There are more than 550 national wildlife refuges in the United States, with at least one in every state and one within an hour drive of almost every major American city. Many were specifically established for migratory birds and are strategically positioned along one of the four major North American migration flyways. Others were established to protect specific bird species or subspecies.

But they primary protect land, an essential but dwindling avian resource. Unlike national parks, national forests, national monuments, and other federal lands which must balance competing interests such as recreation and resource extraction, national wildlife refuges are legally required to be maintained for the preservation of wildlife.

As a result, there are numerous excellent birding hotspots in the system.  Many refuges have trails, boardwalks, viewing towers, and/or auto routes, and several are involved in birding festivals. Both birds and birders flock to national wildlife refuges. Many refuges were obtained with funds from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps.

Trying to choose the “best” refuges for birding is a fool’s errand, as everyone’s criteria are different. Some are great for a specific bird, others for thousands of birds, and others during a particular season. Some just seem to be rarity magnets. Others may be perfect for a free morning on a business trip to Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, or Las Vegas.

But even with varied criteria, some locations rise to the top.

The following list (in alphabetical order) was developed using a subjective weighing of the following non-exclusive list of criteria:  the number of potential species (particularly regional specialties); perceived renown among birders and/or appearance on other top birding sites lists; visitor facilities; species and checklist numbers from eBird (higher is better for both); and a dose of geographic balancing.

    1. Anahuac NWR (Texas)
    2. Aransas NWR (Texas)
    3. Bear River MBR (Utah)
    4. Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR (Washington)
    5. Bombay Hook NWR (Delaware)
    6. Bosque del Apache NWR (New Mexico)
    7. Chincoteague NWR (Virginia)
    8. Desert NWR (Nevada)
    9. Edwin B. Forsythe NWR (New Jersey)
    10. Harris Neck NWR (Georgia)
    11. Horicon NWR (Wisconsin)
    12. J. N. Ding Darling NWR (Florida)
    13. John Heinz NWR (Pennsylvania)
    14. Kilauea Point NWR (Hawaii)
    15. Klamath Basin NWR Complex (California and Oregon)
    16. Laguna Atascosa NWR (Texas)
    17. Lee Metcalf NWR (Montana)
    18. Malheur NWR (Oregon)
    19. Minnesota Valley NWR (Minnesota)
    20. Ottawa NWR (Ohio)
    21. Parker River NWR (Massachusetts)
    22. Pea Island NWR (North Carolina)
    23. Quivira NWR (Kansas)
    24. Santa Ana NWR (Texas)
    25. St. Marks NWR (Florida)

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A Google map (which is also the image at the top of this post) with all 25 locations is here. To learn more about a specific NWR, check out the eBird “Explore a National Wildlife Refuge” feature and review that refuge’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP).

Many of these contain hotspots in the top 100 in the U.S. according to eBird, including:  Aransas (368 species); Bosque del Apache (360); Parker River (359); Laguna Atascosa (356); Santa Ana (342); Anahuac (329); Pea Island (326); and Edwin B. Forsythe (319). Virtually all are listed in the National Geographic Guide to Birding Hot Spots of the United States (2006) by Mel White and Paul Lehman, still an excellent resource for the traveling birder more than a decade after publication.

Note that this list excludes refuges that would be highly desirable to visit but do not allow public access or are effectively inaccessible (e.g., Midway Atoll NWR, Farallon Islands NWR, etc.) and only includes locations that are technically national wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For example, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is part of Gateway National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. This list also does not include units outside the 50 states (e.g., any of the units in the Caribbean).

Feel free to leave comments and suggestions, as this is a subjective list and it is not fixed in stone. But, if proposing an addition, please identify an existing location that would be dropped in favor of the proposed addition.

As the only federal lands with a legal mandate to protect wildlife, birders should be at forefront of protecting the National Wildlife Refuge System.  One way to support and protect the system is to learn about and visit a refuge, including the top-notch birding locations on this list.

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Update (February 3, 2018):  Based on suggestions and the Facebook discussion, I added the “Next 10” to original “Top 25” list on Google Maps, which is here and pictured at the top.  They are:

    1. Arrowwood NWR (North Dakota)
    2. Back Bay NWR (Virginia)
    3. Bayou Sauvage NWR (Louisiana)
    4. Bowdoin NWR (Montana)
    5. Hagerman NWR (Texas)
    6. Leoess Bluffs NWR (Missouri)
    7. Merritt Island NWR (Florida)
    8. Montezuma NWR (New York)
    9. Sacramento NWR Complex (California)
    10. Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR (California)

National Wildlife Refuge Sign Birds Only

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Written by Jason Crotty
Jason Crotty is a birder, lawyer, and occasional writer currently living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter. A Bay Area native, he started birding while working at a large law firm in San Francisco, but birds less frequently now that there's a kid around, so he writes instead. Jason started at 10,000 Birds with a few guest posts and signed on as a beat writer in March 2017. He is particularly interested in the intersection of law and birding (especially the Endangered Species Act), other bird-related federal litigation, and federal public lands. Jason's writing has also appeared in BirdWatching, Birding, and Birder's Guide, both online and in print.