|Eurasian golden plover,|
photographed by the author
in Thingvellir, Iceland
In North Carolina the lawns are put away for the season, the leaves are mostly dealt with, and the next big seasonal news is the coming of winter. For far too many people this a time to abandon outdoors activities, hunker down inside, and wait for spring. If that is your strategy, not only will you grow soft and lethargic over the next few months, you will also miss the opportunity to spot unusual and rare birds you will see in no other season.
By the time you read this, you will already have missed the fall migrations of warblers, shore birds, and waterfowl, so put them on your calendar for their flight north in spring. Other species have arrived and are still here, however, and many more will show up across the region when winter storms blow through from various directions.
In our home in the country 20 miles northwest of Chapel Hill, the yellow-bellied sapsuckers arrived en masse in early November. One evening there were none, the next morning more than a dozen were flapping tree to tree in a feeding frenzy. Along with them came flocks of robins, several dark-eyed juncos, and an exponential increase in the downy woodpecker population.
Stroll a woodland of even modest size and you have a good chance of spotting these and many other winter visitors. A wide variety of finches, flycatchers, and grosbeaks move locally north and south depending on temperature changes. Many woodpeckers and other birds that are here all year are much easier to see in winter after the leaves fall. Consider yourself very fortunate if you spot birds that are less common to very rare, such as the cedar waxwing, red-headed woodpecker, northern shrike, either the Smith’s or chestnut-collared longspur, and the red-breasted nuthatch, the winter visiting cousin of the year-round resident white-breasted nuthatch.
Assuming your habitat has a small stream and perhaps a low-land, boggy area, you might keep an eye out for the American woodcock. This is an interesting species, a shorebird that lives in the forest, and even though it is fairly common all year long in much of North Carolina, it is easier to spot in winter when most ground cover has died.
If you don’t know much about these species, and possibly couldn’t even tell one from the other, instead of getting into lengthy lists of field identification tips I will refer you to www.allaboutbirds.org, which is maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This site is so incredibly in depth and has such great photos, beware of getting so caught up in it you forget to go out and look for birds in the field instead of just online.
Spend a winter day watching for birds on a large lake, or make a trip to the coast, and there is no predicting what you might see. Common and red-breasted mergansers are seasonal visitors, as are brant, which are remindful of Canada geese at first glance. Barnacle and cackling geese are much rarer but have been seen on occasion, as have trumpeter swans and several variants of storm-petrels. Take along high-power optics and a bird field guide, and you can probably pump up your birding life-list numbers just watching sandpipers, gulls, godwits, and other shorebirds on a warm winter afternoon.
Too far from the beach and no big lakes nearby? Check out your local sewage treatment plant. Seriously. Winter is the best time to do this, for obvious reasons. Nearly a decade ago the STP at my hometown in southwest Virginia had produced sightings of nearly 250 different bird species. Among those were some exceedingly rare examples for that area, the black-bellied plover, red knot, and red phalarope foremost among them.
Predator species stir excitement in birders, and winter is a great time to see some unusual birds of prey. One afternoon last winter, driving past an open field and pond while doing a run to our local trash and recycling center, I saw a low-flying bird with an erratic flight pattern and unusual rhythm to its wing beats. At first I feared it was an injured red-shoulder hawk, but a closer look revealed it to be a northern harrier. Known locally as a marsh hawk, it is a bird that spends most of its life in the upper Midwest and Canada. Even the snowy owl, the heaviest and most strikingly colored owl in North America, occasionally ventures far from its Arctic home and shows up in North Carolina in winter.
From small species to large, looking for winter birds is an attractive alternative to sitting inside waiting for spring. The air is seldom as cold as you fear, and the birding opportunities are better than you can imagine.
Editor’s note: motomynd has seen more than 600 species of birds in his travels across the United States and Canada, plus another 400 species or so on his trips to East Africa and Iceland.
Copyright © 2012 by motomynd