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

By Jessie Barry
A Cape May Warbler in the spring sunshine. Photo by Ian Davies/Macaulay Library, ML103493651
A Cape May Warbler in the spring sunshine. Photo by Ian Davies/Macaulay Library.

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.

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.

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.

Golden-crowned Kinglet by Dave Wendelken via Birdshare
Golden-crowned Kinglet by Dave Wendelken via Birdshare.

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.


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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library