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No bad time to go birding

A Blackburnian Warbler sings in an evergreen tree at dawn. Art by David Sibley

What time of day is best for birding? Ask anyone, even a non-birder, and the answer will almost always be “at dawn.” I used to repeat this myself, but over the years, I’ve come to realize that it is simply not true. Generally, morning is best, and earlier is better than later, but with some qualifiers.

Of course, it depends on what kind of birding you’re doing. Hawk migration peaks in mid to late morning, falcons in late afternoon, hummingbirds and waterbirds are active all day, and so on. The rest of this discussion applies to songbirds, especially in brushy or forested habitats.

I think dawn’s reputation as the best time for birding stems mostly from the “dawn chorus” — a surge of birdsong that begins at first light and peaks before sunrise. In the right location, the dawn chorus is one of the greatest experiences in nature, but it is not a great time to see birds. They are focused on singing all at once, often sitting still high in a tree, then moving to the next perch around the edge of their territory.

After sunrise, once territories have been reasserted, the birds settle into other activities. Primarily, this means foraging that involves searching methodically through foliage, which makes birds easier to see and follow. This activity peaks within an hour after sunrise and then gradually tapers off through the morning. It is activity — moving and vocalizing — that makes birds easier for us to find, so more activity in early morning means we will see more birds then.

This doesn’t mean that late morning is categorically “worse” for birding. Personally, I prefer late morning to early morning. I might not see as many birds, but the birds I find in late morning will be more relaxed, moving more slowly, easier to follow and study. Some activity continues through midday, but sometime in early afternoon, the woods generally get very quiet. This is the time when most songbirds are resting, preening, silent, and difficult to find.

In a yard in cold weather, a bird feeder will offer steady activity, and in hot weather, a shady place with water can provide excellent birding right through the afternoon.

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

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

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

Read more columns by David Sibley

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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