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Spring is a Great Time To Watch For Migratory Birds in the National Parks


Indigo buntings can be spotted at New River Gorge National River. USFWS photo.

Spring is a fantastic time to be outdoors. Along with the beauty of plants in bloom, a trip to a national park can reveal mammals emerging from their hibernation and frogs singing up a storm. But the one spring event that brings countless new and life-long nature lovers to our nation’s parks is the return of migratory songbirds.

Songbirds are members of the order Passeriformes and are often referred to as “perching birds.” They are known for being small, colorful and vocal, with calls that turn forests into musical wonderlands. Although songbirds are most comfortable in woodland, thicket, scrub and wetland habitats, they can often be lured into neighborhoods by backyard birdfeeders and nest boxes.

Several songbird species, such as robins, pine siskins and blue jays, live in the United States year-round. They are adapted to the cold, and oftentimes snowy, winters that come from being permanent residents. Many songbirds cannot survive the winters here and they make long journeys between wintering grounds in Central and South America to their breeding grounds in our local forests.

Some migratory songbirds, such as barn swallows, travel thousands of miles to the United States to find a good place to raise young and feed. Oftentimes, it’s right in your nearby national park.

Once songbirds get to their breeding grounds, they start pairing up and making nests. This means that they are more active, vocal and easily seen. So get outside this spring and go listen and look for songbirds.

Here is a quick list of some of the songbirds you might see if you head to a park this April and May:

Buntings and Tanagers - These are the songbirds most renowned for their color and decorative markings. Buntings and tanagers can be bright red, yellow, or blue and often a variety of colors mixed together. Male summer tanagers are completely red, while male painted buntings have a blue head, yellow wings, red breast and a green back.

With such interesting colors, it’s pretty easy to identify males. The real challenge is identifying female buntings and tanagers. Females have less need for bright colors, because they are not working to attract males – it’s the other way around. Most female tanagers are yellow and gray, while the female buntings are a drab green or brown.

Parks to see buntings and tanagers: Check out the western tanager at Yosemite National Park, painted buntings in Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Indigo Buntings in New River Gorge National River, and summer tanagers in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Warblers – Of all the migratory songbirds, it’s the warblers that cause the most frustration to bird watchers. Warblers look extremely similar, with very slight differences in coloration and markings between species. Most warblers are yellow and gray with additional white and black markings. The differences between warblers can be as slight as one having a reddish crown and another with a black eye-line. It takes a good field guide, strong binoculars and experience in the field to be able to identify warblers. Test your skills (and patience!) by searching out warblers.

Parks to see warblers: See if you can identify American redstarts at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, MacGillivray’s warbler in Rocky Mountain National Park, chestnut-sided warbler in Voyageurs National Park, and cerulean warblers in Shenandoah National Park.

Orioles – Orioles are the songbirds of open habitats. They prefer parks, the edges of woodlands, and open areas near rivers, lakes and streams. Orioles are either yellow and black or orange and black. They also have white markings on the wings. The Baltimore oriole is one of the most well-known songbirds, both for its beautiful orange coloring and for the baseball team.

Parks to see orioles: Spot a flash of orange or yellow this spring. Look for Baltimore orioles in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, hooded orioles in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Scott’s orioles in Big Bend National Park.

Read about six of North America’s top birdwatching spots as chosen by the expert:

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