The best US states for bird watching, a Helpful Illustrated Guide

So, you’ve got major gaps in your life list and grown a little tired of your backyard American Robin! It’s time to plan a trip to spy some new plumage! You’re looking to maximise the bang for your buck so the choice for most people would be to start by looking at the states with the greatest bird diversity.
If you already have a healthy number of ticks on the list already, then another option would be to start looking at states with the most endemics, most threatened species and most birds with small ranges.

If you are a serious birding hotshot and already ticked off most of what the lower 48 states have to offer, then you are unfortunately going to have to head to Alaska or get micro and target specific species one by one, but you probably already know that 🙂


Also see: Best birdwatching apps in the USA

Targeting US States with the most bird species diversity

The Best US States For Birdwatching - USA bird biodiversity map

The bird diversity map above shows us which US states have the largest variety of species. What I find interesting about this is how the coastal states seem to dominate, with the only exception being South Eastern Arizona. This is great it you want to combine a birding trip with some beach time… So, based off the species diversity map, the Texan Gulf Coast, California and Arizona are the top three hotspots with up to 250 species each. These states should be top of your destination priority if you want to make serious progress with your life list.

Something to consider though, the species diversity map will consider species that are migratory and postntially only passing through a specific location in spring or autumn rather than being resident. So, you may need to time your trip carefully to make sure you catch migratory birds passing through.

To know exactly when other birders are seeing these species, head to the Birda app to join the community. Check out the newest sightings using the Locations feature and the Nearby Feed. Join the Birda app and explore new locations and sightings!

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Targeting US States with the most endemic species

The Best US States For Birdwatching - USA bird map for endemics species
Endemic species are species that only occur within the borders of a single country. In the case of the continental US, there are 15 endemic species with most of them concentrated around Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. If you already have a health number of ticks in your life list and haven’t visited then this would probably be a good choice of destination.

Targeting US States with ‘small-ranged’ birds

The Best US States For Birdwatching - Small ranged USA bird map
USA Small-ranged birds are defined as the species with a geographic range size smaller than the median of species occurring in the lower 48 states. So simply put, you less likely at seeing species in these areas in any other part of the US.
This has consequences for all birders because unless you spend time in somewhere like South Eastern Arizona, you are going to have a tough time adding a significant number of lifers to your list.

The choice of destination : Arizona

Arizona is our first birding destination of choice for two reasons. The first is due to it’s high species diversity (up to 250 species). The second is due to number (over 100) of small ranged bird species that exist in the area. So from a strategic point of view, you are likely to see a large variety of species, many of which you have little chance of seeing anywhere else in the US. Here is a list of popular birding areas in the South East Arizona:

  • Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park
  • Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge
  • Chiricahua Mountains
  • Huachuca Mountains
  • Humphreys Peak
  • Las Lagunas
  • Madera Canyon
  • Mount Lemmon
  • Muleshoe Ranch Preserve
  • Patagonia Lake State Park
  • Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
  • Portal
  • Ramsey Canyon
  • Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch
  • Sabino Canyon
  • San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
  • Slaughter Ranch Museum
  • Sweetwater Wetlands Park
  • Watson Woods Riparian Preserve
  • Whitewater Draw State Wildlife Area

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park

Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park is 320 acre birding haven and migrant trap in the Southern Arizona about an hour, 60 miles to the East of Phoenix. The park is know for its hummingbirds, wrens, warblers, Summer Tanager, Lawrence’s Goldfinch.

At the time of writing eBird checklists indicate a total of around 272 different species have been seen in the park.

For more info visit:

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge is 118,000 acre wildlife refuge in the South Eastern Arizona that was established in 1985. The refuge is a Semi desert grassland that is know for its diverse birdlife as well as being home to the highly endangered Masked Bobwhite Quail. A captive breeding program on the refuge is home to 99% of all Masked Bobwhite Quail!

The Arivaca Cienega is a wildlife oasis and popular birding spot due to its permanent water source. The water in the are is attributed to the refuge being at the center of the Cienega Creek Basin, funneling water into the area.

At the time of writing eBird checklists indicate a total of around 231 species have been seen in the refuge.

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon located in South Eastern Arizona about 45min/40miles from Tucson, AZ. Situated in a north-facing valley in the Santa Rita Mountains, it boasts over 250 species of birds, 15 of which are hummingbirds as well as are Elegant Trogon, Elf Owl, Varied Bunting, and Flame-colored Tanager.

At the time of writing 2019 of these were logged in eBird checklists for the ‘Madera Canyon–Proctor Rd’ hotspot.

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John White

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