Fall Migration: The Ugly Stepsister

Rose-breasted Grosebeak (Male, Fall Plumage) - Dryden Lake, Dryden, NY

Rose-breasted Grosebeak (Male, Fall Plumage) - Dryden Lake, Dryden, NY

Spring migration gets all the attention because all of the warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, and other songbirds are decked out in their finest plumage as they head north to breed, but don’t ignore fall migration!  Sure, you don’t get the spectacular fallouts along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico as exhausted birds reach the coast after crossing the water.  But you do get an intellectual challenge: how to identify birds in nonbreeding plumage and a multitude of drab juveniles can challenge even the best birders.

I will be the first to admit that I haven’t spent a lot of time birding in the fall, mostly because for many years school was just starting back up and I simply didn’t have the time.  I have always been more than slightly intimidated by fall warblers but as I have found over the past few weeks, it’s really not too bad.  Most male birds still look somewhat like they did in the spring.  They may have faded a bit to less sexy colors but typically the basic patterns are still there.  Females usually just look like they do in the spring.

Migration can be an amazing opportunity for photographers.  Particularly in the spring, but it holds true in the fall as well, birds tend to venture into new habitats.  This means that birds that spend their time in the very tip top of trees on their breeding grounds often will come down lower to forage.  This can provide opportunities to photograph birds that can be extremely difficult to access at other times of the year.

The ultimate in fall migration is of course the raptors.  Hawk migration at places like Hawk Mountain, PA and Corpus Christi, TX can produce some mind-boggling numbers.  I have seen counts at Corpus Christi of over 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks passing by in a single day.  Hawk watchers at Hawk Mountain can total over 12,000 birds during the course of a season.

Just because the breeding season is over doesn’t mean there aren’t many birds to see out there.  Get outside and give yourself a challenge.  This time can be quite rewarding and you might even discover a rarity!

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