Ever since Audubon published its first birding trail guide three years ago, new routes have been spiraling across the country. We take you to four of the latest and greatest.
The Big Draw
By David Howard
It sounds like a brainteaser pulled from the pages of a Mensa application: How do you create a tourist attraction where there was none before—no national park–scale geography, no chocolate-themed amusement park, not even a wisp of Washington-slept-here history? To make things even more challenging, you're not allowed to build any significant new structures, and you have to attract visitors during spring and fall, tourism's off-season.
Nope. In fact, it's a spot-on description of the new Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail, spearheaded by Audubon Pennsylvania. Birding trails are not paths in the hiking sense. They are conceptual driving tours that link a region's avian hot spots by map, brochure, and signpost. Since the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail pioneered the concept along 650 miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline in 1996, the model has become an ecotourism phenomenon: More than three dozen trails in more than half the states in the country have sprung up, and more are being launched every year.
As I stand atop the abrupt, rocky pitch of Waggoner's Gap on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, scanning the sky for the last of the day's 192 raptors to pass overhead, the subtle genius of the endeavor hits home. This spot on Kittatinny Ridge, a forested upthrust that reaches 185 miles across eastern and central Pennsylvania, provides sweet views of the fading sun over the valley to the south and neighboring Blue Ridge. In fall millions of songbirds and tens of thousands of raptors—from bald eagles to northern goshawks to now-ubiquitous red-tailed hawks—follow its contours, creating the largest of the state's Important Bird Areas (IBAs), or land that has been designated as critical bird habitat.
Taken alone, Waggoner's Gap is a fine minor attraction. But when linked to more than 200 other sites—76 of them IBAs—in 39 counties throughout the rest of the Susquehanna River watershed, something really big is created. Birders need only pick up the trail's 83-page guide to learn that tens of thousands of tundra swans and snow geese congregate in the dead of winter about 70 miles east in the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. Or that in early spring common loons, normally associated with northern New England, unleash their spectral call in Bald Eagle State Park, some 80 miles north.
The benefit of birding trails to rural economies in places like central and eastern Pennsylvania—which has long relied on heavy industry and resource extraction—can be a revelation. A study conducted by Fermata Inc., a nature-focused research firm, found that birders spend more—$138 per day, on average—than most tourists. “The great thing about this is that now a grassland has as much value as just a grassland as it would if it had a store on it,” says Marci Mowery, former director of education for Audubon Pennsylvania and the person who, in 2001, developed the idea for the trail.
Up and down the Susquehanna River, known for an industrial history that includes the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, there are rich birding sites, including riverside pull-offs where bald eagles are regularly spotted. Short-eared owls, savannah sparrows, upland sandpipers, and bobolinks can be seen just west of the Gettysburg battlefield in the Southern Adams County Grasslands. Pennsylvania is the northernmost range of a number of southern birds, and the southernmost range of a number of northern species, and thus has long and diverse birding seasons that offer their share of surprises.
In metro Harrisburg, the Wildwood Lake Sanctuary is completely boxed in between Interstates 81 and 83 and rows of industrial buildings. Yet there are now blinds among the oak trees and scrub, from which—despite the whoosh of traffic and the hum of nearby factories—visitors can see great egrets nesting on a nearby island and great blue herons picking through the shallows of Paxton Creek. Some birders have spotted the relatively rare American bittern here. The sanctuary “doesn't look like a whole lot,” says Holly Smith, education project assistant with Audubon Pennsylvania, “but it satisfies that craving to be near water, and we have naturalists come in here and get so excited because they saw a blue-winged teal.”
Organizers don't intend to settle for preaching to the choir; they'll be seeking converts as word of the new endeavor spreads. Audubon Pennsylvania plans to post interpretive signs about raptors at Waggoner's Gap to help beginners distinguish between species, and a trained volunteer is on hand during fall migration to tell visitors how and where to train their binoculars to best see the birds. “It's going to be exciting to be up there, because you could go your whole life without seeing a golden eagle,” Smith says. “And here you might see one right overhead.”
Manufacture a tourist attraction out of thin air? There's no need. The champions of the Susquehanna River trail note that birds have migrated through this area for centuries. All they have done is bring the site's intrinsic appeal into greater relief and package it. As these trails grow in popularity, their true stars—the birds themselves—will continue to draw bigger crowds than ever.
>> On the Web Explore the trail and find related information and resources at www.pabirdingtrails.org.
By M. J. Cody
I scan the sunlit alders lining the river shore, following the unmistakable clatter of kingfishers. The source of the commotion is obvious, though this riparian forest also echoes with the sounds of chatty Steller's jays, pileated woodpeckers, and squirrels. Flashes of blue streak back and forth as a pair of belted kingfishers reveal themselves, zigzagging downriver. It's a happy exuberance, shared by the juvenile common mergansers testing their white-water techniques down nearby rivulets.
I'm meandering along the Salmon River in Mount Hood National Forest's Wildwood Recreation Area, hoping to spot a pair of wood ducks that have adopted a neighboring patch of wetlands. The Salmon River is one of 22 Wild & Scenic Rivers integrated into the new Oregon Cascades Birding Trail, and Wildwood is one of the premier sites.
Dedicated in May 2003, the Cascades Birding Trail highlights 184 birding destinations along Oregon's volcanic Cascade Range. Tracing more than 1,000 miles of highways and byways, from the Columbia River to Mount McLoughlin, just short of the California border, the trail passes through an astonishing 9 million acres of public land.
It got its start in 2001 when avid birder Steve Shunk decided his hometown of Sisters, Oregon, should feature a birding trail as a way to increase tourism. “Call it good timing,” he says. “I started researching and discovered that the Portland Audubon Society was studying the feasibility of birding trails as well.” Shunk and Portland Audubon jointly staged a statewide meeting of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and businesses, and soon the Oregon Birding Trails Working Group was formed. Supported by funding from the National Forest Foundation, the American Bird Conservancy, and Leupold Optics, the group has planned nine birding trails to encompass the state's vast physiography, from the Pacific Ocean to the high deserts, and to highlight its 494 bird species.
The Cascades Trail is the first of these—a spectacular excursion through volcano country in five loop tours with adjacent spurs. Maps in the handy brochure lead birders through the fern- and moss-laden temperate rainforests of Douglas fir and western red cedar on the western slopes; the alpine meadows and the arid uplands of sagebrush, pine, and juniper to the east; and southern Oregon's ecologically diverse upper Klamath Basin.
Tomorrow I'll move on from the lush forests around Mount Hood in search of white-headed woodpeckers, pine siskins, mountain bluebirds, and pygmy nuthatches. Shunk assures me I'll have no trouble spotting them as I explore the lava landscapes, ancient lakes, meadows, and pine-covered cinder cones of Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters, where his effort to launch Oregon's splendid Cascades Birding Trail began.
>> On the Web You can download the Cascades Birding Trail guide at www.oregonbirdingtrails.org/cascades.htm. You can also follow the development of additional Oregon birding trails at www.oregonbirdingtrails.org.
By Heidi Walters
At Welcome Springs nobody greeted us. Standing between a water tank and a gnarled corral at this desert stop along the Southwest Utah Birding Trail, Charlie Sheard and I listened—nothing. Just silence and autumn foliage going gold to brown in the tree-lined wash. We ambled up the path, lazily noting a chunk of bark lodged in the branches of a black willow, flotsam from a recent storm. Walking back, we looked again, then stopped. The bark had little horns. Black-seed eyes. Fuzzy golden toes. And a soft, rusty face—a tiny flammulated owl.
“That might be the bird of the day,” said Sheard, delighted at the unexpected sighting. Sheard, a member of Red Cliffs Audubon, helped research sites for the Southwest Utah trail—the second of what will be three birding trails, coordinated by Wasatch Audubon, to span the state of Utah. He was showing me the highlights, including some here on the Beaver Dam Slope, an undulating landscape of Joshua trees, cholla, and riparian pockets about 20 miles west of St. George. Earlier that day we had visited Lytle Ranch Preserve, in a canyon carved by Beaver Dam Creek. There, more than 100 species of birds have been recorded, including phainopeplas, Bell's vireos, and common black hawks.
From this Mojave–Great Basin desert, the Southwest Utah Birding Trail sprawls hundreds of miles northeast across the Colorado Plateau to the Wasatch Mountains, at the western edge of the Rockies. Along the way, its 47 sites take visitors through yucca-dotted lowlands, big sage country, Gambel's oak and pinyon-juniper woodlands, alpine lakes, and aspen-conifer forests. You can spy a green heron along the Virgin River, search for horned larks and Clark's nutcrackers on 11,307-foot Brian Head Peak, or, in March, join thousands of snow geese at Gunnison Bend Reservoir.
It's a canyon-rifted region, famous for its national parks and monuments—Bryce, Escalante, Capitol Reef, and more—drawing millions of visitors a year. In a glen near Zion National Park, as Sheard and I stood listening to juncos, robins, and the clinking of snowmelt on slickrock, two huge creatures suddenly soared into the blue above the snowcapped, red sandstone Kolob Terraces. California condors! They were immigrants from Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, where captive-bred condors have been released during the past nine years. We pursued, driving higher, but were distracted en route by what looked like a shaggy black dog crouched in a roadside ponderosa—another condor. We crept close to peer into its leathery pink face, fringed in black feathers. Other people stopped to gawk, blocking the road. From another pine, a golden eagle—normally a high-ranking bird at this site—eyed us. But we had eyes only for the condor.
>> On the Web Visit the Wasatch Audubon website (www.wasatchaudubon.org/maps_birding_trails.htm) for a simplified downloadable map of the Southwest Utah Birding Trail, as well as for information on how to order the detailed, full-color trail brochure.
The Toast of Coasts
By Bill Fontenot
For four days I've waited for a low-pressure system sucking humid air from the Gulf of Mexico to culminate with the driving rain and thunder that less than an hour ago quivered this southwestern slice of Louisiana coast. Now, as the rumbles taper off, the air grows warm and stagnant, verging on sultry. An occasional raindrop—chilled in the stratosphere and fat with tropical moisture—splats against my face as I look skyward, anticipating the weary travelers' arrival.
Gradually, I make out their blackish, pinpoint-size forms falling like tiny meteorites into the ragged crowns of live-oak and hackberry trees. From the underside of the canopy, sparks of color fly: the supersaturated blues of blue grosbeaks, the chrome yellows of hooded warblers, the fiery reds of scarlet tanagers. This profusion is why the Baton Rouge Audubon Society's Peveto Woods Migratory Bird Sanctuary is—along with Grand Isle, on the Gulf of Mexico—one of the best places to be during a “fallout.” It's the chance to see, in the wake of a spring storm, hundreds of vivid neotropical migrants driven earthward, desperate to refuel after their arduous flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico.
What's more, Peveto Woods is but one stop on a circuit of prime coastal Louisiana birdwatching sites that recently became linked like beads on a coiled pearl necklace by America's Wetland Birding Trail. This trail aims to highlight the importance of Louisiana's 3.4 million acres of coastal wetlands to birds and people—as well as those wetlands' alarming decline (a football field worth of them vanishes into the gulf every 30 minutes).
As the naturalist charged with surveying the trail's 115 sites, I logged hundreds of miles on the roads and byways that now constitute 12 driving loops winding through a mosaic of habitats. They range from bottomland hardwood forests, barrier islands, and marshes to longleaf-pine savannahs, tallgrass prairies, and oak groves known locally as cheniers. These habitats support an incredible throng of birdlife: roseate spoonbills, magnificent frigatebirds, swallow-tailed kites, Henslow's sparrows, red-cockaded woodpeckers, nearly every egret and heron native to North America, and—when the timing works out as it has today at Peveto Woods—swarms of neotropical migrants.
Enthralled by the fireworks in the canopy, I don't immediately notice the clouds of mosquitoes pouring from sheltering mats of poison ivy on the forest floor. They make threatening passes at my ears but gain nothing more than a revengeful smile from beneath my ball cap. Judging by the ever-increasing numbers of hummers, gnatcatchers, and warblers now streaming in from the gulf, the tables look to be turning very quickly on these pesky bugs.
>> On the Web Download maps and loop guides for America's Wetland Birding Trail at www.fermatainc.com/la/. In addition you can check out the dates of birding festivals, connect with bird clubs, and get the scoop on the latest bird sightings at www.birdlouisiana.com.