Pileated woodpecker 640 x 400
Pileated Woodpecker Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) © Jason Kuntz/Creative Commons

Stories in Pennsylvania

Wintertime Birds

Ron Ramsey reflects upon why he enjoys bird watching during the coldest and snowiest time of year.

I’ll start with an admission: I prefer January to July. Always have. I don’t care for heat and humidity and find it easier to get warm in the winter than to cool off in the summer. But even if you’re a summer person who thinks hibernation is the best approach to winter, there are plenty of reasons to put on extra layers and get outside for some wintertime birding in Pennsylvania.    

Woods and fields are quieter. There might be fewer species and individual birds in Pennsylvania’s winter woods than during the summer and fall. But, with the leaves off of the trees, it’s often easier to find the birds that are here.

 Birds in cold weather often concentrate around scarce food sources and unfrozen lakes and streams. The bare trees and reduced human traffic on trails can make seeing and hearing birds less of a challenge. Look for mixed flocks in stands of conifers heavy with cones, around trees and shrubs still holding fruit, in weedy fields with plants gone to seed, and near open water.

Birds on Farmland 640 x 400
Dark-eyed Junco Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) at Weiss Acres in December, situated south of Papillion, Nebraska. © Chris Helzer/TNC

Different season, different species. By late December, we’ve said good-bye to many of our resident summer birds and the migrants that passed through in the fall. In addition to the species that spend all four seasons as our neighbors, we’re visited by birds who breed to our north and spend their winter “vacations” here. For those of us living in the middle and southern two-thirds of the State, this means welcoming back some familiar winter friends like Dark-eyed Juncos, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and (if we’re lucky), perhaps a few less common travelers such as Snow Buntings, Crossbills and Rough-legged Hawks. The very fortunate among us might have an opportunity to view one of the rare seasonal wanderers, like a Snowy Owl or flock of Evening Grosbeaks.

Snowy Owl 640 x 400
Snowy Owl Snowy Owl © Silver Leapers/Creative Commons © Janet Haas

More time to linger and reflect. I love the frenzy, color and energy of the spring and fall bird migrations; they’re amazing shows. Even so, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by these action-packed birding experiences—like a kind of sensory overload.  The brief migration windows and short stay-overs make me wish I could hit a pause button to better appreciate the whole process. 

I find the winter birding experience to be more nuanced, subtle and thoughtful. It’s a landscape of limited palette, and I find a deeper appreciation for the infrequent and small shock of color—the scarlet nape of a Red-bellied Woodpecker climbing a gray tree trunk; the startling beauty of an Eastern Bluebird perched on a snowy fencepost; or the garish combination of orange, gray and purple as American Robins glean the remaining fruit from a Beautyberry bush. 

In winter, I find more time to focus on little things—is it a Black-capped or Carolina Chickadee, or some combination of the two?  Or the special way sound carries in a snowy forest, be it the rattle of a Hairy Woodpecker or the hoots of a Great Horned Owl on a moonlit night.

Eastern Bluebirds 640 x 400
Eastern Bluebird Eastern Bluebirds © Ian Lee/Creative Commons © fishhawk/Creative Commons

Nature is full of miracles. Birding in winter also reminds me how miraculous these creatures are. As I’m bundled up against the elements, with little skin exposed and fresh off a hot breakfast, I marvel at their resourcefulness and hardiness—the strategies they use to stay warm, find foo and conserve energy in such harsh conditions.  It’s a season of thought-provoking surprises—the Great Blue Heron hunting rodents in a snow-blanketed field or a lingering Gray Catbird hunkered down in a dense, frost-covered thicket.

Great Blue Heron
A great blue heron at Pelican Point, where Weeks Bay meets the east side of Mobile Bay, Alabama. © Carlton Ward Jr.

You are close to the action. Another plus is that finding birds in winter doesn’t require travel. That brush pile in your backyard, the tiny stream that runs through the local park, the overgrown field behind the local shopping center, or the little copse of trees at the end of your block—they’re all good places to find birds in winter.

The beauty of wintertime birding is that there are plenty of ways to participate. For example, you might think about volunteering to help with the National Audubon Society’s 118th annual Christmas Bird Count (December 14 to January 5), a tremendous opportunity to enjoy winter birds and contribute to citizen science!

Or, you may want to see winter birds without braving the elements. If so, consider winter bird feeding, and watch them from the comfort of your kitchen window!
Whichever way you choose to experience winter birding, I’m certain that you’ll be left with a deeper appreciation for the birds that tough it out over the course of a Pennsylvania winter.