The Early Birder…

American Avocet_AlamosaNWR-CO_LAH_2180… catches the bird. While it’s not wise to be an early worm, being an early birder pays off. You’ll see more birds than those who sleep in and, if you’re a bird photographer, you’ll have better light to capture them by.

I was once again reminded of this during a couple of back-to-back visits to the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, in south-central Colorado.

Wilson's Phalarope_AlamosaNWR-CO_LAH_2095Driving Highway 160 on our way to and from the CFO convention in Cortez last week, our route passed within 2 blocks of the Alamosa NWR. Knowing we would want to stop and see what was hanging around the ponds, we decided to leave early. Very early.

I set my alarm for 4 am, specifically so we’d arrive at the refuge (3½ hours from home) while it was still morning. Rolling out of bed was hard, to put it mildly, but it was worth the effort. The pond near headquarters was crowded with ducks and phalaropes, blackbirds called from the ditches. Raptors soared overhead, warblers and other migrants hunted insects in the few trees, and we even caught a porcupine trundling across a field (photo below). You can see the lovely light in this pair of photos of an American Avocet (top) and a Wilson’s Phalarope.

Cinnamon Teal_AlamosaNWR-CO_LAH_3140Pleased with the photo ops on our first visit, I decided to stop by again on my way home five days later. This time, coming from much further away, I didn’t arrive until noon. What a disappointment. Harsh sunlight beat down on the brown grasses. The fields were empty. The pond was almost deserted and wind had roughed the surface of the water, eliminating any reflections. Blackbirds were still proclaiming their territories, but they’d retreated into the dry cattails where they couldn’t be seen. The migrants were all napping. I took a few more photos and left. (You can see the lackluster lighting on this pair of Cinnamon Teals.)

Porcupine_AlamosaNWR-CO_LAH_9897While early morning and evening are generally the best times for seeing wildlife (with exceptions, of course), timing for birds becomes particularly important during migration. Migrating songbirds typically fly all night, especially if the night is clear and pleasant. By dawn, the birds are exhausted, and ready for breakfast.

Anyone who has been camping knows that mosquitoes, and many other insects, are most active at dawn and dusk. Even seed-eating birds appreciate some extra protein when they’re getting ready to breed, so both migrants and resident birds are up and about while the bugs are out.

For those birds travelling on, a good meal allows them to rebuild their strength for the next night. Then, about mid-morning, everyone settles down for a well-earned nap. Evening brings dinnertime, followed by another all-night flight.

From a birding perspective, it’s clear that the best time to see migrating birds is morning and evening. Napping birds tuck themselves into dense foliage where they’re hard to see. At the refuge, I knew that the pond held sleeping ducks and phalaropes, but I couldn’t see them because of the marsh grasses in the way.

Birding in late fall and early winter has the advantage of short days, and arriving on site at 8 am is early enough. This time of year, being on site at dawn requires fortitude. I’ve found the key to early rising is to promise myself I’ll do what the birds do—take a good, long nap when I get home!

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