Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Fieldcraft: 5 reasons to start birding at dawn

Looking down on Kitchen Creek
Kitchen Creek just after sunrise
It's not necessarily easy to rise early and begin bird watching with the first rays of the morning sun. It's so tempting to sleep in just a bit and let it warm up outside. Being in the field at dawn is beneficial, though, for seeing more birds.

My favorite quotation concerning the benefits of dawn birding comes from Tim Rodenkirk: "If you don't want to see birds, always arrive a few hours after sunrise."

Here are five reasons why you (and I) should get up a little earlier to start birding at dawn.

1) Birds are more active at dawn

In the introduction of one of Peterson's first field guides (perhaps 1947 version of original Field Guide to the Birds?--I can't locate the quotation), he noted that birders saw more sunrises than anyone else except perhaps milkmen. (Does anyone born since 1970 even know what a milkman is?) Why did he say this? Because, to see more birds you've got to go where the birds go and get up when the birds get up.

Birds are most active in the morning. After a long cold night they want breakfast. The early bird gets the worm, the seeds, and the insects. In spring... well, we'll talk about song below.

It's sad, really, but many wildlife refuges, nature centers, and parks don't even open until the bird activity is already done for the day. 10 AM? In many places in late spring or summer the birding is effectively over by then, or earlier. The birds have eaten breakfast and will rest quietly in the shade until a brief flurry of activity near sunset.

If you start birding at 10:00 AM, you'll see less than half the birds than if you started at sunrise. Here are more reasons to start bird watching early.

2) The lovely "Golden Hour"

Professional bird and nature photographers want to catch the first rays of soft horizontal light without the harsh shadows of sunlight later in the day. That golden glow over the landscape is very special. Photographers stop taking pictures even earlier than birders end their primary birding stop.

However, I've tended to live in places with a "marine layer" of fog or overcast conditions that doesn't burn off until later morning. "May gray" and "June gloom" are terms for this weather in southern California, but it's not just a summer phenomenon. And, the San Diego area has some close taller hills and mountains so that the sun doesn't show itself until an hour or two after sunrise in some places. So I sometimes get frustrated in my attempts at "golden hour" photography. That said, though, overcast conditions can extend the activity of birds, while clear and hot weather can curtail bird activity earlier.

3) Less people and noise

You and I aren't the only ones that don't always like to get up early. If you can get to a popular nature preserve or trail before the crowds, you'll be able to find parking and see more birds than others arriving later.

But make sure public access is allowed before the official opening hours. Some of my dawn birding starts by parking outside on the street and walking in before the lot is open. Then I only have to share such locations with dog walkers... or the maintenance crew mowing the lawns, which defeats the purpose of arriving early to beat the noise.

4) Calmer winds

Whether it is the coast, mountains, or desert, mornings are usually calm compared to the afternoons. Frequently, by late morning, winds are starting to really blow along the beach. This is especially true in summer when the air temperature passes above the water temperature. Just like you and I, birds tend to hide from the winds. And the winds affect both our ability hear the birds and the birds' ability to hear each other. That leads us to the final reason to start bird watching at dawn.

5) Birds sing at dawn

Many birds have a varied repertoire of breeding songs they sing before sunrise. After sunrise they may sing only a single song-type. By mid-morning most birds have stopped singing altogether. If you are interested in birdsong, I recommend Kroodsma's Singing Life of Birds. [Amazon affiliate link to this book. If you buy from this link I earn a small fee, with no additional cost to you.]

Have you heard of the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS)? It was started in 1966 to track breeding birds in North America along roadside routes in early June. All birds seen and heard are recorded at 50 stops a half-mile apart. (More information on the BBS here.) The survey starts 30 minutes before sunrise and each stop is 3 minutes in duration. That's 2-1/2 hours of counting birds, an hour of driving, and perhaps another hour of getting in and out of the car. 4-1/2 hours. Okay, on June 1st, sunrise is 5:11 AM in Vancouver, BC, and 5:41 AM in San Diego, California. So, 4-1/2 hours of BBS, starting 1/2 hour before sunrise, means these routes are finished before 10:00 AM. Why not count all day? Most roadside birds stop singing and moving around by mid-morning.

Where do I watch birds later in the day?

You may wish to keep birding after 10:00 AM. What types of birding might be better later? Ducks out in the lake are likely to be visible all day. Soaring hawks may wait until the thermals are created mid-day. Sandpipers and other shorebirds may be active on the lakeshore mudflats all day. Likewise, shorebird activity in tidal marshes will be scheduled based on the tides--high tide pushes them from the middle of the estuary to the edges. Visiting a shaded water feature in a hot dry landscape might offer some relaxed bird watching mid-day.

Of course, you can keep watching birds all day. I do, when I get the chance. But know that from late morning to early evening you are going to have to work harder to find birds than you did in early morning.

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