The Best Places in America to See Fall Bird Migrations

All across the country, birds are making the trek south for the winter—here are some of the best places to witness their journey

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge Bird Migration Main
Geese lift off a lake in front of a sun pillar at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Mound City, Missouri. © Mike Hollingshead/Corbis

As summer turns to fall and leaves begin to turn, birds of all kinds begin to make their trek from cooler, northern breeding grounds to the warmer, southern areas where they'll spend the winter. With some of the flocks moving by the tens of thousands, the fall migration offers novice and expert bird watchers alike a chance to observe one of nature's great journeys. Fall is a particularly great time to catch birds on their southward migration, explains Scott Sillett, research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, because the fall migration lasts longer than the spring version, affording birders a better chance at seeing the birds in action. "They’re trying to get to where they winter, but they don’t have to immediately get there and set up shop and reproduce. It's a different pace of life in the fall," Sillett says. "And in the fall, you have more young birds on their first southern migration. There are more birds moving over a longer period of time."

The migrations of some birds, such as hawks, will be reaching their peak in the coming weeks, while other migrations, like waterfowl, will continue on through November. Want to get in on the action? Here are seven places all over the United States where you can see birds—from tiny hummingbirds to majestic bald eagles—as they make their way to warmer climes. 

Cape May Point, New Jersey

(Sharp shinned hawk. Credit: © Jonathan Blair/Corbis)

Through December, visitors to Cape May Point in southern New Jersey will be able to see waves of migrating hawks as the birds make their way south for the winter. Hawks aren't the only birds that use the peninsular area as a stopover during their southern trek: waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds also used the varied habitat of Cape May as a resting point during their migrations. "It's an all-around great birding location," says Geoff LeBaron, Christmas Bird Count Director at the National Audubon Society. The weekend of October 24, Cape May will host its Autumn Birding Festival, featuring organized bird-watching sessions, boat tours and educational programming.

Cape May attracts such a diverse number of bird species thanks to its own ecological variance—wetlands, marshes, forests and beaches can all be found in the area, providing birds with a wide range of habitat options. "Cape May is one of the best places to bird in the Eastern U.S. during migration," Sillett says.

Geographic location plays a huge part in making Cape May such a destination for migratory birds. "For birds migrating along [the Eastern] coast, that’s the last bit of land they encounter before crossing Delaware Bay, so you tend to get concentrations of birds there," Sillett says. "The hawk migration in the fall is just spectacular." Another place Sillett suggests for catching the hawk migration is Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania.

Montezuma Wetlands Complex, New York

As waterfowl begin to move southward, they depend on two things to make their journey as smooth as possible: a good tail wind and favorable weather conditions. If wind starts blowing from the south, working against the migrating population, or if the weather becomes bad, the waterfowl will often drop down into inland lakes to wait for conditions to improve, which can provide bird watchers with an impromptu opportunity. "[Seeing birds in inland lakes] is real hit or miss," LeBaron says, "[but] it’s kind of exciting, like opening Christmas presents. You never know what's going to be where and when."

If you want to try to see waterfowl taking a rest in an inland lake this autumn, LeBaron suggests planning a visit to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, which tends to attract birds in fairly high numbers. Over half a million Canada geese pass through the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, near Seneca Falls, during their yearly migration; peak migration occurs from September to October. If you can't make it to the Finger Lakes, but still want to roll the dice with seeing waterfowl migration, Sillett contends that any lake has the potential to come alive with migrating waterfowl during autumn months. "Any kind of lake can be really good in the fall," he says. "It can be hit or miss, but if the weather conditions are right and you get a lot of waterfowl that are driven down by a weather front, you can get really awesome concentrations of waterfowl in migration. 

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache in New Mexico offers fantastic bird-watching year round, but the area comes especially alive beginning in early November, when birds flock to the refuge in massive numbers to make their winter home. "It is a renowned spot on migrations because it's along the Rio Grande, and a lot of the countryside around there is very arid and dry," Sillett says. "The river system with its vegetation is really attractive to a lot of birds." The location offers an oasis of sorts for birds of all kinds, but especially waterfowl and cranes, which come to the area by the tens of thousands between early November and mid-February. 

Arriving at the Bosque del Apache refuge before sunrise affords visitors an amazing sight—the early morning fly-out, when thousands of geese leave the water in search of food from nearby fields. Before sunset, the ritual repeats in reverse, with the geese flying back to the water, en masse, to spend the night out of the reach of predators. 

In mid-November, the 57,331-acre refuge also hosts thousands of sandhill cranes, which come from their summer home in the arctic to spend the winter months in southern New Mexico. To celebrate the cranes' arrival, the refuge holds an annual "Festival of the Cranes" (this year slated for November 18-23), which honors both the yearly arrival of the cranes as well as the founding of the refuge.

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri

In the autumn months, Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri is a veritable mecca for birdwatchers hoping to catch a glimpse of massive migratory flocks. Waterfowl come by the tens of thousands during the fall and spring to rest on their way to their winter or summer homes. During the fall, the area's wetlands attract as many as 400,000 snow geese, who share the mud flats and pools with many varieties of duck, from diving ducks to mallards.

But it's not just the colossal flocks of geese and ducks that make Squaw Creek special: in late fall and early winter, the area also serves as a winter home for migrating bald eagles, which have been seen by the hundreds in Squaw Creek. 

Corkscrew Swamp, Florida

(Northern cardinal. Credit: © Don Johnston/All Canada Photos/Corbis)

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida was one of the first Audubon sanctuaries created to help preserve disappearing habitat (and the wetlands that support their food source) for nesting wood storks, which today number some 100,000 throughout the sanctuary. Since 1958, Audubon has monitored the stork populations in Corkscrew, collecting the longest continuous data set related to wood storks in America.

But it's not just wood storks that attract visitors to the area. "It's always great [for bird watching]," LeBaron says of the sanctuary, "but especially at this time of year, when birds are starting to move down south." Fall migrations bring a number of songbirds looking to take advantage of the temperate Florida winter to the sanctuary. Northern cardinals, common grackles, Carolina wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers and more can be seen on the site, which welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each year. 

Sky Islands Region, Arizona

(Anna's hummingbird. Credit: © Charles Melton/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

In southern Arizona, a collection of mountains known as Sky Islands shoots up from the desert, climbing as many as 6,000 feet in elevation from the plains. The Sky Islands region is among the most biologically diverse on the planet: tracts of desert and grassland separate each mountain, which each support habitat from desert to alpine-like forests. Combining tropical and temperate climates, the Sky Islands (which extend to southwestern New Mexico and northwestern Mexico) support half of the bird species in North America. "They stand out like islands in this large desert environment," Sillett says of the mountains, "and migratory birds move between them."

In the fall, the Sky Islands region fills with hummingbirds, moving north from their breeding grounds in Mexico. "It's like hummingbird mecca down there," LeBaron says. "The hummingbirds that breed further north are moving southbound, so they are also coming through." The hummingbirds are attracted to Arizona's Sky Islands—and primarily the area outside of Tucson—by a kind of second spring, when wildflowers return to the area's mountains and canyons thanks to heavy, late-summer rains. The wildflowers offer hummingbirds a chance to fill up on nectar before heading to Mexico, where they spend the winter. "The hummingbird numbers coming through there in the fall can be jaw dropping, and you can have half a dozen species of hummingbirds in some spots," Sillett says. "It is really cool."

Salton Sea, California

Located northeast of San Diego, the Salton Sea—California's largest lake—has a remarkable history: The area was formed in 1905 when massive flooding caused the Colorado River to break through a levee. The river was allowed to flow, unstopped, into the area for a year and a half, leaving 35,484 acres of water and salt marshes. Today, agricultural runoff accounts for 85 percent of the Salton Sea's inflow. As this water flows into the lake, it carries dissolved salt and minerals—and since there's no way for the water to drain out to the ocean, the water evaporates, leaving those salts and minerals behind.

Birds and wildlife congregate in huge numbers around the lake, despite its increasing salinity. "The Salton Sea is a bizarre spot. It's surrounded by really inhospitable, dry desert scrub, very barren of vegetation, and then you have this huge sea. You can imagine birds that are flying hundreds or even a couple thousand feet up, seeing this huge water body—it's an incredible attraction," Sillett says. 

The area supports a large amount of avian diversity—more than 375 types of birds have been seen in the Salton Sea or neighboring Imperial Valley. The salt marshes and water serve as an important habitat for waterfowl during their migration, providing them with shelter and food. During the winter, thousands of geese call the Salton Sea home. Ninety percent of the American white pelican population also spends its winter at Salton Sea.

With most places on this list, migratory flocks pass through regularly during the autumn migration season, meaning that a second visit to the same place (like Cape May) can offer exposure to a completely different set of birds.

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