It may seem counterintuitive, but winter can actually be a phenomenal time to go birding. Sure, we know that most of the colorful, flighty little songbirds — like warblers and tanagers — go for a seasonal trip south to escape the cold. (Many of us desperately wish we could follow them). Indeed, when winter arrives the entire landscape changes — not just in terms of snow (though there’s plenty of that), but it in terms of fauna as well.
Naturalists tend to use the turn-of-phrase ‘the changing of the guard’ to describe the shifting of nocturnal and diurnal animals at dusk and dawn. Well, the ‘changing of the guard’ metaphor works equally well for the arrival of winter. All the life here either adapts to the cold or simply leaves, and a surprising amount of new life arrives — birds included.
Without further ado, here are a few of my personal favorite species to look for in wintertime, as well as some quick identification tips and where you might look for them. This is a small sampling, and highly subjective, but hopefully you’ll find it interesting.
WAXWINGS (Cedar and Bohemian)
These are, for my money, the most subtly beautiful birds we have in New England. Their streamlined shape, sleek crest, silky tan-and-peach coloration and saucy black masks add up to my favorite visitors. In our neck of the woods, you’re most likely to see Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). They are notoriously gregarious, forming tight flocks and traveling across huge swaths of land to follow food — they love berries. Typically an entire berry bush will seem to be alive with a flock of these birds. They are very vocal, but very quiet, making a high-pitched trilling sound that can be a bit difficult to notice at first. But once you learn it, it’s the easiest way to find them. They can show up almost any time of year in New England, but they seem to be especially visible in winter.
A cedar waxwing, crest erect.
The rare winter treat for those of us near the Canadian border are the Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus), which only make occasional sojourns south into our country. They normally live in the far north, but they’ll follow food south in winter form time to time. Often they form mixed flocks with our usual Cedars. Telling them apart is pretty difficult, but they are generally more robust, grayer, and they have a reddish patch under their tails. If you come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings this winter, keep an eye out for some of these visitors.
Hedwig herself, symbol of both wizardry and the Great White North, actually puts in appearances surprisingly far south in the wintertime. Normally a bird of the frozen tundra in the fart north, snowy owls (Nyctea scandiaca) make surprisingly frequent trips south. These birds are unmistakable: huge, fluffy white owls with striking amber eyes. They are, however, rather easy to miss against a background of snow.
I cannot speak to your local area, but in Massachusettes, Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island is an excellent place to look for these birds in winter. They are diurnal, and not particularly shy — they often sit in the middle of snow-covered marshes or iced-over ponds, usually on a small perch like a log or rock. With a keen eye, you can pick them out. During my last trip to find one, for instance, my non-birdwatcher friend Jon was the one to make the find, even though he thought it was pile of owl-shaped snow to begin with.
A snowy owl, sans snow.
I know I said these would be highlighting specific species, but I can’t pick just one. Possibly the biggest attraction for winter birding occurs at the one place you’d never think to go in January: the beach. While New England beaches may not offer the sun and surf we humans want in the winter, it does offer something very valuable to several species of duck and other waterfowl — namely, shelter.
In winter, many species of waterfowl which usually spend their time out to sea or in other areas for breeding will come close to shore to take refuge in calm, secluded bays. A wintertime trip to the shore can reveal several species of scoters, eiders, brant, harlequin ducks, as well as mergansers, loons, grebes, and other interesting waterfowl that are absent or more difficult to find in other parts of the year.
Common eiders, sans ocean.
Oftentimes, winter makes the birds that have been here all year that much more visible. First of all, a backdrop of pure white serves to make birds (the few white ones being exceptions) stick out like a sore thumb. Furthermore, most trees have lost their leaves and formerly-thick forests are now bare. Add to this the fact that those birds still active are often bolder and more desperate in their search for food, and you’ve got a recipe for easy birding. Which brings me to my final little tip…
SET UP A FEEDER!
That said, winter sucks! Why be outside to watch the birds when you can bring them into handy view of a window? Setting up a feeder in your backyard, especially in winter, is bound to attract birds no matter where you are. In winter, you’re likely to attract mixed flocks of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, slate-colored juncos, white-breasted nuthatches, hairy and downy woodpeckers — the list goes on and on. And even if your only reliable visitors are the neighborhood house sparrows, you’re likely to get less common visitors now and then, such as grosbeaks and wrens.
Absolutely. Birds that are usually only found further north will move south to New England for the winter, and both land and sea birds will stay near the shore. There are plenty of birds of prey, various ducks, buntings, and longspurs, and alcids (puffins and auks). Owls and ducks are especially popular to look for. The winter in temperate regions is also good for birdwatching because they are more visible with no leaves on the trees, and a white snow background. Check out the birding log in the link below for more examples of birds and other animals you may see.
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