If you are interested in seeing first hand how birds behave in various weather conditions then bird watching in the rain will let you enjoy a different perspective on familiar species. Just as humans change what they do when it rains, so too do birds.
If you and any equipment you use are adequately prepared to bird watch in the rain then don’t let the damp put you off. It is worth the effort to go birding in rainy weather. Let’s look at which birds are active and where to go to look for them.
What birds do before rain
Birds can tell when the weather’s going to change. The temperature and barometric pressure gives them prior warning that rain is on its way.
If the birds know that rain is coming, they might decide to leave an area. Others might get ready for the rain by finding a sheltered place to stay until it is over.
Seabirds will head for the shore to shelter, especially the smaller sea birds like storm petrels, phalaropes and murrelets. If you spot these along the coast then it’s an early warning of rain.
What birds do when it’s raining
Bathing birds splashing about in puddles or taking a shower can be a delight to watch.
Waterbirds take advantage of rain to feed in waterlogged areas. Rainy weather means that their predators will be taking shelter. This leaves the waterbirds to make the most of the increased availability of shallow water.
Rain can cause migratory birds to make an unscheduled landing so you have a better chance of seeing some unusual species that usually just pass overhead.
Smaller sized seabirds normally stay on land during rain and storms. They will wait until the rain clears before flying out to sea again.
In light rain, some birds will make the most of the way the rain flushes out creatures from the soil and go foraging.
How birds protect themselves from rain: do feathers stay dry in rain?
In heavier rain, most birds will take shelter in trees in the rain. When they are stationary they may be easier to observe for a longer period. They are less likely to fly away and you can probably get closer than usual.
Can birds fly in the rain?
Birds can still fly when it is raining, up to a point. Their wings are coated with a waterproof oil that they collect from a gland at the base of their tail. It is called preening when they spread this oil over their outer feathers.
This waterproofing protects birds’ feathers from the rain, but if their wings get too waterlogged they are unable to fly. When the weather is really bad they will wait it out by taking shelter.
Raptors’ feathers are less oily and therefore less waterproof. Birds of prey need to take shelter during rain, and dry off their feathers if they get wet.
Low-pressure weather systems often accompany rain. When the pressure is low, air is less dense. This can make it difficult for birds to fly.
Wind can be another feature in low pressure weather. Strong winds will cause further difficulties for birds, altering their course and encouraging them to land until the inclement weather subsides.
How weather affects migration: do birds fly long distances in rain?
The low-pressure weather can disrupt the migration patterns of birds who find it too difficult to fly in the less dense air and stronger winds. Visibility can also be reduced.
Sometimes they are able to change their course, but they may need to halt their journey and seek refuge on land. When migratory birds get grounded like this it is called a fallout.
Occasions like this put pressure on the ecosystem because there are suddenly larger numbers of birds needing to feed. This concentration means that the local birds may be forced to visit other areas outside their habitual feeding grounds.
While a fallout is disruptive and stressful for the birds, it is a great opportunity for bird watchers.
The migratory birds that might otherwise only be visible flying far in the distance can be observed much more closely on land. Instead of only seeing these birds from underneath, bird watchers can get a much more rounded perspective.
Coastal areas can be good vantage points to observe the pelagic birds that have been grounded during a fallout.
If the rain remains light, migrating birds might continue their journey, but they may fly at lower heights and be seen or heard more easily.
Do birds get cold in the rain?
In order to stay warm during cold rain, birds fluff up their feathers. This traps air close to their bodies, which then warms up from their body heat and helps to preserve that warmth. You may notice them assuming their rain pose – tucking in their head, with their beak angled in the direction of the rain. This helps to reduce air resistance and protect the little down feathers that preserve their warmth.
Watching birds during rain: which birds are active when it’s raining?
Sea birds will generally head for land during rain. It is a good time to scour the coast and shorelines for birds like: frigatebirds, albatrosses, fulmars, gannets, puffins, shearwaters, tropic birds and storm petrels.
Both robins and thrushes make the most of rainy weather for foraging, getting busy collecting the worms and other creatures that come up out of the soil.
Songbirds will be staying dry and conserving energy. Smaller birds do not have much stored energy reserves. They will be perched in trees, shrubs and under overhangs, so may well be easier to observe in rain.
Waders and ducks will be active at rivers and lakes at this time. It is also worth checking for areas that might have become flooded during heavy rain. You can look forward to increased sightings of birds like ducks, geese, swans, herons, cormorants and dippers.
What birds do after rain
Birds may be extra active after rain to make up for the foraging time that they lost while taking shelter. This is especially noticeable after a prolonged period of rain or several rainy days. They will be very hungry!
Worms will have emerged from the soil, ready to be gobbled up.
After the rain has stopped, birds will still be taking baths in the standing water left behind. This is a good opportunity to watch their preening process when they waterproof their feathers. They collect oil secreted from a gland at the base of their tail and use it to coat their outer feathers.
Watching birds active after rain: which birds should I look for after it has rained?
When birds emerge from their sheltering places, hawks and other raptors need to dry out their wings to stay warm.
It’s a good time to look out for these birds of prey as the action of spreading their wings wide can make them more conspicuous.
Once the raptors have dried out their wings, they will be able to get on with their usual hunting. At this time, it is important for them to stoke up their energy after not being able to feed during the rainy weather.
Fortunately their prey are also hungry and so there will be plenty of opportunity to hunt smaller creatures out in the open. After it rains, look out for buzzards, kites, vultures, hawks and eagles.
Merlins and sharp-shinned hawks will be among the first raptors to appear after rain. Their smaller size means that their wings will dry quickly.
Cavity nesters emerge for food
It is obviously difficult to see cavity nesters during the rain because they are safely tucked away in the dry. But if you have a good vantage point after the rain, it can be a good time to see them emerging after the rain. Check to see if you can find likely cavities in dead trees or trunks, crevices in rocks or riverbanks, nesting boxes or birdhouses, cacti or dunes.
The bonus with cavity nesters is that many of them will be crowded all together into one hole, like the pygmy nuthatch. So if you are lucky enough to know where a shelter is, there is a strong likelihood you’ll catch sight of quite a few of the birds.
Birds such as woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees and great tits often select a nest location near to ready food sources – or even stash food nearby in case of inclement weather.
Seed-eating songbirds such as sparrows, wrens and finches will need to go foraging soon after rain to top up their energy.
Other songbirds will be keen to feast on the grubs and worms that will be on the surface after a rainstorm. It’s a good time to see orioles, goldfinches, kingbirds, thrushes, shrikes, blue jays and warblers.
Dressed for birding success: what do I need to wear for bird watching in the rain?
If it’s damp it may well be cold too. Dress with layers that you can add or remove according to how you feel.
A reliably waterproof raincoat
Even with a good rain jacket, it may still get saturated so a spare one might be handy if you plan to be out for a long time
Base layers, t-shirts and sweatshirts or sweaters
A base layer of thermal underwear is an essential in cold climates
This can help to keep the rain out of your eyes and binoculars
Especially useful in case of standing water, muddy and marshy areas
Warm, moisture-wicking pair of socks
A spare pair is always handy too
Your hands will be exposed holding your binoculars, and you’ll need them to stay warm so that you can use the focus wheel and other features. Glove liners or a silk under-glove are a cosy addition.
What equipment do I need for bird watching in the rain?
Rain case for your phone
Not only will this keep you dry, but it will keep the water off your equipment too
A waterproof and fogproof pair is practical and affordable
Rain cover and/or rain guards for binoculars
You can also try to keep the ocular lenses of your binoculars dry by holding them close to your body and underneath your baseball cap. Cupping your hands over the lenses works as long as there is a space between so that the glass doesn’t fog up
Waterproof notebook and waterproof pen or pencil
If you like to record your sightings these are a good purchase and are much easier than trying to keep a regular paper notebook dry
Single-use heat packs
These are handy to slip into boots or gloves for extra warmth
This helps preserve your energy if you are planning on bird watching from a single spot
If you like to take photos be sure to protect the camera by bringing extra cloths
Cheap and versatile rain covers for various things like phones and lens cloths
Now you know what happens to birds when it rains
If you have been wondering where all the birds go when it’s raining, we have given you some clues about where to go to see specific birds.
We’ve looked in more detail at what birds do to prepare themselves for rain, which birds tend to be more active during rain and where they go, plus what behavior to look out for after the rain has passed.
As long as you are dressed properly, then bird watching in the rain can be as rewarding as fair weather birding. Just as some species are in their element, you too make the most of the rain by watching their unique rainy-day behaviour.
- 1 What birds do before rain
- 2 What birds do when it’s raining
- 3 What birds do after rain
- 4 Dressed for birding success: what do I need to wear for bird watching in the rain?
- 5 What equipment do I need for bird watching in the rain?
- 6 Now you know what happens to birds when it rains