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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My 10 Best/Favorite Photos of 2012

2012 was filled with very memorable, fun, and exciting moments, and my trip to Long Point this August will be my most cherished memory!

At the end of last year, I wrote a post on “My 10 Favorite Birds of 2011“. I wanted this year’s year-end post to be different from that, so here are my 10 best and favorite photos of 2012.

One of the most exciting birds I saw at my feeders this year was a Northern Shrike in March,

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Holding a Burrowing Owl at the Tofield Snow Goose Chase in April,

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One of the Gray Catbirds I counted during the local May species bird count,

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At the Bird Studies Canada Headquarters in August during the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop,

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A banded Canada Warbler at Long Point in August,

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My friend Katie holding an Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle at Long Point during the YOW,

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A young Turkey Vulture after being banded in late August,

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A Northern Harrier in September,

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A Long-tailed Weasel at my grandparents’ yard in November,

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A Pine Grosbeak at my grandparents’ yard in December,

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Feeding Birds in the Winter

Winter is a hard time for birds, especially in north central Alberta. Grasses are covered in snow so the seeds are hard to get; the berry supply starts to dwindle and also gets snow-covered; and insects are either hidden underground, indoors in houses, or burrowed deeply into tree trunks.

Before people started feeding birds through the winter, birds survived without man-made bird feeders, but putting up feeders does give birds more of a chance in winter and it’s fun to see which species will visit your feeders.

A Common Redpoll at a nyjer feeder,

If you feed birds, you must clean your feeders regularly and thoroughly to prevent the spread of disease. Clean and disinfect feeders often, one or two times a month should be sufficient. Use nine parts warm water to one part household bleach to thoroughly disinfect your feeders.

Here are some of my suggestions if you are new to feeding birds, or you would like to try something different and fun!

I’ve given some links, for informational purposes only. I particularly like Droll Yankees feeders, which I know well because I’ve won eight of them from Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds radio show (the Mystery Bird segment). Their feeders are good quality, withstand Alberta’s extreme elements very well, and are made in the United States. But I’m not sponsored by or an affiliate of either Droll Yankees or Amazon or any other store.

Seeds:

If you want to offer only one type of seeds to birds, black-oil sunflower seeds are the way to go! Black-oil sunflower seeds are fairly inexpensive, especially when bought in bulk. Black-oil sunflower seeds are easier for birds to open than the striped sunflower seeds, and the kernel is larger too. Sunflower seeds can be put in a hopper-, tray-, or tube-feeders, or on the ground. You can also buy the sunflowers seeds hulled, it’s a little more expensive, but it reduces the waste on the ground and it’s also a big treat for the birds.

Nyjer (thistle) seed is a favorite among finches, although it can be expensive. It is a small black seed, and is best put in a nyjer feeder or a nyjer sock. You don’t have to worry about Nyjer seed sprouting because it is heat-treated, but it can go rancid or moldy quickly in wet weather, so it’s more economical to buy in small bags and keep it dry.

Some seed mixes are better than others. Talk to other birders in your area to see what they have to recommend. Cheap mixes are usually not the best quality, with lots of filler that birds don’t like, such as red millet and milo. The better mixes have sunflower seeds, peanuts, white millet, and cracked corn. There are also some specialty online stores where you can custom-make your mixed-seed blend.

Birds need a lot of energy and protein to get through an Alberta winter, and peanuts are a great source. Jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees will readily visit a feeder for peanuts. If you provide peanuts, make sure they are unsalted and not honey-roasted either!

Suet is a great source of energy for birds. You can provide plain suet, or you can mix it with nuts, raisins, and other fruit. You can buy the mixtures, or make your own. Suet can be provided in a variety of feeders: smeared on a branch or log, in a suet cage, in a tray, or in a mesh onion bag.

Here’s a good page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the different kinds of feeders with some photographs.

Water:

In the winter birds eat snow to keep their bodies hydrated. It does bring down the bird’s body temperature, but they can survive. They also will bathe in the snow to keep their feathers clean.

Heated bird baths are wonderful for cold climates. The heater doesn’t actually heat the water, it just keeps the water from freezing. I don’t have a heater so I just take warm water and thaw the ice in the bird bath every morning.

Never put any anti-freezing chemicals in the water or use any harsh chemicals, such as bleach, to clean the bird bath either. Sun is a natural disinfectant and it is good for bird bath.

A Black-capped Chickadee,

When feeding birds, be prepared for some surprises at your feeding station. Some people see Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins hanging around the yard hoping to catch some of the feeder birds.

Last March this Northern Shrike visited my feeders hoping to make a meal of one of the Common Redpolls,

If you are in or around the Edmonton area, the Wild Bird General Store has a remarkable assortment of bird seed (from small brown bags to big barrels in bulk), bird feeders, bird baths, and anything you can think of relating to birds. Many hardware stores have a good selection of bird feeding items as well.

A Merlin on our TV antenna keeping a close eye on the goldfinches,

A Downy Woodpecker enjoying my grandmother’s homemade suet,

Project FeederWatch Season is Coming!

Project FeederWatch starts November 10th, 2012.

A couple of years ago, I joined Project FeederWatch as part of my home school science studies. The first year, I didn’t think counting the birds at my feeders on selected days for almost a year would be fun; it was my mother’s idea and I wasn’t quite as, well, nutty about birds as I am now. But I was completely wrong. It was very exciting to see which birds, and how many, would come to my feeders on the days I chose, and ever since I’ve been participating in Project FeederWatch.

A Northern Shrike I saw on one of my FeederWatch days last winter,

Project FeederWatch is very helpful to scientists because they receive data from feeder watchers all over North America, which helps them look at population trends and see what species are increasing or decreasing.

When you sign up for Project FeederWatch in Canada you will become a member of Bird Studies Canada, and receive quarterly issues of BirdWatch Canada magazine, a large full color poster of common feeder birds of Western Canada and Eastern Canada, and other great material on bird feeding. Last season I filled out my data online instead of writing in the booklet and sending in the filled out forms at the end of the season, which I found much easier and convenient.

Project FeederWatch also has a wonderful blog, where they have links to help you identify similar species, great bird feeding tips, and a gallery of Project FeederWatch participant photos.

In the mail a few weeks ago I received a letter from Bird Studies Canada, with a complimentary renewed BSC membership as a participant in the 2012-13 FeederWatch program, for my participation in the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop at Long Point in August. It’s a wonderful gift and one I know I will enjoy using very much. Thank you very much, Bird Studies Canada!

I can’t wait for Project FeederWatch season to start and hope lots of birds visit my feeders too!

A Common Redpoll at my feeders last winter,

To join Project FeederWatch in Canada, click HERE

Become a fan of Project FeederWatch in Canada on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter

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To join Project FeederWatch in the US, click HERE

Become a fan of Project Feederwatch in the US on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter

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Also, the US website for PFW has a page with Educator and Home School Resources, along with a free PDF to download, “Homeschooler’s Guide to Project FeederWatch”; I never used it but it might be helpful for other students and home schoolers.

A Pine Grosbeak at my grandparents’ feeder last winter,

Must-see birds: April

In April the early Spring migrants start to arrive, but there are still winter birds lingering like Common Redpolls, Northern Shrikes, and Snow Buntings. Here are my two Must-see birds for March (all photos by me):

1. Northern Shrike

The Northern Shrike is one of the most interesting songbirds to see and hear. The body is gray with a black tail and wings with a white spot on the wings. The black mask is bordered by a thin white line, and the bill is slightly hooked. Look for these predatory songbirds at bird feeders, fence posts, and dead trees,

2. Common Goldeneye

The Common Goldeneye is a very beautiful diving duck with the male being mostly white and having an iridescent green-black head, white cheek patch, and yellow eyes. The female has a gray body, brown head and the same yellow eyes as the male. Look for these ducks on ponds and sloughs. The males will probably be displaying as these ones were,

Feathers on Friday

While fixing a myself a snack Wednesday afternoon, I was looking out the kitchen window at the bird feeders with all the redpolls, when I noticed that a Northern Shrike had landed in the tree. All of the redpolls fled, not wishing to be the shrike’s next meal. I quickly ran downstairs to grab my camera, but by the time I got my camera the shrike had left the tree and had flown to a snag across the road, where it sat for a little while. I was able to get some not bad photos of the shrike while in the tree.

The shrike then flew to a fence post,