Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

 a female hairy woodpecker
WInter bird – Female Hairy Woodpecker eating suet at my buffet.

Winter birding has its own challenges. Challenge number one is the cold temperatures. Challenge number two is that there are fewer birds around. But I don’t think of fewer birds as a challenge. Actually I think of it as a plus.

This post is my overview of how to master winter birding. I’ll be getting ready to take par the Christmas Bird Count soon, and I need to be in tip-top winter bird watching shape.

winter bird - Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) on bare branches in early spring
Winter bird – Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) on bare branches in late winter. Photo by Donna L. Long t Schuylkill Center for Environmental Ed.

What Birds Can Be Seen in January?

There are about 60, common and easily found, species of birds living in cold winter areas. Most of the birds we see in summer have migrated to warmer regions.

Of the winter birds that are still in the cold weather regions, most are year-round residents.

Below are the most widespread and easily found species for winter birdwatching, particularly in January.  Starting with the most common and widespread species:

  1. Downy Woodpecker
  2. Northern Cardinal
  3. Carolina Chickadee
  4. Song Sparrow
  5. White-throated Sparrow
  6. American Robin (often hanging out in wooded areas)
  7. Carolina Wren
  8. Mourning Dove
  9. Tufted Titmouse
  10. House Sparrow
  11. Blue Jay (wooded areas)
  12. White-breasted Nuthatch
  13. Northern Mockingbird
  14. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  15. Red-tailed Hawk
  16. American Goldfinch
  17. Dark-eyed Junco
  18. European Starling
  19. American Crow
  20. Canada Goose
  21. Rock Pigeon (the common gray jobs that frequent city streets)
  22. Ring-billed Gull
  23. Mallard
  24. House Finch
  25. Hairy Woodpecker
  26. Northern Flicker
  27. Great Horned Owl
  28. American Tree Sparrow
  29. Purple Finch
  30. Redpolls
  31. Bald Eagle
winter bird - a dark-eyed Junco
Winter bird – a Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Donna L. Long

What Birds that Migrate into Winter Regions?

Some birds are present in the United States during the winter. These winter migrants breed in the far northern tundra and boreal forest of the polar regions. They migrate south into the United States, which for them is warmer than the polar regions in winter.  The winter migrants include:

  1. Dark-eyed Junco
  2. American Tree Sparrow
  3. Rough-legged Hawk
  4. Snow Bunting
  5. Redpolls
  6. Lapland Longspur
  7. Snowy Owl
  8. Northern Shrike
  9. Tundra Swan
  10. Snow Goose

A few birds live in New England and Canada during winter. These birds will wander into places like Pennsylvania when food is scarce farther north. These birds include Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, and Pine SIskins.

Water and Shorebirds in Winter

Unfrozen open water such as rivers and the ocean are great places for winter birding. I admit I don’t know as much as I would like about shorebirds. I have chosen a few resources to help you watch shorebirds.

Identifying Winter Sandpipers (Audubon.org)

Photographing Winter Shorebirds (Moose Peterson’s website)

Which Birds Sing in Winter?

Even though it is winter, keep your ears tuned. Several birds sing in the winter. Isn’t this a good time to learn the calls and songs of birds? There are just a few songs to learn. Here are the winter songsters.

  1. Northern Cardinals
  2. Song Sparrows
  3. Tufted Titmice
  4. Carolina Wren
  5. male Eastern Bluebird
  6. Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owls that are hooting each evening, often starting about a half-hour before dusk. The deeper hoots are the smaller male owl and the higher-pitched hoots belong to the larger female.

Birding Through the Seasons – January

 

Which Birds Change into Winter Plumage?

Some birds that were in bright breeding plumage during the spring and summer, change in fall and winter. Many times the fall and winter plumage of the males is almost as drab as the females’ year-long colors.

These plumage changes make winter birdwatching a challenge. See my previous post on Birds: Fall and Winter Plumage .

A female House Sparrow at a winter feeder in Philadelphia.
A female House Sparrow at a winter feeder in Philadelphia.

What are the Best Places for Winter Birdwatching?

  • Birdfeeders with a variety of seeds, suet, and other foods
  • Unfrozen bodies of water such as rivers and lakes
  • Fields of shrubs or grasses
  • Trees and shrubs with fruit and berries that stay on the plant through winter

In my home state of Pennsylvania, where the birds are, depends on the local weather conditions.

The northwestern region of Pennsylvania has very few birds except around Lake Erie. That area has big snowfalls. Elk (Cervus canadensis) are often sighted in this area.

The northern mountains, Appalachian, the Allegheny and Pocono Mountains don’t have many birds either. Chickadees and woodpeckers are found in the mountains during winter.

The southern areas of Pennsylvania in both the southwest and the southeast have a good number of birds to watch in the colder months. I live in the southeastern regions in Philadelphia, And there are many birds who hang around throughout the winter.

The best spot for winter birdwatching is the warm comfort of your home as you gaze out on a well-stocked bird feeder.

How-to: Winter Birding from the PA Game Commission

Where Can I Find More Information on Winter Birding?

Project Feederwatch offers free posters of common eastern or western winter feeder birds for download and printing.

Find out about birds at All About Birds http://www.allaboutbirds.org/, a comprehensive resource for information on North American birds by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Birding through the Seasons – Pennsylvania Game Commission

Birding through the Seasons: January – Pennsylvania Game Commission

Winter Nature Journal Prompts

Make winter birdwatching a top priority for your nature journal. See how many birds you can spot.

Cover: Providing Shelter in Your Backyard Habitat

2 comments

  1. Thank you, Stephen for the positive feedback. Peeking at your profile, I think we do have many similar interests (writing, nature, Italy, though I am MFA dropout, etc.). That is why I like blogging so much, connecting to people with similar interests.

  2. Just wanted to stop by and say I really enjoy your posts, especially the site your-nature-journal.com. . . and on that site, I especially enjoy your quotes and thoughts on Thoreau. Thanks so much for your posts! I have some similar projects, and I share similar interests (writing, nature). Would be great to partner at some point. Anyway, I look forward to seeing what you write next! Take care,Stephen

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