Top Five Must-See Migrations in Massachusetts

It's spring, and the animals of the world are in motion again — flying, swimming, running and crawling to their summer homes and breeding grounds.

“Seeing migration in action is thrilling — it can inspire a lifetime love for nature,” explains Wayne Klockner, executive director for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts (as well as an avid birder and expert snake-catcher!). “It also teaches us that it is not enough to just protect them in your backyard, but all along their long journey.”

But what’s out there? Where — and when — should people head outside to spot them? We polled Conservancy scientists and compiled the top five “must sees” this migration season

The Top Five Must-See Migrations for Massachusetts

1. Shorebirds

Massachusetts’s coast provides a wide range of habitats for shorebirds.  The first to arrive are piping plovers, which land on Commonwealth barrier beaches at the end of March. They’re joined in April and May by Greater Yellowlegs, sandpipers, oystercatchers, and more.


To spot them, head to Sandy Neck peninsula on Cape Cod – where the Conservancy is at work protecting the restoring the barrier beach and saltmarsh – or to Newburyport’s Plum Island. You might see them scurrying along the beaches and mudflats, on the hunt for insects, sea worms or horseshoe crab eggs. The plovers will be building nests and laying eggs; others take some time to feast before moving on to their Canada and Greenland breeding grounds.


Check out for more locations and recent sightings. 

2. Alewives 

If you’ve ever wanted to see a river so thick with fish that you feel as if you could walk across the water on their backs, plan to visit the Wareham Street fish ladder in Middleboro during the alewives’ annual run up the Nemasket River beginning in early April.


Also known as river herring, alewives spend the majority of their life at sea, but return to freshwater to spawn. Each year in April, the water shimmers with the wriggling bodies of thousands of fish, watched closely by foraging herons and gulls.


Man-made barriers such as dams and roads have led to a dramatic decline of alewives. Fortunately, the Taunton River watershed boasts the largest spawning population of river herring in New England.

The watershed was granted federal Wild and Scenic status in 2009, ensuring that the free-flowing nature of the Taunton and its tributaries will be preserved – much to the benefit of the river’s alewives, rainbow smelt, silversides, striped bass and bluefish.

See what we are doing to support migrating fish

3. Salamanders and Frogs

Vernal pools—shallow depressions that contain water for only part of the year—offer a glimpse of amphibian mating season. Considering that one pool can involve thousands of animals, this migration is in many ways the foundation of the food web for the surrounding forest area, and it’s one of the reasons that the Conservancy places an emphasis on keeping our forests healthy and intact.


Massachusetts is full of productive vernal pools; you can find them at Hockomock Swamp, the Blue Hills Reservation or Middlesex Fells Reservation, to name just a few. Or, find someone who was kept awake by spring peepers chorusing last year!


Wait for a cool, rainy night in April after the first wood frog choruses have been heard (listen for a duck-like quacking). Point a flashlight at the pool’s edge. You may see spotted salamanders and blue-spotted salamanders, wood frogs, peepers and fairy shrimp.


For a field guide to vernal pool critters, visit

4. Whales

One of the most dramatic of all Massachusetts migrations are humpback whales, whose Latin name (Megaptera novaeangliae) means "big-winged New Englander." Humpbacks may grow to be 50 feet long, and their spectacular leaps and bended-back dives offer a thrilling experience for seafarers of any age. 

After giving birth during the winter or early spring in the Caribbean, mother humpbacks bring their calves north, many to the rich feeding grounds of the Gulf of Maine. The Conservancy is working to make this journey safer by supporting state in their ocean planning efforts.


Whale watching vessels depart from a host of coastal cities, from Gloucester and Boston to Plymouth and Provincetown.  

5. Neotropical Songbirds

Across Massachusetts, spring means we no longer have to access Twitter to hear tweets.

Throughout April and May, wooded areas across the state host songbirds from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Tanagers, vireos, orioles and more than 25 species of warblers descend to rest, sing and dine on the insects, fruit and nectar found in abundance in spring. 


You can spot them in any natural habitat, but to get a special seat for this show of color and song, spend an early morning at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Bring your binoculars and your “indoor voice”: you’ll need to pause, stay quiet, and listen for their call in order to find them. 


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