Fall migration has started. The chance to visit and revisit Cuyahoga Valley National Park to observe this annual passage is one benefit of living close to a national park. The north-south corridor created by the Cuyahoga River creates a natural route between summer breeding and winter feeding grounds.
Shorebirds lead the way during fall migration, coming through this region in August. These are birds that live along the shores of coastal and inland waters. Shorebirds can be extreme long-distance migrants, some traveling at altitudes of 10,000 feet or distances of 2,000 miles without a break. Needless to say, we don't see these species in the valley. Others take short-hop trips that include local stopovers.
Migratory shorebirds are not common in the Cuyahoga Valley, so they take some work to see. The solitary sandpiper is one that you might be able to find. It visits the banks of ponds, marshes, or creeks. This medium-sized bird has a dark back with small white spots and frequently bobs its head. If you see a similar bird bobbing its tail, you likely have found a spotted sandpiper, a related bird that does breed in the park.
Songbird migration is next. It begins in late August, peaks in September, and continues into October. It is also harvest season, and many plants are filled with autumn berries. Songbirds that eat insects most of the year may switch their diet during fall migration to take advantage of this abundance. Try observing robins to look for this behavior. While robins are year-round residents here, some that nest in Canada do migrate short distances into the Unites States for winter.
Southbound waterfowl are among the last birds to migrate through the valley. Their numbers start to peak in late October and continue into November. The Beaver Marsh, located along the Towpath Trail north of Ira Trailhead, is a good location to seek these migrants. Wood ducks are among the most noticeable. While wood ducks are summer residents, their numbers increase during fall migration. Sometimes you can spot more than 20 wood ducks in the marsh and surrounding channels. Males are ornate, with a glossy green head and back, brown breast, and tan sides -- all highlighted with white striping.
The variable timing of bird activity means that bird watchers can be rewarded with interesting sightings that change through the season. The park offers bird walks at least monthly that are enjoyed by both new and experience birdwatchers.
Monarch butterflies also stop in the Cuyahoga Valley during their annual migration. With their bold orange and black pattern, monarchs are the mostly widely recognized butterfly in North America. In Cuyahoga Valley National Park, mid-September is the best time to see adult monarchs during their peak southern migration. They must replenish their energy reserves every day at stop-over areas. They seek old fields in the afternoon where they can feed on nectar-rich flowers, such as goldenrod and New England aster, before retreating to nearby forests in the early evening. The large meadow along the Cross Country Trail is an excellent monarch habitat. You can visit this area with a park ranger from 1 to 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 21. Meet at the Kendall Lake Shelter (Truxell/Kendall Park Road, 2 miles west of Akron Cleveland Road, Peninsula).
The butterflies you see in the park will eventually make their way to overwintering grounds in Mexico. When they leave Mexico next spring, they will fly north to Southern state breeding habitats, quickly lay eggs, and die. The new generation of monarch butterflies will continue north, also stopping to lay eggs, die, and turn over the rest of the trip north into Canada to a third generation. Northbound monarch butterflies come through the valley starting in late June.
In contrast to the northbound trip, only one generation of butterfly makes the southbound trip. This is the generation that will overwinter in Mexico.
Wildlife migration tells us something important about natural area conservation. To protect wildlife, we need to think about the entire life cycle of a species. We cannot ensure survival unless their habitat needs are met at each stage of life. Species do not recognize political boundaries nor necessarily have the physical ability to skip over vast areas of degraded land to find what they need. Cuyahoga Valley National Park provides a welcome 33,000 acres of green for migrating wildlife in a region where development has limited available habitat.
Editor's note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.