Fall is a spectacular season for birds, but it can also be a fleeting season as the days shorten, temperatures drop, and migrating birds move south. Make sure you don’t miss a moment of the season and its amazing birds.
Why Fall Birding Is So Good
After summer’s heat passes, autumn weather can make fall birding very pleasant. There are fewer biting insects about in autumn. And, the changing leaf foliage makes for phenomenal backdrops not just to see birds, but also for bird photography.
As fall migration reaches its peak, it can be an amazing time to see birds as northern species are passing through on their way to southern wintering ranges. The subtle non-breeding plumages of many birds at this time of year present special challenges for bird identification, making it the perfect opportunity to sharpen your skills and get more familiar with tricky species.
Autumn is also a great time to study unique behaviors of many birds, particularly the frantic feeding as different birds bulk up in preparation for their long journeys. Even birds that stay in the same region year-round can’t resist autumn’s bounty. It can be fascinating to watch chickadees, jays, and nuthatches hide seeds and nuts for winter.
Finally, autumn is a fabulous time to see birds in tremendous flocks. Some species, such as swallows and martins, stage in flocks for several weeks before setting forth on migration, while others, such as cranes and waterfowl, migrate together in unbelievable numbers. Even birds that aren’t typically social, such as raptors, may appear to be moving in flocks as they use the same thermal currents and migratory pathways on their southbound journeys. These can be awesome sights for any birder to see, and autumn is the best time to see them.
Birds to Watch for in Fall
The most spectacular fall birding is found when watching certain birds for their unique autumn behaviors and special appearances. Shorebirds are especially sought after in fall as they migrate south from their extreme northern breeding ranges. Raptors soaring high in the skies are another fall favorite, but don’t forget to watch out for songbirds such as warblers, buntings, and tanagers as well. Many of these colorful migrants won’t return until next spring.
Don't overlook familiar backyard species. Watching the autumn antics of woodpeckers, jays, wrens, titmice, and other resident birds can yield surprising insights to their behavior. Juvenile birds are maturing, giving birders a great opportunity to study the subtle changes as these birds reach their adult coloring and feather structure. Other birds will be caching seeds and nuts throughout the yard, or beginning to roost in protected spots to stay safe and comfortable during cooler nights.
8 Tips for Making the Most of Fall Birding
No matter which birds are around in fall or how their numbers change as the season advances, it is critical to make the most of every day of fall birding. As the season changes, bird populations and behaviors will also change. Furthermore, poor autumn weather can occasionally limit birding, so it is best to take advantage of every fall day for all the amazing birding opportunities it may present.
Know When Fall Migration Begins
In northern areas, summer birds may begin migrating as early as July, while in southern regions, the bulk of migration may not start until September or October. Different birds also migrate at different times, making fall migration last even longer. As the weather changes, temperatures drop, and days shorten, fall will truly be underway and the best of autumn birding and fall migration is at hand.
Offer Fall Bird-Friendly Landscaping
In autumn, late-blooming flowers in bright autumn colors attract passing birds, and seed-bearing grasses and flowers should be left to mature so birds can forage more naturally. Leaf litter should be left intact as much as possible so birds can enjoy the bounty of seeds, insects, worms, and other treats it hides, and fruit-bearing plants such as apple trees or late-season berry bushes should be accessible to hungry birds.
Visit Varied Habitats
As you venture out for fall birding, don’t visit the same habitats over and over. Instead, visit different habitats that will attract different types of birds. In marshes and wetlands, for example, you will see plenty of waterfowl and wading birds, but you’ll need to visit forests for songbirds and woodpeckers. Beach habitats can yield shorebird sightings, while trekking into pine forests is ideal for finding northern finches, woodpeckers, and jays that feast on pine nuts. Finally, don’t miss agricultural fields, where you may find sparrows, grouse, quail, and many other birds snacking on spilled grain after the harvest.
Check Full Flocks
Autumn is the biggest season for vagrant bird sightings, and mixed fall flocks may yield surprising and unexpected guests. Browse through flocks carefully, noting birds of significantly different sizes, colors, or shapes to check against local vagrants or rare migration visitors. Even if no extremely rare birds may be present, you may be astonished at how many species make up a flock that otherwise appeared uniform.
Try Fall Festivals
Autumn birding festivals are often timed to take advantage of peak numbers during fall migration. Visiting a festival gives you an opportunity to see autumn birds with expert guidance, and many festivals also offer exclusive access to private property or areas normally restricted from public use. Lectures and workshops offered at many festivals are also great chances to refine your birding skills and meet other like-minded birders.
Help Migrating Birds
Migration is a perilous journey during the best of times, and autumn can be especially tricky as the weather can worsen quickly and food sources are running out toward the end of the season. To give migrating birds a boost, offer fat-rich, high-calorie foods at backyard feeders, such as suet and nuts, and ensure tired birds can rest comfortably in a brush pile, roost box, or thicket-like landscaping. Turning off outdoor lights is also critical for migrating birds and will help them stay safely oriented along their way.
Be Prepared for Poor Weather
Autumn weather can change dramatically in just a few hours. As you prepare to go birding, check the local forecast and take note of any potential hazardous conditions. Dress in layers for better comfort, and be sure to have emergency equipment in your vehicle just in case. But don’t let the weather intimidate you – birds often mass before cold fronts, and the day or two before an autumn storm arrives can be some of the season’s most spectacular birding.
Because fall is such a changeable season, the most important way to enjoy fall birding is to do it frequently. The birds you saw just a day or two previously will quickly be replaced with new migrants arriving from northern areas, which will themselves move along in just a few days. More frequent birding will not only yield more sightings, but will help you learn how long birds may linger in different areas and when you can expect to see different birds throughout the season.
Above all, simply enjoy fall birding and appreciate its dynamic diversity. This is a spectacular season, best spent in the company of birds!