Birding USA, Part 3: 10 Western Hotspots for Photographing Birds

Birding USA: 10 Western Hotspots for Photographing Birds

This article is the final installment of our three-part series covering the best locations in the United States for birdwatching and bird photography. Don’t forget to check out 10 Eastern US Hotspots and 10 Central US Hotspots for even more bird-friendly travel destinations. Finally, no birding trip is complete without a field guide to help with identification.

View from Point Reyes Lighthouse

1. Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Almost 500 species of birds keep Point Reyes close to the top of nearly every list of birding destinations in the United States. More than half of all North American species of birds have been spotted in the area. Extending ten miles into the Pacific Ocean, part of the reason for the diversity comes from its role as a vagrant landing spot along the Pacific Flyway.

Bear Valley’s proximity to the Point Reyes Visitor Center makes it a popular place to start. The Bear Valley Trail (8 miles) takes visitors through multiple habitats as it winds toward the shore. Acorn Woodpeckers are common sights around the year; summer brings flycatcher, warbler, and swallow; and winter invites thrush, sparrow, and blackbird. The Earthquake Trail (0.5 mile) offers a less intense hike through the area. Birders seeking waterfowl will want to check out the trails surrounding the nearby wetlands at Limantour. The fall and winter are the best times to catch a variety of grebe, loon, and other water birds.

A 1.5-mile trail leads to Abbotts Lagoon, where more than forty species of shorebirds visit during late summer and early fall. Among the rarer sights include Hudsonian and Bar-Tailed Godwit, as well as Sharp-Tailed and Buff-Breasted Sandpiper. Additionally, the area also serves as an invaluable nesting ground for the threatened Western Snowy Plover.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse offers your best chance to encounter surprising vagrants in the late spring and early fall. Various gull winter in the area, while American White Pelican and the occasional Tufted Puffin appear during their migration.

Visitors looking for birds of prey, woodpecker, hummingbird, and songbirds should head to the Palomarin area. There you will also find the Point Reyes Bird Observatory Visitor Center and Bird Banding Lab, where you can learn directly from ornithologists working in the field.

Each spring, the Point Reyes Birding and Nature Festival offers dozens of educational workshops related to the flora and fauna of the area. Plan your visit to Point Reyes National Seashore here.


2. Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

To make some truly unique additions to your life list, few birding destinations can match the Hawaiian Islands. As the most geographically isolated archipelago on the planet, the flora and fauna of Hawaii are uniquely evolved to their environment. Volcanoes National Park, located on the Big Island, is home to the largest active volcano on Earth, as well as a colorful collection of birds.

Many of the species residing in Volcanoes NP cannot be found outside of the islands, including the endangered ’Io, ’Ua’u, and Nēnē. Look out for ’Akiapōlā’au, which exhibit unique bills adapted for hunting insects in koa trees. If you can locate ō’hi’a flowers along Crater Rim Drive or the Mauna Loa strip road, you will find the vibrant ’Apapene, ’L’iwi, and Hawai’i Ākepa. The ’L’iwi, with its decurved bill and striking red and black plumage, makes for an incredible sight if you are lucky enough to spot one.

Unusual birds are only a part of what makes Volcanoes National Park so special; extremely rare plants like the hau kuahiwi can be found along the Kīpukapuaulu Trail (1.2 miles). Here you might also encounter Kalij Pheasants, one of several introduced species that have threatened native ecosystems.

Learn more about Volcanoes National Park here.

Prairie Falcon

3. Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, Idaho

The Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area is visited by twenty-four species of raptors each year. An abundance of cliffs provides prime raptor real estate, while large populations of Paiute Ground Squirrels and Black-Tailed Jackrabbits supply a steady menu in the grass below.

During the spring, it hosts 800 pairs of nesting birds of prey. Among the seasonal spectacles you won’t want to miss include the baroque courtship displays of “sky dancing” Golden Eagles. Additionally, the area is home to the highest density of nesting Prairie Falcons in the world. Other raptors that nest in the park include American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, Osprey, and Turkey Vulture, as well as Ferruginous, Red-Tailed, and Swainson’s Hawk. And don’t forget about the owls! Barn, Burrowing, Great Horned, Long-Eared, Short-Eared, Western Screech, and Northern Saw-Whet Owl all take advantage of this prime habitat.

When visiting, stop by Dedication Point, which overlooks Snake River Canyon and provides a beautiful expanse to scan for soaring raptors. When your neck gets sore from looking up, check for wren, phoebe, swallow, and swift below. To learn more about Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey and National Conservation Area, click here.

Greater Roadrunner

4. Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is a massive expanse of land just a short drive north from the Vegas Strip that supports more than 300 species of birds. Created in 1936, in an effort to preserve habitat for the Desert Bighorn Sheep, a large chunk of the refuge is now used by the United States Air Force and is off-limits to the public.

Start at the Corn Creek Visitor Center, where you will find walking trails around this desert oasis. Water and vegetation are bird magnets in the desert, and this serves as one of the best spots for birdwatching in the area. For a more remote hike, try the Gass Peak Route (6.5 miles), which leads to the highest point in Las Vegas, many desert birds, and beautiful landscape views.

Among the birds you may encounter in Desert NWR during the spring and summer are desert warbler and sparrow, hummingbird, and thrasher—including the rare Le Conte’s Thrasher. Splashes of color are provided by tanager, oriole, grosbeak, and bunting. Larger finds include Gambel’s Quail and the Greater Roadrunner. Finally, high up in the sky you may spot Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, or Red-Tailed Hawk.

To plan your visit to Desert NWR, click here.

Bald Eagles, in Haines, Alaska

5.Haines, Alaska

Known as the “Valley of the Eagles,” Haines makes the list for attracting thousands of Bald Eagles each fall. Chasing salmon in the Chilkat River, itinerant eagles join an already robust population in the area. The impressive spectacle is celebrated during the annual Bald Eagle Festival.

Visit the nearby Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which was created specifically to protect habitat used by the eagles. The area between mile 18 and 24 on Haines Highway serves as the best place for spotting eagles along the Chilkat River. Starting in April, the eagles begin dramatic aerial displays as part of courtship rituals that you won’t want to miss.

While most known for its eagles, a variety of waterfowl, kingfisher, sandpiper, gull, and tern take advantage of the plentiful habitat, as well. Grouse, ptarmigan, warbler, and thrush can also be found in the surrounding areas.

Learn more about the wildlife in Haines by clicking here.

White-Faced Ibis in Salton Sea

6. Salton Sea, California

In 1905, a flooding Colorado River breached the canal gates of Imperial Valley, birthing the Salton Sea. More than forty miles long and twenty miles wide, this saltwater lake has recorded more than four hundred species of birds over the years. Once one of the premier locations for birding in the United States, it has gone into decline in recent years due to receding water levels and increasing salinity, which have led to a number of fish and bird die-offs. Nevertheless, it continues to provide important habitat to resident and migrant birds.

A sampling of the species that rely upon Salton Sea as a breeding ground includes Snowy Plover, Gull-Billed Tern, Black Skimmer, Yuma Clapper Rail, Least Bittern, White-Faced Ibis, and Double-Crested Cormorant. Wintering American White Pelican, Lesser Sandhill Crane, and Eared Grebe also visit the area, while Wood Stork arrive in the summer. Rare sightings include the handsome Blue-Footed Booby and striking Magnificent Frigatebird. Finally, the area surrounding Salton Sea provides habitat to Yuma Ridgway’s and California Black Rail, Western Burrowing Owl, Greater Roadrunner, and Lesser Nighthawk.

Learn more about Salton Sea here.

Mexican Spotted Owl in Zion National Park

7. Zion National Park, Utah

Some of the biggest names in raptor conservation can be found soaring through the picture-perfect landscapes of Zion National Park, including Peregrine Falcon, California Condor, and Bald Eagle. In all, more than 290 species of birds are distributed over a range of habitats and elevations, making Zion an excellent choice for bird photography.

Your best bet to spot the rebounding California Condor in Zion is near Angels Landing; its massive wingspan makes it hard to miss. This is also a great location to look for nesting and hunting Peregrine Falcon. On the other hand, dark, cool wooded canyons offer your best chance at seeing another champion of conservation, the Mexican Spotted Owl. Moving beyond raptors, wild turkey are common sights in the park throughout the year. Zion offers nesting habitat to various species of flycatcher, tanager, hummingbird, sparrow, bluebird, and warbler. Lower in the park, the Virgin River provides a stage for the entertaining antics of the American Dipper, as well as a variety of water birds.

To find out more about Zion National Park, click here.

Tufted Puffin

8. Olympic National Park, Washington

Olympic National Park contains 73 miles of coastal wilderness, as well as subalpine, montane, lowland, and temperate rainforest habitat. Roughly three hundred species of birds visit the park.

The Hoh Rainforest is prime habitat for numerous species of warbler, as well as Ruffed and Sooty Grouse. You may hear a Barred Owl asking “who-cooks-for-you” while walking through the lush forest.

Visit Hurricane Ridge and you may be treated to a Golden Eagle majestically soaring through this breathtaking view. Northern Pygmy Owl, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-Backed Chickadee, and Red-Breasted Nuthatch are among species inhabiting the area. Make sure to check that the ridge is open when you plan to visit, because access is restricted during the winter.

Kalaloch and Ruby Beach provide opportunities to view colonies of Tufted Puffin and other shorebirds. Near Olympic National Park, the Cape Flattery Trail leads to the Northwest tip of Washington and an excellent vantage for spotting pelagic birds. From its observation platforms you can see Rhinoceros Auklet, Black Oystercatcher, as well as a variety of waterfowl, gull, jaeger, and cormorant. Gray whale and sea lion may also be spotted in the area.

Learn more about Olympic National Park here.

A Great Blue Heron catches a fish in Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

9. Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, Montana

More than 240 species of birds have been recorded in the wetlands, grasslands, and riparian woodland of Lee Metcalf NWR. The fall and spring migrations are the best time to visit because its wetlands provide stopover habitat for a variety of waterfowl, grebe, pelican, ibis, swan, and egret. Depending on environmental conditions, shorebirds may also visit its mudflats. Nesting species in the area include Marsh Wren, Sora, Virginia Rail, and Yellow-Headed and Red-Winged Blackbird.

In the woodlands surrounding the Bitterroot River, you can find flycatcher, warbler, swift, and woodpecker. Look up for hunting Osprey and Bald Eagles near the water. Upland, Red-Tailed and Rough-Legged Hawks, American Kestrel, and Prairie Falcon frequent the fields.

Along the Kenai Nature Trail are two photo blinds positioned at the edge of Pond 8 and 10 that you will definitely want to check out during your visit. Speaking of paths through the refuge, Wildfowl Lane is a three-mile drive that cuts through the bottom of the refuge, providing ample opportunities to see many of its inhabitants.

More information on Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge can be found here.

Trumpeter Swan

10. William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

The William L. Finley NWR was formed to protect important wintering grounds for the dusky subspecies of the Canada Goose. More than 200 species of birds inhabit or pass through its 5,325 acres over the course of each year.

Winter is the time to see waterfowl since thousands of birds flock to the wetlands and fields of the refuge, including the Greater White-Fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Tundra Swan, Northern Pintail, Mallard, and American Widgeon.

The refuge also serves as a stopover for migrating shorebirds and a nesting habitat for raptors. Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Northern Harrier can be found in the skies above while hummingbird, woodpecker, and a variety of warblers can be spotted below.

Learn more about William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge here.

Which of your favorite locations in the West did we miss? Add them in the Comments section, below.

Click on the links to read Birding USA, Part 1 and Birding USA, Part 2.

For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!