Migratory Bird Identification

Migratory Bird Identification
Bird migration is one of the most spectacular, visible and stirring examples of long-distance animal movement. While routes and schedules differ, about half of all bird species make some kind of seasonal journey, often between temperate and arctic breeding grounds and wintering refuges in the tropics and subtropics. During heavy travel periods---at the peak of spring or fall migration---a given habitat may be flooded with non-resident birds, adding exoticism and excitement to the local ecosystem.


Difficulty: Easy

Step 1
Familiarize yourself with the great migration flyways that crisscross the continents. North America, with its generally north-south trending mountain ranges and coastlines, has the most pronounced and habitual flight corridors in the world. There are four major flyways: the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific. Certainly not all birds take these heavenly highways, and weather and other factors can knock flocks well off course, but knowing the flyways can tell you where traveling birds in your area might be coming from---and where they're headed.
Step 2
Seek out topographic features that funnel bird migration. Many species utilize coastlines to travel, whether for the habitat it provides---many species of waterfowl and shorebirds, for example, are migratory---or the strong, reliable seashore breezes, especially helpful for soaring birds like raptors. Mountain scarps provide similarly desirable updrafts for latter species. Places like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania or Cape May on the New Jersey coast, for example, are excellent places for raptor watching during the fall and spring, when thousands of hawks, eagles, vultures and falcons cruise past.
Step 3
Consult field guides, ornithological clubs and other references to acquaint yourself with the typical phenology of migrating birds in your area. Some North American species migrate south by late summer, like the common nighthawk. Others stay on well into the fall.
Step 4
Watch for local weather patterns likely to produce waves of migrating birds. The first true cold snap of the autumn may produce a flush of songbirds the next day or two. Inclement weather can obstruct numerous traveling flocks, and the eventual clearing may prompt a great mass of birds to suddenly be on the move.
Step 5
Look for prominent characteristics to classify a migrant: plumage pattern and color, size, shape and behavior. Habitat will be less of a clue, as long-distance travelers obviously seek shelter wherever they find it.
Step 6
Don't confine your search for migratory birds to the day; many species travel by night. You may see silhouetted flocks of geese, ducks and other birds cross the face of the full moon. Nocturnal migrants may be avoiding predators, or simply being forced to fly non-stop over inhospitable terrain or water.

Tips & Warnings

Getting in touch with birdwatching clubs or visiting birding Internet forums can help you keep tabs on unfolding migrations. With the inevitable variation from year to year, such consultation can be the best way to know when particular birds are arriving, departing or traveling through your area.


Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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