By Peter Alden
Winter birding on calmer days can be fun! While there are fewer birds this time of year, the barren trees and open skies make for easy viewing. The cool air can be invigorating, the scenery outstanding, and you can enjoy being out in nature.
Open water in lakes and rivers may have many waterfowl. Trails by rivers often have marshy and brushy areas with overwintering songbirds. Resident Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls start calling in winter and begin nesting in mid-winter! Hawks stand out on leafless trees and in the sky. Some winters we get influxes of birds that normally overwinter up north such as Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks. Northern Shrikes look like a masked mockingbird, but they catch and eat other songbirds. They irrupt some winters along with arctic hawks and owls.
Our seacoasts offer the most excitement for winter birding excursions. Many birds that breed in the high Arctic of Greenland, Canada and Alaska tundra and wetlands in the Boreal forest winter here. Scanning via binoculars (or better a telescope on a tripod) you may spot winter-only seaducks such as Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck and American Goldeneye.
Extreme birders head to the headlands during northeasters and hurricanes to see which seabirds that are passing through or wintering well offshore. At such times one might see many puffin relatives called Alcids such as tiny Dovekies, two kinds of murres and Razorbills, along with huge cold-water boobies called Northern Gannets. Remember that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing and footwear choices.
Best Places to Explore Winter Birding
Most winter birding north of Boston is done at Cape Ann and Newburyport. In Cape Ann, birders check for gulls (including such Arctic ones as Iceland and Glaucous Gulls) at the Jodrey Fish Pier on Gloucester inner harbor. Next is Eastern Point for a rare King Eider among the newly resident Common Eiders. Continuing the circuit check the overlooks at Bass Rocks for scoters, Great Cormorant and Horned Grebe. Halibut Point State Reservation on the north side of Rockport is famous for at wintering group of Harlequin Ducks.
The Newburyport area features open salt marshes, a large river mouth and sandy beaches. Stop at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats sanctuary for information and a gift shop. The top end of Plum Island (and Salisbury Beach State Park on the north side) often have Harbor Seals as well as many seaducks and loons. The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island is worth a visit. At its toll booth the attendant can often tell you of any recent rarities.
South of Boston there are such spots as World's End (a peninsula on the north edge of Hingham), Cohasset's Little Harbor, Scituate Harbor, the Mass Audubon South Shore sanctuary in North Marshfield, Duxbury Beach and Plymouth Harbor to enjoy winter birding. Cape Cod and the islands have a greater number of wintering bird species than areas north or west of Boston. After northeasterlies when the wind shifts to the northwest many deep ocean birds get trapped by the hook of Cape Cod and build up at First Encounter Beach in Eastham. Perhaps the best spot of all to see oceanic birds is Race Point in Provincetown.
Prepare for Winter Weather
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.
A good way to learn to identify our winter birds is take to take a course from Spark Birding, including topics like Winter Birds of New England. Or join us small group field trips year-round, often led by nature authors Peter Alden of Concord and Lillian Stokes of Acton. We hope to see you on a winter field trip.