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Birding in the Parks: Not Too Early To Plan To Attend Birding Festivals in the National Park System

The Western Tanager is one of the birds to look for if you attend the Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde Birding Festival in May. NPS photo.

Earlier this month, while we were having positively spring-like weather here in the Midwest, I wrote about Snowy Owls, the most iconic of winter birds.  Two weeks later, my world is buried under blankets of snow and I’m in the mood to talk about Spring.

We need to discuss spring travel now, because by the time the mercury rises it will be too late to make plans to catch some of the best birding of the year. Spring migration for birders is like Christmas was when we were kids. In January you were already counting down the days until Santa comes, right? It’s no different for birders.

For a couple weeks sometime between late April and early June, many areas of the country experience peak migration. Countless birds pass through, all displaying their best breeding colors.  Many of these migrants keep right on going, ending up in breeding grounds far to the north where they aren’t so easy to view, but while they’re stopping off for a bite to eat and a short rest, the spectacle is astounding.

When it’s all over, birders may slip into post-migration blues that can be alleviated only by planning where to stake out for next Spring’s migration. If you’re reading this in North America, it’s likely there’s a Spring birding festival within an afternoon’s drive. Festivals of various sizes and formats are going on everywhere during spring migration. For the national parks connoisseur, festivals from Acadia to Mesa Verde fill the calendar.

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Looking to checkoff a roadrunner from your birding life list? Head to the Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde birding festival. Stock image from Bigstockphoto.

The Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde birding festival is scheduled for May 9-13 this year. Have you ever seen a real roadrunner? They don’t look or sound anything like the cartoon and rarely get chased by coyotes. Roadrunners are one of the targets of the festival, as well as Lucy’s Warbler, Western Tanager, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Green-tailed Towhee.

If you’ve never heard of many of those, it’s likely that you live in the east. Even a fairly active birder on the East Coast would be missing most of those species from her life list. A highlight of the Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde festival will be a Saturday morning field trip through Mesa Verde National Park with Linda Martin, retired chief interpretive ranger for the park.

I can’t think of a more appropriate backdrop for ticking off some western lifers than the ruins of Mesa Verde. For more information on the Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde Birding Festival, contact the Cortez Cultural Center at 970-565-1151 or at [email protected]

There isn’t much chance of seeing an Atlantic Puffin in Mesa Verde, so if the seabirds are your favorites, you might want to consider the Acadia Birding Festival from May 31 – June 3. This is the 14th edition of this popular festival and they’re pulling out all the stops.

Legendary birder Pete Dunne will give an address and on Saturday morning there will be a pelagic boat trip to collect (visually, not literally) some seabirds. Puffins, Gannets, Razorbills, Murres, Shearwaters, and Petrels are all targets for the pelagic trip leaving from Bar Harbor.

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You need to be quick with your camera to capture a puffin on takeoff. Kirby Adams photo.

These are birds that you may catch a glimpse of from land, but to get really close to them  you have to be offshore.

This trip will head about 30 miles off the coast. To stay a little closer to land but still get a feel of birding by boat, there will be kayak trips with the expert guides from National Park Sea Kayak Tours. A dolphin snuggling your kayak certainly adds to the ambiance of water-bird watching.

As a veteran of a birding/wildlife trip with NPSKT, I assure you this is not to be missed! These are some of the most knowledgeable and conscientious paddle guides I’ve encountered in my travels.

The Acadia Birding Festival has tallied more than 180 species since its inception.  The colorful warblers that are the poster kids of spring migration are well represented, but in Maine you also get some of the residents of the boreal forests that haven’t headed back north yet.

Boreal Chickadees, Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, and both White-winged and Red Crossbills can all be tallied by the lucky observer. (It’s recommended that you not go on a field trip I’m signed up for if you’d like to see a Black-backed Woodpecker. I’ve been searching for one in all the right places across several states and provinces since my first birding days and have yet to see one. This is what we birders call a “nemesis bird.”)

Roger Tory Peterson, author of the famous field guide, called Mt. Desert Island the “warbler capital of the world.” There are folks in northwest Ohio that beg to differ with that title, but if Mr. Peterson was impressed by the Acadia region, it’s a sure bet you will be as well. Registration is already open for the festival.

Have some free time earlier in the Spring? From April 30 – May 5 you can check out the New River Birding and Nature Festival. It’s billed as a birding adventure “in and around” the New River Gorge National River, and they really mean in the river for at least one of the field trips.

Warblers, as you may have guessed, are the highlight of this festival. Golden-winged and Cerulean Warblers are targets here that aren’t particularly easy to spot at some of the more popular warbler migration areas.

The New River Birding and Nature Festival boasts the best guide-to-guest ratio on the lecture circuit. Having taken some birding field trips with enormous crowds, I appreciate the small sized trips even more. Remember those lecture halls your first year of college when you needed binoculars to see the professor? That’s not how a bird walk should be, even if you’re already wearing binoculars.

So, where are you planning to bird this spring? I have these three festivals and about ten others on my radar. Too many choices! Check back with me when the post-migration blues have hit in July and I’ll let you know where I went.

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I'm really curious to see many of these other birding events.  My first experience was in NW Ohio (which you mention) and I was really fascinated by all the warblers flying around.  My aunt later said that she felt like Snow White. 
Here's a link to my experience, as I blog about festivals in Ohio -

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