Eight distinguished bird-watchers reveal their favorite places to go birding during fall migration
- Cynthia Berger
- Oct 01, 2003
AUTUMN IN NORTH AMERICA means heavy southbound traffic along the continent’s great flyways, aerial corridors that serve as bird superhighways. Geese flap south in noisy V-shaped masses. Shorebirds abandon their Arctic breeding grounds for winter refuges in South America. Hawks float along mountain ridges, flying solo or in swirling group formations known as "kettles."
No matter where you live, autumn provides a chance to see gatherings of birds that stir the human soul: white clouds of snow geese settling into a marsh at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, trees dripping with warblers in Cape May, New Jersey.
We asked some of the nation’s top birders to share their favorite places for watching the great avian spectacle of migration in fall. Their destinations, described below, span the continent—and provide an assortment of options for a bird-packed getaway.
Photo: © Tom and Pat Leeson
Green-winged teal, a fall visitor
Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge
Exactly 200 years ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped along the Missouri River near what today is Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri. They noted the odd "baldpated hills" to the west—a geologic formation created at the end of the last ice age, when wind piled up fine-grained quartz silt. Today those hills are no longer bald; native prairie has ceded to forest. But they still make a dramatic backdrop in autumn, when nearly half a million snow geese descend on the marshlands along the river.
Ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has spent 42 years "drinking in the sights and sounds" of snow geese as they pass through the region. "There are lots of places in the Great Plains to watch snow geese," he says, "and I’ve probably been to all of them." But Squaw Creek is a favorite, he notes, adding, "This is classic Great Plains marsh—natural-looking habitat, where you feel that the geese are in the right place."
Marshlands dominated by cattails and American lotus form the heart of the 7,350-acre refuge, which is ringed by oak-hickory forest. Honking streams of snow geese en route from their North Dakota nesting grounds to southern wintering areas touch down here starting in early October.
Johnsgard likes to begin a day of birding in nearby Mound City, where one popular diner is decorated with dozens of taxidermied waterfowl. It opens at 5:30 am, so you can test your duck I.D. skills over coffee and still drive to the refuge before daybreak. The geese—some stark white, others soft gray—spend the night floating on marshes, safe from prowling coyotes. They lift off at dawn in a noisy, heart-stopping cloud, heading for nearby cornfields, where they gorge on fallen grain.
As the morning progresses, Johnsgard suggests working your way around the ten-mile auto route. The refuge hosts roughly 300 species of birds throughout the year, so there is always plenty to see. In addition to snow geese, you are almost certain to spot cormorants, great blue herons and sandpipers in the marsh; Franklin gulls in the cornfields; and resident woodpeckers along the nature trail that climbs to the crest of the hills. You’ll also see bald eagles—lots of them. "This is one of the best places in the region to see eagles," says Johnsgard, who has counted 30 in a single cottonwood stand.
For more information about Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, visit http://midwest.fws.gov/SquawCreek.
Point Pelee National Park
Point Pelee, Ontario, juts south into Lake Erie like a skinny dogtooth sunk in a blue rubber ball. This is Canada’s Florida peninsula—the southernmost extension of the mainland. Most birders come here in spring, hoping bad weather will force northbound migrants winging over the lake to bail out on the first bit of land they encounter—making a classic "warbler fallout."
Kenn Kaufmann—bird expert and field guide author—prefers to come here in fall, when the birds are equally abundant but you don’t have to shoulder so many people aside to see them. Stunning numbers of migrating monarch butterflies also congregate here in autumn. Kaufmann says early September is a good time to visit, and choose a weekday rather than a weekend, if you really want to have the place to yourself. Weather makes a difference in what birds you’ll see. "I have the best success on days with clear skies in the wake of a cold front," Kaufmann notes.
Because Point Pelee is a national park, there is an entrance fee ($3.25 Canadian per person). The main park road heads due south toward the tip of the point, but you can start birding right in the Visitor Center parking lot. "Because of the sandy soil, the trees don’t grow super-tall. So the birds are low, relatively accessible," Kaufmann says. Another good spot is the Marsh Boardwalk picnic area. "Get out on the boardwalk and look back toward the trees at the edge," he recommends. "Warblers of all kinds are going through—blackpoll, bay-breasted, Blackburnian—really good variety!" And keep your eyes peeled for a Philadelphia vireo, "a jazzy bird," says Kaufmann. "You always find a few here."
No cars are allowed at the tip of the point, but you can walk down the road or take a tram. "The point is where things are really hopping," Kaufmann says. "American redstarts and black-throated blue warblers skulking down low, black-throated greens in the treetops, chestnut-sided warblers flitting around," and even the chance of an endangered Kirtland’s warbler. "It’s just like a treasure hunt."
In the afternoon, Kaufmann leaves the park to look for another treasure: the shorebirds that come to comb the rich black soils of nearby onion farms for insects. His prize is the buff-breasted sandpiper, a bird that breeds in the high Arctic, winters in Argentina—and passes through here during migration. "It’s a beautiful bird, one of my favorites," he says.
For more information about Point Pelee, visit http://parkscanada.gc.ca/pn-np/on/pelee/index_E.asp.
Photo: © Larry Ditto (Kac Productions)
Santa Ana wetlands
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
Father Tom Pincelli
As a pastor at Saint Anthony’s Church in Harlingen, Texas, Father Tom Pincelli works most days—except Thursday, his day off. That’s when he "disappears into the sunset," he says. For Father Pincelli, an avid birder who has chaired the Frontera Audubon Society and hosted a local PBS TV show, On the Birding Trail, living in south Texas is a grand fortune. "I think it’s on every North American birder’s ‘want list’ to come here," he says. And no wonder, with birding hot spots such as South Padre Island, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park all within a short distance of one another.
During the autumn migration, Santa Ana’s 2,088 acres along the Rio Grande River is Father Pincelli’s favorite destination. The refuge is bigger—and wilder—than Bentsen, he notes, though both are located at an "ecological crossroads," where subtropical, Gulf Coast, Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert climates come together.
Within its borders, Santa Ana offers birders a wide variety of habitats: hardwood forest, wetland, brushland, coastal prairie and desert. That wide variety of habitats means a surfeit of birds—nearly 400 species. About half of these are residents. The rest are migrants passing through as they follow the Central and Mississippi Flyways on their way to Central and South America. Waves of raptors, waterfowl and shorebirds show up at Santa Ana in fall. In addition to birds, the refuge hosts an array of other species, including the indigo snake, malachite butterfly and the endangered ocelot.
Like most national wildlife refuges, Santa Ana has an auto route that loops around the reserve, but the drive is open strictly on weekends and only through November. No matter, Pincelli says, just take the tram, which is staffed by refuge naturalists. "Or walk," he offers, "it gives you a more expansive view."
The refuge features 12 miles of foot trails that are open every day from sunrise to sunset. "I like the one that runs around Pintail Lake," Pincelli says. "There’s always the chance for local specialties, such as green jay, plain chachalaca, long-billed thrasher or a lingering groove-billed ani. You could easily see both Santa Ana and Bentsen in one day if you moved quickly, but I’d rather slow down and see what’s out there.
"That’s my time—holy Thursday."
For more information, see http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/texas/santana.html.
T he "Sky Islands" of Arizona
Some of the bird species native to Mexico’s Sierra Madre can also be found farther to the north, marooned on little "sky islands" of habitat—the mountain peaks of southeast Arizona. "Here you can see birds that occur nowhere else in the United States," says naturalist Sheri Williamson, the director of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO).
Williamson often travels across the country, giving bird talks or leading tours, but when autumn comes, she says there’s no place like home. Her ideal day of fall birding starts at SABO’s Banning Creek Field Station, which is located north of the old mining town of Bisbee, up a rocky canyon in the Mule Mountains. "On a typical late-August morning this place is swarming with hummingbirds," she says. Common visitors include rufous, calliope and broad-tailed hummingbirds. But you may also spot rare species such as violet-crowned and Lucifer hummingbirds.
From the field station, Williamson heads down to the San Pedro River and the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area, a cool, green corridor of cottonwood and willow trees. "This is a real oasis in the desert—and a major highway for migrating birds," says Williamson. Watch for the flocks of lazuli buntings, warblers and flycatchers as they chirp, hop and flutter through the riverside trees, slowly working their way south on the Rocky Mountain Flyway.
As the day heats up, Williamson moves on to the Huachuca Mountains, where, at 6,000 feet, the air is noticeably cooler. Follow North Canyon Road to Beatty’s Miller Canyon Guest Ranch and Orchard, a family-owned resort, organic apple orchard and "the best spot for watching hummingbirds in the entire United States," says Williamson. The Beatty family welcomes visitors—including those who are not overnight guests—to pull up a seat at the picnic tables and feast on such sights as berylline, magnificent and blue-throated hummingbirds sipping sugar water from jumbo-sized feeders.
"It’s kind of like that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, says Williamson—the one where glowing orbs float overhead while an awestruck crowd gasps "ooh" and "ah" in unison.
Williamson ends her day with a hike in the Miller Peak Wilderness Area to see some of the resident songbirds for which southeast Arizona is famous: painted redstart, flame-colored tanager, elegant trogon. "The names are so evocative," she smiles. "Doesn’t it set your heart aflutter just to hear them?"
For more information, visit www.sabo.org/birding/huacspv.htm.
The American robin is so common, so ubiquitous, not even a novice birder would get very excited about seeing one. So why does Pete Dunne—birder, wisecracking writer and director of the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory—mention this bland suburban bird when you ask him about favorite fall migration sightings?
Maybe it’s because he’s talking about robins on his home turf: the southern tip of New Jersey. In late October, when American robins pass through here on their journey south, you can see "a million and a half robins" in a single morning from the bird observatory’s Hawk Watch platform, says Dunne. "It’s a really, really bad time to be an earthworm in Cape May," he deadpans.
Thanks to geography, Cape May Point is a migration hot spot—a bird’s last chance to rest and refuel before making the 14-mile flight south over Delaware Bay. When the weather’s unfavorable for flying across open water, vast flocks of migrants get "bottled up" at the point. This can lead to exciting sightings. Northern harriers, for example, usually migrate alone, but one October day, Dunne watched a group of 80 take flight together.
Dunne has been captivated by the spectacle of migration at Cape May from the first day he worked there: August 30, 1976. Actually, it was the first minute. "I saw two loggerhead shrikes before I even got out of the car," he says. (These are rare birds in the Northeast.)
His ideal day of birding in Cape May includes a stop at the Hawk Watch platform. Watch for red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, maybe a rough-legged or even a Swainson’s. It’s possible to spot 14 raptor species in a single day—sometimes in startling proximity. Once, Dunne says he saw "a Northern harrier steal prey from a peregrine falcon—and the prey was a sharp-shinned hawk."
Dunne also recommends heading to Higbee Beach or Hidden Valley Ranch. "Migrating birds touch down here to forage," he explains. In October, expect several kinds of sparrows, Eastern phoebes, hermit thrushes and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, among others.
Leave time to track down rare birds in the afternoon, Dunne cautions, and cap your day at South Cape May Meadows, watching owls wake up as the sun sets. Migratory species at Cape May include long-eared, Northern saw-whet, barred and sometimes short-eared. "You can see their silhouettes against the glow of the sky," says Dunne.
For more information, visit www.njaudubon.org/Centers/CMBO.
Maine’s Sunrise Coast
It’s called the Sunrise Coast of Maine because the sun’s rays first touch the United States here each morning. The bird-watching in fall is just as spectacular as the sunrise views, says NWF Chief Naturalist Craig Tufts. In northern Maine, boreal forest is juxtaposed with seacoast, which means birders can see not just clouds of migrating shorebirds but also resident "specialties," such as spruce grouse, that live here year-round.
Photo: © Dick Keen (Unicorn Stock)
Atlantic puffins on Machias Seal Island
Tufts likes to use the town of Lubec—the former "sardine packing capital of the world"—as a base camp. He visits in early September, when the weather is still good and seabirds are on the move. He suggests getting up early and heading for Quoddy Head State Park, the best place on the coast to see the sunrise. Then, walk the park trails. "If the weather has been right, there should be waves of migratory land birds coming through," he says. Scan the trees for Blackburnian and Cape May warblers, but also keep an eye cocked toward the water for chance sightings of common eiders and bald eagles.
Tufts also recommends a visit to nearby Cobscook Bay State Park to explore the colorful tide pools—and to look for boreal birds. "That’s where I saw my first black-backed woodpecker and my second boreal chickadee," he notes. For shorebirds, visit nearby Lubec Flats—but consult a local tide table first. In the Bay of Fundy, the difference between high and low tide can be 20 vertical feet, and when the tide goes out, a vast expanse of mud lies exposed—a food-rich "staging area" for migrating plovers, yellowlegs, red knots, ruddy turnstones, sandpipers and sanderlings.
Another option is a boat trip to Machias Seal Island. (Several tour companies run trips out of Lubec.) Tiny and treeless, the island is famous for its colony of Atlantic puffins, but razorbill auks and common and Arctic terns also breed here. From the boat, watch for shearwaters and storm petrels, and—if you’re lucky—phalaropes. These elegantly plumaged shorebirds have an eccentric habit of spinning around as they bob on the surface of the water, their partially webbed feet creating whirlpools that concentrate their planktonic food. "One time, taking the ferry from Eastport to Lubec, I saw an incredible raft of red-necked phala-ropes," recalls Tufts. Over an area of several acres, thousands of tiny dancers were whirling and twirling, their soft bodies almost obscuring the surface of the water.
For more information about Quoddy Head and Cobscook Bay State Parks, visit www.state.me.us/doc/parks.
Photo: © James Blank
Aerial view of Point Loma
Guy McCaskie’s job as a civil engineer keeps him busy, but he’s managed to find plenty of time for birding, his favorite pastime, over the years. And those in the know say that he has revolutionized the sport. When McCaskie moved from Great Britain to California in the 1950s, birders on both sides of the pond took the same approach: In any given habitat, you should look for the birds that ought to be there. McCaskie had a different idea. "I look for "vagrants,’" he says, "the birds that shouldn’t be there."
Setting out on its journey, a long-distance migrant is preprogrammed to travel a certain distance, McCaskie explains. "If it’s 5,000 miles, the bird will fly 5,000 miles," he says. "But does it always go in the right direction?"
The answer, it seems, is no. And as a result, a black-throated blue warbler that ought to be winging down the East Coast may end up at one of McCaskie’s Southern California birding haunts instead. "All it has to do is go a little bit in the wrong direction," he says. "I’ve seen most of the eastern long-distance migrants here." Other reasonably common vagrants include great crested flycatcher (another eastern species), sulfur-bellied flycatcher (heading north instead of south) and Baird’s sparrow (oops, a little too far to the west).
McCaskie’s favorite fall birding spot is Point Loma, not far from his home near San Diego. "It sticks out in the ocean a bit, so it concentrates migrant land birds in the fall," he says, much like Point Pelee and Cape May. Years of experience have brought McCaskie to expect semi-rarities like American redstarts and black-and-white warblers that have wandered from the East Coast to the West. Plus the occasional "super-rarity," such as a little bunting—a sparrowlike species that breeds in Siberia.
McCaskie expects to see lost birds on Point Loma any time from the first of September to the fifteenth of November. A good place to look for them is Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, which, like most established cemeteries, has lots of mature trees—fine perch sites for migrating land birds. As long as you’re considerate and don’t park in spaces reserved for funerals, says McCaskie, it’s okay to wander around with your binoculars.
Cabrillo National Monument, at the tip of the point, is another good spot to scope. Cabrillo also happens to be the most-visited national monument in America, thanks to its historic lighthouse, tide pools and sweeping ocean views. These distractions serve as consolation prizes if you don’t lay your bins on the "bird that shouldn’t be there."
Horicon National Wildlife Refuge
George H. Harrison
Bounded on the east by limestone cliffs, kidney-shaped Horicon Marsh in Mayville, Wisconsin, marks the place where, once upon a time, an ancient lake brimmed with glacial meltwater. Covering 32,000 acres, it is today the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States. Photographer and author of 13 books about birding, George H. Harrison comes here several times a year from his home in the southeastern corner of the state. "In fall, I’ve seen a hundred or more species in a day, no problem," he says, including 18 to 20 duck species, a good variety of shorebirds and raptors, including bald eagles, falcons and rough-legged hawks and great gray clouds of Canada geese. Some 200,000 geese—nearly the entire Mississippi Valley Flock—splash down here each year.
For convenient bird viewing, an auto route—the Horicon "Ternpike"—encircles the refuge. Harrison likes to start in the village of Horicon, at the southern end of the refuge. Follow the brown signs, he says, and be sure to stop at the overlooks along the way.
If you want get out of the car, the refuge has numerous hiking trails and a water trail for birding by canoe. Harrison recommends a walk on the floating boardwalk trail. "You go right through the cattails, so you see lots of birds up close," he says. "One time I saw a peregrine falcon, sitting on a duck it had killed." Migrating songbirds such as warblers, vireos and flycatchers also find a haven in the isolated patches of woodland that stud Horicon’s marshy terrain.
A visit in early October is optimal for several reasons, says Harrison. First, hunting season hasn’t opened yet, so the waterfowl are less nervous and remain closer to the highway. Second, naturalists staff the marsh viewing platforms during the refuge’s annual fall festival. And third, you can sip fresh pressed cider sold at roadside stands and enjoy stunning fall foliage at its peak. "The sugar maples look like they’re on fire," Harrison says. "It’s as good as Vermont."
For more information about Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, visit http://midwest.fws.gov/Horicon.
Northern California: Seabirds Galore
California's Bodega Bay is where director Alfred Hitchcock filmed his creepy thriller, The Birds. And naturalist Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys has had some close encounters with the local avifauna there. "I've come down to the boat in the morning to see a great horned owl sitting on the mast!" she says. But the birds in Bodega Bay aren't anything like their Hollywood cohorts—as you can see when the boat leaves the dock. "We go out past these mudflats and they're just covered with shorebirds," Shearwater says. "Lots of sandpipers, white pelicans, loons and grebes along the way."
From Bodega Bay, Shearwater heads north toward Cordell Bank, an area of shallow water about 52 miles northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fish congregate there, and so do the birds that feed on them. "During the ride out, I look for tufted puffins, which nest on the Farallon Islands to the south," she says. "And I look for the first shearwaters," including sooty shearwaters, Buller's, pink-footed and the occasional flesh-footed—all of them heading north from their breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere.
"Seabirds that breed to the north, south and east of us all come here in autumn to feed on the big anchovy schools," says Shearwater. August is "albatross time," when black-footed and Laysan albatrosses, which nest in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, fly in to feed.
"The numbers of birds can be mind-blowing!" she adds. "One day we traveled through five miles of Sabine's gulls. That's when you know you're in the middle of migration!" The crisply plumaged birds were moving from northern breeding grounds in the Arctic to wintering grounds in the south, from Baja California to Chile.
Besides birds, Shearwater watches for migrating marine mammals. "The world's largest known stock of blue whales occurs off the California coast in the fall," she says, and they feed on krill (tiny, shrimplike crustaceans), which are especially abundant on Cordell Bank. "We see whales lunge right at the surface with their mouths open," says Shearwater. "Then they shut their mouths, squeezing out the water, krill popping out the sides," she laughs. Birds dive in to pickup the leftovers.
For more about Bodega Bay birding, visit http://audubon.sonoma.net/birding/bodega_bay.html.
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