Giving Thanks for Winter Birding

| November 28, 2013 | 0 Comments

Winter Road

Over the past few days winter weather has finally gripped portions of Upstate New York, even outside of the lake effect snow belt and the snowier cities of Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. Here in Columbia County (halfway between Albany and New York City) the last few days has shown us frequent temperatures below freezing, roaring winds, and most recently our first real coatings of snow and winter precipitation on local roadways. Driving to work in these conditions just the other day I surprisingly found myself daydreaming of winter birding equally as much as I was focused on the conditions of the roads ahead of me. Thoughts of winter finches, irruptive owls, and black-and-white seabirds danced through my thoughts. For me this first seasonal thought of winter birding was certainly sparked by the change of season and most obviously from the winter weather itself, but why was I so moved by it, especially when winter is my least favorite season by far? It’s not as if I don’t like birding during the other seasons, but for whatever the reasons may be, I never seem to be as gripped by birding opportunities during the rest of the year as I am during the winter.

This question is one that I’ve actually contemplated to myself in the past before. Without fail, usually in the month of November, I find myself watching my feeding stations with a slightly more attentive eye, scouring online birding listservs for interesting sightings and reports, daydreaming about winter specialties, and even formulating new ideas for content for this very blog. For many birders, the colder temperatures of winter and the absence of neotropical migrants leave something to be desired when it comes to going afield from November to March. Many of these fair-weather birders during the winter long for the months of May and June and the sights and sounds of bejeweled warblers, tantalizing tanagers, and ornamental orioles. But not me, no, I have an affinity for winter birding that goes much deeper than most- and until recently, I never understood it.

Looking back on my experience with winter birding I can’t help but feel it started as a child. Currently 32, I started birding since before I can even remember (my best guess is age 3), and one of my earliest exposures to wild birds was naturally from the feeders that my parents posted outside of our kitchen window in our back yard. Sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s, around age 8 or 10, I helped my father build a rudimentary platform feeder with a roof that we hung off of our back porch close to the kitchen window. No doubt the design for it was from a feeder I’d seen from a picture in one of the many bird books I received as a child. The feeder was filled year round of course, but my mother always seemed to keep it extra well stocked during the hardships of winter when dozens of Northern Cardinals would light up the snowy backdrop of my youth. But the feeders weren’t just to feed the resident chickadees and nuthatches, even back then my family and I had an interest in attracting something to our yard that we had never seen before.

Over the years the feeding station at my family’s house has attracted a fair number of fine winter visitors including Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Common and Hoary Redpolls, and even a lone Pine Grosbeak. Each and every one of these sightings was a life-long memory, but the highlight for us to this day has always been the nomadic flocks of Evening Grosbeaks that would stick around for a few days or weeks at a time ransacking our feeders in a flurry of yellow, white, and black leaving a 10 year old boy and his parents with a feeling of elation on seeing a bird that wasn’t from “around” our neighborhood (and empty feeders!). To this day my family stills tend to overstock our winter feeders with the hopes of not only keeping the resident chickadees and titmice content, but also with the hopes of looking out and seeing something not from “around” here. I suppose it’s hard to break old habits.

Another formative time in my birding life, and apparently a contributing factor in my love for winter birding, was during my college years at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY. Naturally, living in Syracuse for a few years I was exposed to more than my fair share of snow. In fact, I’ve seen snow in Syracuse as early as October and as late as May 4th (a date I remember vividly as several of us birded St. Mary’s Cemetery for spring migrants including warblers and vireos when the snow started to fall). But, beyond navigating the snow piling up around campus between classes I also saw snow on a lot of field trips that we took as part of the ESF Birding Club. In fact, my very first trip with the Birding Club in 2001 was co-led by none other than Mr. Winter Finch himself, Matt Young (Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library). If anyone knows Matt, they know that he is considered THE go-to guy with winter finches, especially Red Crossbills and their numerous incarnations. The focus of that first trip was for winter finches and other winter specialties around Oswego and the Lake Ontario shoreline, and we did very well seeing Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls (my first), and loads of Pine Grosbeaks! While the birds were of course great and memorable, it was the excitement by everyone involved on that trip for the winter birds we were seeing that made it so memorable, even until today.

Winter Waterfowl

The excitement of that trip and winter birding actually stuck with me throughout my time at ESF, both as a student in various ornithology classes and as Vice President and Trip Coordinator for the Birding Club during my junior and senior years. Many trips we took actually centered around winter birding, a highlight of the region, whether it was going to Amherst Island in Onatrio for wintering owls, Summer Hill for winter finches and diurnal raptors, or Lake Ontario for waterfowl. But regardless of where we were going or what we were looking for the excitement was the same- winter birding was exciting, fun, and challenging!

Admittedly, I’m not really that big of a fan of snow or ice, particularly driving in it- which is often what one needs to do to find good birds during the winter. I can say however that I am particularly fond of the cold temperatures that go along with winter birding. Maybe it’s the stillness of the air or the refreshing nature of that air in one’s lungs? Maybe it’s the feeling of warming up over a cup of hot coffee and a warm lunch or dinner while recounting the day’s sightings? Another added bonus of winter birding is the fact that all the nuisances of spring and summer birding are practically absent- no mosquitos or ticks, no sweating in 100% humidity, and no crowded trails.

Writing out some of my memories of birding in general, I guess it comes as no great surprise looking back on my formative years of birding that many of my fondest birding memories do come from regions where snow, ice, and cold dominate- these were areas where I lived and studied. However, I didn’t just choose to only bird during the winter where I lived, I also seemed to have always chose to seek it out, even for vacations. I guess the logical thing would have been to seek out birding opportunities in warmer climates like most other birders during the winter. I always heard south Florida and Arizona are lovely in January. Instead I always seemed to seek out birding opportunities in areas where I was more likely to encounter temperatures below freezing than I was birders in Bermuda shorts.

One such winter birding destination for me is Cape Ann, Massachusetts, specifically the historic seaside towns of Gloucester and Rockport. Almost annually I make a trip to the coast for a few days of winter birding in search of winter waterfowl and sea ducks, gulls, and other specialties. I’ve been there more times than I can recall and have seen just about every winter specialty that area has to offer. Over several trips I’ve seen Purple Sandpipers, Harlequin Ducks (by the dozen), King Eider (several), Barrow’s Goldeneye, Eurasian Wigeon, Eared Grebe, Black-legged Kittiwake, Iceland, Glaucous, Lesser Black-backed, and Black-headed Gulls, Razorbill and Common Murre, Northern Gannet, Snow Buntings, and Snowy Owl- most of these through eyes soaked with tears from ripping winds and freezing temperatures. These are birds that for years graced my field guides with no checkmarks next to them until I was willing to venture out and brave the cold. Cape Ann offers birding at its finest- raw, wild, majestic- and often I’ve coupled my trips there with great company such as that from Chat Happens own Ryan Butryn or my fiancée. An added bonus is of course the wonderfully fresh seafood which dominates that region.

Common Eiders


Beyond birding for pleasure, I’ve also birded for employment during the winter months. For several years I was employed as a private contractor conducting surveys for Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls, two winter specialties from Greene County and the Coxsackie Grasslands, about 30 minutes away from my home. Each and every night I would brave cold temperatures and potential boredom as I sat in my car at various survey points hoping to get a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl on one of the private pieces of property I was surveying. While I did see several Short-eared Owls during my stint in Greene County (never on the sites I surveyed however), and dozens of Northern Harriers, it was many of the other winter birds that kept my interest piqued. Even though they often lack the gaudy colors of many passerines, I’ve come to love many of the other facets of winter birds colored in blocks of gray, black, and white.

Northern Harrier

Rough-legged HawkAround the Coxsackie Grasslands one has the chance to see lots of diurnal raptors such as Cooper’s, Red-tailed, Rough-legged, and Red-shouldered Hawks often at close proximity along with Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and even a Northern Shrike. Not too far from the grasslands proper is the boat launch in Coxsackie which sits on the Hudson River. Each year the boat launch serves as a roosting and gathering point for hundreds of gulls in the area, many of which feed over at the resident correctional facility during the day. For many birders the idea of actively birding for gulls seems a bit tedious, and perhaps a little crazy with little reward.  However, when the Short-eared Owl sightings were slow, I used it as a way to brush up and advance my birding skills with a tough and challenging group of species! Even now I get a warm feeling inside thinking about the idea of scanning dark-mantled gulls for a Lesser Black-backed Gull or the site of a white-winged Iceland Gull flying in the sun.

Northern Shrike

Short-eared Owl

Iceland Gull

Interestingly enough, it was my time around the Coxsackie Grasslands and the boat launch that I noticed there were other birders who often braved the frigid conditions in search of winter specialties and not just me. For some, the winter birding around Coxsackie is an annual treat and something they do regularly out of the pure love of birding and the excitement it brings. For others, birding around the area serves one purpose only- to get a check on their annual checklist. When the cold air mass drops down from the arctic there is no better time to seek out many of the species I’ve listed above- you have to get them while they’re hot- err, cold. I suppose that’s the last part about winter birding that excites me- the notion of how great and important it is for your bird lists if you are a lister in any capacity.

In fact, just like clockwork, when November comes around each year, I can’t help but always think of my “next year” and all the birds I might one day see and this excitement gets me pumped to get into the field again each winter, and not JUST for the winter, but for the long haul. Even as I type this I realize I have a checklist for 2013 I need to update as well as one for 2014 that I need to edit (new species for the ABA area) and print! The goal, I suppose is to take my love for winter birding under all the unfortunate circumstances it brings and to continue it on past late March when the snows start to melt. One day I know I’ll get back to my “400+ species in a year” level of birding- but for now I have some winter birding to focus on. In fact, winter birding has probably given me more memorable moments than any other time of year, and for that, I’m thankful.

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Chad Witko has been an avid birder and all-around naturalist since the age of 3. Graduating from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY with his B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology (2003), Chad has worked on avian conservation projects across the United States. Ranging from New England (Atlantic Puffin research in Maine and grassland bird work in Massachusetts) to the Mid-Atlantic (Semipalmated Sandpiper research on the Delaware Bay) to California (riparian and coastal scrub passerines), Chad has worked extensively throughout North America and across avian taxa. Chad is currently pursuing his M.S. degree as a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. Current research interests include the distribution of bird species across New Hampshire and North America. Residing in Wilton, NH with his wife, Lauryn, Chad continues to bring a holistic approach to birding while pursuing his interests of wildlife photography, nature tour guiding (eventually), and Chat Happens. For more information on Chad, please view his Bio page!

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Category: Essays

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