When cabin fever starts setting in, Mother Nature offers the perfect remedy. Searching for winter birds is a great reason to put down the remote and head outside.
Believe it or not, winter is an ideal time for bird watching and offers unique opportunities to spot some special feathered friends. While it’s true that some species have left our area for warmer climes, many other birds overwinter in our region or visit here during winter months.
What to See in Winter
Winter birding is well worth the effort. You’ll be rewarded by the chance to see Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees, and even a few brave Eastern Bluebirds—to name a few that endure our chilly winters instead of flying south.
And some species migrate to this region during winter: Dark-eyed juncos, Winter Wrens, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and White-crowned and Fox Sparrows. What’s more, it can be easier to spot even elusive species among leafless branches rather than the hide-and-seek of warmer weather birding when leaves provide cover.
Cold weather also brings “winter vagrants” to southeastern Pennsylvania, affording us an exciting opportunity to spot birds rarely found here. Winter vagrants are species that usually winter farther north but move south as cold weather intensifies to find warmer air, open water, and food not concealed by snow. Several species of birds of prey—Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers and the raptor-like Northern Shrikes—fall into this category, as do waterfowl like Snow Geese and Tundra Swans.
Special Owl Opportunity
“Winter is a good time to observe—or at least hear—many owl species,” says Mike Coll, preserve manager at Natural Lands Trust’s Hildacy Farm Preserve in Media. “They are more vocal this time of year, as this is their breeding season.”
Owls rely on their keen eyesight and sensitive, directional hearing to locate and track prey. Even with such acute senses, heavy snow cover and frozen ground can send more northerly owls like the Snowy and Short-eared Owls southward to our region. Getting a glimpse of one of these majestic birds is a rare treat! And winter is a good opportunity.
It’s also a busy time for our year-round, resident owl species, which lay their eggs during this seemingly-unlikely season. The Great Horned Owl, our largest resident owl, lays her eggs in January or February and must sit on them continuously or they will freeze. These owls often appropriate an existing nest from other owls, hawks, herons or even squirrels.
Other year-round residents—like the Barred, Barn and Screech Owls—wait a month or two longer than the Great Horned Owl to lay their eggs, but still must endure inhospitable weather here. Screech Owls are one of the most common species of owl in our area and are the most tolerant of human activity around their nests.
Creating an Owl Nest
At the 55-acre Hildacy Farm Preserve, Mike Coll has installed several owl boxes to encourage nesting there. (See photo on this page.) He lined the insides of the boxes with wood chips, like those used in hamster cages, for nesting material.
“Just a few months after installing the boxes, I noticed a little fuzzy face poking out of the opening in the box closest to my house here at the preserve.” Although an owl has yet to raise young in this box, it’s continued to roost there throughout the year. Coll is hopeful there will be owlets in the box this spring.
Tips for Spotting Owls
For those of us without an owl box right next to our house, Coll offers some tips to help spot owls. “One thing to look for is whitewash [dried excrement] on the branches or trunks of trees.” You can also search for pellets: small, oblong clumps containing fur and bones that owls cannot digest and must, instead, regurgitate. These can often be found at the base of a tree that’s favored by a resident owl.
Probably the easiest way to spot an owl is to witness something called mobbing. “This is when birds, like Crows or Blue Jays, harass an owl by diving at it and making a lot of noise to try to force it to leave the area,” Coll explains. Looking in the general direction of the commotion may lead you to the owl. (For a video clip of Crows mobbing a Great Horned Owl at Hildacy Farm, visit NatLands.org/preserves-to-visit/blog/hildacy-farm-great-horned-owl.)
Hildacy Farm, owned and operated by Natural Lands Trust, contains a diversity of habitats that attract abundant wildlife—particularly birds—and offers a sampling of the most common natural resource restoration efforts underway throughout the organization’s preserve system.
Bird Checklists are available at the welcome kiosk and are organized by season, so grab your binoculars and head out to explore a winter wonderland that really is for the birds!
Hildacy Farm is open to visitors free, year-round, dawn to dusk. -CL-
Natural Lands Trust is the region’s largest land conservation organization, preserving open space throughout eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. Find further details about nature preserves open to the public, upcoming events, ways to support Natural Lands Trust, and more at their Web site.
A Lazy Shade of Winter
If searching for birds outside in the cold isn’t your cup of hot tea, why not invite them to come to you?
Winter is an ideal time to set up a feeder or two. With their usual food sources in short supply, songbirds will flock to your backyard where you can enjoy them from indoors—over a cup of tea.
Around 35 species of birds may be seen at feeders in our area. Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are some of the most commonly spotted species to visit residential feeders during the colder months.
The type of habitat around your home influences the number and variety of birds visiting your feeder, with the greatest diversity of species in wooded, rural areas.
Adding native trees and shrubs—serviceberry, chokeberry, crab apple, winterberry, red-osier dogwood—will make your yard more attractive to a greater variety of birds. Evergreens, like American holly, eastern hemlock, and inkberry, offer shelter from the snow and predators.
For more Backyard birding tips please visit the Back Issues page.
Backyard Birding Tips
Seed: Bags of mixed birdseed generally contain “filler,” such as red millet, which most birds won’t eat. With more than 20 types of seed sold as birdseed, it’s better to buy seeds that are irresistible to the species you want to attract. Black-oil sunflower seed is a good all-around choice. Smaller and thinner-hulled than striped sunflower seed, it’s easy for smaller species, such as nuthatches and titmice, to crack open. For a list of common songbird species and their feed preferences, visit NatLands.org/WinterBirding.
Placement: deally, birdfeeders should be placed in sheltered locations out of the most severe winter winds. Placing your feeder under a covered porch will offer shelter for birds and allow you to watch them from inside your home. To reduce the chance of window collisions, place feeders no more than five feet away from a window. Birds will slow down to land on the feeders and, when they take off again, they won’t have enough speed to hit the window with much impact.
Patience: When starting a feeding program, be patient. It may take as long as several weeks before birds discover your feeders. While you wait, be sure to keep the feeders filled. Eventually, the birds will come. Remember: if you fill it, they will come.