Getting Prepped for Winter Birding
There is a saying that “There is no bad weather, just bad clothing choices”.
During cold weather one must check the weather and the forecast. You should have warm headgear, gloves, overcoat, perhaps “long johns” under your slacks, and gripping footwear for slippery ice and snow. Consider wearing tall rubber boots with good tread. The rubber will keep your feet warm along with thick socks.
Speaking of weather choose days with little or no wind. Wind will chill you and reduce bird activity and vocalizations. Stronger winds inhibit you hearing birds and birds are less able to alert other birds of cats and hawks nearby. Birds seem to know of drops in air pressure signaling an approaching storm. They are often busy feeding just before precipitation arrives knowing they may have to hunker down for a few hours or days.
Woodlands have lots of bird song and activity when the leaves are out and there hundreds of kinds of insects to capture in summer. Most all of those woodland birds head south for the winter to tropical lands with insects active all year. In winter our dense forests are home to only a few chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and secretive owls. On still days you might hear the high thin notes of kinglets and creepers at some spots. Our local owls hoot at night in wooded areas far more in winter than in summer as they begin nesting in February.
Aside from feeders, most of our wintering birds are found in edge habitats, dense clumps of thorny bushes, fields (unless covered with crusted snow), and any areas with open water whether rivers or ponds and lakes. Take note of clumps of vines with fruit as well as crabapple and other trees with fruit remaining, even apple trees. Robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, waxwings, and some northern finches such as Pine Grosbeaks are frugivorous in winter. Winter irruptive species such as Red-breasted Nuthatches, crossbills and others will eat conifer seeds in native and horticultural pines and spruces.
Brushy areas at field edges and near water often host a variety of birds. Being in the open allows you to spot hawks, eagles and passing flocks of songbirds.
Open water will be used by resident Mallards and Canada Geese, along with a few overwintering Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers. Be on the lookout for diving ducks such as mergansers and goldeneyes. Beware of walking on ice-covered waters and devise ways to keep your optics dry as possible. Despite brisk conditions winter birding is essentially free of biting insects, ticks and poison ivy exposure. Getting to know the few dozen birds of winter will get you ready for the gradual return over three months of our warm-weather birds. These days that means you will be warmed at the first “Conk-a-reee” of returning Red-winged Blackbirds, Spring Peepers and Skunk Cabbage telling you Spring is on its way.