Backyard Birder’s Guide to Fall Migration

That first hint of autumn is in the air and wild birds are on the move!

Unlike that mad rush in Spring to nest, wild birds have varying calendars for Fall Migration. With the longer, drawn-out timetable, backyard birders have great opportunities to catch sight of unusual guests at feeders and bird baths.

Even though as birders, we love this exciting time of year, some of our usual guests are preparing to disappear—or have already quietly disappeared—without saying goodbye. To all the Catbirds, Orioles, Hummingbirds, Purple Martins, Swallows and others, we wish you a safe journey and look forward to your return in spring. We will miss you!

Meanwhile, we look forward to the ever-changing roster of new visitors now passing through. The Backyard Naturalist has been monitoring regional Fall Migration forecasts through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s incredible and comprehensive BirdCast. If you haven’t seen this site yet, you are in for a treat. It’s the best place to be in-the-know; find out who’s here, who’s on the way and when favorite birds are expected.

Right now, Warblers are a total delight and the arrival of our beloved Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows who will stay until next spring is highly anticipated. How can we attract our favorite birds to visit our backyards? There are several things you can do to entice migratory birds:


Stocking feeders with nutritious and desirable high-fat seed, such as black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and nyjer nourish migrants and residents all year round. White millet can be added this time of year as an added temptation for your ground feeding Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows.

Grow native plants! In particular, those producing fruit, seeds and berries. Native plants are also a haven for tasty insects which so many migrants, particularly the Warblers, THRIVE on. The benefits of native planting are too many to list here. (Topic for another time. But, for more info check out Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard by George Adams.)

Did you know that birds are pollinators, too? Find out how you can support them and others, like bees, butterflies and bats. See Support Our Native Pollinators.

Feeding Wild BirdsLearn more about feeding wild birds here.


Keeping your water sources fresh and available is critical and may also bring you unexpected rewards. In most cases, migrant birds are not feeder visitors, but all seek and require water. Last year we were blessed with, simultaneously, a Red-eyed Vireo, a female American Redstart, an Ovenbird and a Brown Thrasher splashing in our suburban backyard bird bath!!! We were too stunned to race for the camera!

So, trust us. Keep an eye on your bird baths. It’s best to have your binoculars, guide books and cameras, close to your window. If you see a bird that’s a little different from normal visitors, it probably is different. Grab those binoculars and look closely! You never know who’s going to show up this time of year! We can never underestimate how necessary our backyard habitats are to birds while on their long journeys. Wouldn’t you like to find a great little B&B during a trip like this, too?

Water and Wild BirdsLearn more about water and wild birds here.


Regardless of differing food preferences, all wild birds need the safe haven and respite that a backyard habitat provides during this most active, and potentially perilous time, in their life cycles!

Don’t rake so fast! Leaf litter has benefits for wild birds. Your backyard leaf piles host a bounty of insects and retain essential water. A layer of leaves is also shelter with both camouflage from predators and insulation during bad weather. Ground feeders, like the Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow will appreciate it.

Create a brush pile. A pile of fallen branches and pruning remainders can provide shelter, even during bad weather.

Clean out your bird houses, if you haven’t already. When cold weather hits, small birds like Chickadees, Titmice and Bluebirds will appreciate the shelter.

Water and Wild BirdsLearn more about sheltering wild birds here.

Identifying Wild Birds

If you don’t have a guide already, here are a few of our favorite go-to resources:

  • National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North AmericaJon Dunn, Jonathan K. Alderfer and Paul Lehman This is our personal favorite, but another one might be the right one for you. When asked for a recommendation, we always say, “Find one that sings to you!”. The right field guide will be your best friend.
  • Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America
  • Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America
  • Stokes Field Guide to WarblersDonald and Lillian Stokes
  • Sibley’s Warblers of Eastern North America (folding guide) – David Sibley
  • The Warbler Guide (Princeton Press) – Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
  • A Field Guide to Warblers of North America (Peterson Field Guides) – Kimball Garrett, Jon Dunn and Roger Tory Peterson
  • The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guides) – Bill Thompson III
    Excellent for junior birders.

The absolute best online resource:

Recommended birding apps for your mobile device:

  • iBird PRO – The Backyard Naturalist uses and highly recommends this one.
  • Merlin by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  • Apps by Peterson Guides
  • Apps by The Audubon Society

Once you’ve made an ID, finding out the distance this amazing bird has just flown to get to your backyard and how much further it will fly to complete it’s journey is mind-boggling and humbling to consider. Investigating further—and we promise you will be glad you did—you are bound to find other amazing things to ponder, even some unexpected wonders about wild birds you see every day!

Go Wild! Hit the Hotspots

Be where the action’s happening!

Our area’s natural spaces:

Join an organized field trip, bird walk or bird count.

For a fascinating, real-time overview of migrating birds on the move, don’t miss The Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s Live Migration Map. Watch an animated view of three days of bird movement, as tracked by the US weather surveillance network. You can really get a sense of the amazing, and sometimes perilous, journeys made by our migrating birds twice a year!

Share the Experience

Wild birds flying thousands of miles and opportunities to see uncommon species… Fall Migration! Does it get any better than this??!! It’s plenty of excitement to spark the interest of a young naturalist. A children’s guide to birding and a pair of inexpensive, junior binoculars might be just the right inspiration to get a potential Birder hooked! (See more for Junior Birders here.)

Share your sightings and photos with other Maryland birders on MD Birders Facebook page. Birding novices and experts alike post questions, advice, sightings, photos and more on this dynamic and very active Facebook page.

And we love hearing from you on The Backyard Naturalist Facebook page, too! We promise we’ll never stop liking your wild bird stories and photos! And, we’re always here if you have any questions. Just stop by the store or give us a call!

Happy Fall Migration, everyone! And Safe Journeys to our migrant birds. We will see you next Spring!
Debi & Mike Klein and The Backyard Naturalist Staff