Even though there’s less diversity of bird species in winter, many common northern and year round species are still quite active.
- Winter landscapes have a much higher visibility when all the trees are bare.
- Food sources are also much more concentrated during winter, causing many birds to spend a lot of time in the same areas repeatedly.
These factors add up to mean that winter is filled with fantastic opportunities to observe a variety of common bird species & behaviors.
So let’s explore how you can make the most of winter bird watching with these bird watching tips for the cold season.
Click play to watch the video:
Also read the rest of this article for 3 more bonus tips at the end to maximize your bird watching fun in winter…
#1 Watch Fewer Birds (But Focus On Deeper Observation)
In winter – rather than trying to learn a bunch of new species, focus instead on getting to know the most common birds and watch their behavior more carefully than you normally would.
You can learn which bird species stay year round in your area by using a good field guide with range maps.
Here are 10 of the most common birds to see in winter:
- Golden-Crowned Kinglets
- Brown Creepers
- Downy Woodpeckers
- Hairy Woodpeckers
- Ring-Necked Pheasant
Even if you only have a few birds that you see regularly during winter, there are many fascinating subtleties that you’ve probably never taken the time to observe such as:
- Feeding patterns
- Flocking & social interactions/hierarchies
- Tree species & habitat associations
- Territorial aggression
- Alarm behaviors
- Identification of individual birds
- Identification of male vs female birds
Focus on quality observations with fewer species to give yourself many hours of winter bird learning & entertainment.
#2 Use a Bird Feeder
The easiest way to find an abundance of daily opportunities for winter bird watching is to set up a bird feeder right outside your home window.
I like to think about this as like an indoor sit spot where you have a comfortable place to watch birds and get to know them through the seasons.
Because birds have less options for food during winter, they will visit more often, stay for longer, and come from farther distances to enjoy your seeds.
Bird feeders are also very safe for birds during the cold & frozen times when they’re much less likely to spread disease.
What If I Don’t Have A Yard?
If you don’t have your own yard, you can also make a feeding station at your favorite spot in nature. Simply bring seed in your pockets when you go out for walks.
Seeds thrown directly on the ground will begin to draw in birds if done repeatedly in the same places.
How To Draw In More Birds…
You can draw in other types of birds by experimenting with different types of seeds, nuts & fruit.
Try offering foods like:
- Bird seed mixes
- Sunflower seeds
- Niger seeds
Just be aware that over time if done regularly, birds will start to rely on you for food.
In winter time, birds don’t have many other options so if you setup a bird feeder you need to be consistent and reliable, especially in the frozen & snowy times.
#3 Practice Watching Birds For Longer Periods Of Time
The key to having the best bird watching experience in winter is to practice watching individual birds for longer periods of time.
With less species making appearances, observation of bird behavior makes things a lot more interesting and helps you understand birds in a much deeper way.
Bird behavior evolves over a period of many minutes, but most novice bird watchers make the mistake of walking away after just a few seconds.
Binoculars Help You See Bird Behavior
To help you study bird behavior more closely, challenge yourself to watch individual birds for as long as possible with binoculars.
Binoculars will help you see the subtleties of body language that indicate what a bird is thinking/feeling.
With practice you’ll notice that every bird has their own unique way of moving & feeding.
Sometimes these unique behaviors will even change according to different situations like weather & predator evasion.
As you become more familiar with subtle behaviors through binoculars, observing those same behaviors without binoculars will help you see more of the big picture.
#4 Check A Variety of Locations For Different Species
If you want to increase your chances of seeing a greater variety of birds, you’ll need to visit a variety of different habitats such as:
- Anywhere with open water
The more variety of habitats you visit, the more likely you are to see a greater variety of birds.
Think about all the places where you can find a wide variety of trees, plants & habitat types, and try to visit those place throughout the winter.
#5 Use Warm & Sunny Breaks To Your Advantage
Birds conserve energy in winter by reducing activity in cold weather, and increasing activity in warm weather.
This means that warmer, sunnier days following a period of cold & cloudy weather will have increased bird activity.
You can use this to your advantage by planning times to watch birds that correlate with the warm & sunny breaks.
#6 Remember To Dress Warmly!
Bird watching sometimes involves being still, so you may find you get colder than you normally would while hiking.
#7 Pay Attention To The Changing Season:
Late winter can be very different for birds compared to early winter. Crows and large predators often begin courtship and nesting territories as early as January or February!
#8 Watch The Squirrels Too:
If you have a bird feeder, you will no doubt attract a few squirrels to gather seeds. Instead of getting upset, try watching them with the same curiosity as the birds!
Observing mammal behavior will improve your ability to observe bird behavior.
Gary M says
Good tips. On my woodlot want to increase birds to make it, bird noisy, as in a more pristine environment. (and less bugs) At the same time do not want them to depend on me, ie. feeders, water, harborage (houses). So as trees die I plant some evergreens for winter shelter, need a non draining a low spot for water, and a bush understory that has various marcescent berries for winter food. Do need a list of those bushes in NJ. So far NJ DEP only told be blueberries.