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Top 10 – National Wildlife Refuges

national wildlife refuge

There are over 500 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System.  More than 200 refuges were created specifically to protect, manage and restore habitat for migratory birds. Over 700 species have been recorded on the different refuges. Here are 10 of our favorite refuges for birding.


10.  Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Canaan Valley, at an altitude of 3,200 feet, is 14 miles long and 3 miles wide, and the highest valley of its size east of the Rocky Mountains. Climate and habitats are typical of areas much further north, and the plants and animals are unusual for the latitude. Many Valley species are at or near the southernmost edge of their ranges. Drained by the Blackwater River and its tributaries, Canaan Valley contains the largest freshwater wetland area in West Virginia and the central and southern Appalachians.

The annual Canaan Valley Birding Festival is held nearby.


9.  Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah

Historically, the marshes of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (MBR) have been an oasis for water birds. This oasis is surrounded by arid desert lands. As a key part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, the Refuge provides habitat for more than 200 bird species, making it a popular birding hotspot in northern Utah. In spring, summer, and fall, visitors can view American avocets, black-necked stilts, white-faced ibis, and a host of other species.


8.  Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, located 12 miles south of Cambridge, Maryland, was established in 1933 as a refuge for migratory waterfowl. The refuge includes more than 27,000 acres, composed mainly of rich tidal marsh characterized by fluctuating water levels and variable salinity. Other habitat types include freshwater ponds, mixed evergreen and deciduous forests, and small amounts of cropland and managed impoundments that are seasonally flooded for waterfowl use.


7. North Platte National Wildlife Refuge – Nebraska

As many as 20 bald eagles and over 200,000 waterfowl may concentrate on the Refuge during fall migration. Well over 200 bird species have been observed on the Refuge since 1975.


6. Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

Tens of thousands of birds–including sandhill cranes, Arctic geese, and many kinds of ducks–gather each autumn and stay through the winter. Feeding snow geese erupt in explosions of wings when frightened by a stalking coyote, and at dusk, flight after flight of geese and cranes return to roost in the marshes.


5. Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state.

To protect crucial shorebird habitat, Congress authorized the establishment of Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in 1988. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Grays Harbor NWR encompasses about 1500 acres of intertidal mudflats, salt marsh, and uplands including what is known as Bowerman Basin.

The refuge is famous for the Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival.


4. San Diego Complex

Beginning in 1972, a series of National Wildlife Refuges – Seal Beach, Tijuana Slough, and Sweetwater Marsh – were established to preserve and protect the rare birds of southern California’s coastal marshes. In the mid-1990’s, San Diegans joined with state and federal agencies to protect larger areas of open space under the Multiple Species Conservation Program .  The inland refuge, San Diego NWR was acquired as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s contribution to that effort and in 1998 San Diego Bay NWR was established on the south bay.

The San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex supports habitats as diverse as coastal marshes and uplands, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, freshwater marsh, rare vernal pool wetlands, and the incredible breeding and nesting grounds for a suite of migratory and resident bird species in south San Diego Bay.


3. Cape May National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1989, Cape May National Wildlife Refuge ensures critical habitat for wildlife and hundreds of thousands of migrating birds each year.

The refuge encompasses 11,500 acres within the Cape May Peninsula. Habitats such as grasslands, saltmarshes, bogs, maritime forests, and beachfront are home to a variety of wildlife including State and Federally threatened and endangered species.

Cape May Peninsula’s unique configuration and location concentrates songbirds, raptors, wading birds, and shorebirds on their annual migrations.


2. J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

One of the most popular refuges is located on the on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. It is world famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations.


1.  Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and Santa Anna National Wildlife Refuge

We have combined these two refuges as our number one pick due to their close proximity in far south Texas, even through the habitats of the twi refuges are quite different.

Laguna Atascosa is located along the Gulf Coast.  About 369 species have been recorded on the refuge, with 42 being accidental. A checklist of the birds is available on this site.
Santa Anna National Wildlife Refuge

A couple of hours drive from Laguna Atascosa (a short distance in Texas) is Santa Anna.  Situated along the most southern stretch of the Rio Grande, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is home to resident species like green jays, chachalacas and great kiskadees, making it one of the top birding destinations in the world. The refuge is important habitat for birds from the Central and Mississippi flyways that funnel through on their way to and from Central and South America. Other bird species, like the groove-billed ani, reach the northern limit of their range in South Texas and do not go much further north than deep South Texas.

The refuge system maintains a web site dedicated to birding.  The site contains a map for locating refuges on a state-by-state basis.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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