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  • Writer's pictureAsh, Lead Naturalist

The Great Migration!

By: Ashley Goldbeck


Ahhh, fall is upon us! Here in Wisconsin that means it’s time to pull out our long underwear, jackets, hats and mittens and get outside to enjoy the crisp, refreshing air! It also means that many of the birds that spent their summers here are preparing for the long haul back to their wintering grounds. Many birds must make the 600+ mile non-stop trip across the Gulf of Mexico to get there. While others appear to be lost, heading in all different directions. Each species of bird is unique and has adapted to their migration plan over the course of several lifetimes. We hope you enjoy watching them embark on their travels as much as we do!

Here in St. Croix County (not to mention right here in the park) there are several excellent bird-watching locations. With the close proximity and convergence of the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, we are right alongside a major bird highway! In September, October and November keep an eye out for some of these beautiful birds (and more!) flying overhead or stopping for a rest on our lakes, rivers, fields and forests as they head off in search of warmer winter residences.

Canvas back

Spend the majority of their winter along the Lower Mississippi. Feasting on submerged aquatic vegetation, invertebrates and arrowhead tubers in marshlands.

Common Goldeneye

During migration, the common Goldeneye can be found anywhere from California to Florida and migrate as far south as Mexico. But as long as there is open water available, Goldeneyes can be found in Wisconsin when temperatures drop below zero degrees, providing a rare and exciting sight.

Blue-winged Teal

The teal are long distance migrators, with some traveling all the way to South America for the winter season. Therefore, they take off early leaving their breeding grounds here in Wisconsin well before other species in the fall.

Canada Geese

Geese rear their young near water throughout the summer, where the goslings can feed and easily escape terrestrial predators. In late summer, adult geese molt their wing feathers, making them unable to fly for a short period of time. Once the parents have regained their wing feathers and teach the young to fly, the whole family will take flight in search of productive winter-feeding grounds. However, this movement could be in any direction, which is why you may see geese that appear to be flying in the wrong direction.

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Another long-distance migrator, the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks flies from your backyard all the way down to South America. Some fly across the Gulf of Mexico in a single night on those little wings of theirs! Others migrate over land around the Gulf.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Unlike other birds, hummingbirds prefer to migrate alone rather than in large flocks, therefore it is up to each individual bird’s instinct as to when the journey will begin. Several factors such as sunlight, food availability and gender (males depart first, to establish nests for females) determine when migration will begin.

Scarlet Tanager

A long distance migrator, they fly over the Gulf to South America. Typically migrating at night in synchronized bursts.

Indigo Bunting

Another long-distance migrant, Indigo Buntings fly 1,200+ miles, wintering in areas from southern Florida to South America. They typically migrate at night, using the stars for guidance.

Sandhill Crane

Cranes are known to be territorial but tend to congregate during fall migration at roost sites in open water areas in wetlands. They migrate along the Mississippi River flyway so seeing them in the area is not rare for us! Keep an eye out for their movement in late September through early December.

Great Blue Heron

Herons tend to be partial migrators. Great Blue Herons generally move away from the northern edge of their breeding range in winter, while some fly as far south as the Caribbean.


There are three species of swan in Wisconsin: Trumpeter, Tundra and the non-native Mute swan. Trumpeter and Tundra swans are migratory species, while Mute swans tend to remain here year-round. Although they look similar, you can identify the difference by beak color (the Mute Swan has a predominantly orange beak with a prominent bump, while the Trumpeter has a straight, black beak and the Tundra has a yellow patch before the eye).

Eastern Meadowlark

A short-distance migrator, rarely traveling further then the southern states.


Bobolinks travel about 12,500 miles round-trip every year, in one of the longest migrations of any songbird in the U.S. They fly in groups through Florida and across the Gulf toward their wintering grounds in the Pampas of South America.

Warblers— (Yellow Warbler pictured here)

Yellow Warblers spend their winters in Central America and northern South America. They migrate earlier than most other warblers in both spring and fall. 

Hawks– (Rough-legged Hawk Pictured here)

There are 8 species of hawks in Wisconsin including: Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and the Swainson's Hawk. All hawks migrate in one way or another, some make the long trip down south, some are considered partial migrators, finding urban areas that produce enough heat to keep them warm throughout Midwestern winters, while others (Rough-legged Hawk) actually migrate here in the winter from colder places like the Arctic.

Make it a Family Adventure!

  • Grab a pair of binoculars and hit your favorite outdoor location or hiking trail and see how many traveling birds you can spot

  • Visit Willow River State Park and play the Migratory Bird Game, which is posted throughout the natural playground area! You can access the starting location by beginning on the left side of the Hidden Ponds Trail (located directly behind the Nature Center). Walk a short distance down the trail until you see a sign that prompts you to “visit the natural playground area and play the migratory bird game!”

  • Make bird feeders out of recycled plastic bottles, milk containers, or toilet paper rolls. Slather them with peanut butter and sunflower seeds to keep birds fueled and fulfilled as they travel!

  • Participate in Project FeederWatch, a winter survey of birds that visit feeders throughout the US, coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To participate in this project, you count the highest number of each bird species you see visit your feeders from November-April, and then report your findings. The numbers collected from this project helps scientist’s track movements of winter bird populations as well as changes in bird diversity and abundance. Learn more or participate at:

  • For those who prefer to sit in one-place and track bird populations, try participating in The Big Sit! Founded by the New Haven Bird Club and presented by Bird Watcher’s Digest, The Big Sit’s target is to track as many bird species as possible during a 24-hour period from within a 17-foot circle. Learn more or participate at:

Have fun with it, and be sure to share your favorite sightings with us! We love hearing from you!

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