When to Go Birding

Shorebirds Feeding

Ingrid Taylar / Flickr / CC by 2.0

There is never a bad time to go birding, but some times are better than others. Knowing the best time for bird watching each day and each season can help birders see a greater number of birds more easily, getting better views to enjoy every species.

Best Times of Day for Birding

Just as humans have daily schedules, birds also have daily patterns for feeding, roosting, and other activities. Learning those patterns of behavior can help birders learn when best to see birds.

  • Feeding: Birds spend most of their time foraging, either finding food for themselves or to offer to a mate or growing hatchlings. One of the most active feeding times is early morning as the sun rises and warms up insects, making it easier for insectivorous birds to forage. At the same time, other species are also refueling after a long night. Late evening is similarly active for feeding birds as they store energy for the night.
  • Singing: When birds are vocal, birding by ear is much easier. During the spring and summer birds are working to establish territories and attract mates, and they frequently sing in the early morning (though some do sing at night) when sounds carry further and there may be less background noise. Birders who go into the field in the morning are better equipped to take advantage of the sounds birds make to find and identify different species.
  • Sunning: Birds that practice sunning are often easy to find in the mid-afternoon when the sun is at its highest. This can be a popular birding tactic in any season as birds use the sun for temperature regulation and feather mite control.
  • Drinking: Birds may drink at any time of day, but they are more likely to visit birdbaths and other water sources in the heat of the day. Other popular drinking times, particularly at backyard baths, are the same times the birds are feeding. They take advantage of the water at the same time they are eating.

Understanding the basics of bird behavior is an easy way to learn when to go birding and will give birders plenty of opportunities to observe various behaviors for every bird they see.

Best Times of the Year for Birding

Birds can be seen all year round, but there are certain times of year that are more productive for birders interested in seeing a wide range of species.

  • Migration: Spring and fall migration are two of the best times to see many birds. During migration, gregarious species gather in large groups that are easier to see. Birders can also be treated to vagrant birds that have become disoriented along their migration routes. Depending on a species' individual route, a bird may pause between its breeding and wintering ranges in areas that make it very accessible to birders far outside the bird's typical ranges.
  • Breeding season: When birds are breeding they may be more reclusive. Breeding birds, however, have brighter plumage and more active behavior to claim territories and attract mates, making them easier to identify. While birders should take great care never to disturb nests, finding a nest or rookery that can be observed from a safe distance makes it well worth birding in the breeding season.
  • Winter irruptions: While many bird species migrate and may not be around during the winter months, that behavior can easily work in birders' favor. Northern species, including Arctic birds, may move south in strong irruptions that bring them easily into birders' home ranges, providing unique opportunities to see species that may otherwise be out of reach. Winter finches, snowy owls, and northern raptors have irregular irruptions in winter, exciting southern birders with their unusual appearances.

While the exact times of the year to see birds will vary by climate, habitat, and species, there are always birds to be found, no matter what the season.

When to See Specific Birds

Birders interested in unique birds should learn those birds' habits to improve their chances of identifiable sightings when they go birding. For example, owls, night-herons, and nighthawks are all primarily nocturnal, and they are most easily seen during the twilight hours. Diurnal raptors such as hawks, vultures, and eagles, on the other hand, are more easily seen in late morning and afternoon, when air currents have heated to create the thermal currents these birds need for soaring. A birder who wants to see any specific bird should study field guides to learn that bird's behavior and make the most of their birding to find that species.

More Tips

No matter when you plan on going birding, it can be helpful to:

  • Consider climate: Birds are less active in poor weather, severe storms, or high winds. After bad weather passes, they will be more active than normal to make up for the foraging they missed.
  • Consider geography: Birds' activity patterns vary based on the geography they depend on for those activities. Shorebirds, for example, are most active at low tide when foraging is easier, even when low tide times vary.
  • Mind the days of the week: If your favorite birding hotspots include popular trails, parks, or other areas that may also be favorites of hikers, bikers, campers, or other visitors, the day of the week can affect your birding. Visiting in mid-week when fewer people are using the area will be best, as birds will be less disturbed by other activities.
  • Take note of festivals: Many birding festivals are planned for the most productive local birding times with the greatest number of birds to be seen. Even if you do not attend the festival, birding in local hotspots at the same time can be very productive.
  • Keep a calendar: Keeping a personal calendar or birding journal of bird sightings from day to day and year to year will help you learn birds' activity patterns. This will help you learn when to expect birds in your yard or when species return to the area, giving you more opportunities for effective observation.

The most important thing to remember is to observe birds all the time. The more you observe birds at different times of day, every day of the year, the more familiar you will become with their behavior. This will help you learn when to go birding for the most enjoyable and productive sightings.