For the Birds Radio Program: Migration

Original Air Date: Sept. 17, 1990

Anyone can watch bird migration. (3:57) Date verified

Audio missing


Fall migration begins every year in late June, when the first shorebirds trickle into the Northland from their Arctic nesting grounds. In August, warblers join feeding flocks, backyards are inundated with flocking grackles, and nighthawks fill the evening skies. By Labor Day, most of the swallows and kingbirds are gone, and flocks of waxwings swirl in to alight on mountain ashes and berry bushes, or flit out from perches to catch swarming midges and other tiny insects. But the massive autumn movements of birds begin in earnest in mid-September.

Migration-watching is for just about everyone. If you’re homebound, set up a few feeders and watch finches, grosbeaks, and sparrows come to you. Any time a chickadee flock comes in, watch for movements in the treetops. In autumn, chickadees are usually accompanied by warblers and vireos, and if you have any trees at all in your yard, it’s quite possible to spot 10 or 15 different species of warblers from a kitchen or dining room window. Palm Warblers often alight on rooftops or in lawns, wagging their tail to draw attention to their lemon yellow undertail coverts. Last week I had three Northern Waterthrushes in my backyard bushes even though I don’t live anywhere near water. And most falls I’ve had at least one Connecticut Warbler turn up in my backyard. Last summer a birder from San Francisco came all the way to northern Wisconsin to add a Connecticut Warbler to his lifelist. We take for granted birds that people from other places yearn to see.

If you’re the impatient type who likes to watch lots of birds at once, get out to a migration magnet. One of the largest fall migration traps in the entire non-coastal United States is Duluth. As birds from western and central Canada travel south, often pushed a bit east by the prevailing westerly winds, they eventually wind up somewhere along the north shore of Lake Superior. Very few will chance flying over the big sea shining waters, where they have no refuge from the weather, no place to rest, and where Herring Gulls gang up on anything from songbird to hawk size, driving their victims into the water to provide the gulls with their own version of chicken soup.

So most migrants follow the shore west until they reach the top of the lake in Duluth, or east until they can cross over the channel into Michigan. Points jutting into any of the Great Lakes are excellent vantage points, and a bit of high ground anywhere near shore is fine.

Once the birds reach the tip of the lake, they fan out and are nowhere near as concentrated again until they reach the Gulf of Mexico. But birds are migrating no matter where you live. Many songbirds use rivers and lakes both for landmarks and to provide swarms of emerging aquatic insects needed to fuel their flights, so smart birders check out the trees near any body of water. Last week at dawn, I had a tiny Le Conte’s Sparrow sitting on a barbed wire fence right next to the sewage ponds at Port Wing, Wisconsin. It let me come within 12 feet of it as the early sunlight dried the dew off its feathers. It might have let me come even closer, but I didn’t try since that was as close as my binoculars focus.

Fall migration will continue through November and even early December, when hardier birds cruise leisurely through the Northland. But most of the tropical migrants like warblers and flycatchers will be gone within a few weeks. Check out some trees and look skyward today–you’ll be glad you did.