American goldfinch photo by Laura Ann.

The Best Time to Go Birding

As an experienced birder, I field a lot of questions about birding. Recently, Nancy, a relatively new birder, eagerly asked, “When is the best time to go birding?” My knee-jerk response was, “Any time is a good time for birding.” That’s true. Birds are always around. You don’t need a special time.

However, later when I gave her question a little more thought, I realized that there really are certain times that are better than others. Not better in the sense that you will enjoy it more—you should always enjoy birding—but better in the total number of species that might be seen. These better times can be grouped into four general categories: (1) The time or season of the year, (2) The weather conditions, (3) The time of day, and, yes, even (4) The day of the week.

Time or Season of Year

Gray catbird photo by A. Meganck.
Gray catbird photo by A. Meganck.

If you live in a part of the country that gets brutally cold in winter, you understand the impact that the time or season of the year has on birding. You just won’t tally as many species on a Christmas Bird Count in December as you will doing a Big Day on a pleasant spring day in May. There just aren’t as many species around in mid-winter as there are in spring. On the other hand, since there are no leaves remaining on trees, it is easier to get an unobstructed view of any bird you do see.

Migration greatly influences birding activity, in both good and bad ways. In fall, many species leave for warmer climes before winter sets in. A few more northernly species may move down replacing them. But the total number of species you can find just can’t match the number of species around during spring migration.

In spring, you get a triple dose of birds. The year-round resident birds are still there. Your usual summer birds will be returning from their warm weather vacation. In addition, certain species that bred farther north of your local area will be passing through on their way back north. For example, a black and white warbler showed up in my yard on May 5 for four years in a row. It would hang around for two days and then continue north to its breeding range. I would not see another one again until the following year. Spring is my only chance all year. It brings a bonanza of birds.

Weather Conditions

Purple finch photo by D. Dawes.
Purple finch photo by D. Dawes.

Neither birds nor people like weather extremes. On the hottest days of the year (and on the coldest days, as well) birds are not active. They are focused on one thing—finding food and water—and they don’t do much else. Most birders are not active on such days. It is foolish to expect great birding. The same is true when the weather is really foul—torrential rains, hurricane-force winds, sleet, and ice. On days like that, birds just want to be sheltered as best as possible from the weather. So do birders. Before or after a storm can be interesting, but not during foul weather.

Time of Day

Birds don’t have watches, so they don’t know what time it is. Yet, they live their lives by the solar clock. They get up when the sun gets up, they go to sleep when it sets. You often hear about the dawn chorus—that’s the few hours around sunrise when the birds are most active and singing robustly, especially in spring. So, unfortunately, to see the most birds you want to get up early. Birds eat early to replenish the energy they lose at night. After, eating they rest a little.

Mid-day sun and afternoon heat are generally considered the doldrums. Birds are quiet. Some suggest that at that time of day you should pay attention to butterflies, not birds. That’s when butterflies are most active.

At the close of day, around sunset, birds search for a final bedtime snack. They want to eat once more before settling in for their evening rest.

Birders with active bird feeders often note that birds seem to maintain a schedule, arriving at the same time every day. For example, the northern cardinal tends to be the first bird at the feeders in the morning and the last bird to visit the feeders in the evening.

Day of the Week

Red-winged blackbird. Photo by R.W. Shimanek.
Red-winged blackbird. Photo by R.W. Shimanek.

Birds don’t maintain a 40-hour work week. Nor do they need to check their jam-packed social calendar for potential conflicts. They do the same thing every day. So why would the day of the week make any difference to them? It probably doesn’t impact birds much at all. But the day can make a difference for the birder in the same way that grocery stores and shopping malls are busier on weekends. Weekends are more crowded. More people are out enjoying nature.

Depending on your perspective, this may be good or bad. When there are more birders around, it is easier to “tag along” with more experienced birders. And ask questions. There are more eyes looking and able to spot good birds. You can share your enthusiasm.

On the other hand, birds prefer a quiet environment. They shun too much human activity and stay hidden or move to areas with less disturbance. I feel you will see more birds on a quiet day. Yet, I enjoy good company.

Last year, I experienced a day when all four of these categories for better birding came together to create a really great day. First, the season and time of the year was good, mid-September. In my neck of the woods, that is the peak time to see migrating broad-winged hawks on their journey south.

But there hadn’t been any hawks reported for several days. A large weather pattern had stalled just south of here. And the hawks are smart enough not to fly into a major storm. So, they just holed up waiting for the weather to clear. It was predicted that the storm would clear out overnight. So, tomorrow’s weather conditions were favorable.

The time of day was also convenient. I slept in and did not arrive at the hawk watch station until 10:00 a.m. the next morning. No sense getting there much earlier. The hawks would wait for the sun to warm the air, creating thermals before they began migrating.

So, the alignment of the elements appeared favorable, suggesting a good day. I was not alone in this judgement. Other birders also recognized the potential. Oh, and since it was a Saturday, many other birders appeared to share the spectacle. And it was not just a good day, but a great day. The official hawk counters tallied over 10,000 broad-winged hawks that day!

That was an amazing example of the conditions aligning for optimum birding. But I also still believe my original response: “Any time is a good time for birding.”

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