May 30, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, June 2018

Top 10 Things to Watch in Your Backyard This Summer

Hummingbirds flock around a backyard nectar feeder.

When spring bird migration ends and nesting season begins, summer is upon you. For some backyard bird watchers this means that activity slows a bit at the feeders. Some backyard birders refer to a hot summer afternoon as boring. Perish the thought! There are dozens of other things to watch, observe, and enjoy when the birds are sneakily going about their breeding season activities. Here are just 10 for you to consider. Add some shade and a cold drink, and you're all set.

10. Summer Hummer Numbers

From the time the first broods of young hummingbirds leave the nest in late spring (as early as mid-May in southern locales), the hummer numbers at your feeder will begin to swell. Watch for a big increase in feeder activity in the dog days of late summer. This is also when single males set up their bully territories. Here's the best way to solve this: Put up multiple nectar feeders in a cluster. The bully will tire out and let others feed... eventually.

9. Spot the Tots

Fledgling birds are out and about, having just left the nest. Some, such as hungry robins, can be noisy and easy to see. Others, such as young wood thrushes, are mostly silent and still. Listen for unfamiliar calls, whistles, and cheeping. These are the location and feeding calls of young birds, sounds that help parents relocate dispersed youngsters to feed them. If you find an older, feathered nestling out of a nest, leave it alone. The young of many species are able to survive outside the nest at a surprisingly young (and young-looking) age.

Juvenile northern cardinal (male). Photo by Robyn Merchant.

8. Young Bachelor Males

Early summer is also when unmated first-year male birds are lonely, singing, and looking for love in all the wrong places. Every year in early June a series of splotchy young male orioles and tanagers, partly green and partly orange or red, stop by our ridge-top farm for a few days. These birds are too young and inexperienced, having hatched just last summer, to attract a female or to defend territory. It is their lot to wander around, still hoping to find someone and someplace to call their own. Listen and watch for these young guys—next year you won't recognize them!

7. Changing Menu

I am always fascinated at how every summer is different, even in my own backyard. Some are hot and dry, some are cool and wet—all of which has an effect on the birds and what they are eating. Some years bring cicadas in abundance, which many bird species use as a food source. Other years are better for fruit, bringing lots of robins and waxwings. Some years bring lots of nectar-producing flowers, such as honeysuckle, resulting in fewer hummingbirds at the feeders. Notice what natural food sources are abundant in your backyard and neighborhood, and watch how the birds take advantage of it.

A ruby-throated hummingbird sips at a Salvia plant. Photo by Connie Etter.

6. Who Is Eating What?

One way to gain insight into your birds' diets is to check deck railings, fence posts, and bare branches for clues as to what is being eaten. Many insect eaters, such as bluebirds, flycatchers, and even owls, will catch a flying insect, then proceed to a handy perch to subdue and process the insect for consumption. This processing can involve smacking the insect on a hard surface, or it can be a simple tearing off of hard-to-digest parts such as wings, legs, antennae, and heads. Needless to say, this activity leaves behind some pretty obvious clues. If you can tell which legs, wings, and so forth belong to which insects, you'll know what is on the birds' menu. I might also mention what clues berry- and fruit-eaters leave behind. Check your freshly washed car or clean laundry on the clothesline for these clues!

5. Water World

Summer is the best time of year to watch bathing behavior at your birdbath. All birds need water, and most backyard species need it for both bathing and drinking. If your bath is fitted with a dripper or mister, it will be even more attractive. Here's a neat thing to watch for: Birds bathe in different ways, and some like to get wetter than others.

A brown thrasher enjoys the hospitality of a backyard bird bath. Photo by Connie Fowler.

4. Evening Song

Many bird species, besides owls and nightjars, sing at night. Northern mockingbirds are the most famous backyard singer, but you might hear sparrows, warblers, cardinals, and flycatchers tune up for a song or two. Why do they sing at night? It's probably a combination of territoriality by males and nighttime restlessness. When out at night, keep your ears (and mind) open to hear what birds might sing.

3. Butterflies

Like birds, butterflies can be found everywhere, especially when the weather is hot and sunny. When the bird watching slows down in mid-afternoon, get out your butterfly field guide and switch your attention to these delicate beauties. You can attract butterflies with nectar feeders, flowers, mud puddles, and rotten fruit. Large patches of colorful flowers work best.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. Photo by Bruce Wunderlich.

2. You with the Stars in Your Eyes

Birding optics are great for looking at the nighttime sky. Our spotting scope works just fine as an astronomical telescope. Binoculars can be surprisingly useful for getting a great look at the moon, stars, and planets. A good method for using binoculars for stargazing is to lie on your back on the ground. There you can enjoy long periods of star watching without getting a sore neck or tired arms.

1. Early Fall Migrants

It's just sad to say, but early fall migration begins in mid-July! Shorebirds, swallows, male hummingbirds, and some small songbirds begin the trek southward even as we're planning summer vacations and flipping burgers on the grill. Watch for early migrants dropping out of the sky early in the morning or as silhouettes passing over the face of the full moon at night. Some songbirds won't look like they did in spring. Things have changed. That's what keeps us anticipating and watching for the birds that pass through our yards—and through our lives—season after season.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021