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Migration Birding Tips

Make the Most of Birding During Migration

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Sandhill Migration

Birds gather in great numbers for migration.

Stepan Mazurov

Migration season is a spectacular time to be a birder, but because the season and its bird bounty can change so quickly, it is easy to miss the best birding opportunities.

Migration Birding Benefits

Whether it is spring or fall, migration birding is outstanding. Spring birds are sporting their garish breeding plumage, while fall birds are often traveling in larger, more impressive flocks that may include both adult and juvenile birds. In either season, it can be easier to find birds as they travel along predictable routes, and there is greater bird diversity at the best birding locations as new migrants arrive and depart daily. Migration is also the time of year when rare or vagrant birds are most likely to be spotted, giving birders even more incentive to be out in the field.

Where to Bird During Migration

With such a bounty of bird life on the move, there are no bad birding spots during migration. Birders who visit the best spots, however, will see the greatest numbers and variety of birds. The best areas to bird during migration include:

  • Wetlands and other large, established waterways
  • Large wildlife preserves that offer varied habitats
  • Migration flyway corridors with flight-friendly wind patterns

Regardless of where the birding is best, birders who visit even small green spaces and remote areas with good natural habitat are likely to see a lot of migrating birds during the appropriate seasons.

Migration Birding Tips

To make the most of birding during migration…

  • Check the Calendar: Spring migration may begin as early as February, while fall migration can start in early July depending on the bird species and geographic location. Check with local birding groups to determine when migration peaks in a specific area, and stay alert for the first signs of migrating birds.

  • Watch the Weather: Spring and fall weather can be unpredictable with extreme precipitation and temperature shifts. Dress appropriately for the season and take into account how elevation and habitat will affect the weather. Inappropriate clothing can be too warm or too cold, and an uncomfortable birder will not spend as much time in the field enjoying migration.

  • Bird Frequently: The numbers of types of birds at the same location can vary daily, even hourly, during peak migration periods. Even if visiting the area does not yield good results on one day, the next day it may have a very different complement of birds to enjoy. Note that hotline sightings of birds at specific locations can be outdated very quickly during migration, so take advantage of every opportunity for extra birding.

  • Bird From the Sky to the Ground: Migrating birds occupy different levels in the vegetation as well as above and below it. Check the skies for soaring raptors, and check beneath low bushes for ground-feeding birds so no migrants are missed.

  • Take Time for Identification: Bird plumages can vary widely during migration periods, with some birds sporting easily recognizable breeding colors while other birds have more muted, indistinct appearances. Juvenile and molting birds can be especially challenging to identify during migration, so take the time to be certain of what birds you're seeing.

  • Focus on the Whole Flock: Just because a flock seems to be nothing but white-crowned sparrows doesn't mean there might not be a Harris's sparrow or other little brown job lurking with the crowd. Mixed flocks are common during migration and careful observation of individual birds can reveal surprising migrants.

  • Be Kind to Rarities: Rare birds and unusual vagrants are always a possibility during migration, but birders should carefully consider the ethics of rare birds before sharing their observations with other birders. Avoid irresponsible reporting that may put a vagrant bird at risk or under undue stress during what is already a stressful time.

  • Consider Birding Festivals: Both spring and fall migration are popular times for birding festivals because visitors can enjoy not only resident birds, but also a range of migrants. Look for both local and regional festivals to see more of your familiar species, or opt for festivals further away to experience a wealth of unique birds.

  • Attract Migrating Birds: Birders can enjoy migration right in their own backyards when they take steps to attract migrating birds with the right food, water and shelter. A bird-friendly backyard with a lot of resident bird activity will be a beacon to passing migrants that it is a good place to stop for a rest, snack or drink.

  • Be Polite: No matter where you are birding during migration, follow proper birding etiquette whenever you encounter other birders, hikers or anyone out enjoying the change of seasons. Share your love of birding with them, and you may just convince another nature lover to join the flock of birding hobbyists for every migration.

Photo – Sandhill Cranes in Migration © Stepan Mazurov

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