by Jeanine Barone
While many people may think winter is a downtime for birding, this couldn’t be further from the truth. After all, it’s easier to spot birds when many trees have shed their thick, leafy coats, not to mention a time when some species travel in flocks. In addition, there’s an abundance of waterfowl and other avians that have escaped the north’s chilling climes, relishing in an ample food supply. These five tranquil winter destinations will not only tantalize committed bird watchers, but they’ll also delight the non-birders in your group.
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Just seven miles long, Jekyll Island is blanketed with coastal forests, beaches and salt marshes — varied habitats that make this barrier island a premier bird watching venue. Birders gravitate to the two-story observation tower at St. Andrews Beach where yellow-rumped warblers may be seen feeding on bayberries. Beside the old amphitheater, a pond is a haven for flocks of pink-hued roseate spoonbills, and yellow-crowned night herons roosting in slash pines that edge the pond. Non-birders never want for activities, whether it’s biking more than 20 miles of paths, exploring the National Historic Landmark District peppered with the sumptuous mansions of the tycoons that claimed this as their exclusive playground, or kayaking the network of tidal creeks.
J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Occupying a large swath of Sanibel Island, this refuge is named for the conservationist who helped protect a portion of Sanibel from development. Coursing above mangrove forests — the largest in the U.S. and prime breeding grounds for fish and shellfish — the four-mile-long Wildlife Drive is a nexus for nature-based encounters.
Anglers successfully cast from the shore for redfish, while hikers who veer onto the lush Indigo Trail spy alligators. Motorists, cyclists or walkers will spot bird species galore, such as a reddish egret “dancing” as it feeds. Whether it’s the chattering of belted kingfishers or the flocks of white pelicans that winter here, there’s much to enthrall birders.
Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina
Perhaps most known for the Moorish-style castle (Atalaya) that appeals to history buffs, this state park is blessed with a three-mile stretch of undeveloped beach where shorebirds, including the occasional endangered piping plover, skitter across the white sands. Paths, such as the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail, appeal to hikers and bird watchers alike. Wandering through a forest dense with red cedars and oak, the trail heads to an observation platform over a brackish water pond that attracts green-winged and blue-winged teal plucking food from the muddy bottom. Farther along, the south Murrells Inlet Jetty, a birding hot spot, offers the possibility of seeing horned grebes feeding in the surf zone just off the beach.
Seven Islands State Birding Park, Tennessee
This former dairy farm huddled beside the French Broad River is a 400-acre, sometimes undulating, landscape carpeted with fields of grasslands. Fishermen throw their lines in the river, hoping to hook smallmouth bass. Hikers can choose from among more than eight miles of paths, including the paved greenway that crosses the length of the park. The old barns dotting the property are worth poking into to spot, what else but nocturnal barn owls. A variety of sparrows, such as the white-crowned, may be seen hopping between low bushes at the edge of the fields, especially in the morning. In addition, pileated woodpeckers and six other species are resident birds.
Pea Island National Wildlife Reserve, North Carolina
Set on Hatteras Island that’s part of the Outer Banks, this wildlife refuge thrills hikers and wildlife photographers who roam the two nature trails around North Pond, visit the observation towers and stroll through the dunes and salt flats to spot freshwater turtles, river otters and, of course, any of hundreds of bird species, many wintering here. You can expect to see large numbers of northern pintails and redheads, the most common diving duck found here. Kayakers paddle the shallow waters of Pamlico Sound, looking for white ibises, tricolored herons and other wading birds. But it’s the flocks of snow geese, mostly seen feeding on the mudflats near South Pond, that especially captivate birders.
(Go Magazine Online Exclusive December 2021)
(Photos: Jekyll Island Authority, Lightfinds Photography, Jay Fleming, Becky Harrison, Discover South Carolina)