There are two ways to look at fall migration on the Chesapeake – those birds that are just passing through and those that are coming to spend the winter. The Atlantic Flyway is basically an avian superhighway, a feathered turnpike if you will, for hundreds of species with exits and entrances and plenty of rest stops in between. There is no bad season for birding on the Chesapeake, but fall is wondrous if you are into wide variety of migrating birds.
As the summer heat breaks and days begin cooling, it seems a lot of birds are on the move, and some of the best times to observe movements is following the weather. Birds will move in large numbers following low-pressure systems that provide the most favorable winds. Warblers are generally the first to leave, with August, September and October peak months for them. Most birds tend to migrate in groups – safety in numbers – and usually at night when predatory birds like hawks are less active. Many birds that have to cross large expanses of water will do so in such numbers and concentrations that they can actually be detected on radar.
Because of their large, noisy and obvious presence, osprey migration is the most noticeable, leaving in stages. Satellite tracking shows that moms begin leaving in early August after the juveniles fledge in mid-July. The dad’s job is to teach them how to fish, and he then leaves in early September. The juveniles will explore their home turf, strengthening their flight muscles and generally leave mid- to late-September, although it is not unusual for a late bloomer to still be seen on the nest in mid-October.
As they leave, bald eagles from northern climates begin moving down into the Bay, which becomes their wintering ground. Filling in wide open patches of farmland, non-resident Canada geese will follow, along with blizzards of snow geese and tundra swans seeking fallow farming lands for whatever they can forage.
Other species are simply transients, passing through from one destination to the next, while others like red knots and Arctic terns do homeric pole-to-pole flights. Many may have intermediate destinations, but there are millions who simply head for the mid-Atlantic states and stay here all winter.
Many raptors such as red tails, red shoulders, sharp shinned and Coopers hawks, as well as most owls, will remain year round. Spectacularly, there have been several irruptions (this is the correct spelling) of Snowy Owls over the years that have been seen perching on top of the Bay Bridge, dotting plowed-under cornfields, or even staring at you from the hood of a car. The cause for these irruptions is still being researched.
Though the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed provides outstanding opportunities for seeing fall migrations, what follows are a some regional sites of note.
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, Grasonville, MD
This is a little gem tucked back off the main highway. Not only is the mile-long approach lined with roadside boxes for martins and swallows, but they also have trails, marshes, and woodlands that offer a varied habitat. There are several hides along the marshes that become good watching spots once the mosquitoes and other biting bugs are gone after the first frost. Commonly seen are grebes, yellowlegs, swamp sparrows, golden-crowned kinglets, and northern harriers can routinely be seen patrolling the marshes.
Tundra swans at Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, Alicia Pimental photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program
Susquehanna State Park, Havre de Grace, MD
Eagles, eagles and more eagles! This particular stretch of the Susquehanna has become a huge gathering spot for bald eagles, both resident and transient. Between the abundance of fish, water that stays open most of the winter, and varied duck populations, it provides a veritable feast. Migrants in September include warblers, chipping sparrow, thrushes, flycatchers, woodpeckers, ovenbird, Eastern wood-peewee, Carolina wren, indigo bunting, red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos, red-tailed hawk, night-herons, and great blue herons.
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Rock Hall MD
This small, 2000 square acre island is under the management of Chesapeake Marshlands NWR Complex. It has been working hard with the help of volunteers to improve and upgrade its services, adding boardwalks and trails. Songbird migration southward peaks in late September to October. While Canada geese are a given, the tundra swans will move in around November and there are still plenty of bald eagles. And if you are really fortunate, you may catch sight of a golden eagle.
Golden eagle, Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Kim Cover photo courtesy Maryland DNR
Catoctin Mountain Park, Thurmont, MD
Featuring a variety of habitats from fields, shrubby meadows, freshwater ponds and lakes, and hedgerows, most migratory birds like warblers, towhees, ovenbirds, tanagers and orioles are frequently seen, along with overwintering hawks, purple finches and kinglets. In the winter there are plenty of red-breasted nuthatches who can be heard with their tin-horn call while white-throated sparrows are commonly seen rooting around in the leaf litter.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Washington, DC
The National Zoo is often an unexpected place for birding, considering the amount of human traffic. Boasting over 175 varieties of species, it sees many species of woodpeckers, herons, orioles, warblers and hawks – making it a free-ranging zoo within a zoo. Purple martins pass through during migration, and both kinglets, red-breasted nuthatch, brown creepers, and winter wrens overwinter. Partnering with the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center it offers bird walks with Migratory Bird Center scientists. Call ahead for information.
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park
Stretching 184 miles from Cumberland, MD to Washington DC, the canal was originally built to transport coal to Washington. Now a national park, there are walking and biking trails for the entire length. Fall is a good time to see passing raptors and migrant songbirds, and to take notice of the arrival of brown creepers, and golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets. Flocks of cedar waxwings can be seen foraging for berries and hunting for insects over the river. Flocks of tundra swans sometimes rest on the Potomac River on their way to winter on the Chesapeake Bay. Lock 23 (Violettes Lock) in Seneca, Maryland has long been known as one of Maryland’s birding hotspots for the variety of birds that pass through.
Gifford Pinchot State Park, Lewisberry PA
Gifford Pinchot State Park is an area of forest surrounded by many farm fields and is a rest stop for many migrating forest birds. Warblers, vireos, and thrushes stop to rest and eat before flying on to their breeding or winter homes. Pinchot Lake and its shoreline wetlands are a beacon that lures many species of waterfowl. Mergansers, snow geese, mallards, loons, and many other ducks can be seen swimming, diving, and dabbling for vegetation and small fish.
Kiptopeke State Park, Cape Charles, VA
This park, situated as it is at the end of Cape Charles, is a destination rather than a day trip for most people. The trip is well worth it during fall migration, as it offers a prime spot for all sorts of shore birds and raptors on the move and has numerous trails through shrub-scrub and pine forest as well as sheltered harbor and sandy beaches. In September, broad-winged, then red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks put in appearances, and a Swainson’s hawk is seen almost annually here. October is the month for a visit if you are keen to see a golden eagle or Northern goshawk. Your best chance to see the more rare rough-legged hawk, is October through early November.
Kiptopeke State Park viewing platform, photo courtesy Virginia State Parks
Mason Neck State Park, Lorton VA
Mason Neck is one of the most popular birding areas in Northern Virginia. One of the earliest fall arrivals to Mason Neck is the palm warbler. Keep an eye out for its strikingly yellow under tail coverts as you peruse the lower canopy of trees, shrubs, and even open ground. Chipping sparrows may be passing through on their way south as well as migratory yellow-rumped warbler and gadwalls. Mason Neck State Park was originally established to protect bald eagles, and populations of these majestic birds are present year-round, with many migrants that pass through during fall migrations.
Palm warbler, Mason Neck State Park, photo courtesy Virginia State Parks
Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a 2,285-acre island refuge at the confluence of the Chester River and the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It's an important migration stopover and wintering area for thousands of waterfowl.
Kiptopeke State Park's location near the tip of the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore makes the park a prime location for bird-watching. Migrating birds congregate at this point on the Delmarva before moving on to breeding or wintering grounds.
Gifford Pinchot State Park is a 2,338 acre park in northern York County, Pennsylvania. It consists of reverting farm fields and wooded hillsides, with the 340-acre Pinchot Lake serving as a prime attraction.
With 25 miles of trails winding through Catoctin Mountain Park, a variety of experiences are available ranging from easy to strenuous, many leading to outstanding scenic vistas.
Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park lets visitors explore history and the Potomac River along the 184 mile canal from Washington, DC to Cumberland, MD. There are a number of visitor centers and sites to visit all along the Potomac so take a look at them all.
Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center is a 500 acre preserve located 15 minutes from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore. With a variety of habitats, the Center is an excellent place to see the Chesapeake's wintering assortment of waterfowl.
One of the world’s best zoos and home to approximately 2,000 animals representing nearly 400 species, of which about a quarter are endangered; provides leadership in animal care, science, education, and sustainability.
Susquehanna State Park offers a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities as well as points of historical significance. The park is home to some of the most popular mountain biking trails in Maryland and the river itself beacons fishermen and boaters alike.