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 Ultimate Guide to the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail

Birds of a feather flock together

Whether you’re a serious or beginner birder, you’ll get caught up in the excitement of birding on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Gulf Shores and Foley are a popular home base for those who like to get out, explore, and see a wide variety of bird species year round.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama’s Gulf Coast is a paradise not only for birders but for visitors with many different outdoor interests. The Coastal Birding Trail features six birding loops in Baldwin and Mobile counties totaling over 200 miles. Each loop covers different ecological regions representative of the northern Gulf Coast and enables birders to experience different assemblages of bird species within each region.

The beauty of the Alabama Gulf Coast is no secret. Residents and visitors alike enjoy the natural elements Alabama’s beaches offer. However, humans aren’t the only ones who love to explore the Gulf Coast as you can find plenty of stunning coastal birds here. When you’re on the hunt for the perfect piece of paradise to watch these beautiful birds, consider these 15 places perfect for birders.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fishing and Education Pier

For those looking to watch seabirds, Gulf State Park’s Fishing and Education Pier is the place for you. Located on the Gulf of Mexico in Gulf Shores, this pier offers a prime viewing spot for gulls and terns as well as ruddy turnstone, sanderlings, and herons. For $2, guests can walk along the pier and enjoy the incredible view. You may also spot a variety of sea life as the pier is a popular fishing spot.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park

There is something for everyone at Gulf State Park. The beach pavilion provides picnic tables as an escape from the beach, the nature center is a great place for the kids to learn, the swimming pool provides refreshment for guests, and the Lake Shelby day use area offers kayaking and canoeing. For a change of pace while visiting check out the fishing and education pier, miles of biking on the Backcountry trail, beautiful flowers in the butterfly garden, and additional education at the interpretive center.

>> Related article: Experience the Alabama Gulf Coast along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

Gulf State Park offers a diversity of habitat for residential and migrating birds. Osprey, herons, rails, owls, woodpeckers and much more frequent the Park. Look up in the sky for a nesting bald eagles souring above. When storms occur in the Gulf of Mexico, the wind pushes a water column of the open ocean to the shoreline, look for rarities such as Magnificent Frigatebirds and Northern Gannets.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher State Park

The Mobile Delta wetlands in Spanish Fort are where you’ll discover Meaher State Park. This 1,327-acre park is situated in the wetlands of the Mobile Delta and is a day-use, picnicking, and scenic park with modern camping hook-ups for overnight visitors.

There are two nature trails with a lovely view of the Mobile Delta. Birders can expect to see herons, red-tailed hawks, egrets, and even bald eagles. It’s a great place to bring the kids and get them hooked on birding.

Meaher State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meaher’s boat ramp and fishing pier will appeal to every fisherman. The park offers a 300-foot pier with a 200-foot “T” for your fishing pleasure. Access to the pier is included in the park admission fee. Enjoy a self-guided walk on two nature trails including a boardwalk with an up-close view of the beautiful Mobile Delta.

5 Rivers Delta Resource Center

5 Rivers Delta Resource Center’s name recognizes the five rivers of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta which include the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee, and Blakeley Rivers (from west to east) that flow into Mobile Bay. The Center itself sits on the banks of one of the canals of this vast delta. These drainages encompass over 250,000 acres of meandering waterways, floodplain forests, and extensive wetlands. The center features an exhibit hall, theater, gift shop, Delta boat tours, canoe and kayak rentals, hiking trails, and picnic areas.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The decks of the Delta Hall and the perimeter trail around the facility provide excellent vantage points to observe birds of the surrounding marsh and waterways. In spring and summer, look for Brown Pelican, Osprey, King Rail, Marsh Wren, and several species of herons and egrets. Occasionally, Least Bittern and Purple Gallinule may be encountered along the margins of the emergent marsh. Painted Bunting may also be possible in the thickets near the buildings. Check here for migrants in spring and fall.

Battleship Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Battleship Park

Battleship Park is a military history park and museum on the western shore of Mobile Bay. Battleship Park presents the birder with a diversity of habitat to explore and a great variety of birds to observe. Pinto Pass and the mudflats of Mobile Bay filled with waterfowl in winter and shorebirds during migration, short grass lawns for dowitchers and Black-bellied Plover, salt water marsh with herons and egrets. During low tide this area is filled with herons, egrets, and occasionally ibis, especially in late summer. Black-necked Stilt may be around any time of the year and in summer, Gull-billed Tern is present.

Grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile Bay Mudflats

The Mobile Bay Mudflats are a good place to look for herons, egrets, and Boat-tailed Grackles any time of year. An assortment of sandpipers and plovers are regular during spring and fall migration. During high tide in winter, American Coot and waterfowl are regular. Mudflats or mud flats, also known as tidal flats, are coastal wetlands that form when mud is deposited by tides or rivers. They are found in sheltered areas such as bays, bayous, lagoons, and estuaries. The best viewing at the Mobile Bay Mudflats is during low tide when the mudflats are exposed. 

>> Related article: The Underrated Coast

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wade Ward Nature Park

Wade Ward Nature Park is a 12 acre natural area, a rarity in the midst of such a vibrant resort city (Gulf Shores). It offers the birder scenic boardwalks overlooking canals and coastal salt marsh. It features a pavilion, benches, and scenic boardwalks. The Nature Park provides ideal habitat for bitterns and rails. Even in close proximity to the downtown commercial bustle, wildlife such otters, pelicans, and the occasional alligator can be seen hunting and fishing in its shallow water and wetlands.

Wade Ward Nature Park is located just two blocks north of Gulf Place, the main public beach. It is a public pedestrian access to a pocket of natural wetlands and waterways found in between the beach condominiums and commercial buildings in Gulf Shores.

From a comfortably dry, elevated boardwalk, you may enjoy beautiful views of the wetlands that connect Little Lagoon and Lake Shelby. Wildlife such otters, pelicans, and the occasional alligator can be seen hunting and fishing in its shallow water and wetlands.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

In nearby Fairhope, the Weeks Bay Estuarine Research Reserve public research and education facility includes some 9,000 acres of protected habitats bordering Weeks Bay and Fish and Magnolia Rivers. Complete with an interpretive center, indoor displays, live animals, and forested boardwalk nature trails, the Reserve is part of a national network of coastal reserves established as living laboratories for long-term research projects. Well-known for birdwatching, Weeks Bay also participates in the Alabama Coastal BirdFest held each year during early fall (September 27-30, 2023). This event is a great way to see and learn about the area’s birds and their habitats and no previous birding experience is required.

Historic Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama Coastal BirdFest takes attendees into the Mobile Delta, to the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary, historic Fort Morgan, and the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, among other locations. The four-day event also includes workshops on subjects such as hummingbirds, the basics of birding, monarch butterflies, and, new this year, workshops on how to use common birding apps, such as eBird and Merlin Bird ID, and understanding bird box design for specific species. 

Fairhope Municipal Pier © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope Municipal Pier and Beach

Fairhope Municipal Pier is a good location for winter ducks, loons, gulls, and terns. Check the pilings in all seasons for loafing gulls, terns, and pelicans. A scan or walk along the beach can yield wading birds, peeps, and other shorebirds. Designed for both strolling and fishing, the pier features benches, covered areas, restrooms, a marina, and a restaurant. There is no cost to walk but a saltwater license is required for fishing.

>> Related article: Mobile Bay: Gateway to the Gulf

The park is home to a lovely rose garden and fountain, plus picnic tables, pavilion, duck pond, tree trail, and a large sandy beach. Non-residents are charged park admission during the summer season. In addition to the waterfront park, numerous bluff top parks extend along the bay front.

Foley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Graham Creek Nature Preserve

Home to boundless plant and wildlife species, the 500-acre Graham Creek Nature Preserve in Foley offers many recreational opportunities and educational programs. Pine savanna habitat features wild flowers and pitcher plants. See endangered plants up close while exploring 10 miles of trail, two handicap-accessible boardwalks, a kayak launch, and four disc golf courses. 

Graham Creek also offers other leisure activities such as an archery park made for all sizes and a playground with an outdoor classroom perfect for kids. There are many pet-friendly areas. Enjoy the interpretive center and don’t miss the chance for birdwatching. Bring your gear and hit the water from the kayak launch. The preserve also hosts events throughout the year including Feathered Friends Day and eco-educational activities.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge encompasses some of Alabama’s last remaining undisturbed coastal barrier habitat. The name Bon Secour comes from the French meaning safe harbor, very appropriate considering the sanctuary for native flora and fauna the refuge provides.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge consists of approximately 7,000 acres of coastal lands ranging from constantly changing beach dunes to rolling pine-oak woodlands. There is something for everyone at the refuge from a quiet stroll among the dunes to world-class birding opportunities and trail.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bon Secour represents an important stopover and staging habitat for neotropical migratory songbirds during the fall and spring migration along the Alabama coastline. Migratory birds utilize this area for resting and building fat reserves critical to successful migration.

The Jeff Friend Trail is a one-mile loop to Little Lagoon. Habitats along the trail include maritime forest, freshwater marsh, and open water along the north shore of Little Lagoon. A small observation deck, accessible to those with disabilities, midway down the trail at Little Lagoon provides a great place to set up a spotting scope and scan the water.

In winter, look for Bufflehead, Common Loon, and Horned Grebe. And, in spring, Osprey, Sandwich Tern, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow are regularly seen. Expect to see Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Summer Tanager, and Northern Parula during the summer. Chuck-will’s-widow and Great Horned Owl are commonly heard at dusk and dawn.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Morgan

Fort Morgan is a Third System masonry fort built between 1819 and 1833. The fort was named after Revolutionary War Hero Daniel Morgan. Standing guard where the bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, the fort played a significant role in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. Used intermittently through the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II, the site showcases the evolution of seacoast fortifications and adaptations. 

During spring and fall migration, dozens of migrant species flock to Fort Morgan on their journeys to escape the cold. One of Fort Morgan’s best spots to view birds is the Stables located near the eastern sea wall. Here you’ll find a variety of passerine migrants enjoying the comfortable coastal weather. During spring and fall, The Audubon Birding Society hosts a banding station event that visitors are welcome to attend. 

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lillian Swamp Forever Wild Tract

Lillian Swamp encompasses nearly 3,000 acres managed for conservation by the ADCNR State Lands Division and hosts a variety of habitats representative of the lower Coastal Plain. At any time of year, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, and other resident species are common in the piney uplands and adjacent thickets.

In spring and fall, varying assemblages of migrants can be seen depending on weather conditions. Continuing north on the road, the piney uplands transition to forested swamplands and open pitcher plant bogs. These areas are good for wintering sparrows, migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, and an assortment of waders. Recent notable winter sightings include Rusty Blackbird, a species of high conservation concern. Osprey and Bald Eagle are seen regularly year around particularly along the Perdido River to the east.

Dauphin Island Sea Lab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bayfront Park

Bayfront Park on Dauphin Island has many species of local and migratory birds that visit in the spring and fall to take advantage of its fresh water and to shelter themselves among the trees and reeds. Brown Pelicans are ever-present soaring on the wind-wave formed as bay breezes blow up against and over dense stands of pines. Gulls, terns, and Double-crested Cormorants roost on the pilings.

>> Related article: Marvelous Mobile Bay: Dauphin Island

From the parking area, walk the boardwalk to an inland marsh. Look closely for Least Bittern and Clapper Rail. During fall and winter, Virginia Rail and Sora are regular but secretive. Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and Boat-tailed Grackle are also common.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Audubon Bird Sanctuary

This lush sanctuary on Dauphin Island consists of approximately 164 acres of maritime forest, marshes, dunes, a lake, swamp, and beach. Multiple walking trails, some handicapped accessible, allow the avid birder miles of habitat for spotting neo-tropical migrants in the spring and fall as well as native species all year long.

Audubon Bird Sanctuary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Island has been named one of the top four locations in North America for viewing spring migrations and the sanctuary has gained it recognition from the National Audubon Society as “globally important.”

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