Fall migration is barely underway here in Minnesota. Of course, shorebirds have been moving for a while and some species have been quietly wandering and withdrawing from their breeding range. Common Nighthawks are migrating en masse and little mixed flocks of passerines are congregating for anyone lucky enough to stumble on such a group.
I don't know what the birding phenology is like in your part of the world, but by early September, northern warblers and other songbirds will become easier to find migrating through here. By late September and early October, they will be joined by a variety of sparrows and warblers that breed well north of here.
To read about enjoying this phenomenon, migrate south of the fold....
During spring, we are all anxiously awaiting winter's end and signs of life. We're looking, we're listening, and we're finding. The birds are bright and conspicuous, singing and interacting, and we can't help but notice them.
Fall is a little different. Unless bad weather creates a major push, the birds can seem to just dribble through quietly without us noticing. You might spot a Yellow-rumped Warbler or a White-crowned Sparrow in your yard and realize it's a migrant, but like a sluggish river, you don't always fully appreciate the volume flowing by because it's so quiet.
I know all about bird baths and water features and how attractive they can be to birds. I know that warblers are quickly drawn to the sound of running water. I first discovered the attractiveness of basic lawn sprinklers (I use a little donut one that doesn't pulse or oscillate--I'm not sure how they would react to one that moves or makes ft ft ft ft noises) to birds when trying to coax along a few newly planted shrubs in my yard during summer. Robins, Chipping Sparrows, and Brown Thrashers would arrive quickly to splash in the water and feast on evicted insects.
My yard has a fair amount of trees in it, but it's in your basic small town neighborhood. There isn't a lot of water nearby. I can't speak to what my results would be like if I lived in deep woods, in an urban or treeless setting, or near other water sources.
Anyway, I have found that simply running a small sprinkler near any corner of the yard with cover can provide a fantastic show, especially during dry stretches of September and October! Sometimes, I notice migrants like Palm, Tennessee, Yellow-rumped, Nashville, and Orange-crowned Warblers in my trees and turn on the sprinkler to draw them into view. Other times, I don't necessarily notice any birds, but I turn on the sprinkler and they are pulled right in. Occasionally, nothing happens at all.
(I do realize, of course, that in some parts of the country running a sprinkler for entertainment or for providing the birds a drink is not very green. I also know that it can be expensive if you pay for water. Where I am at, I have a small well and water is generally abundant in Minnesota. Running a sprinkler here is a low-impact endeavor--certainly lower impact than driving to some other location to look at the same birds.)
Typically, I have better results in the morning or late afternoon, but it can be very unpredictable. Sparrows are the most likely midday visitors, with warblers tending toward the early and later. Often if I suspect the viewing may be good, I'll grab a lawn chair, binoculars, and a beer, put the sprinkler near some easily-viewed trees, and set up my scope at sitting height. If you have a bird bath, you can move it within the sprinkler radius and the trickle of the water in the bird bath will be heard by more birds.
Sometimes the birds respond immediately! Ten species of sparrows, eight species of warblers, bluebirds, robins, thrashers, goldfinches, doves, blackbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Downy Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Eastern Phoebes, Red-eyed Vireos, and several others have visited sprinkler in my yard. Merlins and Sharp-shinned Hawks have also responded to the commotion. Of course, all of that time sitting in the yard with binoculars generally results in flyover waterfowl, raptors, and others that aren't interested in the sprinkler at all. Once in a while, a dense group of migrants will pass through and there will be dozens of individuals of several species, all splashing and drinking in the water puddles. Birds that normally offer lousy looks in treetops can sometimes be coaxed to the ground where they may stay in view for several minutes. It's really a hoot! I highly recommend it if you live in a place where this is an option. If so inclined, add in a few well-maintained feeders with a variety of seeds and some well-chosen shrubs and you're almost guaranteed something to look at. There isn't really a drawback--if the birds don't show, you're still sitting in the backyard on a nice autumn day.
How do you know when it will be good? Well, any time could be good in your area, but again, I tend to have better luck on sunny mornings or afternoons during warm, dry stretches in the fall. The birds are in need of water to drink and bathe then and I think birds are less interested in getting wet on cool, damp days when it's harder to dry off. Knowing the likely migration periods of birds in your area is helpful too. Here, around September 10th through October 15th is a good bet for activity. Learning to read bird migration on NEXRAD radar is VERY helpful as well, but that would be another diary entirely...also, if you aren't careful, it can lead to late nights and early mornings spent birding nocturnally. There are a couple of websites dedicated to documenting bird migration by radar and if you are really interested, I highly recommend Derek Lovitch's book How to be a Better Birder.
Pick a good fall day, crank up the sprinkler, and surprise yourself at the avian variety passing through your neighborhood.
How will you enjoy migration this fall?