Few sights in nature inspire more feeling and emotion than birds. An eagle soaring over open water to catch a fish in its talons instantly signifies the wild. The wide-open and penetrating eyes of a snowy owl is a symbol of wisdom, and the bob and weave of barn owls in distress a provocation of horror. The peal of a seagull is synonymous with the breezy freedom of the beach. “Instead of the cross,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “the albatross about my neck was hung.” Doves are harbingers of peace, pigeons are messengers, hawks the demonstration of acuity and vision, canaries the signal of warning, and when Monty Python sought to explain the migration of coconuts, it used migratory swallows—the metaphors go on and on.
More than 900 bird species are native to North America, and observing them is both a pastime and a passion for some. Birders have continually raised the bar over the last decade. Of the top 10 Big Years tracked by the American Birding Association, nine of the American records have been set since 2008. In 2010, Chris Hitt became the first birder to see more than 700 bird species in the contiguous U.S. Hitt’s record didn’t last the year; Virginia birder Bob Ake shattered Hitt’s mark with 731 species.
The record has been continually broken since, and in 2016, four birders attempted Big Years—all of them assuming the top four spots on the list. Competition was fierce. John Weigel and Olaf Danielson broke the record and the 750-species mark by mid-summer, within just days of each other, sparking spectatorial warfare unseen in this millennium or the last. “I was tired, and I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do,” Danielson said following his record-smashing moment, documented by the Washington Post. “I guess you want to enjoy the moment, but it’s hard when you’re alone.” The pair then crisscrossed the continent doggedly in search of birds unwatched, eventually traveling to an island in the middle of the Bering Sea to swell their lists with Siberian birds that occasionally land on the island while migrating. By then, they weren’t alone, joined by contenders Laura Keene and Christian Hagenlocher. Weigel won with 780 birds seen in one calendar year.
And that’s nothing compared to world Big Years. Last year, Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis saw 6,833 birds in one year. “I feel fantastic,” he said upon breaking the record, set by Oregon birder Noah Strycker in 2015. “Yes, very excellent.” BirdLife International caught the moment.
We certainly don’t expect you to uproot your lives and travel the country in defiance of human and financial constraints, but the parks and preserves that lay just beyond city limits offer yet another way of getting outside and appreciating our environmental legacy. Collected here are some of the best parks and preserves to see America’s avian spectacles, so grab your spotting scope and see what you can see.