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Spring Migration Is for the Birds—and You

March 18, 2016
Pretty bird! Information about migratory flyways, songbird fallouts, and great binoculars for bird-watchers.

Imagine standing on a wharf on a balmy spring day, peering through your high-powered binoculars in hopes of sighting a few migrating birds, when you are suddenly surrounded by a bevy of flapping wings. These aren’t angry birds, but a magnificent migratory mass—what serious bird-watchers call a “fallout” of song or shorebirds. They’re heading north toward their breeding grounds in the Arctic, with stopovers along the way to feast on insects, worms, snails, and the eggs of horseshoe crabs.

It’s an arduous journey that taxes young birds. Song and shorebirds, cruising as fast as 50 mph, can move from Central and South America and cover more than 15,000 miles round trip at altitudes higher than 10,000 feet. Some 20 million shorebirds fly their way north through the U.S. to the Arctic on this annual journey that can begin as soon as late January.

That makes now as good a time as any to start bird-watching. It’s a popular outdoor hobby that nearly 47 million Americans already flock to, according to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.

Getting started bird-watching is easy to do, since the only requirements are working eyes and a good pair of binoculars, says Bill Stewart, director of conservation and community for the American Birding Association. And although bird-watching can start right at home, there are also some popular migratory flyways in the U.S. to check out.

Beauty and the Bird

The Atlantic flyway is world famous for shorebird migration, especially around Cape May, New Jersey, Stewart says. He loves the area for its unrehearsed but beautifully choreographed migration fallouts, which happen when an extraordinary number of birds congregate in an area because of extreme weather.

“In the morning you go out birding and suddenly you have thousands of birds around you,” Stewart says. “It’s like they fall out of the sky around you. It’s a birder’s dream to walk into fallouts.” Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada, and the Birding and Nature Center in South Padre Island, Texas, are also known for these fallouts.

Stewart says it’s impressive to consider the distances these winged creatures travel each year. “These birds come pouring by the billions on those flyways in the spring, with some spending the winter as far down as Patagonia,” he said.

Spring migration, and its counterpart in the fall, lasts only two to three weeks, and sometimes it can be hard to time a visit just right. But the good news is that bird-watching can be done year-round.

Tour companies can create packages for bird-watchers who might want to take trips to see exotic species; for example, Field Guides and Wings Birds offer global birding tours. Be sure to look for guides who are careful not to disturb the birds’ habitat, especially in potentially environmentally fragile regions.

Bring the Field Glasses

Great binoculars are a must-have and won’t break the bank. “With the advances in the field of optics, you can get a very good pair of binoculars for $250 to $350, which is a really good pair for a beginner,” Stewart says.

Where to begin? Stewart recommends binoculars known as 8x42, which have eight times the magnifying power of the naked eye. The second number refers to the diameter of the light-gathering lens in millimeters. A pair for beginners, like Nikon Monarch 3 8x42 Binoculars, will run you about $250, while a top-line pair such as the Leica Ultravid HD 8x42 Binocular will set you back about $1,800.

A sound piece of advice: Before buying, hold the binoculars to get a feel for them. “Do you feel good using them? If they don’t feel good in your hands, you’re not going to want to take a walk with them,” Stewart notes.

Field guides help birders spot our feathered friends, and Stewart has two favorites, The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley and National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. And yes, the National Audubon Society has an app for that with a bird guide for smartphones. 

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