/400 for a motionless bird and 1/1000 or faster for birds in flight.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While watching the area behind the bird for any distracting elements or unnatural colors watch for distracting shadows on the bird or around it as you get into position. Reposition as needed to avoid shadows and other distracting elements.

When photographing birds positioned on the ground as they swim in water or wade along a shoreline try photographing from your knees, in a sitting position, or even a prone position to get closer to the birds’ eye level. Try photographing from a bird’s eye view at times.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile photo blind options

I like to use my vehicle (both car and motorhome) as a comfortable mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people but mostly ignore a parked vehicle. I have a few birding hotspots where I can park next to flowering trees, a wetland shoreline, or prominent perches where birds create fine photo opportunities.

Your vehicle provides the option to reposition a few feet forward or backward when needed or to drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.

Turn off your vehicle’s engine any time you are photographing to minimize vibrations so you can keep your camera and lens as stable as possible.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also, stabilize your lens by holding it on the top of a slightly raised window or against the side or top of the window frame to reduce body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to reduce any bodily vibrations and press the shutter button lightly to avoid a jerking motion.

Stay inside your vehicle and reduce any motions to make birds less wary. While birds often accept a parked vehicle, that changes if you open a door or get outside. (If you do need to step outside to photograph, don’t slam the door.)

Using your vehicle, explore a more expansive area occasionally to monitor where the birds are and where they aren’t. Take advantage of photo opportunities you encounter along the way and at the same time plan for future photo opportunities concerning the time of day the sun will best illuminate a promising area.

If you see a promising photo op as you are driving be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you and keep safety your priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over then return to the bird’s location to try for a photo op. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject concerning the direction of the sunlight, but always keep vehicle safety a priority.

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo editing: composition, design, and filing

When using photo editing software, I alter the photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve a photo immensely and it can increase the size of the bird(s) within a photo frame by cutting out extraneous parts of the background effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo review and editing process which is usually best performed as soon as possible after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly, organized, and easy to access.

Use a uniform naming system—perhaps one that identifies a bird in a photograph along with the location (state followed by location) and year and month it was taken. An example of my naming system is AZ, Catalina SP_cactus wren­­_2022_11.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I keep three copies of all my photos in different locations to ensure I never lose any of my valuable photos due to damage by fire, flood, or theft. I keep my photo files on an external hard drive with my computer that travels with me in my motorhome, on a second external drive located in my home, and in the cloud.

Enjoy sharing your bird photographs. Attach a photo or two to your emails, and texts, and by all means share them on social media applications. Bird photos are interesting and inspiring; they may open a line of conversation or lead to learning more about the species. You may even be surprised (and gratified) when people start introducing you as a photographer.

Photographing birds is usually not easy and in addition to all the other things that contribute to getting quality photos of birds, there is always a definite Luck factor—Good Luck!

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I have posted a variety of tips and techniques in previous articles:

But in this article you have an easy to refer to reference list—the best I can offer to anyone interested in photographing birds—whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro.

Have a lot of fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others— it’s all part of the joy of photographing birds!

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman