Birding In The National Parks: This Fall In The National Park System

Wood Ducks and other ducks molt back into their colorful breeding plumage during fall migration after being drab all summer, the opposite of the molting pattern of most songbirds. Kirby Adams photo.

Spring migration may be the grand pageant of color for birders across North America, but the flip side in autumn is not to be overlooked by birders hoping to catch some rare sightings or just hone their birding skills. Spring is a frenzied rush to breeding grounds. Food, sex, and territory are all that’s on the minds of our feathered friends in May.

In the fall, it’s all about heading south for a relaxing winter with the new kids. Songbirds that confine their northward migration to a few bursts during a couple weeks in May will be straggling south all through the fall. There’s no need to time your movements perfectly when there are no territories to be claimed, mates to be seduced, or nests to be built.

Fall birding has plenty of other differences with the spring. Many of the birds, males in particular, aren’t wearing their best breeding plumage. Colors may be muted or completely molted away. Shorebirds that had some subtle coloration differences in April and May can all look frustratingly similar in August and September.

Very few birds are singing in the fall. Most are making some chips and chatters that are to their spring songs what the drab autumn plumage is to the gaudy outfits of May. If you bird for the fashion and symphonies, this may not be good news, but I see it as a good time to test my birding chops on some more challenging identifications.

Good birders know size, shape, and behavior are more important than plumage any day. In the fall, those are essential field “marks” every day. Finding a place to bird in the fall is as easy as stepping out your front door.

Four major flyways of bird migration span the North American continent, each with its own suite of avian vacationers heading south each fall. Let’s look at those flyways and find a national park positioned for great birding in each.

Atlantic Flyway – Acadia National Park

Birds love to follow coastlines, particularly raptors. Raptors also tend to cluster in the fall, using thermal upwellings to help conserve energy. This makes a high point on the coast, like Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine, an ideal spot for fall hawk watching.

Every year, from late August through early October, birders and ornithologists gather on Cadillac Mountain to count raptors in what is known as a Hawk Watch. An average of over 2,500 birds are counted there annually. Birders of all experiences can join the fun to assist in spotting or just watch the action.

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Migration flyways across the country involve many national park settings. Kirby Adams graphic.

Pacific Flyway – Point Reyes National Seashore

It’s not just the Atlantic Coast birds tend to follow. Peninsulas with notable topography on the Pacific Coast are favored migrant stops as well.

Point Reyes couldn’t be a better birding spot if you designed it from scratch. That explains why Point Reyes holds the unofficial title of most birds in the Nation Park System, with 490 species either residing or passing through.

In the fall, the mudflats and beaches around Drake’s Bay are wonderful sites for catching shorebirds as they head south. Snowy Plovers are one of the favorite attractions, along with Western Sandpipers, godwits, and phalaropes. Remember, low tide means mud, and mud means shorebirds!

Mississippi Flyway – Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Continuing on the theme of birds following shorelines, the Great Lakes aren’t left out of the fun. The long north-to-south shores of Lake Michigan are migration superhighways in the fall.

Where the two sides of Lake Michigan meet at the bottom, we have Indiana Dunes. The national lakeshores up on Lake Superior may boast nearly a couple dozen nesting warbler species each during the summer, but when migration time comes, every one of those species will be passing through Indiana Dunes.

Some change plumage dramatically in the fall, while others look just like they did in the spring. For an extra challenge, try to pick out the juveniles making their first trip south. Lake Michigan itself is also host to thousands of migrating waterfowl. Grebes, loons, and ducks of all sorts are found in mid to late autumn on the lake.

You’ll need a good spotting scope, a sturdy windbreaker, and some patience, but lake watches can be some of fall’s best birding adventures.

Central Flyway – Rocky Mountain National Park

What the Central Flyway lacks in water, it makes up for with mountains. Endless ridges running north and south span the distance from Alaska to South America along this route. Pick a spot along the cordillera and you can’t go wrong.

Rocky Mountain National Park offers up spectacular fall vistas and great migrants. Migrating raptors follow ridgelines, sometimes migrating simply from higher elevations down tributary ridges to lower areas for the winter. Watch for resident Red-tailed Hawks chasing other hawks out of their territories as they pass through. When leaves are shed in late fall, it’s a great time to hunt for some of the boreal residents of the mountains like American Three-toed Woodpeckers and Gray Jays.

Honorable Mention – Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson was built on Dry Tortugas for its strategic military location, but it may be even more perfectly placed for birding. The Atlantic Flyway diverges when it reaches Florida. Some birds continue south to the islands of the Caribbean while others swing southwest to cross the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula and onward to South America.

Similarly, the birds on the Mississippi Flyway follow the river to its delta, then some hook right to follow the coast to Mexico and beyond while others make a left to cross the gulf, headed for the islands where they intersect at Dry Tortugas with the Atlantic migrators headed for Mexico. You’ll see hundreds of warblers and other songbirds stopping to rest and refuel here.

The island is also a favorite refueling spot for raptors like Peregrine Falcons and Sharp-shinned Hawks that use the songbirds for food. It might be disconcerting to see a Peregrine Falcon pick off the Blackpoll Warbler you just identified, but such is the circle of life. The falcons know a good hunting spot in the fall just as well as the birders do.