Fall Migration Hot Spots
With autumn on the horizon, you can soon witness—up close and in person—billions of wings on the go in peak season. Here are six of my favorite lookouts.
Daylight is growing shorter. The crescendo of summer birdsong has quieted to a whisper. Bird populations are swollen in their ranks, and in northern forests, marathon migrators are fattening up, laying on fuel for phenomenal flights. Soon the mass exodus will be in full tilt, a movement of birds almost beyond imagination in sweep and scope.
The fall migration season is a drawn-out affair—far more protracted than the northward rush in spring. Some hummingbirds, for example, may be moving south from their breeding grounds before the end of June, and some waterfowl are still southbound at the end of December.
The routes birds follow between their nesting grounds and their wintering areas are as varied as the birds themselves. We sometimes speak of “flyways,” and a handful of species actually follow limited travel corridors. But the overwhelming majority of bird species travel on a broad front in “flyways” that may be as wide as the continent. Migrating birds probably cross every square mile of land and water in North America. So the billions of migrants are spread across millions of square miles, and the magnitude of the passage often escapes our notice.
Through an alchemy of consistent weather patterns, habitat, flight patterns, and aspects of local and regional geography, there are a few locations where exceptional numbers of birds do concentrate during their autumn journeys. This guide features a half-dozen of my favorite such sites.
These hot spots offer vantage points for watching visible migration, including the passage of birds of prey migrating overhead or seabirds skirting coastlines. Also featured are major stopover sites for songbirds, shorebirds, and others whose actual travels are often invisible to us, because they happen while we sleep or at altitudes practically unknown to man without parachute or plane. A few of the sites double as a stage for both stopover birds and soaring migrants.
So what are you waiting for? The show is already beginning. Dust off your binoculars, and get outside to try for a glimpse into one of the most remarkable phenomena in all of nature. (Click here to download the pdf.)
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Florida: When Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, it toppled most of the Australian pines and other exotic greenery that covered this preserve at the southern tip of Key Biscayne. Park managers took the opportunity to replace the exotics with native plants, so the site is now rich with the distinctive flora of south Florida and the Caribbean—a verdant habitat that supports large numbers of native birds. For migrants moving down the east coast of Florida, Key Biscayne is the last of the barrier islands before a long gap of open water, causing the travelers to pause here and pile up in huge numbers. At times in late fall the park may swarm with warblers, including black-throated blue, Cape May, and palm warblers, as well as thrushes, vireos, hawks, and a wide variety of other migrants. Because of its location and habitat, the site serves as a magnet for lost birds that have strayed from the Bahamas or Cuba, and rare U.S. finds have been discovered here on several occasions. For more information: Visit Florida State Parks or call Key Biscayne Park at 305-361-5811.
Cape May, New Jersey: Local boosters will tell you that Cape May is the best birding spot in the world, and if you visit on the right day in fall, you may be inclined to agree. Southbound migrants following the Atlantic seaboard funnel into a narrow peninsula in southern New Jersey. When they reach Cape May Point, facing the open waters of Delaware Bay, they often pause, building up in concentrations that can reach phenomenal numbers. The immediate Cape May area has habitat for almost all major migrant groups. Shorebirds gather on local meadows and mudflats in July and August, while warblers and other warm-weather songbirds peak in September. Temperate-zone migrant songbirds, from robins to kinglets to sparrows, may swarm here in October and November. Days with northwest winds bring major hawk flights throughout the fall; during October this is one of the best places in the world to see impressive numbers of merlins and peregrine falcons. Late-season northeast winds may bring flights of scoters, loons, and other coastal and oceanic birds close to shore. For more information: Visit the Cape May Bird Observatory or call the observatory at 609-884-2736.