Fall migration, but it’s still summer you say? Well, not according to the birds. The early signs of fall migration are already upon us, as the first groups of shorebirds have arrived in the Ottawa area. Warblers won’t be long behind them, so it’s time to start taking advantage of this wonderful time of year. 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 new groups 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 and cold temperatures entice them to start heading south. If you’re lucky you’ll happen upon a fallout where hundreds of migrants stop in one location (normally due to bad weather).
Fall Migration Tip #2: Listen for the Chickadees
Fall migration signals the end of breeding season and the forest becomes quiet. But, you can often still hear the all too familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” of the Black-capped Chickadee. And, the interesting thing is birds form mixed species flocks in the fall so if you can find the Chickadees, then you can usually find many other species with them.
Fall Migration Tip #3: Decide which type of migrant you’re looking for and choose the appropriate location
From now through September, the migrants to focus on are songbirds (warblers, flycatchers, vireos, thrushes and sparrows) and shorebirds. Songbirds will generally be 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.
Later on during fall migration (October-early December), I also look for migrating waterfowl along waterways, raptors at hawk watch sites and gulls along shorelines.
Fall Migration Tip #4: Take pictures to help with identification
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. You can use a superzoom camera or a DSLR, depending on your budget and what quality you are striving for.
When you’re back home, you can zoom in on the photographs and pour over field guilds and online pictures to figure out what you saw.
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 fallout, 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. 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.
Fall Migration is my favourite time of year, I can’t wait to see what goodies turn up in my area this year!