“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could,” the legendary 19th-century artist and ornithologist John James Audubon scribbled in one of his journals.

Avid birders can no doubt relate to that sentiment.   

Whether you consider it a hobby or an addiction, watching our feathered friends often becomes a lifelong passion that finds birdwatchers traveling to the far ends of planet Earth to spot rare species and record another tick on our global birding checklist. 

Yet you don’t have to scour Africa or the Amazon for great birds. That’s because there’s great birdwatching in North America. Crossing the U.S. and Canada from north to south are four “skyways” — aerial superhighways that birds use to fly south in fall and winter and back to their northern homelands in spring and summer.  

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, North America is home to more than 2,000 bird varieties. The Audubon Society covers more than 800 species in its online Guide to North American Birds, while National Geographic details more than 1,000 in its bestselling Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Mountain bluebird, Colorado

Mountain bluebird, Colorado

One thing that becomes crystal clear when perusing these guides is that U.S. national parks offer some of the most fertile ground for observing and photographing birds. Due to their ongoing protection and pristine environments, many of them are regular stops on the migratory flyways. Here are some of the best: 


Despite its relatively high altitude and severe winters, Yellowstone has attracted more than 300 avian species, and around half of those nest inside a park blessed with pristine lake, wetland, cliff and forest habitats. 

While there are currently no federally listed endangered bird species known to breed in Yellowstone, species of concern include the trumpeter swan, golden eagle and common loon.

“Good birding locations vary and depend on the season and the time of day,” says ranger Linda Young, the park’s head of resource education and youth programs.

She recommends riparian areas and wetlands — especially those with shrubby willows, aspen, and cottonwoods — for spotting the greatest diversity and abundance of songbirds. 

sandhill crane yellowstone national park

Photographed by Nat Hab Staff Member @ Megan Brief on our Hidden Yellowstone Safari

Hayden Valley is one of the best places to view water birds and birds of prey, says Young. Shorebirds feed in the mudflats at Alum Creek and sandhill cranes often nest in the valley. Ducks, geese and American white pelicans cruise the Yellowstone River. Bald eagles and osprey hunt for fish along the river, and northern harriers fly low looking for rodents in the grasses. Great gray owls are sometimes spotted searching meadows for food.

“Fortunate birders with high powered binoculars or spotting scopes may spot ospreys on nests in the inaccessible, rugged pinnacles of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River near Canyon Village,” says Young. 

Birders can learn more about Yellowstone’s feathered friends at new exhibits that opened last year at the Fishing Bridge Museum & Visitor Center.


With its dramatic elevation changes, distinct seasons and a variety of ecosystems, Yosemite is another park that attracts a wide variety of birds. The park’s avian check list includes 165 resident and migratory birds and other hundred or so species that have been sighted in the park at least once.   

peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon

Climate change along the west coast, and California’s revolving door of drought and deluge, means that new species are no longer an uncommon occurrence. Scott’s oriole and the white-faced ibis are two never-before-seen birds that, like millions of humans, have decided that Yosemite looks like a cool place to visit. 

Finches, warblers, woodpeckers and smaller raptors are among the most common species. And, of course, the bright blue Steller’s jays that hang around picnic areas and campgrounds in hope of a free meal. Scan the towering granite walls of Yosemite Valley for peregrine falcons and trees in the park’s redwood groves and other old-growth forests for great gray owls.  

John Muir’s favorite Yosemite bird was the American dipper or water ouzel. “Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings — none so unfailingly,” the legendary naturalist wrote in The Mountains of California 

Anyone can register to participate in the Yosemite Annual Christmas Bird Count, which takes place on a weekend in the middle of December.  

American Dipper Water Ouzel

American Dipper (Water Ouzel)


The Birda birdwatching app ranks Acadia as the No. 1 American national park for birding (ahead of the Everglades and Grand Canyon) due to the high number of species (338) that have been sighted in the park and an avian mix that includes land and seabirds, migratory and resident species. 

The combination of Acadia’s mosaic of habitats and its location as a coastal archipelago in the Atlantic flyway make it a magical place for migrating songbirds, especially warblers,” says Acadia National Park wildlife biologist Bik Wheeler. 

Acadia’s lakes and ponds attract many visitors to swim, kayak, and fish. Lake life also caters to loons, one of Maine’s common water birds. Loons represent Maine’s landscape encompassing pristine waterbodies and its surrounding woodlands. Their striking appearance, expressive calls, and ability to vanish underwater make the loon a fascinating bird of Acadia National Park.

Acadia’s lakes and ponds cater to loons, one of Maine’s common water birds. Loons represent Maine’s landscape encompassing pristine waterbodies and its surrounding woodlands. Their striking appearance, expressive calls, and ability to vanish underwater make the loon a fascinating bird of Acadia National Park.

“Visitors can see a great diversity of species during the breeding season at birding hot spots such as Sieur de Monts. Personally, I love to see the individual behavior of crows, or marvel at the lux textures of waxwings, and I delight in the sassiness of chickadees. But that’s just me.”

During the spring, several park trails are closed to protect peregrine falcon nesting areas as part of a long-running project to facilitate species recovery along the Maine coast. During the summer, a great way to view and photograph loons is paddling on park freshwater lakes that have loon nesting rafts. In the fall, visitors can participate in the annual Cadillac Mountain Hawk Watch, which identifies and counts birds of prey as they wing their way over the park’s highest point. 

One of the most sought-after Acadia birds is one of the hardest to spot — the Atlantic puffin. That’s because they nest on the park’s offshore rocks and tiny islets. If you don’t have your own boat, the best way to see them is hopping aboard a whale and puffin watching cruise out of Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. 

Atlantic puffin surrounded by razorbills—another North Atlantic seabird species that nests in Maine

Atlantic puffin surrounded by razorbills—another seabird species that nests in Maine

Grand Canyon 

At first glance, Arizona’s iconic national park doesn’t seem like a prime spot for birding. But consider the fact that it sprawls across five major ecosystems — from boreal forest on the North Rim and ponderosa pine forest along the South Rim to pinyon-juniper woodland, desert scrub and riparian — and just imagine the variety of birds that call these habitats home.

The Mexican spotted owl, one of the largest owls in North America, is listed as a threatened species by both the U.S. and Mexican governments.

The Mexican spotted owl, one of the largest owls in North America, is listed as a threatened species by both the U.S. and Mexican governments

Designated a Globally Important Birding Area in 2014, the park safeguards some of the world’s rarest birds. Those who trek all the way down to the Colorado River might be lucky enough to spot a Yuma clapper rail, southwestern willow flycatcher or western yellow-bellied cuckoo. Or you might find the piercing dark eyes of a Mexican spotted owl staring out at you from a nest in the inner canyon. 

Sighting a California condor is the ultimate prize. Reintroduced to northern Arizona in 1996, the huge birds hover in the updrafts above the North Rim, Marble Canyon along the park’s eastern flank, and the nearby Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. With just 22 wild condors remaining in the early 1980s, the species was saved from extinction via a captive breeding program that included the birds released in Arizona.

California Condor, Grand Canyon National Park

California condor, Grand Canyon National Park

Zion and Bryce Canyon

Like the nearby Grand Canyon, people tend to get distracted by the spectacular stone walls and rock formations of Zion and Bryce Canyon and forget that both parks are also wildlife refuges.

Poised on the edge of the desert, Zion counts arid-climate species like the roadrunner and Gambel’s quail among its resident birds. Riparian vegetation along the Virgin River provides a lush habitat for American dippers, Mexican spotted owls, and several hummingbird species. And be sure to look upwards for peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and maybe even a giant condor visiting from nearby Arizona. 

A roadrunner stands near a prickly pear cactus fruit with a cottonwood tree and red sandstone cliffs in the background on a sunny day in Southern Utah, USA.

Roadrunner on Utah’s iconic sandstone cliffs

The paved Riverside Walk to The Narrows slot canyon and the Emerald Pools area offer the easiest birdwatching in Zion Canyon. But there are a lot fewer people to disturb your twitching in the park’s remote Kolob Canyons area off Interstate 15. 

As the crow flies — or rather the common raven in this neck of the woods — Bryce Canyon is around 50 miles from Zion. While the two parks share many feathered residents, Bryce does have its unique species. 

Bryce Canyon’s rim hovers between 8,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level, and there’s much higher odds for winter snow, which makes for less variety than Zion (170 versus 291 species). But at Bryce you’re more likely to spot Clark’s nutcracker, a white-breasted or pygmy nuthatch, a pine siskin, or a Cassin’s finch, especially at viewpoints along Southern Scenic Drive down to Yovimpa Point and Rainbow Point, the park’s highest elevations.   

Anyone visiting in mid-December can volunteer for the Bryce Canyon Christmas Bird Count. But bring your snowshoes.  

pine siskin

Pine siskin

Alaska Parks

The Last Frontier is a whole different world when it comes to lots of things, including the birds of Denali, Katmai and Lake Clark national parks.

Among the most fascinating birds are those who have adapted to Alaska’s extreme climate and live year-round in the parks. Like the willow and rock ptarmigans of Denali, whose feathers change from a brownish, marbled tundra-like pattern in summer to snowy white in winter to camouflage them from prey, in particular golden eagles.  

Trumpeter swans, Alaska

Trumpeter swans, Alaska

Denali is also home to two of the heavyweights of the bird world: Gyrfalcon are the world’s largest falcon species while trumpeter swans are North America’s largest waterfowl. Trumpeters migrate back to Denali’s lakes and wetlands each summer, where they mate, hatch and raise their chicks before heading south again.  

Unless you’re willing to backpack into the wilderness, the narrated tours in old school buses along Denali Park Road offer the best fodder for birdwatching in Alaska’s best-known national park. 

If you can tear yourself away from the grizzly bears foraging along the coast or fishing for salmon in inland rivers, Katmai and Lake Clark on the Alaska Peninsula offer some of North America’s best and most diverse birding.  

Among the most abundant birds are the white-winged scoter sea duck, American pintail duck, Wilson’s warbler, fox sparrow, hermit thrush, dunlin, and western sandpiper. During the spring migration, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds gather along the Pacific coast of both parks, while summer is the best time to observe raptors rivaling the resident grizzlies when it comes to fishing skills.  

The bald eagle is Alaska’s largest resident bird of prey with a wing span of up to 7.5 feet, Found only in North America, bald eagles are more abundant in Alaska than anywhere else in the United States.

Found only in North America, bald eagles are more abundant in Alaska than anywhere else in the United States. The bald eagle is Alaska’s largest resident bird of prey with a wing span of up to 7.5 feet.

Birding Resources

Discover more about birds in general and birding in the U.S. National Parks at the following websites: 

Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its eBird alerts

American Bird Conservancy (ABC)

Audubon Guide to North American Birds

Birda App for Birdwatchers

Natural Habitat Adventures offers tours to all the bird-friendly national parks covered above, ranging from the Hidden Yellowstone & Grand Teton Safari and an Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari which includes Denali, Kenai and Katmai, to Maine Coastal Explorer with Acadia and An Insider’s Journey into Yosemite

Tufted puffin, Alaska

Tufted puffin. Photographed by © Justin Gibson on a Nat Hab Alaska Adventure