Winter's for the birds!

27 January 2017
Rough-legged Hawk photo by Jerry Liguori Rough-legged Hawk photo by Jerry Liguori

Our friends at Outdoor Project recently launched their 52 Week Adventure Challenge.  They have put together a list of 52 geological features and adventure themes to keep you inspired all year. Week 5 is for the birds, and we wrote this blog post to inspire you to get outside this week and do some winter bird watching!

Share your birding photos on Instagram with the #HawkWatch and #52AdventureChallenge for a chance to win some sweet gear from HawkWatch International.  Please only submit bird photos taken during this week's challenge.  Winner will be selected on February 13, 2017.

Written by Dave Oleyar, Senior Scientist

Most people associate birding with spring and the dawn and dusk choruses that are associated with territory-claims and the nesting season for our feathered friends.  While spring and summer are certainly great times for birding, winter birding has plenty to offer as well, especially for those fond of ID challenge and feathered visitors from more northern climates.  Microhabitats with little to no snow, or open water, become big draws during winter for birds and other wildlife seeking the resources they need.  These are great places to look for birds!

1. Pacific Wren photo by Lloyd SpitalnikIn the lowlands, you can still hear and see resident bird species that forego migration and tough out the winter along with many of us.  American Robin, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhees, Varied Thrush, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Pacific Wren are all species you are likely to encounter on winter adventures.  In fact, this is the time of year when you might get your best look at some of these species as deciduous foliage isn’t around to hide that little 9g Pacific Wren singing up a storm and wagging his tail in the undergrowth (to me their song conjures the sound of fast-forwarding or rewinding an audio tape or film projector).

2. Gray Jay photo by Harold StiverIn higher elevation you get some heartier species, including Snow Buntings and a variety of corvids (jays, crows, and ravens).  These species use their guile, tolerance of humans, and ability to take advantage of the food subsidies we produce (feeders, trash, campground begging, etc) to make a living in a variety of habitats, even during winter.

3. Snow Bbunting photo by Neil Paprocki smallWinter is also a great time for seeing birds of prey —our favorite!  These predators are often elusive and broadly dispersed during the spring and summer, but in winter territorial boundaries relax somewhat as species intermingle in search for their next meal and try to make it through the lean season.  It’s not uncommon to see an eagle, hawk, or falcon on almost every tree perch or pole in some open areas during winter.  Again, the lack of leaves makes spotting these keen-eyed hunters easier than other times of year.

5. Bald Eagles photo by Neil PaprockiAnother bonus to winter birding is that while our neotropical migrants head south for the cold season, in many places we get visitors from more northern climes.  Winter is the only time that many of us get the chance to see the Rough-legged Hawk, an arctic breeding raptor that winters in parts of the U.S.  In flight, dark, square-ish wrist-patches and a heavily marked bellyband are identifying features for this species.  It is fun to watch them hover hunting for voles over open fields, as often observed.  Merlins are small, fierce falcons of open areas and are much more abundant in the lower 48 states during the winter, even in urban areas.  Winter is a great time to find trees near water sources that can be loaded with Bald Eagles in many areas around the country, or fields filled with Snow Geese or Tundra Swans.  Finally, the lucky and diligent winter birder could come across a Snowy Owl or Great Gray Owl roosting or even hunting during the daytime.

All you need to do is go out and look around during the winter to enjoy birds, but some gear does help—binoculars, a spotting scope, or a good camera lens will give you better looks of majestic winter scenery and birds.  In fact, light reflecting off snow-covered ground can provide unique lighting opportunities for those into photographing both birds in flight and landscapes.  Just remember to be an ethical photographer or wildlife watcher—do so from afar and don’t ‘bump’ or cause animals to move because you want a better look or shot—moving costs energy, and energy can be hard to come by during this time of the year.

List of information sources:

              Seattle Audubon:
              N.Central Washington Audubon:
              Salt Lake Audubon:
              Wasatch Audubon:
              Audubon California:
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