Attitudes have certainly changed since the days of Jane Hathaway, the nerdy and love-starved bank employee on the 1960s television show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” who was especially hilarious when she squealed with delight while enjoying her favorite hobby — bird watching.
Today, bespectacled Miss Hathaway would be thought of as quite chic, as bird watching is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in America. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 50 million Americans report that they watch birds, and more are taking it up all the time.
Whether your members have toted binoculars around the country in search of the elusive red-naped sapsucker or have simply checked out the baby robins in their own back yards, the rewards from birding are many. Author and birding enthusiast Diane Cooledge Porter described her beloved pastime and that of Miss Hathaway and many more this way: “Learning to bird is like getting a lifetime ticket to the theater of nature.”
Creole Nature Trail All American Road
March through April and October through November are the peak times to see more than 300 bird species following the Central and the Mississippi Flyways on their annual migration, according to Katie Harrington, public relations manager for the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, year-round groups are treated to an array of raptors, waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds in this lush environment.
“The trail is a 180-mile driving trail through marshes to the coastline to the prairie land untouched by development,” said Harrington. “There are also paved walkways where groups will see the birds and alligators in their natural settings.
“One of my favorite sights is the pink-chested roseate spoonbill. They stand out like beacons.”
Those spoonbills and more are common sights at the five refuges along the trail, among them Peveto Woods and Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge. Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge features a visitors center with interpretive exhibits that explain the value of this environment.
Itineraries and step-on guides, experts who can identify birds just from their sound, are available through the CVB.
Cape May, New Jersey
More than 400 species of birds have been recorded in Cape May County, more than half of the breeding birds found in all of North America, according to Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory.
“It’s possible to record more than 200 species in a single day, although about 30 to 50 species is more normal on our two-hour walks. It doesn’t matter when you visit, there is never a time when birds are not migrating through this region,” Dunne said.
Cape May is perhaps most famous for its September-through-November hawk flights and the great migratory “fallouts” of songbirds in the spring. “More than one and a half million American robins have been estimated in a single day,” said Dunne.
In summer, the marshes are home to thousands of herons and egrets and scores of ruby-throated hummingbirds; in winter, the marshes are covered with snow geese, which eagles hunt; in fall, loons, gannets and sea ducks abound.
Dunne added that the Cape May Bird Observatory has two centers to assist visiting birders and new birders with an array of programs.
Platte River Valley, Nebraska
The New York Times’ bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” proclaims the sandhill cranes spring migration in Nebraska a “must see.”
“From Valentine’s Day to tax day, 600,000 sandhill cranes come here on their way to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and even Siberia,” said Tricia Beem, assistant director of the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They are here to eat and to put on lots of body fat. Our area, with cornfields and wet meadows, is evidently a five-star resort for these birds, as they have stopped here for millions of years.”
Groups can observe these dancing creatures — cranes are considered the most accomplished dancers in the animal kingdom — on a guided blind tour or a bridge tour.
“Each offers great sights with different experiences. We also combine these crane tours with our featured tours that have inviting titles like Whooping It Up on the Platte and Cranes, Trains and Reins,” said Beem. “We even have a mystery tour titled Bugling, Booming and Barking that will have your group wondering about their upcoming adventure.”
The Grand Island CVB serves as a receptive operator.
Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas
The Lower Rio Grande Valley, with the World Birding Center — nine sites dotted along 120 miles of river road — and three national wildlife refuges, showcases 521 species of birds.
“We are the most popular and productive birding area in the country. Here, you can see the most birds in the shortest amount of time nearly any time of year,” said Nancy Millar, vice president and director of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Why there? Millar said the valley is the funnel for a major migratory route in the Western Hemisphere and that birds love the ecosystems. “For most bird listers — and everyone seems to write down what they’ve seen — the North American Life List is defined by birds found in the United States and Canada. In addition to those birds, we are the northernmost range for 39 bird species that are otherwise found in South America and Mexico.”
The World Birding Center is centered at Bentsen-Rio Rio Grande State Park. Although each of the nine areas and three wildlife refuges attracts different kind of birds, groups can look for green jays, altamira, Audubon’s orioles, hook-billed kites and flocks of broad-winged hawks in migration.
Millar added, “We have world-class experts, a variety of itineraries, nature artists and also 14 McAllen Green Certified hotels for a complete eco-getaway.”
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Ithaca, New York
“If there was a park for the entire world of nature, this venue would be the visitor center,” said Bruce Stoff, marketing communications manager for the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Part of Cornell University, the Lab of Ornithology employs 250 scientists and students and has 30,000 members who are devoted to birds and other wildlife. For visitors, the lab includes an observatory with a 30-foot wall of windows, seating, a fireplace and spotting scopes.
A theater shows high-definition movies about birds and nature, and a sound studio and kiosks educate about bird and animal sounds.
“I think this studio features virtually every animal sound on the planet. The lab is a great place for not only experts, but novices and kids,” said Stoff.
Outside, on more than 200 acres in the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, visitors can follow four miles of trails around a pond, on boardwalks and through wetlands and forests where more than 200 species of birds have been recorded.
Stoff suggested that groups combine a visit to the lab with an afternoon at nearby Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region, a major resting area for snow geese, black ducks and bald eagles.