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Great Bird-Watching Vacations Right Here in the US

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If your passion is bird-watching, you’ve got a lot of company. “Birding” is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in America, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with almost 63 million of us participating. You can observe birds at home (even if you live in a city)… take day trips locally to see more species… or, like about 18 million Americans, travel the world to see its vast variety of fascinating birds.

Although birding vacations can take you and your binoculars to every continent, you don’t have to travel far. Below are six popular guided tours, some expensive, some downright cheap, right here in the US. Check with the tour operators for more choices of destinations and dates. Unless noted, costs are per person, double occupancy, and include accommodations, most meals, local transportation and expert guides.

FLORIDA KEYS AND DRY TORTUGAS

This 10-day tour for amateur and experienced birders will take you through the pine forests, prairies, everglades and cypress swamps of south Florida. You’ll find migrant songbirds as well as resident species, such as black-necked stilts, whistling ducks, sandhill cranes, purple gallinules, red-cockaded woodpeckers and maybe even the reddish egret, a rare bird said to stagger like a drunken sailor.

Starting and ending in Miami, the small group, which includes at least one experienced guide, travels by van, spends nights in comfortable hotels and stops at both major and little-known habitats, such as Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Bonita Springs, Mahagany Hammock and Nine-Mile Pond. Then, you’ll head down to the Keys. With more than 200 species of birds, the Keys are one of the top birding destinations in North America. An additional adventure is a day trip by boat to the Dry Tortugas, a group of islands composed of coral reefs and sand that are famous for their bird and marine life, to search for cave swallows, 20 species of wintering warblers, buntings and orioles.

Cost: About $3,290. Dates: April 23 to May 2.

More: Wings Birding Tours (888-293-6443, www.wingsbirds.com).

CAPE MAY, NEW JERSEY

Take a ride to Cape May, one of North America’s best birding locations, in May to catch the peak of the spring season for migratory birds flying north from their winter quarters in Central and South America. Cape May is a favorite destination for all levels of birders who, binoculars and guidebooks in hand, crowd into the seaside Victorian resort town every spring and fall.

On Elderhostel’s five-night exploration, you lodge in a restored 19th-century inn in the town’s famous historic district and set forth every day on guided field trips to spot migrant songbirds and shorebirds as well as feathered residents that stick around all year. As on all Elderhostel trips, you’ll spend time during your stay attending presentations by local experts.

Cost: $618. Dates: May 10 to May 15, or May 17 to May 22.

More: Elderhostel (877-426-8056, www.elderhostel.org).

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY

After meeting in San Antonio and checking in at a lodge in Conran, one of the best birding spots in upland Texas, experienced birders begin their adventure with a search for golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos — two rare and endangered species — plus other visiting songbirds and neotropical migrants (North American birds that spend their winters south of the US).

Two seasoned guides lead small groups of birders into Lost Maples State Natural Area, Kerr Wildlife Management Area and Garner State Park on a five-day tour. Included is a visit to the Frio Bat Cave, the home of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats, to watch them darken the sky when they fly out at dusk. Here you’ll also get a good look at a large flock of cave swallows that share the same roost site.

Among the birds that you can hope to identify are dickcissels, indigo buntings, multicolored painted buntings, summer tanagers, Bell’s vireos, black-chinned hummingbirds and long-billed thrashers, found only in Texas.

Cost: $1,575. Dates: April 24 to April 28.

More: Bird Treks (717-548-3303, www.birdtreks.com).

COLORADO ROCKIES AND GRASSLANDS

The highlights of this vacation, for dedicated birders only, are the elaborate mating rituals performed by five different species of grouse. To catch the show, you must visit the Colorado Rockies’ dancing grounds, or “leks,” during the month of April — traveling hundreds of miles around the state and getting up before dawn on several mornings because the birds do their courting at the first light of day. On your search for grouse, you will also encounter an amazing number of other bird species on this 10-day tour through grasslands, forests, snow-capped mountains and steep canyons. The variety ranges from Western meadowlarks, burrowing owls, white-tailed ptarmigans and canyon wrens to golden eagles and curved-billed thrashers. Be prepared for some good photo opportunities of vermilion flycatchers, which perch in the open and let you come close.

Limited to seven participants per van, the tour covers about 2,700 miles through Colorado, with lodgings in different locations each night.

Cost: $1,850. You must pay for your own meals except for some breakfasts. Dates: April 2 to April 12.

More: Wildside Nature Tours (888-875-9453, www.wildsidetoursinc.com).

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

This affordable educational adventure takes birders of all levels of expertise to Yellowstone National Park to learn about bird identification, nesting habits, habitat, migration patterns and more from the park’s top experts.

You will spend six days attending educational presentations, taking bird walks every day and going on several field trips by van to three different environments to spot birds ranging from ospreys and trumpeter swans to sandhill cranes, peregrine falcons, and harlequin and ruddy ducks. In your travels around the park, you’ll stop to see hot springs, geysers, the spectacular multicolored Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Paradise Valley. Lodgings and most meals are at the Yellowstone River Motel at the park’s northern boundary.

Cost: $784. Dates: May 30 to June 4.

More: Elderhostel (877-426-8056, www.elderhostel.org).

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Source: Joan Rattner Heilman, an award- winning travel writer based in New York who also writes about nature and the environment. She is author of Bluebird Rescue (Firefly) and Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50 (McGraw-Hill). Date: January 1, 2009 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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