Winter birding opportunities abound
From the comfort of home to the great outdoors, there’s plenty to see
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
Wintertime can provide some excellent bird viewing opportunities. Local birds that normally may not be overly social or visible seem to mellow out in the wintertime to share concentrated food and water sources. The lack of leafy cover makes spotting birds in the trees much easier, too. Cardinals are an excellent example; male cardinals are extremely territorial in the spring, summer, and even into the fall. You can hear them singing from their song perches strategically located to make them audible inside and around their territory. They will pick a fight with any other male cardinal they see; I remember reading one account of a cardinal attacking the chrome bumper of a car, seeing its reflection as an unwelcome intruder. In the winter, though, they are more tolerant of other cardinals crossing their paths to get to a bird feeder without a fight. Chickadees are readily visible now, and you can track the woodpeckers as they swoop from tree to tree prospecting for beetle larvae.
If you enjoy watching birds that come to your feeder while you enjoy the cozy warmth of your own home, you might like Project FeederWatch, a winter-long survey of birds that visit a variety of feeders across North America. Feeder watchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and submit their observations which help scientists track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
Anyone interested in birds can participate. FeederWatch is conducted by people of all skill levels and backgrounds, including children, families, individuals, classrooms, retired persons, youth groups, nature centers and bird clubs. You can count birds as often as every week, or as infrequently as you like: the schedule is completely flexible. All you need is a bird feeder, bird bath or plantings that attract birds.
New participants are sent a kit containing complete instructions for participating, as well as a calendar, bird identification poster and more. You provide the feeders and seed. There is an $18 annual participation fee which covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis and the year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights).
If you get out into the forest to do some snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or fat-tire biking, you may have the opportunity to see some local year-round resident birds, like ruffed grouse. These birds grow special bristles on their toes, what we call pectinations, that function like birdie snowshoes. There are plenty of crows and ravens around, and if the bald eagles didn’t try to tough it out for the winter, believe it or not, they will be back in the next month or so to prepare to tidy up their nests and prepare to lay eggs.
We get some winter migrants here, too. I tend to slip into saying that our migratory birds head south in the winter, but there are some notable exceptions. Those are our breeding birds, the bulk of our 430-plus species that breed here. There are also birds that we see no other time of year, that live far north of here and migrate south into our area in wintertime.
Sometimes when you drive down a snowy windswept road, you might see a small flock of small brown birds that seem to transform into white when they take flight. These are snow buntings; they breed and nest in the high arctic, but when their young are strong enough that they are ready to migrate south for the winter, they come here to Wisconsin.
The northern shrike, a predatory songbird, is another example. They may not come to your feeders, but you may see them perched on a fencepost or sign post watching for small prey. If they do come to your feeders, they will either hunt for the mice that eat what falls on the ground or the smaller birds (like pine siskins or redpolls) that move in and out in large flocks to feed. This is why, if you recall my recent article on bird feeding tips, I recommend you take some measures to reduce predation, but predators have to eat too! Shrikes are known as butcherbirds for a unique food caching behavior where they skewer their prey on barbed wire or heavy thorns to feed on later.
Then there are the owls. In the last several years, I have seen a few different arctic owl species that come this far south in winter as well. You may be familiar with the snowy owl, which is currently the most common owl species being observed and reported across northern Wisconsin. Several have been injured or killed by vehicles. These birds live most of their life where there are no roads or cars, especially the young ones that just hatched last spring. Consequently, they don’t know to avoid vehicles, and they will get into trouble for trying to capture rodents running across roads. I have seen boreal owls, which are so small they fit in the palm of one hand. By contrast, one of the largest owls on the planet is the great gray owl. This bird can get almost 3 feet tall with a wingspan of 60 inches. When the snow depth gets such that the owls are unable to see or hear their prey, they instinctively head south hoping to find shallower snow. By the time we see them, they are starving and weak, and oftentimes people find them dead in their backyards in January and February. However, the healthy birds are amazing to view. These birds rarely encounter people in the arctic, so they aren’t very wary and can provide rewarding viewing opportunities in winter.
Whether you want the birds to come to you, or whether you strap on some winter gear and go to them, birds can provide an excellent cure for cabin fever this time of year. Seeing how resilient and adaptable our resident wildlife can be never ceases to amaze me. The added benefit of a fresh blanket of snow is that you can find where birds have been shelling seeds, or the telltale signs of their walking or hopping from spot to spot in the course of their daily activities. And if you keep your feeders clean and stocked and your water fresh and clean, you can be rewarded by some surprising observations right in your own backyard.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. He has worked for natural resource agencies from the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains and into the Midwest, which provided opportunities to work with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.