Oct 3, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2018

Tips for Better Fall Birding in Your Backyard

A bay-breasted warbler in fall plumage. Photo by A. Reago & C. McClarren / Wikimedia.

Although we birders tend to think of spring as the most active migration season, in many parts of North America, fall migration is actually "birdier." If you're like most bird watchers, you have no problem making plans to get out and catch spring migration in May, but I'll bet you might not get as excited about a field trip in late August or mid-September. It took me years of birding on my southeastern Ohio farm to accept the reality that fall migration here in the Appalachian foothills is actually better and more interesting than spring. Of course, some of the songbird plumages are more muted and the air is filled with chips and call notes more than with full-throated breeding-season singing, but I find the charms and surprises of fall migration alluring and irresistible.

So, here are some suggestions for enhancing fall migration watching in your own backyard. Yes, your mileage may vary, depending on where you live and what your backyard is like, habitat-wise. The birds in a backyard in Brunswick, Maine, on September 15 will differ greatly from what's being seen in Bisbee, Arizona, on the same day. These are general suggestions, which you can tweak to fit your own particular circumstances.

Get Out Early; Be Patient

Because there's not really a dawn chorus to catch in fall, there's not such a need to be outside, ready to go, before dawn. If you are out in the pre-dawn hours, it can be a great time to hear migrants passing overhead, calling to one another to keep in contact. Many of our songbirds migrate overnight, so the birds you'll be hearing in the dark sky before dawn will soon be landing in the nearest favorable habitat and looking for food and a place to roost for the afternoon. Thrushes, sparrows, buntings, and warblers may all be chipping and calling as they fly. As dawn comes on, there is often a flurry of activity as migrant birds drop out of the sky and resident birds become active. Then things may settle down almost completely. I've found that waiting around until 9 a.m. or so often results in another burst of bird activity. I used to think this was just the birds trying to keep me from heading off to work. Now I believe it's part of the natural flow of activity as hungry migrants get a second wind and begin foraging following a short rest.

Many species that won't typically visit a bird feeder will come in to inspect a birdbath with moving water.

Feeding Stations and Water Features

Autumn is a good time to keep your feeders filled and your water feature clean and working. Many species that won't typically visit a bird feeder will come in to inspect a birdbath with moving water. I've observed that a busy feeding station often attracts curious migrants that want to see what all the commotion is about. Many of our North American species spend migration and the winter months in loose flocks or mixed confederations of species, which look for food and water and watch for predators together. If your backyard feeder activity level is high, watch for non-feeder birds to stop by to check things out.

Find Habitat Confluences

No matter the season, one of the best bits of field craft you can employ is to go birding where one or more habitats meet. Such places appeal to the widest variety of birds, so naturally you have the best chance of finding migrants there. If your backyard is mostly yard, look around your nighborhood or visit a nearby park to see if you can find a combination of open, grassy habitat adjoining some woodland or brushy habitat, with a nearby body of water. Station yourself here on a sunny fall morning and watch for bird activity as the sun warms the vegetation and the insect life starts to move.

If you hear a vireo in the fall, watch for some zipping bill-to-tail chase scenes.

Vireo Chases

In our part of the continent, red-eyed vireos are like the kid on the playground who always wants to chase somebody and play tag. I'm not sure if this is leftover hormones from the breeding season, migratory restlessness, or just their pugnacious nature, but redeyes often seem to chase any bird that's near them. It almost seems as though it's a form of play. More than once I've added three or four species to my morning checklist thanks to a rowdy redeye rousting them from hiding. An added bonus is that red-eyed vireos (and their vireo relatives) often continue singing in the fall, though at a reduced pace. So if you hear a vireo, watch for some zipping bill-to-tail chase scenes.

If you encounter a warbler in fall (non-breeding) plumage that you cannot easily identify, start at the top/front of the bird and work down and back toward the tail, looking for the most obvious field marks.

'Confusing Fall Warblers'

We've all heard the phrase "confusing fall warblers." Kind of makes you queasy, right? Well, I'm here to tell you it's a bunch of hooey. Fifty-three warbler species occur regularly in North America. Of those 53 species, 43 look almost exactly the same in spring and fall. So that leaves a whopping 10 warbler species that look different enough in fall to require a bit of effort to identify them. I'm not going to go deep into fall warbler identification here, but I will offer a few tips to help you.

If you encounter a warbler in fall (non-breeding) plumage that you cannot easily identify, start at the top/front of the bird and work down and back toward the tail, looking for the most obvious field marks. As you scan over the bird, note whether it has wing bars—or not. Our “confusing” fall warblers fall into one or the other category. Next ask yourself if your bird is streaky or plain. Finally, look for some sort of color or behavioral clue that might hint at the bird's identity. For example: blackpoll warblers always have yellow feet. Prairie warblers often flash their white tail panels. Palm warblers bob their tails up and down. Cape May warblers nearly always show a lime-colored rump.

Practice on such things can and should be enjoyable. And it's perfectly okay to let some birds go unidentified—they won't care. That's the fun of fall backyard birding. There's always a surprise or two in store.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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