Birding in the Bluegrass

by Jeff Sole, Director of Conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Kentucky Chapter

White Throated Sparrow (c) Jeff Sole
White Throated Sparrow (c) Jeff Sole

I am ready for the crisp cool air of winter and the bird watching opportunities it provides. As I step through frosty leaves, I listen carefully—allowing my senses to heighten as I connect with my surroundings. After walking for some time, I hear the clear sound of a white-throated sparrow, one of the few song birds that continue to sing throughout the winter. I grab my binoculars and turn toward the sound until I finally spot the bird resting just at the edge of a clearing filled with bluestem and Indian grass. I smile at my first sighting of the day.

Birding is one of the fastest growing hobby-sports in the country. It is a great way to connect with the outdoors, get some exercise and learn something new. Because it requires very little investment (generally a pair of good binoculars and a field guide), bird watching allows nature-lovers of all ages and varying abilities to share this fun outdoor experience.

Historically, Kentucky has provided habitat for 371 bird species, although 14 of these species are no longer found in the wild. Of the 357 remaining species inhabiting the Commonwealth, 160 are known to actually breed and raise their young here. The remaining 197 species are migrants that pass through Kentucky on their way to and from breeding areas in the north and wintering grounds in Central and South America. A few species are far northern breeding species that only occasionally get pushed south to Kentucky in the winter.

As birds move through Kentucky or stay to reproduce, they require high quality habitat to thrive. The Nature Conservancy protects and restores such habitats around the state.

  • Prairie Warbler
    Prairie Warbler (c) Jeff Sole

    Restoring and protecting grasslands and barrens at the Dupree Nature Preserve provides habitat for numerous grassland and early successional bird species including Prairie Warbler, Henslow Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Bobolinks, Field Sparrows, White Throated Sparrow, White Crowned Sparrow, Bobwhite Quail and Indigo Bunting.

  • Prothonatary Warbler
    Prothonotary Warbler (c) Jeff Sole

    In far western Kentucky the Conservancy focuses on reconnecting floodplains to streams and restoring bottomland hardwood forest. For example, in Bayou du Chien, a restored landscape consisting of floodplains, mudflats, open waters and young forest welcomes Prothonotary Warbler, numerous shorebird species, migrating waterfowl and resident Wood Ducks. Having this type of stopover, resting and staging habitat is critical to all kinds of migrating birds.

  • Cerulean Warbler (c) Jeff Sole
    Cerulean Warbler (c) Jeff Sole

    In the beautiful mountains of eastern Kentucky, at Bad Branch State Nature Preserve, we work to protect portions of the richest temperate deciduous forest in the world. This highly diverse forest system provides habitat for both migrating and breeding populations. Protecting large unbroken forest blocks provides habitat for such species as Cerulean Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Summer Tanager, Wood Thrush, Veery and Great Horned Owl. Areas with younger early- successional forest welcome Ruffed Grouse, Rufous-sided towhee, Golden-winged warbler, Northern Cardinal and many more.

I know it is cold outside, but what are you waiting for? If you haven’t taken time to grab a pair of binoculars and look at the wide variety of our feathered fauna, I highly encourage it. There are numerous birding clubs scattered around Kentucky with skilled people willing to help newcomers.

Get outside and visit one of our nature preserves or other areas open to the public. The birds will welcome you with song and flashes of color. You will love the challenge of learning to identify different species. Then, if your interest is peaked, study about where else in the world the little feathered travelers may end up during different parts of the year.


For those interested in learning more about birding and the birds in Kentucky, Jeff Sole will be leading a hike at Mantle Rock Nature Preserve on May 1.  To register, contact Sallie Carter at 502-742-4521 or sallie.carter@tnc.org. You can also learn everyday ways you can help birds here.