Top Western Birding Destinations

Lora J. Finnegan and Jim McCausland

The marvels of migration

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges

More than 400 bird species have been logged here, and peak waterfowl populations top 1 million. The six refuges of the Klamath Basin constitute one of the biggest freshwater wetlands west of the Mississippi and cover 190,000 acres of Northern California and Oregon. In some years the basin hosts 80 percent of the waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway. In late January through February, the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the Lower 48 is here—300 to 900 birds. WHERE: The visitor center is southwest of Klamath Falls, OR, at Tule Lake Refuge off State 161 in Tulelake, CA. CONTACT: (530) 667-2231 or www.klamathnwr.org.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Morro Bay/San Simeon Coast

The San Luis Obispo County coast puts on a great show: near Morro Bay, watch for peregrine falcons darting off Morro Rock to nab smaller birds below, and scan the bay off the Embarcadero for brant (geese), grebes, loons, and scoters. At the 2001 Big Sit (an annual fixed-location international birding competition held each October), birders stationed at the nearby Elfin Forest counted more bird species than at any other participating location in the U.S.—106 species in 24 hours. Up the coast, from Cambria past San Simeon to Ragged Point, scout creeks, beaches, farm fields, and the ocean for black oystercatchers, brown pelicans, eagles, and a host of wintering hawks. Songbirds constantly flit through the chaparral here; pygmy nuthatches and woodpeckers frequent the native Monterey pine forest in Cambria. WHERE: The northern stretch is on State 1 from Cambria north to Ragged Point, where the road climbs to well above sea level. The Morro Bay stretch is accessible from the east and north sides; Elfin Forest is on the southeastern side of the bay in Los Osos. CONTACT: Morro Coast Audubon Society: (805) 528-7182 (bird tape) or www.gliderpilots.org/audubon. Elfin Forest: (805) 528-0392.

NORTHWEST
Skagit Valley, Washington

A significant stop on the Pacific Flyway, the Skagit River draws birds by the tens of thousands and birders by the hundreds. Waterbirds, shorebirds, and birds of prey crowd the Skagit delta: look for snow geese and swans in farm fields from the Skagit Wildlife Area at Fir Island north to Samish flats near Edison. To see black brant, harlequin ducks, canvasbacks, hawks, eagles, gulls, and songbirds, walk both the 3/4-mile upland trail, which takes off from Breazeale–Padilla Bay Interpretive Center (10–5 Wed–Sun), and the nearby 2 1/4-mile shore trail. Bald eagles congregate on gravel bars in the Cascade foothills to feast on spawning salmon. WHERE: From I-5 at Conway, take Fir Island Road west 1 mile to Fir Island, which lies between the north and south forks of the Skagit River. Padilla Bay is at the north end of the delta, 1/2 mile north of Bay View. The best eagle-watching is between Rockport and Marblemount; try the viewpoints at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park and Sutter Creek Rest Area. CONTACT: For delta birding: Skagit Wildlife Area (360/445-4441 or ) or Breazeale–Padilla Bay Interpretive Center (360/428-1558 or http://inlet.geol.sc.edu/PDB/). For eagles: U.S. Forest Service (360/856-5700, ext. 515).

MOUNTAIN
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah

Situated where the Bear River feeds into the Great Salt Lake, this refuge gets so many migrating waterfowl that they can darken the skies. Up to 600,000 gather here—gadwalls, pintails, Northern shovelers, teals. But the big draw here is in December: the snowy white tundra swan, with its elegant mien and clamoring call. This is the most important wintering ground in the West for this swan, which numbers up to 30,000 here. Drive the 12-mile auto tour route for the best viewing. WHERE: The refuge is off I-15, 15 miles west of Brigham City. CONTACT: (435) 723-5887.

SOUTHWEST
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Covering 57,000 acres on and around the Rio Grande, this is the premier winter birding spot in the Southwest. Vast flocks of Canada geese, sandhill cranes, snow geese, and shorebirds make this look like a nature movie. Eagles, hawks, and owls hunt from the air, while coyotes try to grab geese on the ground. Look for pheasants, quail, roadrunners, and turkeys while you're here. WHERE: The refuge is 20 miles south of Socorro on State 1. Start your tour at the visitor center (7:30–4 Mon–Fri, 8–4:30 Sat–Sun). CONTACT: (505) 835-1828 or www.friendsofthebosque.org.