It may seem that there are not so many birds around in winter as there are during warmer months, but in fact there are more birds present even in the coldest areas than many people realize. Birders who know where to look for winter birds can be rewarded with rare sightings and fantastic birds to add to their life lists.
Where to Find Birds in Winter
Birds congregate in areas where their basic winter needs of food, water and shelter can be easily met. While winter birds can be found in nearly any habitat, in colder, ice-laden regions, certain types of habitats are more likely to be productive birding hotspots depending on temperature, recent weather and artificial enhancements such as roosting boxes or feeding stations. When the snow flies, visit these habitats to find winter birds:
- Open Water: While birds can melt snow and ice with their bills and body heat to drink, they will take advantage of easier sources of open water such as rushing rivers, mountain creeks or unfrozen lakes and bays. Because ice locks up large regions, the remaining open water can concentrate bird populations for excellent winter birding.
Watch For: Ducks, geese, swans, eagles
- Coasts: Many types of birds that dive deep into water for food seek out coastal areas for winter. Rocky shores, in particular, are ideal for many winter birds, and times of low tide or calmer weather are more productive for visiting birders interested in seeing a greater number of species.
Watch For: Ducks, terns, gulls, shorebirds
- Harvested Fields: Agricultural areas that have finished grain harvests are popular for granivorous birds in winter. While the fields lie untended, the tilled soil is easier for foraging for spilled grain or any remaining insects. These fields will be especially attractive to birds if they are bordered by small wedges of forest that can provide additional food and winter roosting shelter. Birds of prey will also hunt above these fields on the search for mice, voles and other prey.
Watch For: Game birds, cranes, shorebirds, raptors
- Coniferous Forests: Coniferous trees provide ideal protection for all winter wildlife, including birds, and many birds also feed on the seeds of these trees. Mature, thicker forests are more likely to be home to wider varieties of winter birds, though higher altitude forests that get the deepest snowfall and the harshest winds are often bare of bird life through the winter months. Instead, look for winter birds in lower pine forests where food is more accessible and shelter is snug.
Watch For: Woodpeckers, nuthatches, winter finches, owls
- Orchards: Commercial orchards with plentiful windfall fruit or fruits left on trees after the harvest will be attractive to birds interested in a sweet snack. Even decorative stands of crabapple trees or other fruit trees for birds will attract birds in winter if the fruits are still intact, and often a flock of feeding birds will stay nearby until all the fruit on the tree has been consumed.
Watch For: Waxwings, thrushes, starlings, warblers
- Birding Festivals: Birding festivals in the winter, including December, January and February, are often timed to best showcase an area's winter birds, both resident species and seasonal guests. Field trips, workshops, lectures and other events are part of most birding festivals, and in just a few days a visitor can easily explore a wide variety of habitats to enjoy all the region's birds.
Watch For: Local overwintering birds, regional target birds
- Southern Habitats: Birds head south in the winter, but they may not head as far south as many birders believe. Even a short trip to a warmer region can reacquaint birders with their favorite and most familiar species, now seen in their wintering ranges. Visit similar habitats to popular summer birding hotspots, and you'll be surprised at how many familiar birds you find again in colder months.
Watch For: Passerines, hummingbirds
- Feeders: When natural food supplies get scarce in winter, birds are more likely to visit backyard feeders for seed, suet, nuts and other high energy foods. Providing the best winter foods for birds will draw them right to your backyard even on snowy days, and you'll be able to enjoy great winter birding from the warm comfort of your own home. In a very bird-friendly backyard, you may even be visited by local raptors seeking out easier meals from feeder flocks.
Watch For: Songbirds, woodpeckers, backyard raptors
Tips for Finding Winter Birds
Birds can be found even in the harshest winter, for birders who know where best to look. If you're trying to enjoy winter birding but aren't yet finding many feathered friends…
- Check online messages and listservs regularly for reports of rare or vagrant bird sightings.
- Watch bird populations for signs of irruptions that can indicate winter bird movements.
- Study mixed flocks carefully for different birds foraging together.
- Learn non-breeding plumages to make winter bird identification easier.
- Change your birding time to warmer parts of the day when water is melting and birds are more active.
Finding winter birds can sometimes be a challenge, but birders who know where to look can always enjoy the company of feathered friends, even in the harshest, coldest season.
Photo – Great Tit © Tatiana Gerus