Birding Tips: On Cold Spring Mornings, Spend Some Time in the Sun

By Jessie Barry
March 12, 2014
Cape May Warbler by Guy Lichter via Birdshare .

As a beginning birder, I used to be so excited to catch the action of spring migration that I’d get up at first light and head straight into the deep woods—and I was usually disappointed to find almost no birds. Only later did I realize that I was walking right by the best spots.

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It’s an easy mistake to make. Almost any patch of woods on a crisp spring morning is bound to be bustling with songbirds, and it’s enticing to head straight into the woods to follow the songs. But before you head in, pause and look up. Because on a cold morning, most of the birds are bound to be at the sunlit edges of the woods.

Why? Because that’s where the food is first thing in the morning. Insect activity wakes up where the day’s first rays of sun warm things up. And active insects attract our favorite insectivores—warblers, kinglets, vireos, and gnatcatchers.

Golden-crowned Kinglet by Dave Wendelken via Birdshare .

Many birds depend on finding insects first thing in the morning to refuel after energetically demanding nights spent migrating hundreds of miles. Insects depend on the sun’s warmth to get them out of their lethargic state. Where there are bugs, there are birds. And that’s where you want to be.

So look for the first sunny spots early in the morning, often at habitat edges, where woods meet fields, ponds, or open space. Eastern edges face the rising sun, and so they’re best bets. Edges are also gathering places for species from multiple habitats, giving you a chance to spot birds that live in both woods and fields. If you’re in a shady spot, remember to look up and check the treetops—often they’ll be in the sun well before those warm rays reach you.

As morning moves on and the sun climbs into the sky, you’ll find that sunny spots appearing on the forest floor, deeper in the woods. Now’s the time to move in and start looking for interior-forest birds. It’s a good birding rule to live by: follow the sun!

More resources to help you be a better birder:

Jessie BarryJessie Barry leads our Merlin project and is a member of the Cornell Lab’s competitive birding team, Team Sapsucker.

 

Comments

  • Excellent advice that works the world over, it is usually the edges of woodlands in the UK that hold the most activity.

  • Sara Sherff

    MI HAD A TOUGH, TOUGH WINTER. LAKE MI WAS 90% ICED OVER AS WERE THE RIVERS, LAKES, ETC, DEEP SNOW. …. LOTS OF DUCK CARCASSES FROM STARVATION. MY Q IS WHY DID THE DUCKS NOT GO SOUTH WHERE THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN FOOD? WHY DID THEY STAY IN SUCH AN INHOSPITABLE ENVIRONMENT?

  • Tim Harding

    Wouldn’t it be western edges that face the east-rising sun?

  • I gather basket materials in the spring and fall. I agree…… If you pause before entering the woods or beside a meadow stream you will be surprised at the variety of birds.

  • Chet OGAN

    Sara,
    The birds that stayed behind may be on a part of a bell-shaped on the fringes of the normal distribution curve. The ones who died and fed the Bald Eagles are the ones that will not contribute to the breeding population this year. Its part of evolution and “survival of the fittest.”

  • Hugh

    Hi Tim – it sort of depends how you look at it. The trees at the eastern edge of a patch of woods face the rising sun. Those same trees are at the western edge of the adjacent clearing or road, which may be the way you are thinking of it. Thanks for commenting – Hugh