Five Billion Birds on the Wing: Where to Watch Autumn Migrations

Wendy Worrall Redal by Wendy Worrall Redal | November 5th, 2009 | 1 Comment
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living


As I hiked with my dog through prairie open space on a recent morning, we were both captivated by the wild creatures around us. In his case, it was the prairie dog colony; in mine, a long V of geese honking overhead. The swallows have left, and I haven’t heard a meadowlark since early September.

Every autumn, more than 5 billion birds migrate across North America, crossing the U.S. at rates of tens of millions a day. Despite what most people think, birds don’t migrate because the weather is getting too cold, but because they can’t find enough to eat. As winter settles in, insects die and a mantle of snow and ice covers other food sources. Birds with a steady food supply, such as city pigeons, will often remain where they are; others head south when frost threatens.

Bird migrations are facing growing harm from human impacts, especially habitat destruction that inhibits their ability to find sufficient nesting and feeding grounds for stopovers along their route. Climate change is also disrupting bird migration patterns. However, there are still outstanding places to watch them as they congregate during their annual journeys. You don’t have to be a “birder” to be moved by the spectacle of hundreds, even thousands, of birds massed together feeding or taking to the air in synchronized flight.

Where to find the flocks

Here are five prime U.S. locations where autumn migrations put on a show as spectacular as the annual turning of the leaves:

1. Outer Banks, N.C.


Great Egret, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, N.C. Photo: National Park Service

The Wings Over Water Festival, Nov. 3-8, 2009, heralds the arrival of some 400 bird species to the barrier islands that protect the eastern shore of North Carolina. A celebration of nature and wildlife in the Outer Banks, the festival’s focus on birds includes a wide assortment of guided trips that bring the area’s winged denizens — shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl — into closer view.

Among the options are the Owl Prowl; a bird photography field workshop at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island, the midway point on the Atlantic Flyway; and the Alligator River Refuge Kayak Tour, which meanders through cypress creeks in search of great blue herons, pileated woodpeckers and bald eagles, as well as turtles, black bear and rare red wolves. Various B&Bs, motels and cottage rentals are nearby, at shoulder-season rates. Check here for information on accommodations and the Outer Banks region.

2. Cape May, N.J.

Cape May, at the southern tip of New Jersey, is a magnet for migrating birds, especially raptors. During the official Hawk Watch each autumn, an average of 60,000 birds of prey are recorded. But they are hardly the only avian attraction. More than 300 species of birds concentrate on this point, flanked by barrier islands and wetlands on the east and Delaware Bay on the west. Best spots to watch birds are Cape May Point State Park, the Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory, and sections of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge along Delaware Bay.

Peak bird numbers and varieties occur around the end of October, when visitors are likely to see the greatest concentrations of raptors, myriad seabirds, and great fleets of songbirds, including millions of robins. Says Pete Dunne, editor of New Jersey Audubon Magazine, “You can see a sky so crowded with swallows, it reduces the amount of sunlight coming to the earth … This is the way North America used to be.” A slate of bird-watching activities is offered annually on Autumn Weekend (just passed) and Spring Weekend, during the birds’ return journey north. The town of Cape May offers a plethora of Victorian inns and B&Bs trimmed in period gingerbread.

3. Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, Wis.

Sprawling over 30,000 acres in southeastern Wisconsin, Horicon is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the country. Recognized as a Wetland of International Importance, its vast peat-filled lakebed provides refuge for more than 200 species of birds, including the Trumpeter swan, which breeds in the Arctic and stops here on its way to more southerly coastal climes.

But it’s the Canada geese that are the most prolific wayfarers, arriving from Hudson Bay by the tens of thousands en route to southern Illinois. Along the Horicon TernPike Auto Tour Route on State Highway 49, visitors will find hiking trails, a floating boardwalk, and bicycling and hiking access to the Wild Goose State Trail, a rail-to-trail path along an abandoned railway line. The newly remodeled Horicon Marsh Education Center offers interpretive exhibits. Horicon is a 1.5-hour drive from either Madison or Milwaukee.

4. Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, N.M.


Snow geese and sandhill cranes wintering at Bosque del Apache NWR, N.M. Photo: Friends of the Bosque

One of the best places to view sandhill cranes and snow geese is along the Rio Grande River near Socorro, New Mexico, where they mass each winter in great, cacophonous flocks at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. From Nov. 17-22, the Festival of the Cranes celebrates the return of these elegant birds, which once nearly vanished from this area. In 1941, fewer than 20 cranes wintered at this site, their habitat destroyed by farmers damming the Rio Grande so that it could no longer flood and sustain wetlands.

But efforts over the years to restore habitat, diverting water via canals to rebuild wetlands and enlisting local farmers to plant corn for the birds have been very successful: more than 15,000 birds — about three-fourths of the Rocky Mountain sandhill crane population — now winter on the 57,000-acre desert refuge. Visitors get close-up views on a network of trails and observation decks. During the festival more than 100 lectures, workshops, tours, hikes and hands-on activities are planned. Year-round residents include mule deer, elk, coyotes, porcupines, muskrat, turtles, turkeys and roadrunners.

5. Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

More than 40 percent of the waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway stop in northern California’s Sacramento Valley to winter. That’s some 3 million ducks and 1 million geese that land here to rest and feed. No wonder it’s been designated a Globally Important Bird Area. Historically, the Sacramento River flooded about 5 million acres at the northern end of California’s 400-mile-long Central Valley, providing vast natural wetlands.

Though greatly diminished today due to the extensive diversion system built to support farming in the region, the refuge preserves important marsh habitat for ducks and geese whose populations peak from late November through mid-January. Between August and October, shorebirds are at their peak, while white pelicans reside here year-round. In all, more than 300 species spend at least part of the year in the refuge. For a guide to what to see when, check out these seasonal viewing opportunities. A 6-mile auto tour and 2-mile walking trail through marsh and riparian areas begin at the visitor center.

More outstanding fall bird-watching:

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Md.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Fla.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah

Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas

“Flappy” travels,


Feature photo by Lee Karney, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Snow geese in flight, Bosque del Apache NWR, N.M.


  1. [...] disposal is backed up again or a bill arrived that is imminently due when I’m watching the migration of Canada geese at the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge — the Midwest’s answer to the Great [...]

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