Arctic Birds that Visit in Winter (with video)

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY

Arctic birds spend the summer nesting season in the Far North at the Arctic Circle. Some are year-round residents of the chilly North. But when winter weather  approaches or food is hard to find, these Arctic birds migrate south to areas with more food. This is your chance to see them without embarking on a costly trip.

What I didn’t realize when I was a new birder was that some birds I wouldn’t see in my local area except in winter. It seems so much emphasis is placed on the spring and summer migrants, that I didn’t realize winter could yield exciting sightings, too.


Where to Find Arctic Birds Further South

Experienced birders participate in forums, alerts, and social media pages to be aware of sightings of winter visitors from up north. Unless you travel to points near the Arctic Circle, the winter migrations maybe the only way you get to see these birds.

Normally these birds can be found in ecosystems similar to where they live up North. Snowy Owls will be seen in open fields and grasslands. Red-throated Loons will winter on the shorelines of oceans and bays.

Your backyard may be an area with more food for species such as Bohemian Waxwings or American Tree Sparrows.  Or Snowy Owls maybe show up in a grassy field in your area. Some birds may hang around as late as April until they move back north to breed and raise young.

Snowy Owl landing
Snowy Owl landing in field in winter.

Arctic Visitor: The Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls spend their summers in the Far North of the Arctic Circle. It is an uncommon to rare sight in the lower 48 states of the U.S. When birders in the lower 48 states see this spectacular bird it is big news. Look at your bird field guides range map of the Snowy Owl. Looking at just how far north these birds live, you might rush over to the open fields or marshes to spot a Snowy Owl visitor, too.

Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Shorebirds in Winter

Shorebirds are a group of birds which share characteristics such as living and feeding along the water’s edge. Most of the 53 species in North America breed in the Arctic and winter along the coastlines.

Instead of camping out on the summer tundra where I hear there are murderous swarms of insects, take a trip to the seashore. Shorebirds will be numerous on beaches where humans frolicked in summer.

Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant

Arctic Birds Species Common at Winter Feeders

Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) breed in the far north and often winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. In irregular years the birds venture as far south as Pennsylvania through the midwest U.S. Trees and shrubs that hang onto their fruit into the winter will attract these birds. When a winter flock of Bohemian Waxwings is spotted in nearby forests, birders gather to see these elegant birds.

The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) breeds in the north and spends winters over much of the United States. They might visit your feeder. The American Tree Sparrow winter diet consists of small weed and grass seeds. They will select the small millet and nyjer seeds from trays set on the ground.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) lives in coniferous forests and feeds on the seed in cones of spruce, fir, and other conifers. If the seed harvest from cones is less than what the Red-breasted Nuthatch will irrupt south of the coniferous forests, They can be found in coniferous trees, grasslands, and backyard bird feeders. At feeders they favor sunflower seeds or suet.

Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) live in the coniferous forests in the western U.S. and Canada. This species may irrupt in large flocks. These birds prefer their sunflowers in platform feeders or on the ground.

white pine tree grove
White Pine Trees in a cluster. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Ecosystems Where Arctic Birds are Found

Arctic Birds that Visit Backyard Feeders

  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch

Observing on Wetlands, Ponds, Rivers, Bays, etc.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Red-throated Loon

Observing along the Coastline of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans

  • most of the 53 species of shorebirds in North America

Observing at Grasslands

  • Willow Ptarmigan
  • Rough-Legged hawk
  • Snowy Owl
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Snow Bunting
  • Northern Shrike

Observing at the Shore

  • Glaucous Gull
  • Iceland Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull

Observing in Forests

  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Red Finch
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red Crossbill
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet

Breed in the Arctic and Winter in British Columbia

  • Yellow-Billed Loon
  • Peregrine Falcon

Birds that Nest in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and Winter in the U.S.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Snow Bunting
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Rough-Legged Hawk
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red-throated Loon

Birds to Watch for in Winter (Video)

Lesley the Bird Nerd created a very helpful video which highlights the species to watch out for, why they may arrive further south, and where to locate them.


I hope this article clarifies why birders make such big deals over winter sightings of birds. And I think it also shows that birding is a year-round activity. If you have questions or can add to our understanding,  please leave your comment below.

Works Consulted

Barker, Margaret A., and Jack L. Griggs. The FeederWatcher’s Guide to Bird Feeding. 1st ed. A Cornell Bird Library Guide. New York, NY: Harper Resource, 2000.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.

Related Posts on Winter Birding 

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions

Common Winter Birds Across North America

Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Common Birds


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