Apr 29, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2020

Sky Watching: A Backyard Bird Bonanza

Common mergansers in migration. Photo by Bruce Wunderlich
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Many backyard bird watchers miss a big piece of migration because they don't look up. Not all the birds that sweep past each spring and fall make a pit stop at your bird feeder, or even in your neighborhood. Some, such as hawks, waterfowl, and gulls, keep right on truckin', headed for distant places or searching for habitat most backyard bird watchers can't provide. Few of us have a 50-acre pond full of fish and invertebrates, or 500 acres of grassland teeming with small mammals. In migration, however, the sky over your house is a highway; on some days it can be as busy as the beltway at rush hour.

Many birds that backyard bird watchers rarely see occur regularly right above their heads. All they have to do is look up. As any experienced sky watcher can tell you, there are good days and bad days. Few of us can afford to spend all day, every day outside looking up. We need to pick those days when birds are most likely to be flying. The following guidelines should help, no matter where you live. Birds fly when the conditions, and that usually means winds, are most favorable.

Caspian terns can be found across the United States and into southern Canada. Look up!

Seasons

In fall, the largest flights typically occur following the passage of a cold front, when skies are clear and winds are from the north or west. The biggest flights at hawk watches, banding stations, and other monitoring points are almost always recorded on those days. In spring, the situation is usually reversed, although birds show a greater willingness to fly when the wind is from the "wrong" direction. Spring flights occur most often on days when a warm front has passed and winds are from the south and west.

Weather

Breezy is good, but howling gales are not. Birds want a boost from the wind, not a punch. Rain is awful. Even ducks do not like to get wet when they fly. A wet bird weighs a lot more than a dry one, and migration is a high-energy activity. Increasing the weight makes the cost greater than the benefit. Many sky watchers know that when a sudden drizzle starts in the middle of the day, birds will drop down and can be seen more easily.

Migrating broad-winged hawk. The best time to observer migrating hawks is from just after dawn to mid-afternoon. Early birds are often low, but later in the day, scan the big white fluffy clouds.

Timing and Location

Early and late are usually best. Some birds fly all day; many migrate at night, stopping to forage during the day. The largest numbers are usually seen in the sky in the first few and the last few hours of the day. That is because some birds are just too high to be seen at midday, and some stop to rest and feed. The more sky you can see, the more birds you will see. Find a spot (some serious bird watchers actually climb onto the roofs of their houses!) where you can see a lot of sky. Look in the right direction: Watch the southern sky in spring and the northern sky in fall. It's better to see a bird coming toward you than one pulling away. Not only do you have more time to identify it, but you get to see more than its tail. Use your bare eyes to locate a sky speck, and then lift your binoculars to watch.

Migrating greater scaup. Look for migrating waterfowl early and late in the day.

The Birds You'll See

Hawks. They can be seen anywhere—I counted more than 2,000 migrant hawks one spring in downtown Baltimore! The best time is from just after dawn to mid-afternoon. Early birds are often low, but later in the day, scan the big white fluffy clouds.

Waterfowl. Get them early and late. At midday they are often very high. Unlike hawks, you often hear them before you see them. Geese and swans are seen most often, but all waterfowl migrate in flocks during the day.

Loons. Get 'em early, folks. In migration, loons cross the entire continent and can be seen almost anywhere, but it is hard to spot them more than three hours after dawn. They take off low and gain altitude slowly, but during midday they are practically in the stratosphere.

Swallows. Seen all day, usually low but moving fast.

Jays. Some days the sky seems to be filled with migrating jays. When a bunch suddenly dives for the trees, look for a hawk. Even the most dedicated hawk watcher is not as good at spotting them as a jay is.

Blackbirds. Hard to miss on the days that they are flying. Flocks of thousands are visible and noisy.

Other birds. Kingbirds and orioles sometimes fly during the day, as do gulls, terns, and shorebirds, although they are usually so high that they are almost impossible to spot. So spend a few days this spring watching the sky. You will see birds that otherwise would never end up on your yard list.



About Eirik A.T. Blom

Eirik Blom was a contributing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest from 1998 to 2002.

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