What is the Best Time of Day for Birdwatching?
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Birdwatching is a hobby that unexpectedly creeps up on many adults. One day you have no interest in avian species whatsoever, then the next day you’re observing them with a newfound childish excitement. If you’re just starting out, you probably have many questions. What is the best time of day for birdwatching? What about the best time of year? What species should I look out for?
Let’s explore these questions to help you get the most out of your birdwatching time.
Best Time of Day for Birdwatching
The best time of day to go birdwatching is the early morning, from the hour before dawn to about 10:00. Birds are the most active in the morning right after waking up. Their songs and mating calls have probably woken you up many times before. They also like to hunt as early as possible to get the first pickings – hence the old saying “the early bird gets the worm.”
Even so, the rest of the day has some windows of opportunity for birdwatching:
- Late Morning/Early Afternoon: most birds quiet down after their busy mornings, but some birds of prey get more active. With the sun higher in the sky and rising atmospheric currents, they can see the landscape better and fly without expending as much energy. You might see some exciting hawk or falcon activity during this time of day.
- Mid-Afternoon: birds prefer to lay low and relax in the mid-afternoon when the daily temperature reaches its warmest point. You might see them eating at feeders, taking baths and doing other leisurely activities.
- Late Afternoon/Early Evening: activity picks up again as the sun goes down. Birds look for their last meals with the remaining daylight, bolster their nests and make their preparations for the night ahead.
- After Dark: most bird species go silent after dark. They stay hidden in the trees, safe from the reach of nocturnal predators. You might see an owl or two, but they’re highly camouflaged and difficult to spot. That’s what makes nighttime birdwatching so rewarding.
So, although the early morning is the best time of day for birdwatching, you can see different types of species throughout the day. Songbirds rule the morning, raptors dominate the afternoon and owls own the night.
Best Time of Year for Birdwatching
Each of the four seasons has unique kinds of bird activity. Spring and fall are the most chaotic seasons overall due to the significant weather changes, while summer and winter show more consistent patterns. Here’s a quick description of what you can expect from each season:
Once the weather starts to warm up in early March, migratory birds begin their annual journeys back to their northern habitats. Species that stay in permanent locations start building their nests and looking for mates as soon as the weather allows. You will also notice a clear difference between male and female behavior.
Males work hard to establish their territories during the spring, which means they’re often aggressive. If a bird swoops near you or starts screaming at you, it’s probably a male telling you to go away. Females spend most of their time hunting newly hatched insects and collecting materials to bolster their nests. They can also be aggressive if you get too close. High urgency and activity levels make spring the best time of year for birdwatching.
The migratory birds begin their nesting season once they complete the journey towards the end of May. You’ll see similar aggressive behavior from these species, especially among geese and other waterbirds. Their nesting grounds and offspring face more threats so close to the water, so the parents are always on high-alert.
Songbirds, woodpeckers and other noisy bird species have settled into their nesting areas at this point. They fall into rather predictable routines: hunt and/or mate in the morning, hide and relax in the afternoon, then come out for one last meal before nightfall. You will see lots of activity if you set up a bird bath and some feeders in a shaded area of your backyard.
Migratory birds don’t stay for long. Some of them fly south as early as late August. Due to rising global temperatures, many species stay over 40 miles farther north than they used to. 40 miles might not seem like much to humans, but it’s the difference between life and death for birds. You may see some birds stick around into mid-October if the weather is unseasonably warm.
You’re probably familiar with the Canadian goose’s flying V formation, but other bird migration tactics are more subtle. Birds like turkeys and pheasants simply travel from the mountains to nearby lowlands. Cranes, swans and other waterfowl stick to quiet waterways with many food sources. The smallest birds can take new paths from year to year. Early-mid fall is arguably the best time of year for birdwatching after springtime.
Birds are focused on one thing during the winter: survival. They’ve established their territories and built their nests, so it’s time to hunker down and endure the harsh weather and cold temperatures. Their activity levels drop to conserve energy, so they spend most of their time huddled together in the trees.
However, since there are no leaves and the landscape is more monochromatic, birds are much easier to spot. Cardinals, blue jays, orioles and other colorful species stand out like sore thumbs. You can easily observe their interactions in trees and nests. You might also see new species appear as they wander south from northern regions.
Get Closer to Nature
Birdwatching has helped many people disconnect from their stressful lives and get closer to nature. Watching birds go about their daily routines can mesmerize people with even the shortest attention spans. If you’re going to start this hobby, the best time of day is the early morning or early evening. So grab your binoculars and keep your eyes peeled!
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.