Fall Back Into Birding

Making the most of fall birding in the Great Lakes

Fall migration is truly a magical time as waterfowl, waterbirds, shorebirds, songbirds, and raptors pass through the Great Lakes region on their trips south to their wintering grounds. The Great Lakes region lies at the intersection of the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, two migration “superhighways,” which bring over 380 bird species through the region each fall!

Great Lakes coastal and inland wetlands act as important resting and refueling zones for migratory birds and are one of the best habitats to visit during fall migration. Wetlands provide birds with water, food, and shelter during their long migration journeys and as such, many birds follow Great Lakes coastlines on their journeys south.

Keeping an eye on the weather can help you prepare for your next fall birding trip. Wind and other weather events can help you predict when large movements of birds will migrate through the region. Cold fronts are the most important weather feature to track. Storms often precede cold fronts, which cause migrants to hunker down until the poor weather passes. This often results in an awe-inspiring migratory movement known as a “fall-out.” Cold fronts also tend to have northerly winds, which blow north to south that aid our feathered friends in their southward migration. Check your weather radar regularly this season or check out BirdCast, a special forecast that predicts when birds will be moving near you!

Here’s what birds to keep an eye out for over the next few months:

August: Shorebird migration starts earlier than most would expect (in mid-July) and will continue into August along our coastal mudflats, muddy areas within inland wetlands, and flooded fields. Some songbirds are also migrating this month, including many warblers, Warbling Vireos, cuckoos, flycatchers, and Common Nighthawks, which peak at the end of the month.

September: Raptors, primarily Broad-winged Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks, start to move through the region in great numbers. Waterfowl, mainly dabbling ducks like Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, and American Wigeon also head south, along with gulls (including some rare species), songbirds including Blue Jays, warblers, and thrushes, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

October: Diving ducks arrive this month, like Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, and Canvasback, as well as our northern finches like Dark-eyed Juncos and Pine Siskins. If we experience an “irruption” year, we may even see some Evening Grosbeaks and crossbills. Northern breeders, such as Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, American Pipits, and Horned Larks, start to move south. Sandhill Cranes start to migrate in great numbers.

Warbler and thrush migration starts to wind down. Warblers still on the move this month include Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, which peak this month, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Hawk diversity increases.

November: Diving ducks, sea ducks, such as eiders and Long-tailed Ducks, rare gulls like Iceland Gull, Sabine’s Gull, Franklin’s Gull, and sparrows continue to move through the region. Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings travel in peak numbers. Northern owls, such as Great Gray Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl and Boreal Owl, make their way into the UP in Michigan. Rough-legged Hawks and Golden Eagles also move through the region in decent numbers.

Want to see the wonders of bird migration in action, but not sure where to start? Explore Audubon’s Important Bird Areas, sites that are recognized for providing critical habitat to birds that also provide excellent bird watching opportunities.  The Great Lakes region has many natural areas from local parks and forest preserves to state parks and shorelines, check our our Where To Bird guide to find the perfect spot for discovering the many species of birds that use the Great Lakes region. 

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