Best Places to Build Your ABA Bird List in USA and Canada
The ABA area is an excellent place to bird with a wide variety of ecoregions that support a large number of species, along with excellent documentation and infrastructure to travel around to the best sites. Not limited to the USA, the ABA area includes the 49 continental United States, Hawaii, Canada, the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, and adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever is less. Sometimes this mass of information can be a little overwhelming to sort through and figure out the best places to go to see the most species. Whether you are an ABA lister or simply a birder who enjoys seeing new places, it is always nice to diversify a bit and find species you haven’t seen before. This article will cover the top five birding trips in the ABA area that you should go on to maximize your species count.
Number one, South Texas and the Gulf Coast during spring migration. Texas is a big place, but along the coast and the Rio Grande you can find some of the best bird diversity in the country. Some Texas trips manage to log well over 100 species in a single day, and Big Day teams have reached numbers as high as 294 species in a single 24 hour period. Depending on the time of year and intensity of birding, guided trips can reliably log 200-250 species over a one week period. These numbers include quite a few Texas specialties that you will not find anywhere else in the ABA area, like Green Jay, Common Pauraque, Plain Chachalaca, Aplomado Falcon, Clay-colored Thrush, Morelet's Seedeater, Ringed Kingfisher, Altamira Oriole, Audubon's Oriole, Olive Sparrow, and many more that may include some rare vagrants coming up from Mexico. A quick visit to the Hill Country will let you add Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo, and a visit early in migration will let you see the Whooping Cranes before they head north for spring. Timing in crucial for birding in Texas, as spring migration can be just as impressive as the specialty birds. Migration is very unpredictable and while the peak is usually late April and early May, weather conditions can make the birding swing from slow to hopping and back in a matter of days or even hours. Thus, the more time you plan to spend on the coast the more likely you are to have a really good day or possibly even one of the legendary fallouts that can occur in very specific conditions. Most of the southern specialties are present year round however, so winter birding can also be quite productive and provide a warm break for those in colder parts of the country.
A very close second is the Pacific Coast of California. This is another incredibly diverse area with habitat that
ranges from desert scrub, to mountain ranges, and coastal marshes, but one of the biggest draws are the boat trips
out into the Pacific to look for pelagic seabirds. These trips average around 175-200 species, a number of which
only range along the west coast and down into Mexico. Some western and state specialties include California
Gnatcatcher, Yellow-billed Magpie, California Thrasher, California Towhee, Wandering Tattler, Black Turnstone,
Surfbird, Heerman's Gull, Yellow-footed Gull, Elegant Tern, Tricolored Blackbird, Mountain Quail, White-headed
Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Allen's Hummingbird, and of course the endemic Island Scrub-Jay. The
timing is also important for this trip, and mid-August to early October will generally be the best due to fall migration
of both land birds and seabirds. You can never quite know what all you will see on a pelagic boat trip, but you may
encounter Sooty Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater, Pomarine Jaeger, Parasitic Jaeger, Black-footed Albatross,
Northern Fulmar, Sabine’s Gull, Ashy Storm-Petrel, and Buller’s Shearwater,along with a possibility of Blue and
Coming in third is the highly bird dense region of Southeast Arizona. The concentration of birds and habitats in this small region is astounding, which means not only will you be able to see quite a few specialty birds but you will get to spend more time in the field and less time driving. In one day you can go from birding a montane forest at 8,000 feet, to chasing sparrows around lowland scrub, and ending up at a hummingbird oasis in a deep canyon as you wait for sunset to do some owling. Expect to see 170-200 species on this trip, including 10-12 hummingbird species and a number of local specialties like Elegant Trogon, Arizona Woodpecker, Buff-breasted Flycatcher, Thick-billed Kingbird, Mexican Chickadee, Olive Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Rufous-winged Sparrow, Yellow-eyed Junco, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Whiskered Screech-Owl, and Mexican Whip-poor-will. There are a number of good times to visit this area, with slightly different birds possible. Mid-April to mid-May will let you catch spring migration, as well as see most of the breeding birds singing and displaying before nesting season. Due to increased vocalizations, this is usually the best time to find owls. The summer dry season can still be productive, but the lower elevations can climb to dangerous temperatures at midday. However, the rainy season between mid-July and mid-September brings a resurgence of plant growth and bird activity as powerful localized afternoon storms cool the air and provide much needed water. The greatest diversity of hummingbirds is usually in early August, and the rains sometimes push unusual Mexican species north. Winter sees the departure of many tropical specialties, but the area still produces some of the highest Christmas Bird Count totals in the country.
The eastern birds certainly cannot be forgotten, so next on the list is Southern Florida. A trip here will cover a
number of habitats like prairies, cypress swamps, tropical hardwood hammocks, and mangrove swamps, a number
of which can only be found domestically in South Florida. Spring migration here is spectacular, with a number of
eastern species that are not usually seen further west. Along with the migrants, there are a number of species whose
USA range usually only extends into Florida like Snail Kite, Limpkin, Mangrove Cuckoo, White-crowned Pigeon,
Spot-breasted Oriole, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Kingbird, and the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay. Along with all of these, a
boat trip into the Dry Tortugas will let you see the only breeding populations of Magnificent Frigatebird, Masked
Booby, Sooty Tern, and Brown Noddy in the ABA area. On the boat ride you can also find quite a few eastern ranging
pelagic birds, and have a decent chance to run across some vagrant species from around the Caribbean as you
explore the islands themselves. Spring migration from April through May is usually the best time to visit and see the
largest numbers of birds, but many of the local specialties stick around all year so a winter birding break can be quite
productive as well.
And finally, no list would be complete without a visit to the great state of Alaska. Diverse, northern, and extremely large, the state is a prime destination for birders along with birds who migrate to the far north for the summer nesting season. The trip will cover the impressive Denali National Park, then head south through the countryside to a temperate rainforest, before ending on a boat trip to see a wide selection of nesting seabirds. You will have chances at seeing Arctic Warbler, Northern Hawk Owl, Common Redpoll, Bohemian Waxwing, Varied Thrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Rhinoceros Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Thick-billed Murre, Ancient Murrelet, Cassin’s Auklet, and more. Afterwards it is recommended to continue on up to Nome, where you will get to see many birds on the high tundra including Bristle-thighed Curlew, Bluethroat, Aleutian Tern, Long-tailed Jaeger, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon, Northern Wheatear, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, and possibly some rare Asian vagrants. The best time for this trip is usually in summer, as all the birds will have arrived from migration and will be at the expected nesting sites. The weather will be much milder than the harsh winters, but still expect a good variation of temperatures as you travel around. And of course birds are not the only thing the area has to offer, and you may see Moose, Grizzly Bears, calving glaciers, Orca, Dall's Porpoise, and stunning scenery as you travel around the state.
Honorable mention for the future, Hawaii. With its inclusion into the ABA area within the last year, Hawaii brought with it over 100 new countable species for your ABA list. Here at PIB we are currently working with local guides to produce the best trip to see as many of these species as possible, so watch for it to be announced in the near future.
When you are ready to start planning your next outing head on over to www.pibird.com, you will find detailed information on each of these locations. We are happy to answer any questions you may have, and will work with you to ensure you see the birds you want to see on whichever trip you are interested in. We do custom trips as well, so don’t hesitate to ask if you need something specific to fill out your lists!