Sick of the “staycation”? After a summer at home, many families are itching to get in one last outing without breaking the bank. Fortunately, you can still plan a Labor Day excursion that costs nothing more than a tank of gas and an $8 entry fee. In most regions of the U.S., the beginning of September offers prime bird-watching days as migration season gears up and hundreds of species of colorful songbirds, hawks, and waterfowl start moving south. And most likely, there’s a state park or wildlife refuge within a day’s drive of your house that serves as a way station on their journeys. We asked David Mehlman, director of the Nature Conservancy's Migratory Bird Program, and Kenn Kaufman, field editor for the Audubon Society’s Audubon magazine, for their suggestions.
1. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
This park—situated on Key Biscayne, a barrier island off the southern coast of Florida, just south of Miami—is a way station for birds migrating down Florida’s east coast. “Birds tend to pause at Key Biscayne,” says Kaufman, and “rest up for their long journeys across the ocean.” This time of year, you’ll see plovers, ruddy turnstones, sanderlings, and willets, and later in the fall, the island teems with birds of every kind. The beaches there have also been ranked among the nation’s best, so you can enjoy one last weekend in the sand before heading inland for the summer.
2. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, Minnesota
A little over 2 hours north of Minneapolis, Duluth sits on the southern shore of Lake Superior, a hawk-watchers paradise. “Hawks coming south from Canada don’t like to cross over the Great Lakes,” says Mehlman. “They go around one side or the other, so you get this funnel where they congregate.” The observatory estimates that more than 94,000 hawks are seen there every year, some migrating from as far north as the Arctic Circle. Birds start appearing in mid-August, so over Labor Day weekend, you’ll likely see American kestrels and sharp-shinned and broad-winged hawks, and maybe even a peregrine falcon or two.
Other great hawk-watching locales are Hawk Mountain in Kempton, Pennsylvania, and almost any natural area along the Texas coastline.
3. Cape May Bird Observatory, Cape May, New Jersey
No more than a half a day’s drive from most major cities in the Northeast, Cape May has a temperate climate that suits nearly every species of migratory birds, and they linger year-round. “That’s a great spot,” says Kaufman. Like Duluth, Cape May is situated at a funnel point; birds travel down the eastern seaboard and get to the tip of New Jersey, where they pause for a while to think over their next move. Around this time of year, the observatory, located at the southernmost end of New Jersey, on the Delaware Bay, hosts warblers and other warm-weather songbirds.
4. Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, Holly Springs, Mississippi
Hummingbird lovers may want to delay any travel plans until the weekend after Labor Day, when thousands of ruby-throated hummingbirds descend on this nature center about an hour outside of Memphis. The tiny birds travel thousands of miles from Canada over the Gulf of Mexico to Central America, stopping here to take a rest. The center hosts a “Migration Celebration” each year to tag and document the birds. This year, the festival takes place from September 11 to 13, but show up a week early and you’ll still see plenty of hummingbirds.
5. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico
Mehlman recommends this refuge as a prime place for watching shorebirds, waterfowl, herons, and egrets. Situated between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, the park is best known as a wintering home for sandhill cranes. You likely see many over Labor Day weekend, but return in November for the “Festival of the Cranes,” when as many as 14,000 cranes descend on the refuge.
6. Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, Rhode Island
“Block Island has great concentrations of birds, mostly warblers, and it’s a beautiful place for biking,” says Kaufman. “It’s one of my favorite fall spots.” Take a 1-hour ferry from the southern shore of mainland Rhode Island or from Long Island, New York, and spend a day taking in the various habitats—grasslands, scrubland, salt and brackish ponds, freshwater wetlands, and beaches—that make the island particularly attractive to birds, especially songbirds, as well as various butterfly species.