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Winter Birding Tips

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Winter Bird

Birds can be easy to spot in the winter.

Steve Ryan

When the weather outside is frightful, the birding can be delightful, especially if you follow the right winter birding tips to help you find more birds in the best places.

Benefits of Winter Birding

Many people believe that winter birding is boring, since many birds migrate south and there are fewer birds to see. Nothing could be further from the truth. Winter birding can be a very productive and fabulous opportunity for birders to add unique northern species to their life list. For southern birders, winter may be the only season where they can see different finches, songbirds, waterfowl and other birds that typically stay in northern climates.

Finding birds in the field can be easier in winter since much of the foliage has been cleared away and birds will be more visible as they forage, even leaving tracks that can show birders where the most popular foraging spots are. Birds are also more aggressive in their winter foraging as food sources become scarce, and it is possible for birders to find new species and larger flocks with less effort if they know where to look. Many birds congregate in mixed flocks during the winter months, giving birders the opportunity to see several species in one flock if they observe the birds carefully.

Where to Find Winter Birds

The best place to look for birds in the winter is near open water. Large lakes or bays and active streams or rivers will attract a wide variety of birds, especially those that rely on aquatic plants and animals as a food source. This makes winter an ideal time for watching ducks, geese, gulls and shorebirds. Other fantastic areas to find winter birds include:

  • Brushy areas with berries, nuts or other food for songbirds and finches.
  • Coniferous forests that hold pine nuts, a favorite food of many northern birds.
  • Open fields with little snowfall that will attract raptors hunting for rodents.
  • Orchards with fruit on the trees, which will attract many types of songbirds.

Winter Birding Tips

To make the most of winter birding in a safe and productive way…

  • Dress in layers appropriate to the climate. Choose warm fabrics that resist water, and always wear appropriate boots that are tall enough to keep your feet and legs protected from snow or slush.

  • Stay in safe areas while birding in the field and avoid anywhere with posted avalanche warnings. Similarly, stick to familiar trails and do not stray near hidden edges of bodies of water where ice may be thin or broken.

  • Winter storms can move quickly and temperatures can drop abruptly. Always check weather reports before planning a day in the field, and avoid going great distances in questionable weather.

  • Bring along water and nutritious snacks to stay hydrated and energetic while birding, since dehydration and low energy can contribute to hypothermia.

  • Always apply sunscreen to all exposed skin to avoid severe burns. Sunlight reflecting off the snow can make burns in winter even more likely than during the summer.

  • Carry a bright piece of cloth in your field bag to use for signaling in an emergency. While you will want to wear neutral colors while birding, a bright cloth will be essential if you need help.

  • Protect your binoculars, field guide and other equipment from excessive moisture. Attach your optics to a harness or sturdy strap so they will not be accidentally dropped into a snow bank, and choose binoculars with water resistant construction.

  • Be sure your vehicle is well equipped to traveling in winter conditions. A full gas tank, proper tires and winter safety equipment can help you stay prepared no matter where you go to bird.

  • Always follow proper birding ethics and birding etiquette, no matter where you are birding or what season it is. A polite birder will enjoy their time in the field more and can get assistance from other birders easily if they ever need it.

Winter birding can be spectacular for a birder who is prepared to spend time in the field in an unpredictable season. By knowing where to find the birds and how to stay safe, any birder can discover winter as their favorite birding season.

Photo - Winter House Finch © Steve Ryan

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