There is more to the fall migration than hawk watches on top of mountains. Watching raptors effortlessly soar among the thermals is indeed the highlight of the fall migration, but everything from shorebirds and songbirds to waders and waterfowl move south in the fall as well.
The fall migration does not garner as much enthusiasm as the spring migration among most birders for many reasons, I believe.
The height of the spring migration is concentrated into a predictable three- or four-week period when you are assured of seeing many colorful songbirds. The fall migration is more spread out. It actually started in July with some shorebirds moving south and will continue all the way into November and even December with some ducks moving only as far south as needed to find open water.
The beginning of spring migration happens before the leaves pop out. Therefore, the front end of spring migration is a great time to spot the small songbirds moving northward. Even at the height of spring migration, in early to mid May, the trees are not quite fully leafed out, offering some hope for birdwatchers to spot the tiny targets in the canopy. During the fall migration, the tree-top dwelling birds have the full canopy to use as cover.
The spring migration also has the advantage of pent-up birder enthusiasm, especially here in New England. The spring migration comes on the heels of several months of cold, snowy weather and dreadfully short days. The spring bird migration rides the coattails of the optimism that always surrounds spring.
The fall migration, however, comes after several months of beautiful weather and long days. There is also the sense in fall that the cold weather and short days are right around the corner. In a way, that can work to fall migration’s advantage as birders realize they need to soak up as much outdoor time as they can before winter grips the region.
The spring migration also has the advantage of birds being their most colorful and vocal as they prepare for the breeding season. In the fall, the birds are mostly quiet and most have shed their colorful plumage and replaced it with dull winter plumage. The scarlet tanager is the most glaring example. The males were a brilliant red and black in the spring, but are dull yellow and black in the fall.
All of this is not to say that the fall migration is somehow less exciting than the spring migration. On the contrary, the fall migration is quite a thrilling time for birdwatchers. The aforementioned hawk watches are a yearly highlight for many birdwatchers. In fact, hawk watches have started already in many parts of the country, including New England. The Pack Monadnock Raptor Observatory in Peterborough is staffed starting Sept. 1.
I always get a kick out of seeing migrating nighthawks while I am enjoying a high school sporting event at night. Check out the lights at a football game this time of year and watch for these birds catching insects. You’ll know them by the white bars on their underwings.
The fall migration is also a good time to test your skills as the southbound warbler migration is a tricky prospect in many regards. The males of many species have much duller plumage than they did in the spring and the young birds heading south for the first time do not always resemble the adults.
So as these long, warm days start to dwindle (sorry to say), be sure to make the most of this time. There is a great variety of birds to be seen during the fall migration, but you have to be outside to see the show.