Image of Bird
Image of Bird
12 Birds to Spot During Fall Migration
Learn which birds to look for as they make their way across various parts of the country this fall
By Kristen A. Schmitt
Photography from WikiCommons, Shutterstock, and Unsplash
Every fall, over 4 billion birds fly thousands of miles across North America as they travel from their summer nesting grounds to their winter habitat, according to researchers at Cornell University. Finches, warblers, geese, hawks, and others travel distinct migration routes to follow food and weather patterns.

These seasonal pilgrimages, which can start as early as mid-August and continue through November, are ingrained in birds before they even hatch, like instinctual maps.

In the weeks ahead, you may spot airborne waterfowl flocks making their journey together. Or perhaps you’ll catch sight of hawks and smaller birds, who migrate individually at night and hang around feeders and other food sources during the day.

The best thing about fall birding is that it doesn’t matter where you live; birds are everywhere. Here are 12 species to catch sight of in the weeks ahead, organized by different regions in the country. Plus, learn how to safely welcome migrating birds to your land this fall so you can catch site of them from the comfort of your own home.
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East Coast:
Black-and-White Warblers, Tree Swallows, Common Loons, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons
Beginning birders should look for the striking zigzag of the black-and-white warbler, a bird common to the East Coast. “It looks like a referee or a zebra with wings. It’s truly the ‘people’s warbler’ because it can be so easy to spot,” says Tykee James, an avid birder and host of the “On Word for Wildlife” podcast. Look for this small bird along the lower portion of tree trunks or limbs in leafy forests, often mining for insects hidden inside tree crevices.
“[The black-and-white warbler] looks like a referee or a zebra with wings. It’s truly the ‘people’s warbler’ because it can be so easy to spot.”
—Tykee James, host of the “On Word for Wildlife” podcast
Image of Lighthouse in Cape May, New Jersey
Lighthouse in Cape May, New Jersey
Image of Salt marsh in Cape May, New Jersey
Salt marsh in Cape May, New Jersey
If you’re looking for a regional birding destination to visit this fall, Tykee recommends Cape May, New Jersey, for views of “clouds” of birds. He says Cape May is considered “the capital for bird migration,” likely due to the area’s variety of habitats—salt marshes, swamps, wetlands, freshwater ponds, pine forest, grasslands, and fields—that make it a migration mecca for a variety of warblers, tanagers, orioles, and even the common loon. Rare birds like tree swallows appear August through September and merlins, peregrine falcons, and other hawks can be spotted September to November.
Northern Flyway:
Bald Eagles and Blue Jays
This fall, head to the tops of mountains or hills in Northern New York to watch America’s favorite raptors—bald eagles—migrate south, says Tom Langen, an ornithologist at Clarkson University.

While mature bald eagles migrate in groups, parents and juveniles do not travel together, and younger birds tend to make their pilgrimage weeks before their parents.

Tom suggests visiting Derby Hill in Mexico, New York, in late September or October, when fall eagle migration is at its peak. Unlike songbirds, eagles travel in daylight, journeying over 200 miles per day if the wind is right.

While there, you can catch blue jay migration happening at the same time. Blue jays are easy to recognize with their blue, black, and white plumage and boisterous call. Many do not realize these birds migrate since they tend to be one of the few seen during the winter months.

In addition, look for jaegers, “which are predatory and piratic birds that breed in the arctic and are usually seen at sea,” Tom says.

Gulf Coast:
Painted Bunting
If you’re after a splash of color, seek out the painted bunting in early fall in the Rio Grande Valley, along coastal Texas, in Northern Florida, and in the Southern edges of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, says wildlife biologist Alex Troutman.

Painted buntings are part of the warbler family. The male has a kaleidoscope of colorful feathers; Alex says it looks like someone dipped a brush in various paints and “painted it with a bit of each color.”

The Texas and Gulf Coast region provides a migratory crossover between the Mississippi and central flyways, Alex says, which makes it prime birding territory. Look for painted buntings’ flashy feathers along roadsides or forest edges, as the species prefers scrubbier, lower growth areas in the fall.

While painted buntings prefer the concealment of leaves and other foliage, you may catch sight of them at bird feeders.

Central U.S.:
Red-Tailed and Swainson’s Hawks
Across the prairies and plains lies the central flyway: a superhighway over 1 million square miles that hawks use for migration, following thermals and landforms like the Great Lakes to guide their route.

Hawks aren’t difficult to spot, especially during the early fall when farmers are mid-harvest. Wildlife biologist Dr. Janet Ng says that birders should look for red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks hanging out over plowed fields, preying on mice, rabbits, snakes, grasshoppers, and other small critters. They often travel behind farm machinery as their prey is exposed.

“You’re also likely to see them along riverways and valleys because these areas create great thermals for migration.”
—Dr. Janet Ng, Wildlife Biologist
While you may think you spot flocks of hawks, what looks like a grouping is actually individual hawks all riding along the same thermals. Janet suggests scanning long hills or mountains because the winds above them are usually ideal for travel. “You’re also likely to see them along riverways and valleys because these areas create great thermals for migration,” she says.
Sandhill Cranes
Every November, tens of thousands of trumpeting sandhill cranes fill the New Mexico sky. The state maintains wildlife refuges specifically for the slate gray birds with pink cheeks because of the large flocks that congregate there all winter.

You can also look for sandhill cranes on agricultural land, in fields, in marshes, or along the banks and sandbars of the Rio Grande as they fill up on insects, aquatic plants, snails, frogs, and grains.

One surefire way to view these elegant birds is to visit the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico. Amy Erickson, avian biologist with the Audubon Southwest, says the refuge is “super popular with birders because it’s one of the biggest groupings of sandhill cranes you can see in the country.”

Because the refuge is managed to attract migratory birds, Amy says you’ll also be able to view snow geese, cinnamon teal, mergansers, and several other waterfowl there in the winter.

Image of Sandhill Cranes at dawn at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Sandhill Cranes at dawn at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Image of Sandhill Cranes flying over the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
Sandhill Cranes flying over the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
West Coast:
Western Sandpipers
Head to the San Francisco Bay beginning in September and through winter to see large numbers of western sandpipers, says Oliver James, long-time birder and author of “Birds of Berkeley.” These tiny shorebirds use their long, thin beaks to forage in tidal mud flats, feasting on insects, crustaceans, mollusks, and marine worms.
The Bay is a stopover for many species that are traveling farther south to Southern California as far as South America, and Oliver likens their arrival to a school of fish—only in the air.

Because western sandpipers prefer low tide for foraging, Oliver suggests checking a tide chart and timing your arrival. Then, sit back on the beach and watch the birds scurry in and out of the shallow water as they scan for food. Good optics like binoculars or spotting scopes can help bring birds closer to you without physically disturbing them, he says.

3 Ways to Welcome Fall Migrating Birds to Your Land
Want to ensure birds use your yard as a pit stop during their fall journey? Here’s how to safely make your land more bird-friendly:
Add a Variety of Feeders
Hanging feeders and suet feeders will appeal to perching and insect-eating birds. Platform feeders are better for ground-feeding birds. When it comes to seed selection, black oil sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts—even mealworms—will create a great buffet for a variety of birds.
Add a Reliable Water Source
Help birds rehydrate and wash up after a long flight. Consider adding a bird bath or small pond in a low-traffic zone of your yard. Make sure to keep the water fresh and free of algae and other buildup.
Provide the Right Foliage
Check out the trees and other plants in your yard. If possible, add plants that produce berries, seeds, fruits, nuts, or sap. In addition, make sure they’re dense enough to provide shelter and protection from predators. The Audubon’s Native Plant database is a great resource for choosing bird-friendly plants.
To learn more about birding and identifying species, visit the National Audubon Society’s North America Bird Guide.
About the Writer
Kristen A. Schmitt writes about wildlife, science, sustainable agriculture, and the outdoors from her home in Northern New York.

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