Observing the Fall Bird Migration

East Coast

Cape May, NJ

What Moab, Utah is to mountain biking, Cape May is to birding. More than a weekend recreational pasttime, birdwatching is a way of life here. Cape May is located at the very southern end of New Jersey, at the tip of a peninsula edged on the east by an intricate system of barrier islands and wetlands, and Delaware Bay on the west. The south pointing direction of the peninsula concentrates birds—raptors especially—on Cape May every autumn. Birds flying along the coast find themselves at a dead end, where they stop, rest up, and chow down before hopping the mouth of Delaware Bay. Over 300 species of birds have been recorded in Cape May, more than anywhere north of Florida. Many of these are vagrants (not ne'er-do-wells, but birds blown off course). More than 200 species have been seen in a day.

An average of 60,000 birds of prey are tallied at the Official Hawk Watch every autumn. Places to watch birds include Cape May Point State Park, the Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory, and the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, especially those portions along Delaware Bay.

The town of Cape May is a tooth-achingly charming Victorian resort town, with many bed and breakfasts and old-fashioned hotels. The town and surrounding countryside is wonderful for biking. All in all the town makes for a wonderful escape, for birders or not.

Hawk Mountain

At one time, raptors—hunting birds like eagles and hawks—were considered varmints, intolerable competitors against humans. Shooters used to come up to the Kittattinny Ridge to blast them as they flew past. Then in 1934 conservationist Rosalie Edge founded Hawk Mountain to stop the slaughter and to educate the world about the beauty and necessity of raptors.

In the four-month period between August 15 and December 15, an average of 20,000 hawks, eagles, and falcons representing 14 species fly past the Sanctuary's North Lookout—a rocky promontory 1,521 feet high.

Ospreys, American Kestrels, and thousands of Broad-winged hawks move through in late August and September, while October brings a greater variety of species, including Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, and Merlins. The cold winds of November and early December bring Red-tailed Hawks, Golden Eagles, Goshawks, and even the occasional Rough-legged Hawk. Other bird migration in the fall includes hummingbirds, warblers, swifts, and swallows.

While the migration season may last a short four months, the 360-degree view from the North Lookout is spectacular any time of year.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary web page

Acadia National Park, ME

The craggy coast and spruce forests create amazing birdwatching opportunities all year round. Come autumn, it's time for the shorebirds to come winging through. Peregrines from Greenland and Canada migrate through Mount Desert Island from August through October. Birders at Monhegan Island down the coast have seen over 100 species over a long weekend.

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, NC

Lake Mattamuskeet, the largest natural lake in North Carolina, is a shallow body of water averaging only two feet in depth. It is 18 miles long, and 5 to 6 miles wide. As you can probably guess, this is a great place for seeing waterfowl. Between 20 and 40 percent of the Atlantic flyway population of tundra swans stops here. Thousands of Canada geese, snow geese, tundra swans, and 22 species of ducks spend the winter on the refuge. All in all, over 240 species of birds have been spotted here.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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