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Birding in winter: Redpolls, Rough-legs, and other treasures

Birds to look for in the season between fall and spring migrations
By Pete Dunne | Published: 12/6/2017

Rough-legged Hawk in southern Ontario. Photo by newfoundlander61

Rough-legged Hawk in southern Ontario. Photo by newfoundlander61

Winter is anything but static. Yes, fall migration is for the most part over, and spring migration is pretty lean until March, when northbound waterfowl drive a wedge or a “V” into winter. But in winter, many birds are constantly shifting in response to food needs, opportunities, and territorial prerogatives, not to mention weather.

Consider irruptive species like Common Redpoll. Here in southern New Jersey, I have seen thousands of redpolls coming in off the Atlantic Ocean in February. Presumably, the birds faced depleted food stocks elsewhere and were driven south in search of untapped resources.

A blanketing snowfall across northern states will propel wintering Red-tailed Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks southward two months after their fall migratory period has ended and mere weeks before their northern rebound begins. Speaking of which: The widespread, thermal-loving Turkey Vulture migrates north as early as the first week of February. By that month, there are enough daylight hours for the scavenger to forage efficiently and more than enough road-killed deer to keep it well fed.

Common Redpoll. Photo by

Common Redpoll. Photo by Joan Wiitanen

A prolonged freeze anytime in January or February will prompt waterfowl and wintering eagles to seek out fast-moving, ice-resistant bodies of water. The outfalls of hydroelectric dams are favored sanctuaries, offering both open water and turbine-killed fish.

Strong coastal storms commonly churn up the ocean bottom. When they do, the result may be a tribute of mollusks deposited upon beaches. Gulls go where the food is, and in winter, with gull numbers inflated by the past year’s crop of young, and with adult birds now away from northern nesting territories, gull watching reaches the peak of its popularity.

Best tip for winter bird feeding: To thine own self be true

Yes, identification can be challenging, but gulls are fascinating, worthy of your attention. The second edition of David Sibley’s field guide offers a concise, lucid, and well-conceived formula that you can use to gain a web-footed toehold in gull ID. Try it. You may surprise yourself. Whether or not you can identify each foraging gull down to the species level, you’ll at least be fascinated by the birds’ antics and strategies.

For example, Herring Gulls have learned to carry clams and mussels aloft and then drop them onto macadam and frozen marsh. It’s amusing to watch the birds’ consternation when they try the technique on newly thawed marsh, and the drop produces not the expected bounty of decanted mollusk inner parts but a prize clam buried deep in the mud.

Most gulls get the point quickly, but I’ve watched juveniles bury two or more mollusks before switching over to a firmer drop zone.

Of course, strong onshore winds create perfect conditions for dawn seabird watching, as wintering birds head out to feed. There are even some species, most notably Red-throated Loons and alcids, that continue to migrate south even into February.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl by Kenneth Lipshy

Arctic-breeding Snowy Owls and Gyrfalcons are somewhat nomadic outside the breeding season, shifting location throughout the winter. While rare, both species could turn up any time in northern regions, particularly in coastal locations.

You’ll need a pure heart and lots of luck to find either one, but the possibility exists. A friend of mine lives in a suburban neighborhood near Atlantic City. When he walked out his front door one winter morning, he was treated to the sight of a white Gyr perched upon the utility pole in front of his house.

Me? No, I’ve never been so fortunate. Maybe it’s because I’m just as happy watching the seasonal territorial duel between our local Great Horned Owls and resident Red-tailed Hawks.

Put your money on the owls. They nest a tad earlier than the Red-taileds (as early as January in many places), and possession is nine-tenths of the law. After all, it’s no easy task trying to persuade an incubating Great Horned Owl to relocate. My Red-taileds typically elect to refurbish a nest somewhere else — a nest that the owl will then appropriate next year.

But by February, you should be thinking spring migration. A warm front will certainly produce a push of northbound waterfowl. Common Merganser, Ring-necked Duck, and Northern Pintail are among the earliest migrants.

Warming temperatures can also nudge Tree Swallows and even Purple Martins to show up prematurely. American Crows are another very early migrant, often beating the arrival of the hardy American Robins. Head to your local hawk watch, and you may be treated to the sight of hundreds of crows streaming north with Red-tailed Hawks soon to follow.

Don’t overlook any newly opened leads of water on frozen lakes. Gulls and waterfowl are drawn to these seasonal opportunities. Just resist the temptation to edge out on the ice, as spring ice is not to be trusted.

Any newly turned farm field is worth scoping, too, since Killdeer, Horned Larks, and other ground-foraging birds are drawn to turned earth. If your local farmer is spreading manure, so much the better; pipits and longspurs love the stuff.

And whatever attracts feeding flocks also attracts Northern Harriers, Merlins, and other hungry raptors.

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

About the author

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. He is now New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador at-large. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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