Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Boosting Your Yard List

Migration is a great time to boost your yard list.  With birds moving around, you can find birds that you might otherwise never see in your yard.  Keeping your eyes and ears open is the first trick, but there are a couple strategies that can improve your odds of finding even more unusual birds.

Some of the birds added to my yard list this spring migration.
Bird Magnets--Traditional birdscaping strategies can help you attract more migrant birds to your yard.  Native trees and shrubs will draw in the native birds, and a water drip can also serve as a bird magnet.  There are plenty of resources out there to help you learn how to improve your yard for birds, so just pick some up from the library or grab them online.  In my case, we just moved to a new house last fall, and this spring I put up a hummingbird feeder and within a week had added Ruby-throated Hummingbird to the yard list.

Flyovers--This is the key to boosting your yard list.  Most of us will never have shorebirds, gulls, or most water birds landing in our yards.  But these birds are going over, and so you need a strategy for seeing them.  For many songbirds, early morning may be the best time to be out looking for flyovers--as many birds are flying around in the morning looking for good foraging habitat after migrating all night.  Keep your eyes open scan the skies.  If you can get some elevation, that can help.  I can't tell you to get up on your roof--that may not be safe--but finding a way to see more of the sky can help you see more birds going over.  Evening is also a great time to look for birds flying over--especially gulls or wading birds going to roost, or migrating shorebirds heading out at dusk.

American Bittern call recorded 13 May 2012
Nocturnal Flyovers--Most birds migrate at night.  If you really want to boost your yard list, you need to catch them going over your house at night.  If you live in a quiet neighborhood, you may be able to hear them going over.  Otherwise, you may need to get a microphone setup to better hear them going over.  I posted about my own setup last month.  Recording is advisable, since the calls are often short and confusing, but if you record them you can look at them in software that creates a spectrogram of the call, as well as share them with others, and get input on call identifications that are new for you.  I'm still recording the tail end of migration in my yard, and puzzling over some calls I still haven't identified.  But here are some of the more unusual or hard to find birds I've added to my yard list by recording them going over my house these past two months:

Black-crowned Night Heron call recorded 16 April 2012 (Hunterdon County, NJ)
Black-crowned Night Heron
American Bittern
Virginia Rail
Least Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Solitary Sandpiper
Black-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Swainson's Thrush
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Alder Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Canada Warbler

I've added at least 29 species to my yard list this way in April and May, and the list is bound to climb as I continue identifying additional calls that I've recorded.  In most cases, I don't have good habitat for these birds in my yard, so they it might be tough to actually ever see them here.  But by birding at night, and recording their calls, I can experience a much bigger percentage of the migration going over or through my yard.

Spring migration is winding down, but some birds will still be moving over much of North America for the next week or two.  Then fall migration starts for some birds as early as late June.  So plan to be outside as much as you can, especially early and late in the day.  Get some comfy yard chairs and perch yourself with a good view of the sky, and don't stop birding when it gets dark.  There are hundreds of bird species flying over your county each year.  With some planning, luck, and a lot of fun, you can find a much larger percentage of them from your yard, even if you don't think you have a very birdy yard!


  1. This is a great article, thanks!

  2. There are a lot of good ideas here.

  3. Rob, I'm now waiting for you to publish your field guide to identifying birds by their spectogram.