While the weather is swinging wildly from unseasonably warm temperatures one week to the brutal cold of the Polar Vortex the next, and many of our wildlife gardens lie under a blanket of snow, winter is a great time to participate in some fun winter birding activities.
Here’s some ideas for you:
Project Feeder Watch
A citizen science project from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. What is Project Feeder Watch?
Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
You can count the birds that visit your winter bird feeders and help scientists answer many questions about the health of bird populations, unusual movements of birds into different areas, the impact of very cold (or very warm temperatures), and so much more.
Winter Bird Counts
The Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society:
From December 14 through January 5 tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas take part in an adventure that has become a family tradition among generations. Families and students, birders and scientists, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists go out on an annual mission – often before dawn. For over one hundred years, the desire to both make a difference and to experience the beauty of nature has driven dedicated people to leave the comfort of a warm house during the Holiday season.
There is a specific methodology to the CBC, and you must make arrangements to participate in advance with the circle compiler, but anyone can participate.
Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler.
If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.
If your home is within the boundaries of a CBC circle, then you can stay at home and report the birds that visit your feeder on count day as long as you have made prior arrangement with the count compiler. Check out the sign-up link above for information on how to contact the compiler.
Because the Christmas Bird Count is based on 15 mile diameter circles, there are many areas that are not included in this annual bird count because circles cannot overlap.
So, many areas that don’t fall into an official circle host their own winter bird counts. Check with your local nature center or Audubon Society to see what’s happening in your area.
I will be participating in the Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Count this coming weekend.
My partner and I will head out early Saturday morning to count how many species of birds, and how many of each species we can find in our assigned area that day. We’ll be in our usual annual spot at Wissahickon Park. Check out my report of Birding Wissahickon Park from last year’s winter bird count.
My all time favorite duck is the beautiful Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). These birds spend the spring and summer in cold fast moving streams in the far northeast and northwest regions of North America, but they can be found in large flocks much further south in coastal areas with pounding surf during the winter months.
Every year I make an annual pilgrimage to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park on Long Beach Island, NJ to get my fill of watching these stunning birds. You can check out my visit from 2010, Looking Past the Garden Gate, the Ocean Needs Our Help, and also the account of my visit from January 2013, Birding Barnegat Light.
Here’s a video of Harlequin Ducks I made of my most recent visit:
So grab your binoculars and head out to a lake, river, or shoreline near you and get to know the many ducks that may spend the winter in your area.
The Snowy Owl Irruption
Reports of Snowy Owl sightings are being recorded all over the US, making this winter one of the biggest Snowy Owl irruption years in recent memory.
An irruption is a dramatic increase in bird populations in places where they aren’t usually recorded. Bird irruptions are often related to lack of food in their normal range.
Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) are birds of the arctic tundra, and they feed mainly on lemmings. When the supply of lemmings isn’t sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of these owls, they move south in search of food.
The Snowy Owls are so abundant this year that even non-birders are taking notice of these large beautiful birds.
I was lucky enough to get to see one of these beautiful Snowy Owls the Saturday after Christmas on a beautiful balmy 60 degree day at the first place I went searching: the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Brigantine, NJ.
To find a Snowy Owl near you, check out this article about the Snowy Owl Irruption, which has links to maps of all the spots where these beautiful Owls have been spotted this winter.
I make this point about not getting too close to a Snowy Owl if you happen to see one in the above article about the Snowy Owl Irruption, but Virginia Wood reminded me by leaving a comment below, and this is VERY important:
All I would add to this is that by definition irruption-year birds are stressed birds. Please, please, please don’t approach them for a better photograph, play bird calls to attract them, or do anything (dumb, like throw rocks) to flush them in the name of a better photograph, or stand around your cars in bright-colored clothing having loud conversations. They are probably trying to hunt, and if you walk out into the field or do anything else to scare off the bird or the game, you could contribute to that owl starving to death.
That said, happy winter birding!
- Harry Potter is Missing His Owl, my tale of finding a stunning Snowy Owl at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Winter Birding Resources
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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