Ten Tips for Winter Birders
Yeah, it’s stick season. But out there in icy waters, cavorting and splashing, the Common Goldeneyes will soon begin kinky duck dating. The male is on the make. His signature move is called the “head-throw-kick.”
First the head: while paddling around various females, he’ll thrust his head forward, then whiplash it back so that the nape of his neck touches his rump and his bill points skyward. He’s now poised for the throw: he utters a weird, grating call and then, like a slingshot released, rockets his head forward. Finally, the kick: he enhances the head gyrations by kicking water outward with his feet. The entire act is a turn-on for female goldeneyes (do try this at home; let me know).
It turns out that ducks get hot even when it’s cold. They begin courting long before spring. And duck courtship alone is reason enough to watch birds in winter.
Oh, sure, the rainbow warblers have dumped us for the tropics. Common Loons have left our ponds for the ocean. No more does the Hermit Thrush tender his fluty, rising serenade. But do not despair. Those same open waters, those winter woods and frigid fields, hold delights to the bundled-up birder. So here are 10 suggestions (in no particular order) for the casual and advancing winter birdwatcher:
- Be stealthy. A lack of leaves makes a birdwatcher even more visible to birds. And nothing scares off a bird more effectively than sudden obvious movement on the part of a birder. The skilled winter birder avoids wearing bright colors, speaks in a soft voice, keeps a respectful distance and, most importantly, moves slowly.
- Get to the green. Softwoods host a lot of songbird action in winter. Spruce, fir, pine, hemlock, and cedar offer birds cover from cold and wind and, for many species, a winter food supply – insects and seeds from cones.
- Spish in the woods. A birder who repeats a soft, wispy spshsh-spshsh-spshsh is imitating avian scold notes. Spishing, or pishing as we also call it, is universal bird lingo for danger. When you spish, songbirds zoom in to investigate what’s up. Chickadees often lead the way. Here’s the story on that.
- Get gullible. November begins gull season. Yeah, gulls. Rare northern gull species sometimes join flocks of the more common (here in the East) Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed gulls. These winter visitors are ghosts from the Arctic, with names that convey icy-white plumage – Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Ivory Gull (pictured here). Anywhere you find common gulls, look for the rare ones. I’ll be offering a gull identification workshop in January.
- Get to the coast – now. Arctic-nesting migrants – scoters, eider, loons, grebes, gannets and gulls – are making their way to offshore wintering areas. Snowy Owls, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs aren’t far behind. Rare stuff happens on coastlines in November. If you can’t get to the ocean, try your largest, nearest lake. The sooner the better.
- Visit your state’s Banana Belt. Here in Vermont, for example, the slopes of the Green Mountains, where many of us live, tend to be fairly quiet for winter birding. So we wander to the Champlain Valley, where it is lower, warmer and more diverse. Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Harriers and sometimes Snowy Owls winter here out on the corn fields. A few shorebirds and plenty of geese linger into November. Ducks gather in good numbers in open water.
- Beg, borrow or steal a spotting scope. Binoculars often aren’t strong enough for thoroughly enjoying winter birds around farmland and open waters. You’ll need higher-powered optics. If you don’t own a spotting scope, find a birder who does. Or join a winter birding trip offered by your local nature center, Audubon chapter or private guide.
- Know the winter finch forecast. Back in the woods, marauding flocks of finches from the far north can visit to munch our wild winter food crops. We call these “irruptive” species, and what often drives them south are episodes of food scarcity in their usual wintering grounds. Great Gray Owls (right) move south when their prey base of mammals crashes. Bohemian waxwings, which breed from Hudson Bay and across the taiga into Alaska, appear in huge numbers across New England some winters, presumably after exhausting fruit supplies in their northern wintering grounds. Here’s this winter’s finch forecast.
- Lose your compact binoculars. With an objective lens (the big end) around 20mm, the view from most of these is dark and dingy. Compacts are nearly impossible to use while wearing gloves or mittens. But I hate them year-round. Their only reason for existing might be as your spare pair in the glove compartment. Here’s my most recent post on binos.
- Go someplace warm. I’ll take you there. Check out my outings to the Grand Canyon in March and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas in April.
We’ve got a great forecast in New England this weekend. Get out there. But please do not disturb the Common Goldeneyes.