Winter Birding: Get Outside and Freeze Your Retrices Off!

Just because it’s winter in the northeastern US, doesn’t mean you can’t go birding; and honestly with the mild winter weather, there’s no excuse! Plenty of species are around this time of year that normally are not. We get our own mix of migrants during the winter that range from the Snowy Owl to Snow Buntings and southern or western residents that somehow got mixed up in their migratory trajectory. eBird is a great place to go see your local hotspots and find those wayward birds that could be a lifer for you.

Image result for snowy owl
A Snowy Owl takes flight – credit: Cornell All About Birds

A favorite bird to go looking for is the Snowy Owl, and with good reason. This striking bird breeds and mostly lives up north in the frozen tundra, but in the winter, they sometimes come farther south and give us an opportunity to observe this elegant species. I saw a Snowy Owl once a couple of years back. My significant other and I were on the way to a concert driving on one of the country’s busiest thoroughfares, I-95, when the owl flew in front of/above our car and over the highway to the other side of John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. It was quite exciting, and frustrating because sometimes your lifer does not happen when it’s convenient.

Snow Geese
Snow Geese making a stop at Middle Creek on their annual migration up to the Arctic for breeding.

However, there are some places where your lifer comes out en masse. A great place to see tens of thousands of Snow Geese is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area starting in mid-February and lasting until about mid-March. It seems this year, the migration has started a little early, but with the mild weather, the trip to Lancaster County should be a breeze! There’s nothing quite like the sight or sound of seeing tens of thousands of geese moving around.

So, what are you waiting for? Get outside and bird! With the Great Backyard Bird Count coming up, there’s an extra excuse to get outside!


The Ethics of Birding


Cattle Egrets foraging in Belize, November 2015, photo by Heather Kostick

What an important topic for the millions of humans that like to bird watch. I have been birding probably most of my life without realizing it as my mom has always been a “backyard birder”. My mom has this elaborate bird feeder with six compartments that you could fill with multiple kinds of seeds, and it slides up and down on a metal pole that makes it incredibly difficult for squirrels to climb. I started to take birding more seriously when I took an ornithology course at my alma mater Juniata College in 2010. The course took place over the summer at the Raystown Field Station which serves as an excellent place to get some field experience. One of the first things my professor, Dr. Chuck Yohn, talked about was the ethics of birding. There’s a laundry list of things you shouldn’t do while birding, but people do them anyway. I strive to not demonstrate bad birding behavior as an example to others and to leave as little impact on the birds and ecosystem as possible. Here’s a short list of things to avoid and some articles at the bottom for best practices.

  • The welfare of the bird is the biggest priority. Do not endanger the bird by getting too close, taking pictures of nestlings (you’re leaving a trail and a clue to predators), or staying too long. Birds think that you are a predator and will expend energy avoiding you. Remember, this is a hobby for you and survival for them. Some birds are simply too exhausted to move (see Snowy Owls) and may seem calm but in reality just don’t have the energy to avoid you. Be respectful and remember that birds need space.
  • Keep yourself safe. Take your time. It’s generally not worth breaking a limb trying to get that bird or perfect photo.
  • Respect the land. Make sure you are allowed to be where you are. Are you birding on private or public land? (Better find out.) Private landowners are not always so keen on birders appearing no matter how rare the sighting is (See this article – there is no definitive proof who shot the bird).

Birding Ethics as Outlined by Other Resources

Find your local birding club for more resources and to learn more about birding.