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Best Time of Day to Go Birding

Dear Bird Folks,

Is the best time to go bird watching actually early in the morning or is that just an old wives’ tale.

– George, Sandwich, MA


Yes, no, and don’t ask me, George,

Every day birders report finding all kinds of cool birds, but I’m never one of them. No matter where I go or what time I get there, I’m forever hearing: “You should have been here a few minutes earlier.” So, yes, it seems that early morning is the best time to go birding, except when it isn’t. Confused? Here’s my take on this topic.

Typically, sunrise is the best time to look for birds. Why? In the winter songbirds have just a few hours during which to find food. By 4:00PM the sun is setting and the birds are done eating for the day. For the next fourteen hours birds must hunker down and try to survive the long, cold night. There will be no delicious midnight snacks or deliveries from the pizza dude. They just have to try and hang on until morning. Then, at first light, they are up searching for food, as well as warming themselves in the early rays of the sun. But by late morning most of them have finished their breakfast and will retire to the thickets to preen and digest their morning meal. Therefore, if you want to see songbirds in the winter, sunrise is a good time to start looking. BTW: It doesn’t get any better in the spring either. In the spring the sun and birds are up even earlier. (Too many early mornings likely explain why birders look like they do.)

Don’t like getting up early, you say? No worries, I’ve got you covered. In the wintertime Cape Cod has ducks, lots and lots of ducks. Duck watching is a good alternative for those folks who are either slackers or who have obligations that prevent them from getting up and out early. Ducks are visible anytime of day. Thus, you can sleep late, have a second cup of coffee, and even watch Kelly and the new Regis and the ducks will still be waiting for you when you get there. But even though the time of day isn’t critical, the position of the sun is. When looking at ducks, it is best if the sun is at your back, or at least overhead. It can be tricky to identify ducks when they are backlit. More than once I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to identify a poorly lit duck, only to discover that I was staring at a boat mooring the whole time. (Please don’t tell anyone that last part.)

Sandpipers are another group of birds that you don’t need to get up early to see. They are mostly dependent on the tides and not so much on the rising of the sun. When the tide is high, sandpipers are less active and typically go someplace to rest. But when the tide recedes and exposes the mudflats and tidal pools, the birds come out of hiding and resume feeding. I find that shorebird watching tends to be better when the tide is coming in. The rising water forces the flocks to become more compact and also pushes the birds towards the shore for easier observation. Of course, no matter how close they get, sandpipers are still maddeningly similar looking, so good luck trying to figure out which species you are seeing.

And then there are the people who can’t seem to find an opportunity for birding no matter what time of day it is. That’s okay; there are birds for these folks, too. Here on the Cape we have four species of owls that regularly can be heard calling late at night. We hear the deep hooting of the ubiquitous Great Horned Owl and the increasingly more common Barred Owl, plus the comical sounds of Eastern Screech Owls and Saw-wet Owls. These are the birds most often heard by the late night crowd, by insomniacs and by any area vampires. While it’s difficult to actually go out owl “watching,” just hearing their voices calling out of the pitch black is rewarding enough. Unlike ducks, shorebirds and songbirds, however, forecasting when and where you might hear a calling owl is like trying to guess a winning lottery number. They just aren’t very predicable. Most often hearing an owl is serendipitous, but I seem to have my best luck on calm, moonlit nights. The lack of wind helps me hear them better and the moonlight keeps me from tripping over stuff in the dark.

I don’t know the best places to go birding in Sandwich, but a full day of birding in my area might start with an early morning visit to Fort Hill. I’ll stay there until things get quiet and then head to the nearest coffee shop to take a break and have a snack. Then I’ll drive to the freshwater ponds in Eastham and scope out the ducks. After visiting the ponds, it’s time for another snack and a chance to study tide charts. If the tides are right, I’ll zip over to Mass Audubon in Wellfleet to see what shorebirds might be still be around this time of year. Then, of course, it’s time for another snack. Finally, I’ll stop at Nauset Beach. By now it’s late in the day and the sun will be at my back, illuminating the eiders, scoters and other sea ducks that are just off shore. As the light fades, I’ll head back to my car while scanning the dunes for any hunting Short-eared Owls or visiting Snowy Owls. Cape Cod in the winter is the best.

So, yes, George, early morning birding can be very rewarding. But if getting up with the chickens isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of other options for seeing local birds. And like anything else, sometimes a day of birding is very rewarding and other times it’s quiet. Heck, some days my snack count is higher than my bird count…but that’s okay with me, too.