The end of summer through the fall brings many opportunities for viewing some amazing wildlife spectacles to learn more about the wildlife that may pass through your garden.
Many species of wildlife are on the move for fall migration, and your wildlife garden plays an important role as a migratory rest stop for hummingbirds, songbirds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
And these events are just so awesome to see that you won’t want to miss them!
Take a Tour Through Private Wildlife Gardens
One of the best ways to get inspiration for your wildlife garden is to get a good look at what other wildlife gardeners have done. What plants are working best for them? What design ideas appeal to you?
You’ll get to answer these questions and more, and also meet other wildlife gardeners who share your passion.
Pat Sutton has been leading a 3 day series of tours through private wildlife gardens in Cape May for many years. These tours take place in July, August, and September when wildlife gardens are at their peak, Hummingbirds are abundant, or Monarchs are on the move in massive numbers.
These homeowners graciously open up their wildlife gardens for these tours. But you can’t see these private gardens at any other time. Sign up for the August Hummingbird garden tours now.
Witness the Purple Martin Migration
August is also the time of year that Purple Martins gather in huge flocks at various staging spots around the country before they all take off together to make the long distance migratory flight to South America–a journey of over 5000 miles.
Every year from the beginning of August until the first week of September the Purple Martins gather into huge flocks before making their journey south in huge migratory flocks. Cape May, NJ residents also gather in flocks to watch these huge gatherings of these birds at the Maurice River bridge. For observant nature watchers, this spectacle is the first sign that summer is coming to an end.
The Maurice River in southern New Jersey is one of the spots to witness tens of thousands of Purple Martins gathered together in huge flocks. While you can see them yourself from the Mauricetown Bridge, it’s even more fun to attend the Purple Martin Migration Spectacular Festival
Monarch Butterflies make an amazing migration every year, from the most northern parts of the country to a few small forested areas in Mexico, where they will spend the winter as adult butterflies and then head back north in the spring.
For a full description of this, check out Benjamin Vogt’s short book, Monarch Butterflies: The Last Migration, which describes the peril the Monarchs face both here in the US as well as in their wintering grounds and gives a great description of what you can do to help.
One of the best places to observe the Monarch migration, as well as all of these other amazing wildlife spectacles this fall is Cape May, NJ, where in late September you could potentially see thousands of Monarch heading south along the dunes.
For more information about the Monarch migration in Cape May, please check out the Monarch Monitoring Project to stay up to date about the best time to visit to observe this amazing sight.
Only Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains head to Mexico for the winter. If you live west of the Rockies, the Monarchs spend the winter in select places in California.
Other butterflies migrate as well, albeit for shorter distances.
One of my favorite sights is to walk behind the dunes at Cape May Point State park and observe thousands of Buckeye butterflies mixed with thousands of Monarchs all drinking hungrily from the Seaside Goldenrod to fortify themselves for the next leg of their journey.
Painted Lady and their cousins, American Lady butterflies also migrate south in the autumn, and you may observe many of them filling up on nectar in your wildlife garden.
Another short distance migrant is the Red Admiral butterfly. The Red Admiral made news across the country this past spring as huge numbers of migrants were observed all across the country, sparking attention from nature lovers, but also from loads of people who had never paid attention to natural phenomena before.
Check out Life Cycles of Butterflies: From Egg to Maturity by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards.
Visit a Hawk Watch
From late August through November the skies are full of migrating hawks, falcons, and eagles as they move south for the winter.
And there are many official hawk watch sites around the country where scientists and expert birders count the number of passing raptors every day of the week. Scientists use these hawk watch count numbers to track the health of the raptor populations. A significant decline in the numbers of one species of hawk would be an indication of much more pervasive habitat problems. The hawk count numbers are the “canary in the coal mine” indication of ecosystem health. You can see the daily counts from each hawk watch site so you can learn when large numbers of a raptor species are passing through.
I have 2 favorite local hawk watch sites that I like to visit several times each year:
In 1929 ornithologist Richard Pough heard of a place called “Hawk Mountain” where hunters gathered every autumn to shoot migrating raptors to collect the $5 bounty. He went there and took a series of photos to try to stop the slaughter. Mrs. Rosalie Edge saw those photographs and went to visit Hawk Mountain. She leased 1400 acres, and hired a warden named Maurice Broun and his wife Irma to stop the shooting of the migrating hawks.
Now Hawk Mountain is one of the premier destinations for birders from around the world whose tools are cameras and binoculars instead of guns.
Cape May is a peninsula, an extension of the New Jersey coastal plain bordered on the west by Delaware Bay and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean. This makes Cape May a natural funnel, catching and directing southbound birds to the peninsula’s terminus at Cape May Point.
Birders gather daily at the Hawk Watch platform in Cape May Point State Park to watch the spectacle of thousands of raptors passing right overhead. It’s actually quite a social event, and you can meet some of the premier birders in the world hanging out on the platform.
While it may seem impossible to identify these birds at incredible distances, careful attention to details of flight and behavior will make this a relatively easy task. One of the best resources to make this easier for you is the newly released second edition of Hawks in Flight by Clay Sutton, David Sibley, and Pete Dunne.
Cape May, NJ is world renowned for its amazing hawk migration, and a day spent standing on the hawk watch platform at Cape May Point State Park will make you feel like an expert as you learn from the many birders who gather there each fall.
Veracruz River of Raptors, Mexico
Several years ago I had the opportunity to take a birding tour in Veracruz, Mexico to witness the spectacle that is called The River of Raptors.
Because Veracruz is a narrow strip sandwiched between a mountain range and the Atlantic Ocean, migrating raptors are funneled into this area. One of the best places to watch this phenomenon is the roof of a hotel in the town of Cardel, and this rooftop is one of the official hawk watch count sites.
If you ever have the opportunity to join a birding tour to this area during fall hawk migration, drop everything and go! It’s an amazing adventure. And what could be better than sipping margaritas on the rooftop and watching hundreds of thousands of hawks passing by right over your head?
What Migration Spectacles Are Happening in Your Neck of the Woods?
Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Carole Sevilla Brown gardens for wildlife in Philadelphia, PA and travels around the country teaching audiences large and small about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife.
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