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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