Fall migration, but it’s still summer you say? Well not according to the birds. For the last two weeks the return of migrating birds from their northerly breeding grounds has really been heating up here. Birds make short stopovers to refuel before continuing on their journey south for winter. But, most don’t hang around for long so the trick is to time your birding outing to coincide with the arrival of a new group of migrants.
Fall Migration Tip #1: Weather Forecasts are Your Friend
I try to get out just after a storm or unsettled weather as migrants can be forced to stop their journey during inclement weather. Strong winds from the north and cold fronts are other things to look for. Birds prefer to fly south with the wind at their backs. Yesterday in Ottawa it was 30°C (86°F), humid and raining. This morning the temperature had dropped down to 10°C (50°F) with strong northerly winds. These are the perfect conditions to head out and look for migrants! If you’re lucky you’ll happen upon a “fall-out” where hundreds of migrants stop in one location.
Fall Migration Tip #2: Listen for the Chickadees.
Hear me out on this one… when I’m walking through the forest hoping to see some migrating song-birds I keep a keen ear out for bird song. I’m usually met with silence. Warblers generally don’t sing in the fall! Breeding time is over and they are no longer defending their territory or wooing their mate. But you can hear the all too familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee“. And, the interesting thing is birds form mixed flocks in the fall so if you can find the Chickadees, then you can usually find many other species with them. Today I found a mixed flock with 5 species of warblers, two species of nuthatches, two species of woodpecker, two vireos and two flycatchers! This is the excitement of fall birding.
Fall Migration Tip #3: Decide what type of migrant you’re looking for and chose the appropriate location.
The two groups of migrating birds I spend most of my time looking for in the fall are songbirds (mostly warblers, flycatchers, vireos, thrushes and sparrows) and shorebirds. Songbirds are generally found in forested areas and even better if it’s a forest along the banks of a large body of water. After crossing the body of water, migrants will need to rest at the first suitable place they find. For shorebirds, you want mud flats. This can sometimes be tricky with fluctuating water levels… what’s a mud flat today can be covered with water tomorrow. For this reason I don’t go looking for shorebirds after a large rainfall – this is the time to look for songbirds!
Later on during migration (October-November), I also look for migrating waterfowl along waterways and for raptors at hawk watch sites.
Fall Migration Tip #4: Take pictures of the birds you see to help you identify them later.
One of the tricky aspects of fall migration is that there are many juvenile birds and birds in their fall plumage. Gone are the brightly coloured and easily identifiable feathers from the spring. Instead, we have birds that at a quick glance can all look identical. The trick I use is to put my binoculars down and try my best to get photographs of what I’m seeing. I use a superzoom camera, which is relatively affordable and takes great pictures! Then later at home I can zoom in on the photographs and pour over field guilds and online pictures to figure out what I saw. This is also a good learning exercise to make those field marks stick in your brain for the next time you’re out birding during the fall.
Fall Migration Tip #5: Keep Calm and Fall-out On!
Birding during fall migration can be an adrenaline-filled frenzy. If you happen upon a birding location during a migrant fall-out the trees can be “dripping” with birds. And these birds don’t sit still! It can be overwhelming and you don’t know where to look first. My suggestion is to pick one bird and stick with it for a couple of minutes. Follow the moving branches, anticipate where it might pop out next and be ready with your camera! Try to ignore all the other moving branches around you until you decide to move on from the bird you have chosen. Otherwise you can end up looking left, right, up, down and never actually seeing much.