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.
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
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
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.
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
Flickr gallery of winter birds