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Best Birding in the National Parks

From the Grand Canyon to Death Valley, add to your life list at these spots

Birders have racked up some impressive lists, especially in the vast and varied western national parks.

Whether established to preserve sweeping mountain vistas, waterfall-laden canyons, or geological oddities, America’s national parks all offer valuable habitat for birds, which means spectacular opportunities for birders. As more land is developed and degraded elsewhere, the parks provide temporary refuge for migrating songbirds and nesting territory for endangered raptors. Birders have racked up some impressive lists, especially in the vast and varied western national parks.

So grab your field guide and binoculars and check out these four parks that offer golden birding opportunities to complement the scenery and landmarks.

Grand-Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park

Thirty years ago, the last 27 California Condors were taken into captivity in a desperate attempt to save the species from extinction. Today, the population is more than 400, with many having been reintroduced to the wild in Grand Canyon National Park. Despite their rarity, these birds with a nine-foot wingspan are easy to spot when they’re soaring over the canyon. Many vistas along the South Rim offer good condor viewing, with the Bright Angel Lodge being the best vantage point in the warmer months. Scan the cliffs below the lodge in late afternoon when the giant birds gather to roost in the Douglas firs.

While searching for condors, you’ll likely hear the song of their neighbors, the diminutive Canyon Wrens. The pines and firs may also host Pinyon Jays, a threatened species that breeds in the park, and for which Grand Canyon National Park has received the Globally Important Bird Area designation from BirdLife International and the National Audubon Society.  Finally, you can see playful ravens, which are the most common and entertaining birds at Grand Canyon.

For more information, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.

Rocky Mountain

Rocky Mountain National Park

From tundra to forest to lake, the diverse habitats of Rocky Mountain National Park make it a favorite birding destination. The White-tailed Ptarmigan is a tundra bird that is usually easy to find on Trail Ridge Road. If you aren’t lucky enough to spot one out the window of the Café at Trail Ridge during lunch, stop in the Alpine Visitor Center and ask a ranger for the latest ptarmigan news. They’re often only a short hike away.

For more blending of birding and breathtaking scenery, hike up to Dream and Emerald Lakes from the Bear Lake area. American Dippers, small songbirds that like to play in water and rapids, can be found patrolling the shores of Emerald Lake while Clark’s Nutcrackers beg for food from generous hikers. The nutcrackers are highly intelligent relatives of crows that have learned that humans in the park are not a threat, allowing birders who linger close views and photography opportunities. The aspen and pine woods at Upper Beaver Meadows is nesting habitat for the Williamson’s Sapsucker, one of the most sought-after woodpeckers in the west.

For more information, visit Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Yellowstone National Park

While the big mammals of Yellowstone National Park give it its reputation as a world-class wildlife-viewing area, the park’s birds shouldn’t be forgotten. American White Pelicans nest on Yellowstone Lake and are seen on rivers and lakes throughout the park in the spring and summer. Check for pelicans in ponds and streams across the Hayden Valley with binoculars while you’re stopped in a bison traffic jam. An overnight in the Yellowstone Lake area in June will have you in position for an early morning paddle on the lake with the Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks, as well as migrating grebes and loons.  (Visitors need to bring their own boats.)

Forested areas of the park may yield an encounter with the elusive Great Gray Owl, even in winter. They don’t move much during the day and their wings don’t make a sound when they do fly, so you’ll have to keep your eyes on the trees. The mudflats of Alum Creek provide habitat for migrating shorebirds, especially in late summer and fall, making Yellowstone a true four-season birding park.

For more information, visit yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call 307-344-7311.

Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park near Stovepipe Wells

Death Valley National Park

There’s more to Death Valley National Park than scorched desert and sidewalks hot enough to fry an egg. Birds utilize all of the park’s habitats, particularly during migration. Spring migration in March and April brings warblers and other colorful songbirds to the desert on their journey north, with the same birds stopping by in August after the breeding season.

The Furnace Creek Resort — with its AAA Four Diamond Inn at Furnace Creek and family-friendly Furnace Creek Ranch — provides a good base for a birder, with an astonishing 320 bird species recorded in the immediate area throughout the year. Even birds not usually associated with arid habitats are common at Furnace Creek, with Ruddy Ducks, American Coots, and Spotted Sandpipers all easy to spot. Greater Roadrunners, always a treat for cartoon fans when coyotes are also lurking about, reside in the park year-round.

The 18-hole golf course with its ponds provides a unique sanctuary/habitat for waterfowl and other birds such as hawks, falcons, and owls, and is designated a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System (ACSS), the educational division of Audubon International. There's an Audubon viewing platform accessible from the airport road.

The abundant and diverse bird life in the valley during spring and fall make it anything but dead. Just remember to pack water and sunscreen with those binoculars!

For information, visit furnacecreekresort.com or call 800-236-7916.

For more travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.