Whether feeding or flying, resting or nesting, wild birds make fascinating subjects in every season. While most winter birders do the majority of their bird watching at feeders from the comfort of their homes, venturing outdoors in cold winter weather can bring good rewards. With the absence of colorful flowers and foliage, and the notable lack of wildlife to observe in northern latitudes, people can concentrate on the most active and visible components of the natural world – the winter birds.

The five-inch Savannah sparrow weighs less than an ounce but thrives in a snow covered habitat.
Credit: WikimediaCommons

Spend a cold morning looking for winter residents, and you can’t help but increase your admiration for birds and their remarkable survival adaptations. How do five-inch Savannah sparrows weighing less than an ounce make it through three months or more of frigid temperatures, snow-covered and frozen habitat, and limited daylight/foraging time, when the average person seems to avoid spending even a few minutes in these conditions?

Raptors Rule
Bird watchers in many parts of the United States probably will remember the winter of 2013-2014 for two things: the return of “real” winter weather and the remarkable snowy owl invasion. On a single January day in Washington D.C., multiple snowy owls were simultaneously sighted at Dulles International Airport, Reagan National Airport, and on an awning at 1500 K St. NW downtown, as dozens of surprised and delighted pedestrians snapped smart phone pictures of the unexpected visitor. Throughout the northeast and midwest, and as far south as South Carolina and Florida (Florida!), people are reporting snowy owls in numbers rarely noted so far south for this arctic species.

Owls like this great horned owl can be easier to spot in bare and quiet winter woodlands.
Credit: Mangnus Manske/WikimediaCommons

Best Season to Spot an Owl?
While the number and location of snowy owls is definitely unusual this year, any winter is usually a good time to look for owls. With most of the leaves long gone from deciduous trees, and the preference for many raptor species to perch in the open on exposed tree branches or telephone poles, hawks, eagles, and owls often are easier to see now than in other seasons. Great horned, long eared and barred owls, normally difficult to spot, are slightly more conspicuous in bare and quiet winter woodlands. However, finding owls typically involves equal parts species knowledge, perseverance, tips from other birders and luck. A number of owls breeds in winter, and some even incubate eggs in January and February. Short-eared owls, an inhabitant of open habitats and found throughout the country in winter, hunt at dawn and dusk, actively flying over fields and prairies. Although the lighting often is less than ideal, watching a short-eared owl’s erratic flight pattern as it hunts by ear for small rodents is a memorable experience.

Look for Northern harriers over frozen marshes and farm fields where they are using their sharp sense of hearing to locate rodents.
Credit: WikimediaCommons

How Many Hawks and Harriers Can You Find?
Home bird feeding stations not only attract songbirds and woodpeckers that feed on suet and seeds, they attract bird-eating Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. Large perch-hunting red-tailed, red-shouldered and rough-legged hawks are easy to pick out on fence posts, telephone poles, street signs and bare branches in the bleak winter landscape, seemingly oblivious to the freezing temps and whipping winds. The American kestrel, smallest and most colorful North American raptor, is another raptor to look for perched in open habitat, patiently searching for small rodents on the ground. Along the coasts and near larger bodies of open water, bald eagles might be present where there are good concentrations of waterfowl and fish to prey upon. In open country, particularly over frozen marshes and farm fields, Northern harriers, much like short-eared owls, use their acute sense of hearing to locate rodents. They fly low over the ground, wings held in a characteristic deep V-shape, ready to pounce at the first sight or sound of a mouse or vole.

Looking for winter hawks, owls and falcons is a good reason to visit a national wildlife refuge and connect with nature during a season when few people experience the great outdoors. Whether you watch bird feeding stations from inside a visitor center, the comfort of your car, or take an invigorating walk on the trails, stay warm and spend some time connecting with winter wild birds at a nearby refuge.

Enjoy our Flickr gallery of winter birds

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