Best U.S. National Wildlife Refuges for Birdwatching

National Wildlife Refuges are among the unsung heroes of the birding world. Too many Americans choose to cast themselves off to far-off destinations, missing the spectacles of nature that take place right here at home in the protected space of the country’s extensive national wildlife refuge system.

There are more than 600 wildlife refuges in the United States, each working to protect or maintain habitat for an array of birds, fish, and other wildlife. While not every refuge has open access, a large number are open to the public and make great birding destinations.  It’s no surprise that many refuges are centered along the country’s four principal north-south bird flyways — Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific. Nor that many  have been designated Globally Important Birding Areas by the American Bird Conservancy.

Birders at Florida Keys NWR Complex / USFWS

Birders at Florida Keys NWR Complex / USFWS

When the flyways fill during spring and fall migrations, that’s a great time to follow suit and visit a refuge. Many refuges celebrate migration by hosting bird festivals that focuses on a regional migratory phenomenon, notably the Biggest Week in American Birding at Ottawa NWR. Other refuges celebrate the return of fall and wintering birds, such as the Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.

So what are the best national wildlife refuges for birding? There’s no single answer, of course. Your favorites may depend on where you live and what birds you like to see. Take a look at our “starter” list, below, and tell us what you agree with, or what we missed. Each of the following refuges is sure to introduce you to one or more of nature’s miracles.

We’ll be adding to the list, so check back often!

Northwest and Pacific





Mountain-Prairie Region

  • Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah
  • Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota
  • Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota


Pacific Southwest

  • Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, California
  • Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, California

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the USFWS for their assistance with this article.

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  • David Hewitt August 28, 2013, 12:57

    For the Northwest and Pacific, can you include the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges. Like Malheur but bigger and (some would say) better! A complex of six refuges with abundance of raptors, waterfowl, and migrating songbirds: Without a doubt one of the most important locations on the Pacific Flyway.

  • Laura Kammermeier August 29, 2013, 08:45

    David, Yes, definitely Klamath – we’ll be adding that to our list at some point. This particular list was selected based on a variety of factors – a good sampling from a variety of regions, good for birders, good access. But as you point out it is not an exhaustive list but just a start. With over 600 NWRs we have a long way to go to highlight all those that rise to the top. If you are affiliated with Klamath and would like to submit a short description, do let us know!


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