It’s August and nesting season has ended. For many people, it’s the end of vacation season. While human families begin returning to work and starting school, birds begin flocking in preparation for fall migration. Learn how you can take advantage of this migration season from your own backyard, or from a popular birding migration destination.
Why Birds Migrate
While the weather may still be hot, birds are focused on returning to their winter homes, often thousands of miles in travel time. The energy once put into preparing nestlings for independence is now spent growing new feathers for their journey.
Depending on its species, different birds leave at different times. The main reason behind migration is survival. In order to survive, birds must seek out destinations with food sources. Additionally, birds need to seek out suitable habitats in accordance with the changing seasons.
The First to Migrate: Hummingbirds
The Rufous Hummingbird is the first of species to leave, followed closely by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. These delicate birds head to their winter homes in Mexico until it is warm enough to return to North America.
It’s typical for most species of hummingbirds to migrate each season, exchanging their northern homes for southern homes in winter. Interestingly, hummingbirds do not travel in flocks. The hummingbird travels individually during migration.
See also: Hummingbird Migration Patterns Explained
Migration takes place during the daylight hours. The vigilant birdwatcher might be lucky enough to see them in flight, hovering low in the air in case there’s an opportunity to grab a quick meal as they travel. The hummingbird rests at night during migration and continues to their destination at daylight.
Following Close Behind: Western Songbirds
Western songbirds, long-distance migrants, typically begin their migration journey in late summer. They head to the Mexican monsoon region due to their northern breeding sites drying up. The Mexican monsoon region, with its heavy flooding, offers these birds a feast of flowering plants and insects. The abundance of food sources created by flooding is necessary for these birds to refuel after an intense molting season. Once refueled, these birds will be able to make the long journey to South America where they will remain for the winter.
Learn about molting: Why Your Backyard Birds Look Different in Late Summer
Warblers Take Flight in Late August
The American population of Yellow Warblers drops sharply by the second half of the August. These bright, sunny yellow birds are the most distinct in the warbler family. Like many western songbirds, the warbler is considered a long-distance migrant, traveling thousands of miles to its winter home.
The Yellow Warbler will journey from North America to warm destinations such as Central America and northern South America. As they migrate earlier in spring than other species of birds, they begin fall migration earlier as well. During the spring migration the Yellow Warbler flies across the Gulf of Mexico in a single nonstop journey. In fall, the Yellow Warbler travels over land, moving along the Gulf to its winter destination.
Shorebird Watching is Amazing in Late August
Humans aren’t the only ones leaving the beach behind at the end of August. Piping Plovers, Sand Pipers, and other birds in the plover family, begin their fall migration in summer, some as early as late July. If seeing any of these birds is your goal this summer, your best chance is before the end of August, when you can see a mix of juveniles in fresh plumage and adults in the end of their breeding plumage. By September, the plumage of the juveniles begins to fade, and the adults appear worn out.
Ornithologist agree that shorebirds as a group make some of the most arduous long-distance migrations of any North American bird. Close to two-thirds of shorebirds that breed in North America journey to their winter homes in Central and South America. This annual trip can total as much as 15,000 miles. Shorebirds are also known to travel at speeds close to 50 miles per hour, enabling them to cover up to 2,000 miles in less than two days. Even more impressive is that some shorebirds will make daunting migratory flights nonstop. Unlike the hummingbird, which migrates during daylight, shorebirds migrate at night.
If You’re Looking to Go Beyond Your Backyard
If you’re itching to see flocks of birds making their migratory journeys from somewhere other than your backyard, here are three destinations favored among seasoned birdwatchers. Grab your binoculars and get ready for some memorable moments you won’t soon forget.
Cape May, New Jersey
If you haven’t been yet, you’re in for a jaw dropping experience. Cape May birdwatchers claim they have the best birding spot in the world. Migration season is the perfect time to prove them right. Warblers hit their stride here in September, but you’ll want to be here in fall when major flights of hawks fill the skies. If a Peregrine Falcon is on your list, try Cape May in October.
Monterey Bay, California
If you’re on the west coast, consider any of a number of spots along this large bay to spot birds during fall migration. It’s the only spot you will be treated to a rare sighting of the Buller Shearwater, a long-distance migrant from New Zealand. A variety of long-distance migrants can be spotted here, and a bonus is the boating bird trips available on the bay.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Florida
A popular southern destination for birdwatchers is Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Located at the southern most tip of Key Biscayne, late fall sees this birding destination brimming with migrating warblers, thrushes, vireos, and hawks. Its location has also been known to attract lost birds native to the Bahamas and Cuba. Rare North American birds have been reported to have been seen at this location as well.
While summer may be winding down in late August, for birdwatchers, it’s just the beginning of an exciting migration season. The fall migration that begins in late August and early September is an ideal time to head into your back yard with binoculars. And if you’re willing to venture beyond your garden gate, any of the above destinations will make late summer one of the most exciting times to be a birdwatcher. Keep your eyes on the skies!