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Road Trip Birding

Updated on April 20, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Birding the Open Roads

An Audubon Bird to commemorate great desert birding in Arizona.
An Audubon Bird to commemorate great desert birding in Arizona. | Source

I write primarily about Texas birds, but now and again I leave the Lone Star State for business and pleasure. Most recently the reason was a bit of both. We had to make a trip to California to visit family and pick up a trailer at the beginning of spring migration season. Four days on the road to get there and another four to get back. The agenda didn’t really allow for leisurely birding tours along the way, but I managed to get to see some of the birds of the southwest and California by researching the route and planning ahead.

Do Your Research

A Birder needs to know the birds and where they are. If you don’t know the birds of the states you might be traveling through, get the books out and see what’s there and where they can be seen. Any North American field guide is s a good start. Most show a bird’s general locations in spring and winter. They also show where the bird may be a year-round resident.

After that, checking with the state specific information would be good. Every state has a ‘Birds of’ book explaining local birds. If you don’t want to buy one, google it.

The Internet as a Resource

Researching has never been easier than when the internet came about and went into wide public use. Without clear knowledge of exactly where we would be stopping every day, knowing what birds were local on our stop overs and where they could be seen would have been very difficult before the internet. Now, such information is just a few key strokes away.

The first stop is your favorite search engine. Mine is Google. One site I ran across searching for the birds of a specific state is This link shows their list for the birds of Arizona. Scanning such a list will show you what new birds you could have a chance to see. Other examples of internet helps can be shown in this example.

We stopped in Decatur, Texas one night. I googled "Birding in Decatur Texas." One of the search choices was a page from the book, Birding Trails of Texas, Panhandle and Prairies & Pineywoods by Jim Foster. I may add that one and his other books of the Birding Trails series to my library in the future. This book gave a general overview of the birds of the area and several sites to visit and what could be found, such as:

  • Caddo and LBJ National Grasslands
  • Black Creek Lake
  • Cottonwood Creek Recreation Area

Checking with Google Maps told me if these places were on or near our route the next morning.

E-Bird Data Searches

E-Bird search options
E-Bird search options | Source

E-Bird as a Travel Resource

My next web stop was E-Birds. Believe me, this citizen science project site gives fantastic information on what birds may be around a given location. On the explore data page, you can start a search by region, hotspots and species. Below is a short video by Autism with Rhonda going over different parts of the site.

How to Use E-Bird

After pulling up the hotspot map for the Dallas area, I found Decatur and the nearest birding sites reported by local birders. I then called up one of the hotspot checklists, which are reports uploaded by local birders, and searched for a report timed for late March. From this, I was able to gage if making this stop would be of value. In this case, the answer appeared to be no. The sighting list showed mostly birds that I would see at home with a few exceptions. It was not enough for me to take an hour or two out of the day to walk trails. If we had had the time to leisurely roam about each morning, I would have liked to see what every overnight stop had to offer, but I had to make the most of my opportunities.

Do Check Your Timing

With birding, timing can be everything. On the Texas Coast and in Houston, birding starts when the first migrants cross the Gulf of Mexico in mid to late March heading back to their northern nesting grounds. In the Dallas-Fort Worth Area, spring migrants arrive a little later. I noticed that most sighting reports in spring were being done in mid-April and May, so I was a bit early for their spring season. When traveling through different latitudes, keep this in mind. Use your resources to see what bird activity you will see at the time you will be there.

I40 Birding Stop

Walnut Canyon, Arizona:
Walnut Canyon National Monument, 3 Walnut Canyon Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, USA

get directions

Birding Walnut Canyon

This Pigymy Nuthatch is pictured at the door of her nest.
This Pigymy Nuthatch is pictured at the door of her nest. | Source

Do Look over Your Species Lists

The species lists are also a point to consider. As you would have seen when checking the birds of the state you planed to visit, the bird species can be different. While the Dallas-Fortworth area didn’t have birds that different from what I had in Houston, our stop overs in Arizona did.

Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona is a place we had visited before when our children were young traveling on I40. I wasn't thinking about birds as much back then. But now, when I checked the state list, I found that the birding opportunities looked well worth taking the detour again. We arrived there around lunch time. Again, the better birding would have been mid-April through May, but the difference in wintering species made it a good stop for me. E-Bird had a good list with sighting months. In late March, I could catch Stellar’s Jays, Ravens, Nuthatches, and Mountain Bluebirds among others.

We had lunch on the rim and then walked the rim trail. We caught sight of swallows almost immediately, but they were moving too fast to make a guess at identification. During lunch, I caught sight of a Pygmy Nuthatch working on a nest hole in a dead pine. There were also Ravens, and some hawks circling around in the canyon. I might have seen more, but we weren’t in physical shape to climb down into the canyon this trip, with my husband just a few months recovered from knee surgery. Such a trek will have to wait for a different time.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Arizona

Desert Botanical Gardens, Arizona:
Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 North Galvin Parkway, Phoenix, AZ 85008, USA

get directions

Arizona Bird Finds

Gila Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker | Source
Plainopepla | Source
Gambel's Quail
Gambel's Quail | Source
Cactus Wren
Cactus Wren | Source

Do Check Visitor Centers

Our other stop in Arizona on the way back home was on I10 going through Phoenix. In this case, it was the state tourist information center that gave us the place to see.

The Desert Botanical Gardens is part of the Papago Park showcasing the Sonoran Desert. The plant exhibits were spectacular and the birding draw was equally top drawer. After all, where there is an oasis in the desert, there would also be birds. The hotspot list on E-birds gave a list of 195 species available at different times of the year. We spent two hours there.

My Life List Entries for the Visit

  • Gila Woodpecker
  • Gilded Woodpecker
  • Verdin
  • Curved-billed Thrasher
  • Gambel’s Quail
  • Cactus Wren
  • Plainopepla
  • Rock Wren
  • Coasta’s Hummingbird
  • Greater Roadrunner

Besides the new birds, we also saw several familiar birds building or on finished nest sites. That’s something I don’t see often as the birds of my area are all up in dense tree cover.

Roadside Birding

Roadrunner Sculpture made of recycled materials.
Roadrunner Sculpture made of recycled materials. | Source
Red-tailed Hawk directing traffic around Bucc-ees.
Red-tailed Hawk directing traffic around Bucc-ees. | Source
Football played Hawk Style - Nine or more Swainson's Hawks gleaning in a field. Several get into a tussle over a mouse. Pictured are three heading down to intercept the fumble.
Football played Hawk Style - Nine or more Swainson's Hawks gleaning in a field. Several get into a tussle over a mouse. Pictured are three heading down to intercept the fumble. | Source

Do Keep Your Eyes Open During Rest Stops

Unless you are an iron pants kind of driver, you have to stop every few hours and stretch your legs, grab a meal, buy gas, or visit the necessary. Opportunities can be found even in these short interludes. While House Sparrows seem to be ever present, I noticed that parking lot birds change across the country? Grackles are a mainstay in Texas, but Brewer's Blackbirds seemed to take over at some point on the way through New Mexico. By Grants, Ravens were taking over.

Many states have cool art along their highways. We had the chance to visit the new site for Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo, Texas and the Great Road Runner outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico at Exit 134.

Sometimes the innocent happenings also add charm to the trip. Like the courtship dances of male Grackles displaying for the girls in a hotel parking lot, the sudden sighting of a Hawk sitting on a road sign, and the occasional powerline-percher that turns out to be a life-lister. Several times we made a quick roadside stop to catch opportunities, such as the Swainson's Hawk flock gleaning rodents out of a field and . . . I kid you not, a Wild Turkey walking down the side of the Highway 99 feeder road like a hitchhiker. A California reader may not consider that unusual, but trust me, Turkeys don't do things like that just everywhere.

Fulsom Lake Birding

Fulsom Lake, California:
Folsom Lake, California, USA

get directions

Elk Grove Park, CA:
Elk Grove Park Pond, Elk Grove, CA 95624, USA

get directions

Lodi Lake, CA:
Lodi Lake, California, USA

get directions

Do Take Advantage of Local Knowledge

Besides the roadside stops, our destination, the Sacramento Valley, gave me a major new birding playground. I don’t know the West Coast, but my husband and his relatives do. The spring migration season had not started, but birds were everywhere staging for their trips back north.

On recommendations, we visited Lake Lodi, Elk Grove Park and Fulsom Lake. All were great birding options. If we had not had the help of local family, E-Bird would have been there again with trail choices and what sightings had been reported recently.

Elk Grove Park is a small town jewel with a lot to offer. For a birder, it attracts both water and song birds for a double win.

Lake Lodi is also a local park, but it is larger and has a very nice nature walk through the trees that will potentially offer both wildlife and birds. We saw a deer while walking, but another visitor said there had been a herd of eight earlier in the morning. The secluded pond at the end of the walk had Mallards, American Wigoens, Wood Ducks, a Green Heron, Canada Geese and a large flock of Acorn Woodpeckers.

Fulsom Lake is ringed with birding opportunities in the many sections of the Fulsom Lake State Park. Nuthatches and Western Bluebirds were everywhere. We also heard Wild Turkey, but were unable to catch sight of them.

Life List Birds from the Sacramento Valley

Brewer's Blackbird
Elk Grove Park
African Geese
Elk Grove Park
Yellow-billed Magpie
Elk Grove Park
Western Bluebirds
Elk Grove Park
Greater White-fronted Geese
Elk Grove Park
Black Phoebe
Fulsom Lake
Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker
Elk Grove Park
Red-shafted Northern Flicker
Lodi Lake
Acorn Woodpecker
Lodi Lake
White Nuthatch
Fulsom Lake
Western Meadow Lark
Elk Grove Farm Road
Western Scrubjay
Fulsom Lake
Nuttall's Woodpecker
Lodi Lake
Spotted Towhee
Fulsom Lake
Western Kingbird
Fulsom Lake

Do Take Notes for Next Time

You can never see everything you want to, especially if your trip is a bit rushed like ours, so make lists of the things you didn't see for the future. Much of New Mexico was unfortunately missed on this quick trip, but the state will always be on the way the next time we head to California. Also, just because we had to keep our bird excursions local this time, doesn't mean we won't be able to do more in California on another trip. Keep your brochures, mark your websites and maybe make a wish-list trip folder for later to help keep track of ideas.

Things I Learned for Future Travel

  • I found a whole list of birding hotspots in New Mexico.
  • Birding around Fulsom Lake, CA is extensive. We could only visit two places.
  • The Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico ranks #4 for bird diversity in the country.
  • When we get the chance again, there are great places to visit on the California Coast for birding.

Last Word

This trip included eight days on the road and three days in California where I could take leisurely bird walks without hard time constraints. At times it was rough, but overall, it was a very enjoyable part-time birding adventure.

We often have opportunities to see new things, but in our fast-paced life, we tend to forget that there are things between points A and B that are just as worthwhile. The journey is just as important as the final goal. Don’t waste your chances. Do some research and use your resources to make your next road trip an adventure.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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