If you’re traveling to the USA in search of an outdoor adventure you’ll never forget, turn your eyes to the skies (and the sea) for the chance to see some of the country’s extraordinary birds.
You can see birds almost anywhere, but to say you’ve seen an endangered whooping crane or one of the remaining 435 California condors? That’s really special. Many national and state parks are home to bird species you won’t find anywhere else. Mike Carlo, visitors’ services specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has plenty of insider tips on how to spot four of the USA’s most rare species, including checking the birds’ status with park rangers before your trip.
The California condor is one of the most seldom seen birds in the world and the largest bird in North America. Seeing this big bird of prey evokes a feeling of stepping back in time to the Ice Age, when the California condor thrived over much of North America. Considered sacred by the Native Americans, the condor was nearly driven to extinction by poaching and other human activities. Through several decades of reintroduction efforts, this endangered species has grown to about 240 in the wild in the southwestern USA and Mexico.
You may spot a California condor from the Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim in northern Arizona, Zion National Park in southwest Utah and Pinnacles National Park in central California. They soar on hot air currents and do not often flap their wings, which span up to an incredible 3 meters. You’ll have a better chance of spotting one in the early morning or early evening during the spring, summer or early fall.
California condor circling the sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park in Utah
A short and stocky bird sometimes called a “sea parrot,” the Atlantic puffin lives most of its life at sea. But Atlantic puffins make the rocky islands off the coast of Maine their home in the spring and summer to breed.
The best way to see the puffins is by boat. Tour operators make daily trips to Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Carlo described the puffins as “comical birds if you get to see them in breeding season, with those beautiful bill colors and plumage. It’s definitely worth it.”
Atlantic puffins breed in spring and summer off the coast of Maine
After hunting and agricultural development dropped the whooping cranes’ numbers to a scant 15 in 1941, this bird is making a comeback. Today, the number of whooping cranes in the wild is growing, but they still remain at risk. There are about 600 birds in the wild and in captivity in North America.
To catch sight of these elegant birds, head to the marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along Texas’ southeast coast. Get the best view of whooping cranes in late October and mid-November from Aransas’ roughly 12-meter-tall observation tower.
The whooping crane, the tallest bird in North America at about 1.5 meters
The nene, which evolved from the Canadian goose, can be seen only in Hawaii. By 1952, its population dropped to 30 because of hunting and nonnative species that still threaten them today — mongooses, feral cats and wild pigs that prey on nene chicks. Due to efforts to protect the official Hawaiian state bird, the number of nenes has grown to about 2,000 across the islands.
Look for this rare bird in Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui or Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the island of Kauai. Carlo said that park staff can help better your chances of seeing a nene. “Call ahead and get the real-time information from rangers,” he said. “They want to give visitors the best intel they have to get you a successful sighting.”
The nene, or Hawaiian goose, bounding back from near-extinction