Birding hot spots

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(Host) Commentator Ted Levin says that some of the best months of the year for bird watching are just ahead, as the days of summer wind down and the great migrations begin.

You can go anywhere in North America, literally anywhere, and see birds. I saw my first scarlet tanager in New York’s Central Park, my first burrowing owl in the middle of Lubbock, Texas, my first Vaux’s swift above the outfield in Anaheim, California, while the Angels played the Mariners. I’ve seen a peregrine falcon in Manhattan, a wheatear on Long Island, a great blue heron in Boston, a white-tailed kite in Los Angeles, and a Lucifer’s hummingbird at a backyard bird feeder in Portal, Arizona.

In June of 1987 a white-winged black tern, a native of eastern Europe, stopped by a small pond adjacent to the interstate in White River Junction. The bird stayed for an hour, hawking dragonflies above the water lilies.

Birds can show up at any time, at any place. But there are hot spots where the pageant is both predictable and spectacular. Here are some top picks, chosen as much for the scenery, the solitude, and the other wildlife as for the birds.

In the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, midway between the Delaware Water Gap and the pass created by the Susquehanna River, lies Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout, a bend in the long Kittatinny Ridge. From late August through December, thousands of migratory hawks pass by. Mid-September is the best time for broadwing hawks; more than 20,000 have been spotted in a day. Kestrels peak in September, sharp-shinned hawks in early October, and red-tailed hawks later in October. From the North Lookout, one cold, snow-spitting November weekend, I counted nine golden eagles, 400 redtails, and more than 500 loons, which cut across the ridge on a direct course to the Atlantic Ocean.

Early one December morning, while camped in the woods near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland, I awoke to the deafening sound of geese. As I crawled out of the tent, thousands of low-flying Canada geese from every point on the compass passed overhead. Besides Canada geese, Blackwater attracts thousands of snow geese and tundra swans, ducks, shorebirds, and bald eagles.
A road winds through the refuge, past coves filled with water fowl and shoreline-stalking herons.

In Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley and along the Gulf Coast, between Austwell and Brownsville, birds mingle from the east, west, and Mexico. Mid-January, before the trees leaf out, is an excellent time to visit. During spring migration, south Texas is the birding capital of North America.

There are three main attractions in southeast Texas, all national wildlife refuges. Aransas in Austwell is the winter home of the last wild flock of whooping cranes. Laguna Atacosa in Harlingen has recorded more than 300 species of birds. In Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, 45 miles west of Brownsville, more than 300 species have been seen as well. Many Mexican species reach their northern limits in the tropical scrub of Santa Ana. I’ve never been there but I’d love to have the chance to visit one of the continent’s most productive birding hot spots.

This is Ted Levin in Gillette Swamp in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in natural history.

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