Birding in the Winter

Winter got off to a pretty mild start all around North America, but seems to have arrived now, everywhere just in time for the new year.

Finding birds in the winter can sometimes be very challenging. Birds are mainly concentrated wherever food is plentiful and there is good shelter. Some species such as finches are most active early in the day, but you should be able to find some species at any time of day.

If there is any open water in the area, that’s a prime place to start looking for ducks, raptors, gulls, herons, shorebirds, and even kingfishers can be found around open patches of water or sewage treatment plants.

When driving around the countryside or near airports, watch the open fields for Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Hawk Owls, or even a Snowy Owl. These species will often perch in trees, on telephone poles and also hay and straw bales. Snow Buntings and Horned Larks gather in large flocks which fly close to the ground in fields. Northern Shrikes are often found perched on the uppermost point of a tree in small clumps of bushes.

IMG_0837Winter finches are usually heard before they are seen — Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and Pine Grosbeaks are very vocal in the winter which makes them easy to locate — often feeding on pinecones at the top of spruce trees.

The best way to locate certain species is to ask local birders about the best locations for wintering species in your area. eBird is also a fantastic resource for finding birds in your area. You can submit your own sightings to eBird — adding to the ever growing eBird database of checklists which helps other birders and scientists track bird distribution and abundance.

When I have time in the winter, even in the bitter temperatures from around -20 to -40 degrees Celsius, I trudge through the snow in search of owls, woodpeckers, and winter finches. Staying warm in the frigid temperatures can be a challenge, but being comfortable makes birding much more enjoyable. Sometimes the coldest days can produce the most spectacular birds, but nothing is more frustrating than watching a Snowy Owl and not being able to feel your toes!

Using a camera can be a challenge on very cold days, because changing the dials with mittens or even gloves can be difficult. I try to have my settings ready before I leave the house to minimize fiddling around in the cold. Also, batteries lose a lot of power when exposed to low temperatures, so I keep spare ones warm in an inner pocket, close to the body.

A Snowy Owl I saw last year,IMG_6782

Layers upon layers are the key to staying warm outside. I like to wear warm sweaters and leggings. And on the outside — my snow boots (Baffin), waterproof snow pants, a waterproof winter jacket, my Punk Rock Apparel Snowy Owl winter hat, and a scarf or gaiter. Keeping your extremities warm is essential for winter birding. I like wool socks, and I dry my boot liners overnight. This way there’s no excess moisture in the liners. I wear leather mittens with finger liners since they are incredibly warm and easy to use with binoculars. Hand warmers can be useful since you can stick them in your mittens, pockets, and boots. Constantly moving also helps to keep you warm.

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Birding in Germany was a little different for me because the climate is so much more humid and damp than the prairies. The cold went straight through me, so I made sure to dress very warmly even through the winter temperature wasn’t much below zero.

Birding by vehicle can make the weather a little more bearable. Dress as warmly as if you’re going for a walk, because any number of things could happen — a bird might be sitting in a spot where you have to go outside to get a good view, the heater in your vehicle quits working or have some other breakdown (my truck started leaking coolant and overheated far from home on the day of the Christmas Bird Count), or you get stuck in the snow and have to walk.

If you can’t brave the cold, sit by your window with a book and something warm to drink and watch the birds at your feeders. Feeding birds in the winter gives you a chance to watch birds without having to go outside and provides extra sustenance for birds dealing with the winter weather. Many rare birds often show up at feeding stations, so keep an eye out for unusual birds at your feeders. Even if nothing rare shows up, watching the Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and winter finches at close range is always enjoyable. For more bird feeding tips, I highly recommend Myrna Pearman’s new book, Backyard Bird Feeding: An Alberta Guide

There are a number of citizen science programs that take place in the winter, including Project FeederWatch, Christmas Bird Counts, and the Great Backyard Bird Count. You can provide important information about the winter bird population in your area by counting birds at your feeders and reporting the results.

Whether you’re walking, driving, or window-watching this winter, have fun and stay warm!

A male Pine Grosbeak,

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2015 Christmas Bird Count and CBC4Kids

The 26th annual Vermilion Christmas Bird Count was held on December 19th. I’m the president for our local Naturalist Society this year, so I organized the count, made sure we had field counters for each of the quadrants, and also tried to publicize the count in the local papers to encourage more feeder counters and let the community know to expect birders walking around. We had a total of 29 field counters and nine feederwatchers.

My friend Sharon picked me up at 9 am and we drove around our part of the NW Quadrant, stopping at farmyards along the way, checking to see if there were any birds at feeders or in the mature spruce trees surrounding the yards. Black-capped Chickadees, Black-billed Magpies, and Common Ravens were our most seen species, but the Common Redpolls were the most abundant — we saw over 400 in just under two hours.

At 11:30 am we headed to my grandmother’s acreage to see what was at her feeders. We enjoyed mugs of hot chocolate and ate Christmas baking while looking out her kitchen windows. We added two Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers to our list. Three Blue Jays fed from the peanut ring that my grandmother put out.

Downy Woodpecker,IMG_9990

One of the Blue Jays checking out the peanut feeder,IMG_9982 IMG_9983

A male Hairy Woodpecker,IMG_9988

A White-breasted Nuthatch also made a brief appearance,IMG_9997

This year, I organized the second annual Vermilion CBC4Kids in the Vermilion Provincial Park. Sharon dropped me off at home and I drove to town for the CBC4Kids starting at 1 pm. We had seven kids, six parents, and one novice adult birder come out for birding in the park. I talked about the possible species we could see and explained more about the Christmas Bird Count, then we started walking the trails.

A reporter from the one of the local newspapers joined us to cover the CBC4Kids just before we started our walk. Thanks for coming out, Shannon, and for the great article, which I hope encourages other families and young birders to come out. 

Two junior birders, photo courtesty of Shannon O’Connor, The Vermilion Voice.

Two junior birders (photo courtesty of Shannon O’Connor, The Vermilion Voice)

We looked for the large flocks of finches that had been previously reported in the spruce trees, but all we saw for winter finches were two Common Redpolls. Black-capped Chickadees were the most abundant on the walk and one particular bird came very close to the group, so everyone got a good look.

Other than birds, we found snowshoe hare tracks, various bird nests, a willow where a porcupine had stripped the bark off the top branches, and a bunch of trembling aspens that beavers chopped down in the summer or fall and left behind.

Searching for woodpeckers to no avail,IMG_1452

After a climb up a fairly steep hill, we caught our breath and got a group photo,IMG_1450

We finished the walk having traveled over two kilometres and seen six species. Even though the kids were a little tired after the long walk, they all had a good time. I’m looking forward to next year’s CBC4Kids, and think I might lead a walk for beginning adult birders who can’t commit to a whole/half day of counting, but would like to learn more about the wintering birds in Vermilion.

Here’s our list of species from the CBC4Kids walk:

Blue Jay — 1

Black-billed Magpie — 2

Common Raven — 2

Black-capped Chickadee — 38

Bohemian Waxwing  — 35

Common Redpoll — 2

There’s always a CBC potluck supper in town where everyone shares stories from the day, and our compiler tallies the count numbers. From the regular count and the CBC4Kids, counters saw a total of 4,340 individual birds of 41 species, a new record on both counts. Two of the species — a Cooper’s Hawk and a Northern Saw-Whet Owl — were new additions for the count and were both seen in the NE Quadrant.

Christmas Bird Counts around North America run up until January 5th — CBCs are excellent ways to meet other birders in your area as well as to add some new winter species to your list.

:: Find more CBC4Kids events here

:: Find CBC events across Canada here

:: Find CBC events across the U.S here