Category Archives: For the Birds

Birding in the Winter Months

by Simon Thompson

For some of us, winter can be a gloomy time of the year. Our summer birds have gone and won’t be back until next spring. The hummingbirds are buzzing around the flowers in Central America, and most of the warblers are flitting around in rainforests and brush throughout the Neotropics; our swallows are catching insects over the fields and freshwater swamps while some of our shorebirds are probing for food on the mudflats of Patagonia.

The trees are bare of leaves and the landscape is a pastel of grays and browns with splashes of evergreens in the somewhat monotone winter world, plus a red-brown layer of leaves covers the ground, concealing next year’s spring plants. It can be a quiet time of the year and with a coating of snow, the world seems to be in suspended animation, waiting for life to return in the spring.

Not All Birds Move South

Of course there is birdlife in the winter. Nature continues unabated in the seemingly quiet outdoors, and with a bit of effort it’s easy to discover our winter birdlife. Not all our birds move south during the colder months of the year. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals stay around, and their numbers are probably increased by visitors from the north. Also their territorial instincts tend to break down, resulting in larger numbers of individuals at feeders or in areas of dense undergrowth. Many of our woodpeckers also stay and are an eye-catching sight in our leafless forests. Our resident Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers are joined by the wintering Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, whose quiet demeanor is only betrayed by a soft regular tapping and its squirrel-like calls. As the winter fades into spring, this bird will move higher into the mountains and farther north, where it will breed. Pileated Woodpeckers are also more visible at this time of the year, and it’s not uncommon to see or hear several while on a morning walk.

Waterfowl are also more evident during the winter, when our lakes and reservoirs are visited by larger numbers from the north. Many ducks, geese and swans move south to escape frozen water and find more abundant food, but their numbers vary in accordance with the extent of bad weather to our north. Regular species include Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead and Mallard, with smaller numbers of Shoveler, Green-winged Teal and Lesser Scaup, but every winter we get more uncommon species such as Snow and Great White-fronted Geese, Common Merganser and many other species.

Some of us are like the birds and, as the days grow shorter, we think of spreading our wings and flying south for the winter.

Yes, the birdlife is a lot less diverse during the winter, but then we don’t have the dense foliage to deal with. There’s no bird song to decipher, and putting up a bird feeder can bring in many of our wintering seed-eating birds. One sure thing is that, despite the weather and the business in our day to day lives, the majority of migrant birds will be back again next spring, and who does not enjoy a good winter walk when the snow lies crisply on the ground?

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 20 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. If you have birding questions, please drop him an email at the above site.