My 10 Best Bird Watching Spots in Kentucky You Should Try

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Kentucky is commonly called the bluegrass state, but this doesn’t mean it is only grassland. There are many forests, rivers, and lakes that also attract birds. At least 375 species of birds have been recorded in Kentucky. Knowing the best spots to bird in is tricky, so I have compiled a list for you in this article.

The best bird watching spots in Kentucky are those with wetlands, such as Slough’s Wildlife Management Area, Minor E. Clark Fish Hatchery, and Owsley Fork Lake. Other good birding sites include where there is a range of habitats, such as the Ballard Wildlife Management Area.

A table giving the most exciting birds you can see at each of my top 10 birding spots in Kentucky:

Berea College ForestRed-headed Woodpecker and Kentucky Warbler
Owsley Fork Lake Near BereaPrairie Warbler and Ovenbird
Ballard Wildlife Management AreaBarred Owl and Wood Duck
Red River GorgeRuffed Grouse and Broad-winged Hawk
Minor E. Clark Fish HatcheryLesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper
Sloughs Wildlife Management AreaGreater White-fronted Goose and Least Bittern
Land Between The Lakes National Recreation AreaSandhill Crane and Herring Gull
Reelfoot Lake – Long Point UnitBald Eagle and Mississippi Kite
John James Audubon State ParkBaltimore Oriole and Scarlet Tanager
Bernheim Arboretum and Research ForestRed-shouldered Hawk and Wild Turkey
Best Places to Bird Watch in Kentucky

Read on to discover which the best birding spots are in Kentucky and which bird species you are likely to observe in these spots.

Best Bird Watching Spots in Kentucky
Best Bird Watching Spots in Kentucky

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in Kentucky

Kentucky provides many spots where you can see diverse birds and other wildlife. There are wetlands, prairie, and many forested regions for bird watchers to enjoy.

1. Berea College Forest

This forest is managed by Berea College and includes 9,000 acres. There are also trail maps available to use to help you when planning your birding trip here. Many trails go uphill, providing good views of the surrounding area. 

Greater than 150 species of birds have been observed in the forest. The following species breed in the area: Ruffed Grouse, Broad-winged Hawk, and Cooper’s Hawk. Other species that nest in the forest include the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, and Yellow-throated Vireo.

You can also likely see Blue-winged Warblers and Hooded Warblers in the trees. Different species to search for in the forest are the Kentucky Warbler and the Yellow-throated Warbler. Tanagers and Orioles are also seen in the area. Keep an eye out for the Red-headed Woodpeckers that like trees.

Berea College Forest is particularly productive during migration, with many songbirds, including the warblers, tanagers, and orioles, most often seen during spring migration.

2. Owsley Fork Lake Near Berea

This reservoir near the Berea College Forest has many birds you can see and should be added to your trip when you visit the forest. The lake is surrounded by mountains and forests, providing additional bird habitats.

Waterfowl species here, like the Common Loon and Horned Grebe. Pied-billed Grebes are also present on the lake here. 

Birds found to nest in the area include the following species: Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Hooded Warbler.

TOP TIP: Wild birds will happily eat your new lawn grass seeds from the soil. Find out 6 effective methods to keep the seeds and your lawn safe in this article. Adding sunflower seeds to your wild bird seed is a great idea for attracting certain types of birds to your yard. Read here to find out which wild birds love sunflower seeds!

3. Ballard Wildlife Management Area

Ballard Wildlife Management Area is an 8015-acre area situated in the state’s river bottomlands ecoregion. This area is west of Paducah and is an excellent place to see thousands of waterfowl. Geese and ducks arrive here in their thousands during migration. 

The habitats are bottomland forests, wetlands, cropland, fields, scrub, and oxbow lakes. There is a bald-cypress swamp that you can access by a raised platform trail.

Birds found here include Barred Owls, Wood Ducks, Prothonotary Warblers, and Bald Eagles. The eagles do have a nest in the area.

TIP: Knowing how to spot the birds in your yard is key to enjoying visits from your winged friends as much as possible! The best sources are trusted books, I recommend using the following (Amazon links):
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society Birds of North America

4. Red River Gorge

This area is attractive geologically but is also very good for birdlife because of its hardwood forests. The gorge is located within the Daniel Boone National Forest. There is a scenic byway here that you should drive along. 

This drive is along Highway 77 and 715, and you can pull off the road in various spots and look for birds. It is a good idea to visit the Gladie Visitor Center on the scenic byway. Here, you can find out more information and get a map to help you navigate the area.

The Rock Bridge region of Red River Gorge is worth a visit because it has many species that have been recorded nesting. These species include the following:  Broad-winged Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, Ruffed Grouse, and several warblers, vireos, and thrushes.

Look on the forest’s ground and in the lower understory for birds such as the Ovenbird and Wood Thrush.

Warblers in the area include Blue-winged Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, and Worm-eating Warblers. Cerulean Warblers have been seen in the gorge but are considered rare in these parts.

The Red River Gorge area has more than 60 miles of trails to explore, so there are many opportunities to explore the region and look for birds. The Audubon Society considers this region a globally important bird area.

5. Minor E. Clark Fish Hatchery

This hatchery is situated east of Lexington, and the Red River Gorge is in the Daniel Boone Forest. However, the hatchery is right on the edge of the forest. 

This is a great place to see fish and birds, especially shorebirds. Shorebirds are only present where the water level is low and the muddy shore is exposed, so you must look for ponds like this. 

Shorebirds to watch out for include the following species: Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Piping Plovers, and Spotted Sandpipers.  Hudsonian Godwits and Red-necked Phalaropes have also been seen at the hatchery.

You can see Bald Eagles and Osprey flying over or perched in trees on the edges of ponds. Great Egrets, Wood Ducks, Green Herons, Great Blue Herons, and Purple Martins have been recorded here. The Purple Martins are only present during the summer months. You can visit the hatchery any time of the year during the day. 

6. Sloughs Wildlife Management Area

Sloughs Wildlife Management Area is located in the floodplain of the Ohio River. The area is managed for wildfowl by controlled flooding and providing food crops that feed the many birds that visit here.

Tens of thousands of geese and ducks occur in this refuge. At least 250 bird species have been recorded in the region. Many birders prefer the Sauerheber Unit of this management area. You can find a checklist for this unit online.

You can find an observation tower at Anderson Pond and several viewing decks. Birds seen in the refuge at the Sauerheber Unit include such waterfowl as Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, Northern Pintails, and Wood Ducks.

In the marshy areas, you should look for Swamp Sparrows, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Virginia Rails, Sora, King Rails, American Bitterns, and Least Bitterns. 

Besides the wetlands and marshy areas, the refuge also has bottomland forests and fields that are good for birds.

Species you should watch out for in the patches of the forest include the following: Prothonotary Warbler (close to water), Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Summer Tanager. Grassy areas are where you can find Dickcissels and Northern Bobwhites.

TIP: Check out my recommended products if you are looking for the best and trusted equipment for birdwatching in the wild or on your backyard (Amazon link):

7. Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area

This large area was formed when the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers were dammed. The region includes Kentucky Lake, Honker Lake, and Lake Barcley. The site is 170,000 acres, providing a large area of conserved land. 

There is a shoreline and also forested regions. Bird watchers can look for Bald Eagles and Osprey near the lakes. These two species both breed in the area.

Winter brings flocks of Sandhill Cranes to the refuge; this is also the optimal time to see gulls, including the Herring Gull and Ring-billed Gull. Where the water level is lower, and on the edges of lakes, you can look for shorebirds such as sandpipers and plovers.

Warblers and other songbirds can be found in forested areas. The species found here include the Black-and-white Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Pine Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Summer Tanager. Orchard Orioles can also be spotted in the trees.

8. Reelfoot Lake – Long Point Unit

Part of this sizeable 15,000-acre lake, known as the Long Point Unit, is in Kentucky. It is a well-known birding hotspot among the birding community.

Besides open water, bald cypress shorelines, fields, and bottomland hardwood forests. Birds you should look for here include the following species: Snowy Egret, Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Eastern Bluebird, and Dickcissel. 

Reelfoot Lake has several pairs of Bald Eagles breeding; Mississippi Kites (summer species) can also be seen. Both Red-headed Woodpeckers and Pileated Woodpeckers breed in the area.

9. John James Audubon State Park

This park has a museum in honor of the memory of the ornithologist John James Audubon, but it also is an excellent place to bird watch. There are handicap-accessible trails as well as many habitats. The habitats found here in the park include ponds, forests, and fields. 

Bird species to watch for include Barred Owl, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Pileated Woodpecker. Near the water, search for the Prothonotary Warbler. This little bird is bright yellow and can be seen in bushes and trees near water.

The brightly-colored Baltimore Orioles, Summer Tanagers, and Scarlet Tanagers have been recorded here. There is also a pair of Bald Eagles that nest in the park.

10. Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest have mature forests and grasslands, which attract many birds. You can find a variety of bird species in this area, which you can look for while walking on the 35 miles of trails in the refuge.

Birds found here include the Prairie Warblers, Kentucky Warblers, and Blue-winged Warblers. You can also find Red-shouldered Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks. There are also Wild Turkeys and Northern Bobwhites occurring in the refuge.

Best Time to Bird Watch in Kentucky

Kentucky is a state where you can see many different birds, but some are only present at certain times of the year. This means you need to plan your birding trip based on which species you hope to see. 

Purple MartinSummer
Sandhill CraneWinter
Best Time to Bird Watch in Kentucky

The Kentucky State Bird

The Northern Cardinal - Kentucky State Bird
The Northern Cardinal – Kentucky State Bird

The Northern Cardinal was chosen as the Kentucky state bird. The bird is about 9 inches in size and feeds mainly on seeds. Males are red, and females and juveniles are brown. 

Although the species is classed as granivorous (seed eaters), cardinals will take insects and fruit. Insects are critical for cardinals to use when feeding their chicks.

The cardinal is a bold bird that is easy to spot. They also are highly vocal, so you can usually hear them if they are in an area. The males will sing to attract a mate and to let other cardinals know that a site is their territory. 

Bird Watching Laws in Kentucky

You may not hunt any birds in Kentucky except during specific seasons and for particular species. Migratory wild birds and game are protected outside of hunting season. Kentucky also follows federal law for the protection of birds, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.


Kentucky is a state that provides a good mixture of habitats for birds, including migratory species. The state is on the Mississippi Flyway, attracting birds as they fly during migration in spring and fall.

The bird watching sites in Kentucky are known for having many waterfowl, shorebirds, and other species. You should add Kentucky to your list of bird watching spots in the United States.

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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