A Bird Idiot’s Guide To Winter Birding
10:54 AM EST on December 8, 2022
The pandemic changed us. COVID-19 stripped away basic social facets of humanity, and as we coped we each rewrote a chunk of source code within ourselves. I have a friend who started painting wine bottles. My wife became an expert in caring for houseplants. Lotta folks bought Pelotons; others tried overthrowing the government. We all needed a new thing. I started birding.
In the summer of 2020, I found emotional refuge in the parabolic flight of goldfinches, and by autumn—following an agonizing decision to send our kids back to school—I started walking in the woods for an hour after dropping them off each morning. If you have never needed to get two young children ready for school, please continue living your life well. If you have, then you already know that it is like drinking poison for the first hour you're awake, a bitter taste that will stay with you all day unless you find a way to purge it.
Being outside and quietly focusing my attention on something unrelated to the stressors in my life releases the knot in my shoulders. Research by King's College London suggests that seeing birds or just hearing birdsong can lead to improvement in mental well-being for up to eight hours, but you don't have to take the scientists' word for it—all they did is study 1,300 people for three and a half years. Instead, take it from me, one guy who's been birding for two years. I am mostly not depressed. It works!
"Oh but winter is a bad time to see birds," you may be mew-mewing. Wrong! Winter is a very good time to see birds. And for mental well-being purposes, you need to see birds in the winter more than any other time of the year. That is why I have prepared this three-tiered guide to winter birds. Whether you are a cold-averse shut-in or a Vermont maple baron, I have you covered. (NOTE: Though I live in the Northeast, I have tried to stay regionally neutral. However, if you live in Florida or California or someplace that doesn't experience "winter," then you can just go outside and look at the birds that have left the places I'm writing about here.)
TIER 1: SCREW YOU PAL, I AIN'T GOING OUTSIDE
If you're not the kind of person who likes to go outside during winter, that's OK! It needn't stop you from seeing birds.You can make the birds come to you. Defector has helpfully already provided excellent guides to bird feeders and how to stock them (one type of seed per feeder, not a mix). Chris Thompson also blogged about how to carve a pumpkin into a feeder, but that feels like more of an autumnal task. For a crazy person.
I don't have much to add to the bird feeder discourse. I stock a small feeder with nyjer seed that brings me a steady stream of house finches, goldfinches, chickadees, titmice, and juncos throughout the winter, and I've recently added a block of suet in an attempt to draw woodpeckers to my small yard. Our suburban neighborhood has too few old-growth trees too far removed from nature for me to invest more effort than that, but I'll support whatever feathered pals I can get.
However, if you want to make your yard a truly bird-friendly winter habitat, you shouldn’t stop at bird feeders. You are not officially a housebound bird sicko until you have bird-safe windows and stock your yard with a heated bird bath (or get a submersible heater for your existing one). When temperatures dip below freezing, water sources become scarce: The shallow puddles and ditches favored by many small birds are the first to freeze, while larger streams and ponds are hot spots for predators. Birds have the ability to eat snow if they need to, but they don't have the body mass to make it a good option; the energy expended to melt the snow is more than most birds can afford. So give 'em a little hot tub!
Got more money to burn? Spend $400 for a lifetime membership of Haikubox, a device that records bird sounds and sends identifications to an app on your phone. (Alternatively, you can buy the hardware for $190 and access the data for $70/year.) This, to me, feels slightly ridiculous because the amazing Merlin Bird ID app is free, and it has a sound ID feature that uses the same neural net to identify birds by sound. But I won’t judge. Indulge in this peaceful hobby how you like.
The birds that flock to an inviting backyard habitat will delight you. Chickadees and titmice are gregarious and noisy, and when they're together they sound like a dial-up modem connecting to the internet. The northern cardinal may not be among my favorite birds—I don't care for its doofy one-note song—but the male's iconic red is so handsome and eye-catching, especially in winter, that I have no business finding fault with its singing; it's like saying Steph Curry is bad at dunking. The dark-eyed junco is a common winter sight across North America, but I never tire of its rotund body hopping below my feeder, like a scoop of charcoal ice cream was granted a wish and turned into a bird.
All of this and more can be right outside your window, providing relief from Zoom calls, bills, dishes, babies—whatever real-world drudgery looms inside your home. Birds will brighten the darkest days, literally. Make them feel welcome.
TIER 2: THE CASUAL WINTER WALKER
I am not a morning person. If I'd never had kids, I would spend each night drinking cocktails and watching movies until 2 a.m. And yet here I am, 44 years old and waking up at dawn, taking my kids to school then crunching around in dead leaves in wan December apricity like one of those ruddy-cheeked New Englanders who brags about enjoying winter. I hate it!
But I'm not going to live a better life whining about it. "I knew a crazy man who walked into an empty pulpit one Sunday," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "and, taking up a hymn-book, remarked: 'We had a good fall for getting in corn and potatoes. Let us sing Winter.' So, I say, 'Let us sing winter.' What else can we sing, and our voices be in harmony with the season?"
Who am I to ignore the advice of the long-dead misanthropic outdoorsman quoting a mentally ill guy from church? I sing winter, too. I step into the cold knowing that the wind will bite my face and my toes will lose feeling; I know too that it is the most discomfort I will feel that day, and that when night falls I will not feel the scrabbling sensation of cabin fever.
And most of all, I know that my spirits will be lifted by the presence of birds. I know birders who rarely go out during winter because there aren't enough new birds to see; they wait for the excitement of spring migration. I can't abide that; there is too much beauty in each stage of nature's cycle. An ebb tide can reveal life unseen at high water.
There is something charming about the familiarity of winter birds. During migration, you may only see a given species a handful of times, or just once, or never. In winter, you will have the comfort of the same friends every day: nuthatches, finches, woodpeckers, sparrows, chickadees and robins and jays.
Unburdened from the rigors of identification, you get to know these birds' habits: the subtleties of their movements, their shape in flight, the variety of sounds they make—not just the songs, but the cheeps and tinks that round out each species' language. I've become innately familiar with the cardinal's chip, the blue jay's steady flight at treetop level, the angle of a robin's wings in silhouetted flight. Any small detail can give me ballast on a cold day: the white outer tail feathers of the dark-eyed junco, the yellow eyebrow of a white-throated sparrow, a cardinal in a snowy tree, the incomprehensible exoticism of a cedar waxwing. And when winter is at its worst—in the gunmetal half-light of February, when weeks of unrelenting cold have leeched all color from the landscape—an eastern bluebird as bright as the last day of school will alight on a naked branch and carry me to spring.
TIER 3: WINTER BIRD SICKO MODE
I have been underselling winter birding. It doesn't need to be a cold lonely walk looking at common birds you can see from inside your house. Winter provides an opportunity to see incredible cold-weather visitors, as well as the best chance to see elusive year-round predators. Here are some of the cool guys out there, just waiting for you.
DUCKS. Many duck species spend their summers in the far north, nesting and raising young on the subarctic tundra or in boreal wetlands. In the winter, these colorful ducks—diving mergansers with thin serrated bills, large-billed seaducks called scoters, and hunters' favorites like pintails and teals and shovelers—find our frigid latitudes perfectly temperate. Winter is, as the cartoonist Rosemary Mosco christened it, Weird Duck Time.
Mosco recently elaborated on the appeal of winter ducks in an essay for Audubon:
Since many ducks choose their mates in the winter, they arrive in crisp courtship plumage. They’re a riot of colors, shapes, sounds, and strange behaviors. Red-breasted Mergansers have wild bedhead and flash crocodile smiles, their bills edged with tooth-like serrations. Northern Shovelers huddle together and swim in circles to dabble with outsized bills. Male Hooded Mergansers raise massive black-and-white crests like sails on a ship. Now and then, a rare male King Eider waltzes onto the scene, showing off a mint-green face and a bulging orange plate above its bill.
I agree with her assessment, though I should note that there are considerably more opportunities along the coasts than inland. And if you want to get serious about ducks, you should know that binoculars—which typically offer 8x to 10x magnification—may not have the range to give you a clear picture for identification across the large bodies of water ducks tend to favor. If you have a camera, this problem can be solved with a telephoto lens. If not, you may be in the market for a spotting scope, which can increase magnification from 20x to 50x or more.
I do not own a scope. They cost anywhere from $300 to $3,000, require a tripod (not included in quoted cost), and are awkward and bulky to carry over any prolonged distance. To this point in my birding hobby, I have chosen fuzzy distant images and missed ID opportunities because (a) I find the cost-benefit unsuitable and (b) I am not yet ready to embrace being a full-on bird sicko. Sure, I go birding five times a week with binoculars and a camera, and I have a separate Instagram feed for my bird photos, and I write blogs about birding … but lumbering along a winter beach with a big telescope to see ducks is a bridge too far. I must entertain the illusion that I am not fully gone.
Anyway, since I've called this section Winter Bird Sicko Mode, I will indulge the sickos. I may not be qualified to recommend the right spotting scope for you, but a little society called Audubon has you covered with how to choose a scope and a more detailed gear guide broken down by price range.
That is a lot about spotting scopes and perhaps not enough about ducks, so here is a duck fact I enjoy: Wood ducks, which were hunted to the brink of extinction before conservation efforts in the early 20th century saved the species, are one of only two duck species native to North America with clawed feet that allow them to perch in trees. (The other is the muscovy duck, which is not remotely as attractive as the wood duck.) The first time I saw a pair of wood ducks in a tree, it blew my damn mind. Ducks! In a tree! What'll they think of next?
WINTER FINCHES. In the boreal forest of Canada live several species of seed-eating birds —grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls, and a few other species known collectively as winter finches— that will stay in Canada or parts of the northern U.S. year-round if they have enough food. But when seed supplies run low, these birds travel south in large numbers looking for food, an irregular migration called an irruption.
For 20 years, a Canadian naturalist named Ron Pittaway observed the summer seed crop throughout Canada and used it to predict finch irruptions in an annual newsletter called the Winter Finch Forecast, which became a digital almanac for American birders eager to see these species. It was prized because it was accurate, and it was accurate because Pittaway researched the hell out of it:
Over the years, he has amassed more than 30 trusted contacts—birders, government scientists, and other naturalists—spread across North America. In mid-August, he sends out a simple email asking each person to rate the seed crops for white spruce, black spruce, balsam fir, eastern hemlock, tamarack, white birch, yellow birch, alder, red oak, bur oak, mountain ash, and other food-bearing plants for birds, including hazelnuts, crabapples, and wild berries. Are they poor, fair, good, excellent, or bumper? He also asks, “Are you seeing finches?”
The reports soon follow, pouring in from as far away as Alaska and Newfoundland, throughout Ontario and into Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. Then to confirm reports or look in other areas, Pittaway does a little online surveillance, sometimes looking at photos people post to eBird, Facebook, and listservs to spy on trees in the background and look at the status of their masting.
Three years ago, Pittaway stepped down from the job, handing the reins of the Winter Finch Forecast to a biologist named Tyler Hoar. All of this is incredible to me! For more than two decades, there was one guy in Ontario keeping track of how many pine cones were in trees across the second-largest nation on Earth, and using that to make a projection that affected MILLIONS of birders in the United States. One guy! And then the Canadian tree nerd got too old and bestowed the responsibility on another Canadian tree nerd, like a lonely knight in charge of an ancient library.
All of this is to say, yes, the forecast predicts that there will be irruptions of finches and related species this winter. This is bad in the immediate sense because, given my inexperience chasing irruptions, I cannot punch up this essay with poetic descriptions of evening grosbeaks or white-winged crossbills. But mostly it's good, because I can look forward to seeing some birds I've never seen before.
RAPTORS. The absence of leaves on trees is one of the less appealing visual aspects of winter and, on aggregate, a massive bummer. But there is a silver lining: Birds of prey, usually hidden away in foliage, become conspicuous lumps on their wintertime perches. And with fewer daylight hours and less prey running around, they must also hunt more earnestly.
This is great news for me, an absolute weirdo who gawps at every red-tailed hawk despite seeing them multiple times a day (they nest near my home, and they're frequent sights on light posts above highways). I can't help it! Raptors are cool as hell! They have super-vision! Murder talons! Razor beaks! And they're just OUT THERE, free to look at! Holy shit!
I spent a miserable wet smudge of a late November morning at an abandoned airfield, where I walked an overgrown trail for over an hour, rarely witnessing anything more than the alarm call of white-throated sparrows. Then I got in my car, drove slowly down the pockmarked runway, and saw two peregrine falcons, two American kestrels, a red-tailed hawk, a northern harrier, and a Cooper's hawk—all in the span of 15 minutes. Each of these birds is spectacular in its own right, deserving of an individual breathless description—the kestrels' rufous and slate-blue war paint; the harrier's owl-like facial disk—and yet the air was so alive with murder that I have simply listed them like aircraft in a sortie. What a terrible place to be a small mammal: acres of grass until the next tree, and every inch of it patrolled by ravenous flying death. Winter is metal as hell.
Like their diurnal raptor brethren, owls are also more visible in winter, which is to say only slightly less invisible. Seeing an owl requires a combination of planning, research, caution, awareness, and/or dumb luck; I have seen about a dozen in two years of birding, or about one every 50 times I step outside with binoculars.
The rarity of owls combined with their popularity (not to mention the ravenous content needs of social media) has resulted in unscrupulous actors luring owls out of hiding with bait or recorded calls, and the serious birding community—the one invested in conservation, and in leaving wild places undisturbed—has reacted by closing ranks. David Allen Sibley, the preeminent ornithologist and illustrator, wrote this in his indispensable field guide:
If you see a roosting owl, chances are it is already alarmed by your presence. Move away quietly. For an owl, holding still in its camouflage posture is a sign of agitation, and you should resist the temptation to get closer or try for a clearer view, as any additional stress could cause the owl to fly. Carefully consider the situation before telling other birders. Can the owl be seen from a safe distance without disturbing it?
The official party line is essentially, "If you see an owl, leave and tell no one." This feeling has pervaded the birding community. I discovered the location of an eastern screech-owl from a whisper network of trustworthy birders who passed on a screenshot of an email that concluded, "Because owls are a sensitive species, I ask you to consider not putting photos on eBird. There are members of Audubon who get very upset when owl photos are posted and have been known to confront people who do. I am not one of those people but I am often on the receiving end of all the drama and if that person knew that I told you about the owl, it wouldn't be good for me."
How can a bird be worth that kind of drama? Who would search so relentlessly for a bird they can’t tell anybody about? I can only answer those questions with "I don't know" and "definitely me." I love many kinds of birds—the backyard birds and ducks of this essay, warblers and thrushes, more kinds of sparrows than you know exist—but owls are something different entirely. When you find an owl—when you, a clumsy clomping human—meet the blazing yellow gaze of a great horned owl or the infinite dark of a barred owl's eyes, you will set foot in one of nature's rarest chapels; you will know the grace and power of God. Maybe that sounds ridiculous. Maybe you haven't yet seen an owl in the wild.
I hope you get the chance. Even if you don't, all the other winter birds are still out there to lift your spirits. Sing winter, and know the next song is a brighter one.