Bird Buddy Blog

What time of day is best for birdwatching?

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the most often asked questions about birdwatching is, what time of day is best? For late-risers, the response “at dawn” can be off-putting. Truth is, there are many factors involved, and often the answer should be “any time!”

Like humans, birds do tend to stick to some kind of a schedule, but theirs is determined by the solar hours of a day, that is, when the sun comes up and goes down again. The Dawn Chorus holds its rightful place in birdwatching vernacular as this is indeed a fantastic time to listen to the birds awaken and often, if the light and weather is kind to you, you can get some terrific views of species that would otherwise be hard to see at other times of the day. But as you learn more and more about the type of birds there are, you’ll start to recognise and correlate certain behaviour patterns among certain species, and how this can affect their potential visibility.

Seasonal changes

The time of year is a very influential factor for when it is best to expect bird activity – there are the autumn and spring migrations, of course, meaning in some parts of the world you can expect to see double the amount of birds compared to the rest of the year. In spring it can seem like all of the world’s birds are clamouring for attention as territories are fought over and birds search for a mate, but summer can be packed full of birds eating the fruits, nuts and insects that have finally appeared after spring’s growth, and winter has its own special charm by often revealing birds to us as leaves disappear from trees, or snows and frosts provide a stark background on which bird plumage is easier to see.

But we’ll take a look at the different times of year for birding in another post, as today we’ll just focus on how to familiarise yourself with one day at a time.

Like humans, birds do tend to stick to some kind of a schedule.

Like most living things, birds will focus on just a few things whilst awake – feeding, drinking, roosting, communicating with their own kind to find out where to do the first three things, and some species will take time to either sing or to sun themselves at some point in the day.

Morning has broken

Most of us learn that the dawn is the best time to see birds, and that is mostly true, as they are probably the most active and alert in the morning because they are looking for food. Songbirds like finches, robins, blackbirds, cardinals, and many of the tit family will be up at the break of day flitting through the early light. Another advantage of birdwatching in the wee hours of the morning is that not everyone likes getting up that early so you can often find yourself alone with just you and the birds, meaning they are less likely to be disturbed and you can observe their natural behaviour.

Afternoon tea

Courtesy of Pxhere

As the morning proceeds and heads into and past lunchtime, birds tend to settle back down in the trees and bushes after the flurry of feeding, especially if the weather is bad or cold and they’ll hide to keep dry and warm. If on the other hand temperatures are climbing, they’ll need to keep hydrated, so leave a bowl of fresh cool water out and this can give you a good chance to spot them before they head to the shade to rest. Keeping in the shade on hot days is true of most birds, except birds like raptors, and waders and other water-birds. Falcons and hawks will usually not rise until late morning using the fact that any sunlight has had time to warm the ground and therefore create thermals, columns of rising warm air on which they can soar and glide whilst looking for food. The afternoon sun is also at just the right angle to light up a large area below for aerial hunting, and also provide cover for them, meaning they can suddenly appear from above out of the glare surprising any prey before they can see what’s coming their way.

Keeping in the shade on hot days is true of most birds, except birds like raptors.

Ducks and geese, whilst not on a murderous hunt for unsuspecting grasses, will take to the water either to warm up once it has been heated a little by the sun, or to cool down if the sun is too hot. These and other types of birds that live near or on the water like lapwings, snipe, redshank, dunlin, and godwits will also spend time on the open riverbanks or shores of lakes either probing deep in the mud for tiny creatures or snoozing in the afternoon sun, employing the group-edge-effect, safety in numbers from predators. Some water birds can also be entirely governed by the tides, so if you live near water that is affected by tides, find out your local low and high tide times; depending on where you are, more feeding grounds are exposed at low tide, bringing more birds to mud flats, and high tides will push the birds back in closer to land.

Keeping your feeders stocked up or visiting the local parks where food may be plentiful on the ground can provide an excellent opportunity to see many songbirds, jays, magpies and thrushes in the late afternoons as they come back out for another meal. In colder months birds can spend almost all day stocking up on fats and proteins to keep warm, and most birds will seek out food again towards dusk at any point of the year, storing up for the potentially cooler night ahead, when they will try to sleep but must still be watchful for predators. Staying alert takes energy, so an early supper is almost always on the cards.

Day’s end

Nocturnal species like owls and nightjars start to stir.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Then, whilst some species such as starlings put on fantastic evening displays as they prepare to roost for the night, some other species will finally start to appear. Nocturnal species like owls and nightjars start to stir, and rails and other stalking river birds such as the aptly named black-crowned night heron will use the low light to their advantage, as small mammals and amphibians wake up after the day’s glaring brightness and heat. Just because it’s harder to see some birds as night falls, you can still listen out for them. The familiar hoot and screech of owls can be a thrilling sound to hear. There are also many birds who sing profusely as the sun goes down, and some that will continue to sing into the night, like robins, nightingales, thrushes and mockingbirds.

Rainy days and Mondays

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather – no matter what time of day it is, no one likes to be outside in a storm. Some of the best birdwatching experiences that can be found, however, are either side of a storm, especially during the migration months. Birds have an eerie innate knowledge of the weather and will try not to be in the air if a storm is approaching, so you’re more likely to spot birds on migratory routes either stopping off to stay put and avoid the worst, or arriving en masse once the weather has cleared and it was finally safe to launch. Most birds will also be more active after bad weather passes, to make up for missed foraging.

As weird as it sounds, days of the week can affect your birdwatching fun. Whilst birds don’t have a fixed timetable, humans do, and some times of some days will be busier with people more than others, affecting your chances to see birds undisturbed. Learn the peaks and troughs of your area, and make a note to step outside when no one else is about.

Fitting in some quality birdwatching is of course entirely down to which events fill your day. During this current time of upheaval, lockdowns have affected us all in different ways, but one British organisation, the RSPB, has introduced a Breakfast Birdwatch. This fantastic initiative takes advantage of the fact that many people are not commuting right now, and before any substitute routine such as home schooling begins, families or anyone can take an hour a day recording the birds they see. The same idea can be applied anywhere in the world and at any time of the day, whatever suits you. If you don’t have time in the morning, take some time for yourself or family after work in the early evening before you settle in for the night, and watch birds seek out their evening meal, before you do the same.

But remember, if all else fails, you can set your alarm for 4 am and see what happens.