Think of a place that you visit that is important in your life. Why do you go there? What makes your journey easy or hard? In the natural world, you can find amazing stories of journeys taken by wildlife as they travel to and from summer breeding areas. For some birds and insects, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a stop along the way.
Why here? The Cuyahoga River creates a north-south corridor that provides a natural migration route. The park’s forests, wetlands, and fields provide places to stop and refuel. Fall migration is underway. Visit and revisit the park to observe this annual passage.
Shorebirds lead the way during fall migration, coming through this region in August. These birds live along coastlines and inland waters. Some are extreme long-distance migrants, flying at altitudes of 10,000 feet or distances of 2,000 miles without a break. Others take short-hop trips that include local stopovers. Solitary sandpipers come through the valley after nesting in the Arctic, visiting wooded swamps, river edges, ponds, and wet meadows.
Songbird migration is next. It begins in late August, peaks in September, and continues into October. Many songbird species migrate through the valley in fall. However, they often go unnoticed because they have lost their colorful breeding plumage. Because berries are abundant, songbirds that primarily eat insects may switch their diet during fall migration.
Southbound waterfowl are among the last birds to come through the valley. Their migration peaks in late October and November. Stop by the Beaver Marsh along the Towpath Trail north of Ira Trailhead to seek waterfowl, especially wood ducks. These ornate birds are summer residents, but their numbers increase during migration.
The waves of bird migration reward bird watchers with sightings that change through the seasons. The park offers guided bird walks at least monthly. New and experience bird watchers are welcome. The next will occur from 8 to 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 17, and will search for late-summer birds in the Beaver Marsh. It meets at Ira Trailhead (3801 Riverview Road, north of Ira Road, Peninsula).
Orange-and-black monarch butterflies stop in the Cuyahoga Valley during their annual migration to and from their overwintering grounds in Mexico. In summer, starting in late June, northbound butterflies come through the valley. It takes several generations for monarchs to travel north. Butterflies that leave Mexico in spring quickly fly to nearby breeding habitats, lay eggs, and die.
The new generation continues north, also stopping to lay eggs, die, and turn over the rest of the trip north to another generation.
In mid-September, we see southbound monarchs. In contrast to the northbound trip, only one generation of butterflies makes the entire southbound trip. This generation also spends the winter in Mexico. While heading south, they make daily stops to replenish their energy reserves. 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.
Imagine the challenges that birds and butterflies must experience during their migration. Storms, predators, fatigue. Why take such a trip? Migration lets wildlife tap into seasonally abundant food, an advantage that must outweigh the risks of long-distance travel. Understanding migration is important from the perspective of wildlife conservation.
For a migrant to survive, they must find habitat and food at every stage of their trip. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a 33,000-acre oasis, but cannot exist in isolation.
Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.