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Fall Migration: Behold Beautiful Birds in Pennsylvania Skies

September 06, 2017 12:00 PM

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Birding, or birdwatching, is a popular hobby, and it’s easy to see why, especially in Pennsylvania where there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy our feathered friends.

Birding is a growing activity, especially among youth, as:

  • Smartphone apps and other technology help beginners
  • It is a relatively inexpensive hobby, especially with the advance of cell phone cameras
  • It is convenient -- you can bird watch in your backyard, a local park, or a state park or forest near you
  • It is an interesting, challenging, and relaxing outdoor hobby
  • You become involved conservation and nature

Late August and early September kicks off fall bird migration. While you may think of spring as the prime time to bird watch, the fall season provides great opportunities, too.

What Can Pennsylvanians See During Fall Migration?

Migration is the dominant bird activity throughout the fall months. The fall migration may not appear as dramatic as spring’s because, according to Audubon Pennsylvania:

  • Most birds have lost their colorful breeding feathers
  • Many birds are not actively singing at this time of year, so some may be more difficult to spot
  • The fall migration is distributed over a longer period

Birds are on the move this time of year, especially raptors (which are birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, osprey, harriers, etc.).

Eagles on Water Image

Hawk migration begins in early August. Large flocks of broad-winged hawks are typically seen along major ridges following a cold front around the third week in September. A wide variety of hawks can also be seen at Pennsylvania’s ridges throughout October.

Kestrel, merlin, and peregrine falcon sightings typically peak during early October. Red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks peak later in October through November. Goshawks and golden eagles are often seen during November.

In addition, birds such as adult warblers, flycatchers, and thrushes move south with cold fronts during late August and September, and juveniles follow during September and October. Sparrows and other seed-eating birds can be spotted while heading south during October.

Waterfowl also move onto lakes and ponds in Pennsylvania from their northern breeding areas during October and November.

Great Spots for Birding in Pennsylvania

With its diverse natural scenic places, including vistas, ridges, mountains, and gorges, Pennsylvania is a hot spot for bird watching this time of year, especially raptor viewing.

There are endless viewing opportunities, and here are a few favorites across the state:

Bald Eagle State Park -- Bald Eagle State Park contains diverse habitat that attracts many bird species. The mountain ridges create excellent flyways for migrating birds. Some birds stop at the park to rest and feed during their migration. Beginner and life-long birders find exploring the park with a pair of binoculars a treat no matter what the season. See our brochure (PDF) that lists common birds at the park.

Bald Eagle Inn Birding Image

Blue Knob State Park -- This state park in Bedford County offers spectacular views of the Ridge and Valley Province. Blue Knob is the second highest point in Pennsylvania. Owls, wild turkey, peregrine falcons, hawks, and woodpeckers flourish in this diverse habitat.

Codorus State Park -- The National Audubon Society has designated Codorus State Park as an Important Bird Area. Nearly 240 species of birds have been spotted at this state park. Five miles of trails provide easy access to varied habitats where you could spot waterfowl, osprey, bald eagles, hawks, etc. See our brochure (PDF) that lists common birds at the park.

Fort Washington State Park -- Beginning in September, you can view hawks from the park’s observation deck. All 16 species of raptors that migrate on the east coast can be seen there. The hawk watch begins September 1 and lasts through October 31.

Hawk Watch Site Fort Washington State Park

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary – The sanctuary, along the Kittatinny Ridge near Pottsville, is a great option for viewing the migration of raptors. The sanctuary makes available peak migration dates and times, and also provides educational opportunities so you can learn more about raptors.

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area -- This Important Bird Area in Lancaster County, owned and managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), is an exceptional location for viewing nesting, migrating, and wintering birds.

Ohiopyle State Park -- Ohiopyle State Park is excellent for bird watching, with a variety of habitats. The Youghiogheny River provides habitat perfect for water-loving birds such as osprey, mergansers, kingfishers, and occasional bald eagles.

Presque Isle State Park -- Presque Isle State Park’s location on the Atlantic Flyway makes it a favorite spot for birds to stop to feed and rest on their migration across Lake Erie:

  • Shorebird migration peaks during April and during September
  • Warbler migration is observed during mid-May and during September
  • Waterfowl migration occurs during March and during late November through December

Promised Land State Park -- Promised Land State Park is designated as an Important Bird Area. A wildlife observation station is located on Lower Lake by the Bear Wallow Boat Launch.

Raccoon Creek State Park -- August through early September is a peak bloom time for the 314-acre Wildflower Reserve at Raccoon Creek State Park. The reserve contains one of the most diverse stands of wildflowers in western Pennsylvania. These plants attract many bird species and other wildlife.

Samuel S. Lewis State Park -- This state park overlooks the Susquehanna River and offers stunning views. Hike the Hill Top Trail for bird viewing opportunities.

Second Mountain Hawk Watch – Second Mountain Hawk Watch offers a great vantage point to see Fort Indiantown Gap and overlook Stony Valley and the mountains beyond. A variety of raptors can be seen from Hawk Watch including sharp shinned hawks, harriers, bald eagles, and golden eagles.

Susquehannock State Park -- Visit Hawk Point and Wissler Run overlooks to view migratory birds, such as bald eagles, osprey, and turkey and black vultures.

Waggoner’s Gap Hawkwatch -- Along the Kittatinny Ridge on the Cumberland-Perry County line, from August 1 through December 31, you can plan to catch a glimpse of hawks at Waggoner’s Gap Hawkwatch. You can watch golden eagles and other birds of prey cruise over a stunning landscape from the wind-swept outcrop at Waggoner’s Gap Hawkwatch.

For some additional information on migration timing for hawk watch sites across the state, see HawkCount.

First Time Birding? Here are the Basics

The National Audubon Society shares some tips on how to begin birding:

  1. Do research. Access a field guide with pictures of each bird and maps of their range.
  2. Gear up. Birding requires little equipment, but you do need a pair of binoculars. As you improve, you may want to invest in a nice camera or spotting scope.
  3. Get out and explore! You’ll gain experience and knowledge after you spend more time with the birds.

The National Audubon Society recommends safety tips for better birding:

  1. Bring a friend or tell people where you are going. Having a friend with you helps with safety, but also can better spot wildlife.
  2. Prepare for inclement weather. Check the weather report for where you are headed and dress accordingly.
  3. Plan your trip ahead of time, and bring a field guide and map. This will help you learn where you’re going, and find where you’re at if you get turned around.
  4. Bring your cell phone. These tips can help prevent an emergency, while your phone may be able to help you during an emergency.
  5. Watch where you’re walking. It’s easy to get caught up in the activity in the trees; be aware of your surroundings.

Enjoy Your New Outdoor Hobby!

Family Birding Image

Pennsylvania is home -- and provides a temporary home -- to many bird species.

Remember, though, to enjoy your hobby but Leave No Trace in our natural places.

For more about where to observe birds and other wildlife at our state parks and forests, see our interactive map. You can also explore our state parks and state forests to find out where to go.

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