How To: Go Bird-Watching in Missouri

See Photo Location

Missouri has long been a popular place for bird-watching – often called birding. According to the Audubon Society, the state is home to more than 400 bird species and 50 Important Bird Areas that encompass wetlands, prairies and bottomland forests. 

Located in the center of the United States and containing the confluence of two of the country’s largest waterways, Missouri has been a key region for bird migration for thousands of years. In the state’s varied habitats, you’ll find a number of birding hot spots that are home to owls, warblers, swans, eagles, woodpeckers, geese, ducks and more. You could easily spend years discovering all the bird species that live in the Show-Me State. 

A bald eagle sits on a branch.
Bald eagles are a relatively common sight at wilderness areas and wildlife refuges throughout the state.

What Is Bird-Watching?

Bird-watching is a popular hobby dedicated to looking at, listening to and identifying birds. With an estimated 11,000 species of birds worldwide, birding enthusiasts enjoy the collector’s thrill of finding specific species. Many birders maintain logs that can also be important in helping scientists and researchers understand the ecology of a particular area.

Getting Started

The only tools you need for birding are a field guide and binoculars — a big reason the hobby is so popular. Many different types of field guides are available, but the Missouri Department of Conservation recommends choosing one that covers a wide geographic range because it will usually include migratory birds that pass through an area. The department offers a free virtual field guide that is easy to access on your phone. 

Binoculars allow you to make out the important details of various bird species and are a necessity in the field. Many birders opt for a set with a magnification around 8×42 or 10×42 to get both a wide field of view and a bright image. Avoid binoculars that are too heavy to carry for a long period of time.

Hundreds of white snow geese take off from a lake, with many more sitting on the surface of the water.
Nearly a million snow geese visit Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge each year.

Bird-Watching Spots Throughout Missouri

Here are a few of the many birding spots located in the Show-Me State:

The Great Missouri Birding Trail

The Great Missouri Birding Trail is divided into six regions that feature excellent bird-watching spots. All stops on the trail are free to access, and most are on public land. Many sites in the Kansas City and St. Louis metro areas are also accessible by public transit. The trail’s website is a good resource for birders of all skill levels to explore prime birding locations across the state. 

Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge

One of the most significant birding areas in the country, Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge was officially named one of America’s top 500 Global Important Bird Areas by the National Audubon Society in 2001. During peak season, the refuge turns into a sea of white as more than a million snow geese touch down during fall and early spring. In a typical year, up to 200,000 ducks and hundreds of eagles also migrate to the refuge, located in northwest Missouri.

Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area

The restored wetlands at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area are a habitat to 284 bird species. The conservation area is nestled alongside the Missouri River, just a few miles from Columbia. May through August are peak times to see shorebirds, including terns, herons, egrets, pelicans and ospreys. Nesting birds that can frequently be found there include species of cuckoos, woodpeckers, crows and sparrows.

Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary

North of downtown St. Louis, the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary sits near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Check out the Audubon Center at Riverlands, an educational site that serves as a visitor center for the sanctuary. Eight miles of trails, an overlook and an avian observatory provide access to a variety of habitats for 310 species of birds, including swans, eagles and gulls. In the winter, you might see the short-eared owl and Lapland longspur. 

Roaring River State Park

Roaring River State Park, in southwest Missouri, is an angler’s paradise, known throughout the region for its trout hatchery and excellent fishing. The park is also home to more than 200 species of birds. A site near Camp Smokey, the park’s organized group camping area, has become known as “Warbler Woods” for the number of songbirds that nest in the trees. 

Mingo National Wildlife Refuge

On a tract of land once devastated by deforestation and swamp draining efforts, the Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, in southeast Missouri, is now a sanctuary for a number of wildlife species, including bobcats, deer, beavers and bald eagles. Since 1944, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has managed and protected the land so it is once again a safe haven for migratory birds, such as geese and ducks, as as they travel down the Mississippi River.

A red-headed woodpecker sits in a tree.
Red-headed woodpeckers are just one of the more than 400 species of birds that call Missouri home.

Learn More About Birding

The National Audubon Society and Missouri Department of Conservation offer many resources to learn about birding and conservation throughout Missouri.

If you’re looking for quick tips on traveling through the Show-Me State, be sure to check out How To: Road Trip in Missouri. Find ideas to round out your vacation plans with Missouri Trips for the Whole Crew.