Autumn Birding Along Wisconsin’s Glacial Drumlin Trail

A hike or ride along the Glacial Drumlin Trail can be a great way to catch this exciting annual event.

The 52 miles of Trail offer a broad diversity of habitats and ecosystems, so you have a good chance of seeing a wide variety of bird species. The Glacial Drumlin Trail is a great place for birding!

Why Do Birds Migrate in the Fall?

Many migratory birds you might see in southern Wisconsin spend their summers in northern Wisconsin or Canada. There they find good food, they find their mates, they build their nests, and raise their young.

But when the nights get cooler and the leaves begin to fall, those birds begin to look for warmer places to spend the winter, and they begin flying south.

Most migratory birds travel each fall from north to south, from those summer nesting and feeding grounds in Canada to southern states and even to Central and South America. Some of these north-to-south flight paths cross right over the Glacial Drumlin Trail, which is oriented East-to-West.

Horicon Marsh, located just 30 miles north of the Glacial Drumlin Trail, is a major gathering place for over 300 different kinds of migrating birds to stop and rest on their big journey. Then they continue flying south; and within an hour you’ll see them flying over the Glacial Drumlin Trail!

What Kind of Birds Can I See on the Trail, and Where Might I See Them?

For most of its length, the Trail is surrounded by open meadows, farm fields, marshes, and grasslands. But the Trail is also often closely bordered by rows of trees, a vestige of its former life as a railroad route. These trees can provide a safe resting place for a tired migrating songbird to catch its breath and maybe find a bite to eat.

Migratory songbirds you might see here include:

  • eastern meadowlarks
  • scarlet tanager
  • indigo bunting
  • bobolink
  • upland sandpiper

In Lake Mills, the Trail crosses Rock and Mud Lakes, so watch for all kinds of migratory waterfowl and wading birds who may stop to rest or feed here. The same goes for the nearby Crawfish and Rock Rivers; the Glacial Drumlin Trail crosses these rivers on high trestle bridges.

  • ducks and geese
  • blue-winged teal
  • green and great blue herons
  • great egrets
  • sandhill cranes

The three miles of Trail east of Sullivan is surrounded by mixed forest, so you may see:

  • warblers
  • black-capped chickadee
  • nuthatch
  • brown creeper
  • blue-gray gnatcatcher
  • wrens
  • finches
  • red-winged blackbird

On the eastern portions of the Trail you may glimpse some other species of migratory birds. Many kinds of raptors follow the shores of the Great lakes down from Canada. Being closer to the shores of Lake Michigan, the eastern Trail may offer opportunities to see:

  • turkey vulture
  • northern harrier
  • bald eagle
  • great horned owl
  • golden eagle
  • peregrine falcon
  • American kestrel

The Glacial Drumlin Trail ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) at the Fox River Sanctuary in Waukesha. The nearly 100 acres of mature trees, open meadows, prairie grasses, ponds, and designated lowland areas make this a prime bird-watching spot, anytime of year. Enjoy the multi-use trails, boardwalk, and observation platform to see:

  • common nighthawk
  • Canada goose
  • chimney swift
  • yellow-rumped warbler
  • northern rough-winged swallow
  • mallard
  • palm warbler
  • cedar waxwing

When is a Good Time to See Autumn Migratory Birds?

As the autumn migration season approaches, most birds do something rather surprising: they start sleeping during the daytime, and flying at night!

Every night during the migration season, under the cover of darkness, thousands of birds stream overhead, mostly invisible to you and me. When the sun rises, the birds may continue flying on their long journey, but they stop often to feed, and for short rests and “power naps” during the day.

Scientists believe the main reasons birds migrate at night is so that they can use the stars to help guide them, and to avoid predators while they travel though unfamiliar places.

But the fall migration flyways are like the superhighways of human travellers, so you can still see these migratory birds along the Trail just about all day long, if you keep your eyes open. Morning tends to be a good time, as the birds look for a safe perch in a tree or shrub to rest for awhile. As evening approaches, even more birds can be seen taking to the skies for their nocturnal flights.

Some birds like hawks and other raptors, swallows, and hummingbirds migrate during the day.

Different birds make their migrations at different times of the year:

July, August
The earliest birds to head south are the shorebirds and wading birds. Along the Trail, look for shorebirds migrating beginning in July and peaking in August.

August, September, October
August is a busy time, as certain songbirds begin migrating too. Most of these birds, like warblers and other woodland birds, will continue migrating later in the season, from August perhaps all the way through October.

All these migratory birds will be gone all winter, spending their days in the southern states or even southern countries. But when the snows melt and spring returns to Wisconsin, these same birds will return too, to build their nests and to raise their young here.

And you can see them in the skies over the Glacial Drumlin Trail!

You can learn more about birding in Wisconsin here:

The Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail

Birding in Wisconsnin

Wisconsin Birding & Bird Watching

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