“Oh, that’s a great place to go birding—they were everywhere! We had such a long species list and I even got a lifer!”
“Really? We’ve been there and we didn’t see anything—just one House Finch and a Northern Flicker. It was so disappointing!”
How can two birders go to the same “hot spot” with such different results? No one wants to travel hours or even days, just to arrive and find the birds have flown. There are lots of reasons birds come and go, and it helps to understand them to avoid frustration. Here are a few hints I’ve picked up over the years.
Time of year
This is the most obvious. We all know that some birds are residents while others migrate. Here in the US, there’s no sense looking for warblers in January or Rough-legged Hawks in June. You’re practically guaranteed to be discouraged. (Of course there are always exceptions—I saw my lifer Yellow-Rumped Warbler on a winter bird count at our local nature center. It was huddled next to a sewage treatment plant—a warm spot in the frozen landscape.)
Late spring is probably the “birdy-est” time of year. Males are establishing breeding territories, singing and carrying on to impress the ladies, Or perhaps it’s just that they’re making so much noise that they’re easier to notice. At any rate, once the nests are built and the eggs are laid, everyone settles down.
Time of day
There’s a reason most birding field trips start in the dark. Birds are early risers, whether they get the worm, or just some sunflower seeds. The “Dawn Chorus” happens at dawn. In the summer, that means getting out of bed at a truly awful hour; winter birders can sleep a bit longer. Most birds are most active in the morning and evening hours, spending the middle of the day resting. Migrating birds fly all night, land to feed, and then catch some Zs. In the evening, the pattern is reversed.
A friend and I recently spent a few hours at a local reservoir, hoping to see some migrating stragglers. Instead, we counted less than a dozen species, mostly Coots (along with some raptor-sized mosquitoes). The problem? We didn’t arrive until mid-day. (We had some morning appointments to keep or we would have been there much earlier.) I had expected it to be bad, but not that bad.
After nine years of hunting for birds, my list of owls is still woefully short. It’s my own fault. Most (not all) owls are nocturnal, and I don’t like staying up late. One of these days I’m just going to have to inconvenience myself and make more of an effort.
This year’s weather
Some years just have more birds than other years. Colorado’s climate varies between extreme drought to devastating floods (as we’re all well aware). This cycle means that some years have abundant food, water, and roosting and nesting sites, while at other times those resources are scarce. The lack of precipitation over the past several years has affected the breeding success of many species, especially raptors. No water means no grasses or seeds, which decimates the rodent population. For example, I know of at least one Great Horned Owl nest where only one of three owlets survived.
A harsh winter here or elsewhere also impacts bird populations and distribution. Some years we see Snowy Owls and redpolls, other years we have Mountain Bluebirds all winter.
Other species seem to move around at random. A few years ago I had a yard full of Evening Grosbeaks from early May to late June. Then they moved on and I haven’t had a single visitor since.
This day’s weather
There’s little you can do about the weather once you’ve scheduled a group birding trip. You just hope that it isn’t too hot or too cold or too windy—or too nice! However, if you are birding on your own, or with just a friend or two, you might be able to choose which day to go. I see the most birds on those slightly cooler days, perhaps overcast, with no wind. Then they’re out in force. (What I dream of is a storm the day before a trip, resulting in trees dripping with tired and hungry birds)
A new birder, I was eager to see some Burrowing Owls. A more experienced friend offered to take me out to a spot she knew about. “You’re guaranteed to see owls, probably an entire family of them!” she enthused.
But when we arrived at the field—expecting to see a prairie dog town full of owls—we found bulldozers. Apparently the local city council had decided to build a library, and they demolished a thriving community of prairie species right in the middle of the breeding season. We were heartbroken. Even more frustrating—it has now been eight years, and they still haven’t built the library. They were in a hurry to clear the ground, killing dozens of baby owls, but they never followed through.
All we can do about unconsidered development is to educate decision-makers about the importance of preserving habitat and, if an area has to be built upon, the significance of timing. If they had waited a few months, no owls would have been harmed (although the prairie dogs would still have been destroyed).
I’m sure there are other factors that help determine whether an outing will be productive or a waste of time. I’m learning more with every trip. What other dynamics that come into play? I’d love to hear from more experienced birders.