Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Winter Birding

To everything there is a season, and that is true for birding.

Spring and autumn get all the press because that is when the warblers and other tropical migrants pass through on their way north to their breeding areas of choice, or south to the warmer and buggier areas when it is cold up here. Summer is when a lot of birders go to the shore for relief and shorebirds.

I happen to like winter birding when the leaves are off the trees, the cold is bracing and the crowds are sparse. (A lot of birders follow the birds to South America to enjoy summer there.) That doesn’t make the birding any less interesting, especially this year when the unnaturally warm winter weather prompted a lot of migrant birds to hang around a lot longer than usual.

There are lot of birds that show up in New Jersey when the cold comes on. They consider New Jersey warm enough for them, a funny concept to remember when we are shivering from what we consider arctic winds!

Some of these are regular winter visitors. The junco, for instance. This slate-gray and white little guy - and in New Jersey it is always a guy because the browner females fly farther south for the winter (perhaps the males stay farther north so they can get to the breeding areas quicker) - is a pretty reliable indicator winter is coming on.

The white-throated sparrow below is another winter regular. The male’s white “eyebrows” and the yellow spot on either side of the bill and above the eyes get brighter as the winter goes on. Unlike the junco, males and females winter together, and you will hear the high whistling “O Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” of the males as the territorial battles begin.

There are other winter birds not as common. The American tree sparrow, for instance, with its distinctive reddish cap and bi-colored bill, gray on top and yellow below.

The rough-legged hawk is a bird of the tundra, and when winter comes on it sometimes flies south to grassland areas, even urban landfills such as the one abutting the DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst, N.J., near the Meadowlands.

Snowy owl is another uncommon winter visitor and finding one is always a big occasion. This owl is, as the name implies, very white, hangs out in the open and hunts by day, unlike most other owls. This year, among the many recorded, a snowy has been at the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County, NJ, for weeks.

Winter also means ducks. The common eider and the harlequin duck are standard winter ducks at the rocky jetty of Barnegat Light. If you look on a local pond before it freezes the chances are you will find all sorts of interesting ducks including one or more of the mergansers plus ruddy, canvasback and ring-necked duck.

But just about any waterfowl is likely to show up in any unfrozen water, even along the Hudson River shoreline between Hoboken and Manhattan, which is about as urban as it gets.

As I said, one big advantage of winter birding is the leaves are off the trees. Redtail hawks are easy to see from a great distance when they sit in a bare tree, and it makes it easier to find the white-breasted nuthatch calling from a limb over my head.

But perhaps the best thing about winter birding is you don’t have to even go outside if you don‘t feel like it. If you have a feeder out - better still, many feeders holding different types of seed and suet - the birds will come to YOU as you have your hot cup of coffee on a frosty morning.

Try it and you’ll be amazed by what you can see.

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