Birding In The National Parks: Seen Any Rare Birds Lately?

Have you ever spotted a Whooping Crane over, or in, a unit of the National Park System? That's one rare bird. Department of Agriculture photo.

Birders like to talk about how much we appreciate every bird, even the most common ones we see on the feeder every day, and that may well be true. But the rare birds - the ones that take some blood, sweat, and tears to find - those are the birds that get our hearts racing.

I’m going to enjoy watching the American Robin tending her young on my bedroom patio tomorrow morning, but if a Whooping Crane happens to fly over my house you can bet I’ll be hyperventilating. So where does one go to get the rarities in North America? Several species of endangered bird call some of our federal lands in the United States their home either by design or accident. Often, this is a National Wildlife Refuge, as is the case with the Red-cockaded Woodpecker in Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge.

Being aficionados of travel in the National Park System, however, we’re going to explore the best spots to see a rarity under the care of the good men and women wearing the arrowhead patch.

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Condors, once extinct in the wild, are steadily coming back. NPS photo.

Calling On Condors

Rare bird discussions in North America often begin and end with the California Condor, a symbol of scarcity recognized by many Americans whether they be birders or not. Fortunately, the condors are also a story of success, tenuous thought it may be, by species conservationists in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.

In 1987 the California Condor got the infamous designation of “EW” (extinct in the wild.) The last 22 birds known to exist were captured and sent to zoos in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Extinction in the wild is not a condition that can be remedied for most species, and little hope was given to the condors. Yet, a mere three years after the capture of the remaining wild birds, the first reintroductions of captive-raised young took place in California. After a few more years, in 1996 six captive-raised condors were released near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. (The historical range of the California Condor at the time of European settlement included much of the American southwest. The last know condor in Arizona before the reintroduction died in 1924.)

And thus today, to see one of these true icons of rarity and conservation, you might travel to one of the crown jewels of the National Park System, Grand Canyon National Park. Of the more than 400 condors alive today, about 225 are in the wild, and more than 70 of those are in Northern Arizona. Birders regularly spot these huge birds from the South Rim, particularly in the Bright Angel Lodge area. With a wingspan of nearly ten feet, a condor at a distance can be, and sometimes are, mistaken for airplanes. Observant birders may also catch a glimpse of the numbered tags that almost every condor wears on its wings. If you can make out the number, you can check with this chart to get some information of the specific bird you spotted.

How many other rare bird sightings afford that opportunity? Throughout the spring, summer, and fall park rangers offer the “Wings Over the Canyon” program about the California Condor and it’s reintroduction in Arizona.

You can catch the program daily at 4:30 p.m. on the North Rim at the Grand Canyon Lodge fireplace on the back porch now through October 15th. The same program was offered throughout the spring on the South Rim and wraps up this week.

Piping Plovers And Whooping Cranes

One of the best known rare birds that frequent our national parks is the Piping Plover.

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Piping plovers, which have a tendency to spawn lawsuits, are difficult to spot. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

This diminutive shorebird has unwittingly launched federal lawsuits and kindled heated, often nasty debate between conservationists and recreationists along the Atlantic Coast. Access restrictions on and near nesting beaches, particularly for ORV use, have been the crux of the fighting.

While the humans argue, the plovers continue to do their thing, nesting on beaches covered in sand the color of their own feathers from Newfoundland south to South Carolina.

Some of the best Atlantic coast parks to spot a Piping Plover are Cape Cod National Seashore, Gateway National Recreation Area, Assateague Island National Seashore, Cape Lookout National Seashore, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Of the roughly 6,000-7,000 individual plovers in the wild, about half are in the population that nests on the Atlantic Coast. Receiving less attention and causing far less controversy is the Great Lakes population. You can catch a glimpse of these guys easily during the spring and summer at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A chilly wade across the mouth of the Platte River on the Lake Michigan shore will put you at the edge of the restricted access area only a few yards from the nests.

Rivaling the California Condor for a daring approach to the brink of extinction, and thankfully being granted a reprieve, is the Whooping Crane. Many Americans are familiar with the reintroduced flock of Whooping Cranes that are led on migration by ultra light planes between Wisconsin and Florida. However, unlike the condors, the total population of cranes was never removed from the wild.

In 1941 only 21 of the birds were known to exist in the wild, all in a flock that migrated from Northern Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. While the wintering grounds eventually came to be protected as Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, the summer nesting grounds already happened to be under the care of Parks Canada in Wood Buffalo National Park on the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

Wood Buffalo had been created a couple decades before the bottoming of the Whooping Crane population for the purpose of preservation of the largest remaining herd of wood bison. Unregulated hunting and habitat loss along the migration route decimated the crane population nearly to extinction, but recovery efforts were bolstered by the fact that the all-important nesting grounds were already secure thanks to the bison.

Whooping Cranes from this last remaining wild flock are much easier to spot at various migration stops between Saskatchewan and Texas than at the nests. The nesting sites are virtually inaccessible and access is restricted anyway. It’s still comforting to know that Whopping Cranes have a protected refuge for nesting and rearing of young thanks to the Parks Canada system. More than 400 Whooping Cranes exist in the wild today. (It’s also worth noting, at least for trivia buffs, that Wood Buffalo National Park is home to what is recognized as the world’s largest beaver dam.)

Looking For Snail Kites And Gunnison Sage-grouse

Rarity can also be a matter of geographical perspective. The Snail Kite is not a globally endangered bird, but a very tiny and critically endangered population is all that exists in North America. These can be found, sometimes more easily than others, in Big Cypress National Preserve.

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Can you claim a Gunnison sage-grouse on your life list? USFWS photo.

The Colima Warbler isn’t all that uncommon in Mexico, but because only a few show themselves every breeding season north of the border, birders flock to Big Bend National Park to see them.

Sometimes an imaginary line on a map is all it takes to make a bird “rare.” What rare or uncommon birds have Traveler readers seen in the National Parks?

Has anyone seen a Gunnison Sage-Grouse in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park? It would seem appropriate, and this rare grouse, only recognized as a separate species since 2000, has indeed been spotted in the park.

Has anyone scored a Kittlitz’s Murrelet in Glacier Bay National Park? How about a Peregrine Falcon on the Precipice at Acadia National Park? Or, speaking of controversy, a Northern Spotted Owl in any of the northwest parks?

Share your triumphant stories – and maybe even the sighting that got away - in the comments.