Five Tips for Making Fall Migration Count

In southeastern Ohio, bay-breasted warblers are very scarce during the spring, but easily found during the fall.
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Some backyard bird watchers are so focused on spring migration that they seem to discount the rest of the year. But guess what? Spring migration is only half the show! All of that excitement and action happens not once, but twice, every year. Sure, things are a little different the second time around—some of the birds are sporting different plumage and things are a little less noisy—but the action is still there. In fact, since migratory routes differ between spring and fall for many species, you can encounter birds during the latter season that are hard to find the first time around. For example, in my area of southeastern Ohio, bay-breasted warblers are very scarce during the spring but easily found during the fall. Plus, fall migration is prime time for spotting vagrants and other rarities.

Here are a few tips I've picked up that are helpful to keep in mind when birding during fall, especially for warblers and other backyard migrants.

Review your field guide. Many of our migrants, especially the warblers, look completely different in their nonbreeding plumage. Review some of the species you are likely to encounter in your area, reminding yourself of key field marks and noting the overall shape and impression of the birds.

Bird frequently. Things can change hourly during migration, so don't limit yourself to only the first hour or two of daylight. Last fall I would bird the same spot three or four times a day—just a few minutes at a time as I had the opportunity—and see different species each time (often in the same tree). Just like during spring, anything can happen during fall migration.

Watch closely. Since the birds are not singing during the non-breeding season, you don't have the luxury of waiting for unfamiliar bird songs to clue you in to the presence of a migratory songbird. Scan trees carefully, watching for movement, and listen for call notes. Pay attention to sunlit spots, as insect-eating birds tend to congregate there looking for prey. Many a wave of warblers has been found just by taking a moment to stop walking and start looking.

Look for chickadees. Chickadees are very popular birds. All of the cool birds know to hang close to chickadees. Kinglets, warblers, and vireos will often follow these familiar birds, forming a feeding flock. If you hear a couple of chattering chickadees, check each bird in the flock—you have a good chance of spotting a migratory bird among them, sometimes right in your own backyard.

Install a water feature in your backyard. Because many migratory species such as warblers and vireos tend to stay high in the treetops, they often go unnoticed in our backyards. Moving water can be a great way to lure some of these winged treasures down into plain view. Invest in a pump or fountain, or do it the old-fashioned way: Hang a jug of water over your birdbath, poke a small hole in the jug, and then let the dripping water attract magnolia and chestnut-sided warblers to your window.

If you've been in the habit of taking the latter part of the year off, don't neglect fall migration again this year. Take the plunge, and you may experience some of your best birding yet.

About Kyle Carlsen

Kyle is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. When not writing about birds, he divides his time between backpacking, traveling, and composing piano music. He's also a self-described coffee addict.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018