The Fun of Fall Migration

American Goldfinch, Common Yellowthroat, Black and White Warbler, Prarie Warbler

Migration is an amazing time for birding and bird photography, but too often when birders think of migration, they only think of the bright blooms of spring and birds in fresh mating plumage. Fall migration can be just as amazing and colorful if you know what to look for.

The Signs of Fall Migration

First, it’s best to discover when, exactly, fall migration is underway. In northern areas, fall migration could start as early as the end of July or early August, while in southern areas, fall birds don’t begin their journeys until late September or October. But there are clues you can watch for to see birds set off on their southward routes.

Cooler temperatures and shorter days are sure signs that fall migration is on the way, and changing leaf colors add beautiful backdrops to all fall bird photography. But what about the birds themselves?

Many birds that are normally solitary, such as warblers and swallows, will start to feel more social in fall as they visit rich food sources to fuel their travels. The birds will also seem restless and nervous, a condition called zugunruhe, as they feel the urge to migrate. Short, energetic flights and general fluttering about at this time to help birds strengthen their muscles and sharpen their senses in preparation for longer migratory flights.

Fall Migration Bird Photography

Zugunruhe offers spectacular photography opportunities to showcase birds’ energy and enthusiasm. Over and over, anxious birds will return to the same roosts and perches, giving birders the chance to set up well-composed yet dynamic shots to capture the enchanting charisma of fall migration.

Another aspect of fall migration bird photography is the interesting plumage of autumn birds. While most birds such as warblers, goldfinches, and starlings aren’t in their outstanding breeding colors when fall migration begins, their more subtle shades and even molting patterns are just as lovely. Even better is when a bird’s plumage matches the autumn shades around them to encapsulate the season, such as the yellow with subtle red streaking of the yellow warbler, which beautifully blends with autumn aspens, maples, elms, and other yellow-leaved trees.

Autumn is an amazing season, and when coupled with fall bird migration, it’s one that no nature photographer will want to miss.

Melissa Mayntz is an avid, enthusiastic birder and the author of Migration: Exploring the Remarkable Journeys of Birds (Quadrille Publishing, 2020). Find her at