When temperatures start dropping and days become shorter, fall migration for birds isn’t starting — it’s well underway. Fall migration is loosely named because it begins as early as June and lasts through the beginning of the following year, but September and October are when the bulk of these movement happens. Fall migrants in West Virginia could be grouped into three categories: breeding birds that are leaving the area, wintering birds that are arriving here, and pass-through species who only visit the state within migration windows.
Bird migration in the fall is quite a contrast to the spectacular blitz of spring migration. In April and May, the sudden rush of singing birds boast their most colorful plumage as they blaze northward from their wintering grounds to their breeding territories. If spring migration is a raging concert, then fall migration is a campfire tune strummed on the guitar. It’s subtle, quiet, and can slip by without notice. With less color and noise, fall migration is easily overlooked, but it is doubtlessly a gem of its own.
The timing of each species’ migration depends on its breeding habits, food supply, and many other factors. For example, adult males of our resident Ruby-throated Hummingbird who, like other hummingbirds, play no part in hatching or raising their offspring, head back to their wintering grounds in Central America come August. Females and hatch-year hummingbirds begin their fall migration a month or more later. Regardless of when they depart, these tiny creatures fly around or even across the Gulf of Mexico and repeat the journey to return to the Mountain State every spring.
In contrast, the White-throated Sparrow, a common and charismatic winter bird species in West Virginia, migrates a shorter distance. These sparrows breed in boreal Canada nearly everywhere south of the Arctic tree line. Their migration is triggered by a complex range of hormonal and daylight-related factors, and they take their time along the way, stopping for as long as needed to replenish their fat reserves. Eventually, these sparrows end up scattered throughout the eastern half of the United States for the winter, and by November, they arrive in West Virginia.
Most songbirds migrate during the night, using darkness as protection from predators. Raptors, on the other hand, are daytime migrants that rely on air thermals to preserve their energy while they travel long distances. One might see hundreds—or even thousands—of hawks, vultures, falcons, and eagles effortlessly riding thermals above the Appalachian ridgelines in autumn.
Although fall bird migration can be observed in almost every tree, field, and skyline in the state, there are also ways to see a concentration of migrants up close. One of the most unique ways to view migrating birds is by visiting a bird banding station. Bird banding began hundreds of years ago when early ornithologists tied tiny ribbons on birds to track individuals.
Today, researchers use cutting-edge technologies, like satellite, radio, and cellular tracking systems. Bird banders are trained to safely capture birds and attach tiny bands to the birds’ legs. Each band has a unique ID, like a license plate, that can be used to track the bird in the future. Banders also record data such as the age and weight of individual birds. Researchers use this detailed information to learn more about bird migration, population fluxes, and species behaviors.
West Virginia is also home to the oldest continuously run bird banding station in North America: the Allegheny Front Migratory Observatory perched high in the Dolly Sods Wilderness in Tucker County. This observatory is free and open to the public from mid-August to mid-October.
Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in Monroe County is also an excellent place to witness raptor migration. Originally a fire tower, this rustic outpost that sits at 3,800 feet provides not only incredible views, but also a fantastic vantage point along a popular migratory route for raptors.
In September, visitors can observe the greatest number of fall migrants, primarily Broad-winged Hawks, that travel in flocks of hundreds or thousands of individuals. People who visit the observatory in October and early November will likely see fewer birds, but a greater variety of species, such as Red-tailed and Sharp-shinned Hawks and Bald Eagles. Hanging Rock is open year-round to visitors and hosts volunteers who track bird migration throughout the fall.
This year, the Hanging Rock observatory installed an antenna that uses radio telemetry to track the movement and behavior of tagged birds and other migratory animals that pass near the station. Each tag emits a pulse that is unique to the animal to which it is attached. These extremely lightweight tags are attached to birds of all sizes, and even to Monarch Butterflies, an important migratory insect that researchers at Hanging Rock are particularly interested in studying.
When looking for fall migrants, early- to mid-morning is typically the best time to observe bird activity. When the sun comes up, migrating birds frequently drop down from the high skies to rest for the day and forage on insects to replenish themselves before continuing their journeys. Unlike spring migration, when birds are focused on attracting mates and finding territories, fall migration is defined by the birds’ need to consume food.
Loosely formed flocks of various bird species often forage together, working their way through circuits of tree branches to gorge on insects. Because birds aren’t singing or confronting other individuals as often, they can be harder to spot. From a birder’s perspective, the upside to these foraging behaviors is that, with some patience and luck, birds can be observed quite closely. It’s not uncommon to see migratory birds work in tree branches just a few feet away from a discreet birder, seemingly unconcerned about the human presence.
There are many habitats to catch fall migrants: aquatic areas, ridgelines and high points, and isolated patches of vegetation like city parks offer great opportunities. Unsurprisingly, rain and wind direction have huge impacts on lightweight fliers like warblers. Many birds use the dry, cool, northerly winds that follow cold fronts to ease their southbound flights. Bottlenecks can happen as migrants converge while waiting for cold fronts to pass, creating a great opportunity for birders to see high concentrations of birds resuming their journeys when the cold front subsides. Overcast or foggy days also offer good viewing opportunities as birds wait out foul weather.
Closer to home, there are a few things you can do to help migrants and increase your chances of seeing them in your yard. First, maintaining a variety of bird feeders and fresh bird seed can aid seed-eating birds such as sparrows and chickadees. Offering suet can bring in a larger mix of species like woodpeckers. A birdbath or other water source is helpful for any bird that passes through, and you can make it more appealing by adding movement, such as a drip or solar water wiggler.
Using fresh foods and keeping feeders and baths clean prevents the spread of disease and ensures the health of visiting birds. But the most important way to support and see migrants in your yard is to provide native habitat that they can use for food and shelter, including trees, bushes, leaf litter, and brush piles.
Despite the enormous amount of data that scientists and individuals of all levels of expertise have collected on birds, many aspects of fall bird migration remain a mystery. For instance, we still don’t know exactly what triggers a bird to begin its tremendous flight, or how birds embarking on their first migration know where they are supposed to go. That’s one of the many beautiful things about birds—many aspects of their behavior have yet to be explained. But by watching and learning more about birds, we can find immense enjoyment and become further immersed in that great mystery.
Mollee Brown is a lifelong West Virginian and bona fide bird nerd. When she’s not actually birding, she’s working with birding organizations through her marketing company, Nighthawk Agency.