Oh the places I would go
In my capacity as a professional aviator I end up flying to places all over. This fits quite well with my love of travel. There's also a huge side benefit to this wandering about: it allows me to occasionally visit some of the more amazing birding sites America has to offer. I've spent some of this column space speaking of these.
There remain, however, some entries on my must-visit-someday list. Just as a trout fisherman keeps track of gotta-fish rivers, or a music fan maintains a compilation of have-to-see bands, so, too, do birders keep a wish list, one of celebrated birding locations. I do, at least. What follows is a brief description of some of mine.
First would be a pelagic (oceanic) boat trip out of Monterey Bay, California. I've never taken a birding trip off our coasts although there a several places from which to do it. It's really the only way to see many of the oceanic birds that never or rarely get close to shore. The albatrosses, the petrels, the alcids, all require putting land miles behind you in order to see them.
Easily, the most recognized tour operator and guide in the country is Debra Shearwater (she had her name legally changed to a type of sea bird), who runs charter boats on the central California coast. She is a pioneer in the business of pelagic commercial birding trips. Her persona was mimicked in the movie, The Big Year, by actress, Anjelica Huston, playing the role of Annie Auklet (auklet, by the way, is also a seabird).
Second on my list is Churchill, Manitoba. This remote village on the shore of Hudson Bay is difficult to get to. A person must travel by rail or air as no roads extend to Churchill. The list of bird species here is not gigantic; it's the setting that makes this one worth it. Instead of seeing some birds briefly in migration like we do here in the Red River Valley, several of these species actually nest in the tundra and taiga around Churchill. Who doesn't want to see parasitic jaegers or lesser yellowlegs nesting? Moreover, a visit to Churchill brings the added bonus of possibly seeing arctic wolves, polar bears, and beluga whales.
Cape May, New Jersey comes in at number three. This notable birding location is uniquely situated on a southerly extension of the state into Delaware Bay. People from all over the world flock to Cape May every year to witness spring and fall migrations when thousands of birds are seen.
Some of the biggest names in the business have either lived in Cape May or still do. It's almost a training ground for America's top authors and bird scientists it seems. Along with witnessing the spectacle of migration, birders might very well run into one of these famous residents, like Pete Dunne, Clay Sutton, or Richard Crossley.
Less known, perhaps, but no less intriguing for me is Dry Tortugas National Park off the southern tip of Florida. Discovered in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, this small island group hosts an impressive list of nesting seabirds and other rarities. For instance, a sooty tern nesting colony is here consisting of 80,000 individuals; it's a bird I've never seen. Others species found here (and not on my life list!) include bridled tern, masked and red-footed boobies, brown noddy, black noddy, and Caribbean short-eared owl. Access to this park is by ferry out of Key West.
Not every birding spot I want to get to is next to the ocean. Big Bend National Park is nestled in the southwest corner of Texas and is one of the largest, most remote, and least visited national parks in the country. A part of the Chihuahuan Desert, this 800,000-acre park is a hiker's dream with mountains and canyons galore. It's home to over 1,200 plant species and over 450 species of birds. The star of the show for me is the Colima warbler. Big Bend is the only spot in the U.S. where this bird nests.
I've got a few more like Gray's Harbor, High Island, Hawk Mountain, the Canadian Maritimes and more. Truth be told, there is usually good birding fairly close to wherever one ends up. It's just that those big name places resonate with tradition and lore, thus continue to captivate me. Here's hoping someone needs to charter an airplane to Cape May in a couple of months. My binoculars would be the first thing packed.