Finding Birds in Winter

Finding birds in winter is mostly a matter of finding their food source. If you want waterfowl, search for open water. Good prospects include fast-flowing rivers or coastal inlets with a strong tidal flow, as well as hydroelectric-dam spillways. By February, the strong spring sun is often thawing the northern edges of frozen marshes and lakes; early northbound migrants such as common merganser, ring-necked duck, and northern pintail seek out these open oases. Ponds in city parks that support large numbers of wintering domestic ducks, geese, and swans also offer open water at a time when water is still at a premium. With an ax and lots of effort, you can create open water. Just use caution: Spring ice is weak and porous.

But even land birds are drawn to unfrozen water. A trickle or seep passing through a thicket is almost certain to support sparrows, juncos, robins, mimids, and other hardy overwintering birds. I once found an American woodcock foraging in the water-softened earth below a leaking outside faucet.

Birdbaths? You bet! Just remember never to put antifreeze in the water. You can purchase heating elements that will keep water unfrozen or put in fresh water every morning.

As for food, by midwinter many of nature’s natural stocks have been depleted. A favorite trick of mine is to head for farm country and find a farmer who is spreading good old-fashioned manure on fields. It’s a magnet for larks, pipits, and longspurs, which are a magnet for hunting open country raptors such as northern harrier, Cooper’s hawk, and merlin.

Winter coastal storms often churn up sea bottoms, depositing mounds of gull-attracting bivalves on beaches. (Monitor the weather to plan your visit.) And there are still places where open landfills accept daily tributes of gull-approved human food waste. My mentor, Floyd Wolfarth, boasted of spending 10,000 hours studying gulls in the Hackensack Meadowland landfills. That must be some kind of record.

Of course, you can bait birds by feeding them in the backyard. You deer hunters out there can attract eagles, red-tailed hawks, and other species by setting out those post-butchering remains (such as rib cages) in open fields. Just make sure your neighbor’s dog isn’t ranging freely, in case some of that venison survives to warm weather.

Pete Dunne is Ambassador for Birding for New Jersey Audubon and author of Pete Dunne on Birding, The Art of Bird Identification, The Art of Bird Finding, and Pete Dunne on Bird Watching.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest. Not a subscriber? Get one year (six issues) for only $19.99. Subscribe today »

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