Winter Birds of Ohio (December, January, February)
While this season is not the most popular among many outdoor enthusiasts because of the snow, cold temperatures, and short days, winter bird watching in Ohio can be fantastic, and like every season, it offers birding that can’t be had at any other season. While bird numbers and diversity are probably at their lowest this season, those that are around are often some of our most interesting species.
Raptors are some of the most obvious birds of winter, in part because they are more conspicuous against the naked trees and barren winter landscapes, but also because there are more of them, in some cases. Red-tailed hawks are common and easily seen, as their bright white underparts shine like beacons from the bare trees and roadside fence posts. As we gear up backyard feeding operations, a steady stream of small birds delight us with their antics. To the Cooper’s hawks, they are small delicacies, however, and feeder raiding by this bird-loving raptor becomes more commonplace in winter months.
To really sample the raptor bounty that an Ohio winter offers, though a trip to the wide-open, massive landscapes of The Wilds is in order. A trip there is like a lesson in raptor ID 101; numerous rough-legged hawks and northern harriers are always in evidence, American kestrels bob about on roadside phone lines, and red-taileds and sometimes even a red-shouldered hawk loiter about the woodlots. The real jewels to watch for here, though, are over-wintering golden eagles, and the Hope diamond of The Wilds avifauna, a prairie falcon that has spent several recent winters in this rodent-rich, prairie-like habitat.
One of the bleakest winter landscapes in this part of the world are the wide-open, snow covered countryscapes of agricultural western and northern Ohio. As January rolls in, bringing consistently frigid temperatures and regular snowfalls, these habitats seem uninviting for man and beast, especially when the wind howls unchecked across the barrens. But, find the right road and you’ll be in for a treat. The few birds that can survive such conditions seem completely unintimidated by the brutal weather, and often congregate along snow-free country roads where they pick up grit and corn spilled off farm trucks. The leader of these packs is the dapper horned lark, and often mixed amongst their number are visitors from the Great White North, snow buntings. It always pays to stop and give these foraging flocks the once over, as they frequently contain a few Lapland longspurs, drab and inconspicuous in their winter plumage.
An easy and interesting way to sample Ohio’s midwinter bird life is to bundle up and take a stroll through a large urban cemetery, such as Green Lawn in Columbus, Woodlawn in Toledo, or Spring Grove in Cincinnati. Not only are they easy walking, but cemeteries usually have a nice diversity of trees and shrubs, including many that bear fruit, and there are always ornamental conifers about. If there are winter finches around, cemeteries are often where they hang out, and crossbills and siskins in particular are drawn to conifers like moths to flames. It’s always smart to inspect the ornamental taxus and other evergreens closely for northern saw-whet or long-eared owls, which sometimes overwinter. More common birds are easily found and observed, such as roving bands of tree gleaners that tend to fraternize closely in the winter months, such as nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, yellow-rumped warblers, and brown creepers. Finding some Washington hawthorns or other berry-bearing trees often produces interesting birds like cedar waxwings, American robins, or even a hermit thrush.
Perhaps nowhere is the ability of Ohio winter birds to withstand brutal winter weather as evident as along the shores of frozen Lake Erie in January or February. If its been a cold winter, the lake will be locked in with ice, and the shifting winds and waters cause massive windrows of jagged ice to form, creating a look reminiscent of the Arctic Ocean. Oftentimes, the strong wind whipping off the lake and the single digit temperatures reinforce that impression, and it’s hard to stay outside for very long. But, in the leads of open water kept open by warm water discharges from power plants such as are found at Cleveland and Avon Lake, there teems an incredible array of bird activity.
These open water hotspots literally swarm with dead and dying gizzard shad, lured to the openings in last-ditch effort to find hospitable conditions, and their unfortunate fate provides a smorgasbord for thousands of gulls. While ring-billed gulls are the dominant species most of the year along Lake Erie, in midwinter the herring gull rules, followed by ring-billeds in order of abundance. Plenty of the gargantuan great black-backed gulls are present, and usually an exceptionally hardy Bonaparte’s gull or two. But what really excites the bird watchers and lures them to these frozen locales are ghostly visitors from the north, the white-winged gulls. The glaucous gull, which is nearly the size of a great black-backed, is the most common and they readily stand out among the teeming masses due to their pure white plumage. Small numbers of Iceland gulls are usually about,too, looking like diminutive versions of the glaucous gull. Birders eagerly pick through these swarms in the hopes of finding a mega-rarity like Heerman’s gull, and there have been many great finds over the years at these warm-water hotspots. An amazing 19 species of gulls have been recorded in the state, with most of these seen along Lake Erie.
Our hardiest ducks are also best observed along Lake Erie in winter, and they offer a pleasant distraction from the hordes of gulls. American goldeneyes and greater scaup frolic in the near freezing waters, and normally a few redhead, canvasback, and bufflehead accompany them. Occasionally, a long-tailed duck will drop in, or any of the three scoters. So eager are the buffleheads and goldeneyes to get on with spring that by February the males are regularly putting on their clownish courtship displays as they attempt to curry favor with the females in anticipation of the spring breeding season to come.