No bad time for birdwatching

No bad time for birdwatching

What time of day is best to watch birds? Ask anyone, even a non-birder, and the answer will almost always be “at dawn”. I used to say it myself, but over the years I realized it just wasn’t true. Generally morning is best, and earlier is better than later, but with a few qualifiers.

Of course, it depends on the type of bird watching you do. Hawk migration peaks mid to late morning, hawks late afternoon, hummingbirds and waterfowl are active all day, etc. The rest of this discussion applies to songbirds, especially in brushy or wooded habitats.

I think dawn’s reputation as the best time for birdwatching stems primarily from the “dawn chorus” – a flurry of bird song that begins at first light and peaks before sunrise. In the right place, the dawn chorus is one of nature’s most beautiful experiences, but now is not the ideal time to see birds. They concentrate on singing at the same time, often sitting still high in a tree, then moving to the next perch around the edge of their territory.

After sunrise, once territories are reasserted, the birds settle into other activities. This primarily means foraging which involves methodically searching through foliage, making birds easier to see and track. This activity peaks within an hour of sunrise, then gradually decreases during the morning. It’s activity – moving and vocalizing – that makes it easier for us to find birds, so more activity early in the morning means we’ll see more birds then.

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That doesn’t mean late morning is categorically “worse” for birding. Personally, I prefer late morning to early morning. I may not see as many birds, but the birds I find in the late morning will be more relaxed, slower moving, easier to track and study. Some activities continue until noon, but sometimes in the early afternoon the woods usually become very quiet. This is the time when most songbirds are resting, preening, quiet, and hard to find.

In a yard in cold weather, a bird feeder will provide regular activity, and in warm weather, a shady spot with water can provide excellent birding throughout the afternoon.

Another myth, even less true, is that another peak of songbird activity occurs before sunset. We often see a slight increase in activity as the daytime temperature begins to cool, but the level of activity varies with time, temperature, season and species. The amount of bird activity in the late afternoon or evening never matches what you’ll see in the morning, and many songbirds call it a day and go to roost well before sunset.

The bottom line is that while the morning is usually the time when you will see the most birds, there is no bad time for birding and there is always something to see.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine.