Where to Watch the Magical Migration of Birds and Insects Across the Midwest
As the snow melts and crocuses awaken from their slumber, many of the Midwest's summer residents are far away, stirring in their wintering grounds, stretching their wings in preparation for the long flight home. They come from Mexico, Central America and even South America. As Canada geese and monarch butterflies take flight, they'll be joined by hordes of moths, dragonflies, hawks, and other birds and insects who also seek warmer climes for the winter. Now these animals, the original snowbirds, return, arriving just as the spring smorgasbord opens for business.
North America is home to four major flyways—common paths that migratory species take, following water bodies that will provide the right sustenance for their trips. Two routes, the Central Flyway and the Mississippi Flyway, cross the center of our continent. They're responsible for some of the biggest congregations of wildlife Midwesterners can enjoy. Like the rivers they follow, ribbons of wildlife flow north across our fields, forests and backyards. Some migrants are best viewed at specific times in specific locations—like the warblers on the southern shores of Lake Erie or the cranes flocking to the Platte River in Nebraska each March. Others can be spotted all season wherever conditions are right, like ruby-throated hummingbirds or monarchs.
You don't need to be an avid naturalist to enjoy the experience. Communities across the country celebrate these migratory animals with festivals and other public events. Whether you're a wildlife-viewing novice or you keep a spotting scope in the trunk of your car, there's a great migration for you to see.
Related: 6 Simple Tips to Start Bird Watching
When the weather has warmed, a whirring blur arrives on the scene, darting from flower to flower, frantically snacking on nectar. Roughly timing its debut with final frost dates, the ruby-throated hummingbird hits Kansas and Missouri in April and continues its arrival northward through May.
Zipping between mini meals—their favorite comes from red, tubular flowers—the roughly penny-weight birds beat their wings up to 50 times per second. You'll typically catch a glimpse of emerald as they zoom by; only male adults boast the scarlet throats that give the species its name.
What's their hurry? Hummingbirds' tiny hearts beat as high as 1,200 times per minute. To support that mega metabolism, they need to consume half their weight in nectar, insects and tree sap each day. The hummers winter in Mexico and Central America where food sources are plentiful, returning north to breed in the U.S. and Canada when our fresh flowers (and feeders) appear. Their journey is mighty: Some fly across the Gulf of Mexico in a nonstop flight.
Once here, the birds put on a great show for gardeners and porch sitters. Their feisty personalities come through as they bicker over nectar sources and chase one another around the backyard. But enjoy them while they last. By early September, most hummingbirds will have turned south again.
Spotlight Destination: Lang Family Bird Garden
At Lang Family Bird Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, ruby-throated hummingbirds slurp the nectar of trumpet vines, lobelia and salvia. The garden has been optimized for the hummers and other birds and provides a lot of native garden design inspiration too. Come midsummer during the morning or afternoon for the best chance to spot them.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet! Pleased, pleased, pleased-ta-meetcha! Whee, whee, whee whip-poor-will! A forest cacophony rises each dawn, with warblers helping lead the chorus. Easy to hear but hard to spot, this diverse category of birds flits around the treetops. Foliage can mask their colorful plumage, so songs reveal their identities to those who know how to listen. Each species produces a distinct series of buzzes, whistles and tweets.
More than 35 of North America's 50 or so warbler species spend time in the Midwest. The half-ounce birds have a natural navigation system that uses cues from the sun, the stars and the Earth's magnetism. Studies have shown that a warbler displaced even hundreds of miles off its path from Central or South America will still find its way to its destination. They traverse our region at night and don't like flying in rain and storms. "If you have good weather overnight but rain near dawn, your backyard should be full of birds on their way north," says Kenn Kaufman, naturalist and writer.
To boost your chances of seeing warblers, catch them on a pit stop before crossing a big barrier—say, a Great Lake. Like cars at a travel oasis, the birds touch down in droves to refuel and wait for good weather. "It's possible to see more than 20 kinds in a day, but you never know which ones you'll see," Kaufman says. "I've been birding for years, and I still get excited about seeing warblers. Once you discover them, it's a kind of magic that never gets old."
Spotlight Destination: Magee Marsh
In Ohio, Lake Erie has become one of the country's top birding destinations. Magee Marsh, a half hour east of Toledo, boasts over 300 species of birds during spring migration, including 36 unique warblers. (A boardwalk puts you right in their environment.) Nearby, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory hosts The Biggest Week in American Birding—no really, it's called that. Over 10 days (May 6–15 this year), thousands of novice and expert birders flock here from around the world for field trips, gear vendors and talks from conservationists.
We all know the queen of butterflies. She bounces on the breeze and holds court in our flower beds, occasionally resting on a zinnia to bat her orange-and-black wings in our direction. The regal insect is always on the hunt for a sip of nectar or a milkweed leaf where she can lay her eggs.
Like so many migrating animals, she leaves Mexico each spring. But unlike the others, she requires two or three generations to complete the journey. Her grand-butterflies may have been born south of the border in March, to parents who overwintered there; her parents then hatched in Texas in April before laying her egg in Iowa in May.
The return trip in fall will be a straight shot, though, with a longer-lived generation forgoing reproduction until they've made it. On either end, none of the butterflies have been to their destination before, nor their parents or grandparents. Yet their innate compasses get them there.
Monarchs winter in the Sierra Madre mountains of Michoacán. Tens of thousands of butterflies may roost on a single tree, waiting for spring conditions to signal the long-awaited reproduction. They won't congregate in such extreme densities again until they return in September, but they do gather more and more as they funnel south and temperatures cool in the fall.
Spotlight Destination: Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
See monarchs en masse at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 miles northwest of Wichita, Kansas. For about two weeks each September, the butterflies roost in cottonwoods and other trees as they prepare to finish their journey to Mexico. Visit early morning for a chance to see a cluster; they'll disperse to feed on goldenrods, sunflowers and other wildflowers as the day warms.
Refuge Manager Mike Oldham says they've seen as many as 3,000 in a day, though around 200 is typical. Migrants Mile Trail is the best viewing spot. (In the worst years, Oldham says, as few as two dozen monarchs have passed through. It all depends on cold fronts and the wind.)
One Saturday a year (pandemic permitting), when monarch density is highest, the refuge hosts Monarch Mania. Conservation biologists and volunteers catch and tag as many monarchs as possible, releasing them back into the wild for tracking and study.
What if you could follow in the monarchs' (wing) steps? If you've ever driven Interstate-35, you've come pretty close. But one avid biologist took that thought a step further. In 2017, Sara Dykman biked 10,201 miles from the butterflies' Mexican breeding grounds to Canada and back. She stopped along the way to share the monarchs' story with students and families, and documented it all in a book, Bicycling with Butterflies (Timber Press, $28).
In total, she saw about 700 monarchs on the trip. "I didn't see one every day. But every day I saw the people who could help the monarch. And that really was the point—to be their voice on the route."
She didn't anticipate the emotional weight of seeing the world from a monarch's point of view. Where prairie habitat once thrived, she pedaled past monoculture cornfields and manicured lawns. But school pollinator gardens, the hospitality of her hosts and the receptiveness of communities to the monarch's story gave her hope. "If you tell someone that milkweed is important," she says, "they'll often stop mowing it down."
On a cold March morning, a dozen bleary-eyed folks file into a small wooden structure, squinting through the shadows at subtle movements on the water. Occasional cooing squawks ring out in the darkness. Then a few more. Then a lot more, until the youngest in the blind covers her ears to block out the din. As the sun rises, it illuminates the source of the noise: tens of thousands of sandhill cranes waking up on the Platte River.
This spectacle is an ancient one. The giant birds have been coming to what's now Nebraska for more than 9 million years, an annual visit that far outdates the Platte itself. From mid-February to mid-April, 1.3 million cranes stop here. Each bird spends about three weeks along the river, gorging on seeds and insects and carb-loading on waste grain from nearby cornfields. They need to bulk up because food may still be scarce in their far-north breeding grounds when they arrive.
The birds aren't just here to eat though: It also can be a matchmaking event for newly eligible 4-year-old cranes. "A lot of times, single birds meet their mate on the Platte," says Andy Caven, Director of Conservation Research with the Crane Trust. "You see a lot of dancing—it's like a dance party."
Once they're done feasting and flirting, the birds will move north to their breeding grounds in Minnesota and the Arctic. In the fall they'll pass through Nebraska again, though more spread out. After a busy season of raising chicks, the new families are ready for their summer vacation.
Spotlight Destination: Big Bend Reach
Spot cranes in Nebraska along Big Bend Reach, an 82-mile stretch of the Platte River, where 85 percent of the cranes funnel through each spring. Conservation groups like the Crane Trust and the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary lead viewing tours.
Mid-March is peak migration. For the best show of bird behavior, choose a dawn tour; photographers may prefer dusk for shots of birds in flight silhouetted against the setting sun.
In late March or early April, lucky visitors may see a whooping crane among the sandhills along the Platte. The population of these tall white birds fell to about 15 migrants in 1941. But hunting bans, habitat restoration and reintroduction efforts have brought whoopers back in recent decades. Though still endangered, wild whooping cranes now number around 500.
Common Green Darners
The biggest and most common dragonfly, the green darner migrates in a three-generation cycle. They appear in the southern Midwest around April (Gen One) and spread northward through September. Their offspring (Gen Two) leave the Midwest by late fall to return to their breeding grounds in the south.
Many Canada geese do stick around through winter, huddled on icy ponds. But as anyone who has seen (or heard) a flying V knows, they often make moves during fall and spring migration seasons, leaving breeding grounds once their young can fly to find better food sources for the next season.
Weighing in at 26 pounds or more,once-endangered trumpeter swans are the heaviest migrators. Look for them in shallow wetlands, ponds and (in winter) harvested fields. Unlike the European-import mute swans in your office retention pond, which have orange bills and S-shape necks, trumpeters have mostly black bills and hold their necks straight.
Not all mallards migrate, so it's possible to see them year-round in the Midwest. But some fly each year between breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska and wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. Their iconic quack? That's the female's call. The emerald-headed males make a softer rasping sound.
Our national bird loves the cold but requires open water for fishing. Most of them breed in the continent's far north, then travel south in winter, chasing food. They love to snatch fish from other birds, like ospreys. In the Midwest, look for them around the time the first flakes fall.
Most varieties of hawks ride solo during the year, but they flock more during migration. They're easiest to spot around September, from a ridge or a riverbank, where thermals (the air currents they ride to save energy) are strong.