09 November 2012

Friday Field Notes: Winter Birding

The osprey are on winter break in the Bahamas, and the warblers are even further south, soaking up the sun and warm temperatures of central America. As for us? Well, we are faced with the reality of our first significant snow storm of the year in Montana. Winter is long and cold in our great state, and that's why many of the more than 300 avian species that call Montana home for part of the year pack their bags and hit the road (or should I say the airways?). Despite this, winter can still be an incredible time to go birding. Here are some tips to help get you through the cold, snowy months ahead:

- Put out a feeder! The bears are just about gone, and birds are now having to look harder to find critical winter food sources. Once one bird finds your feeder, they all do, and they will stay as long as you keep it filled. Platform feeders are a fantastic option - they attract a wide range of birds, from chickadees to grosbeaks, and they provide an excellent opportunity to get a close-up look at the bird.

- Go for a walk in an area with lots of deciduous trees. Birders often joke during spring migration, "If only those darn leaves didn't get in the way of the birds!" Well, now that the leaves have fallen off the trees, they don't. Brilliant, colorful birds like Evening Grosbeaks, Cedar Waxwings, and House Finches who spend much of their time in trees and shrubs are now strikingly obvious, and the views are unobstructed.

- Don't forget about water. The rich, diverse riparian habitat that lines our streams and rivers and attracts dozens of species in the spring and summer is still filled with birds in the winter. Iconic birds like American Dippers, Great Blue Herons, and Bald Eagles never leave, and winter can be as good a time as any to view them.

- When the snow rolls in, so do the birds. Significant snow storms push birds that typically spend their time at higher elevations (Clark's Nutcrackers, Steller's Jays, and Gray Jays, among others) lower into valleys. Additionally, the snow-covered ground makes it difficult for seed-eating birds (finches, sparrows) to find the food they need. Suddenly, your feeder becomes a wild bird refuge!

A flock of Evening Grosbeaks weathers a storm.

An Evening Grosbeak

What are your winter birding tips?  What birds have you been seeing?  Share your observations in the comments!

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