I must admit, the winter can produce some very frigid days, and if you’re outside you might spot 10 to 20 species of birds - but if you plan and have a winter bird watching strategy winter birding can be incredibly rewarding. Birds are easy to find in the leafless trees, trails and parks and your checklists abound with many species that can only be found in the United States in the winter. Plus, thanks to shortened daylight hours you don’t have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to be out before the sunrise.
Check out some of our picks for amazing birds you can find this winter. And if you choose to not go outside, watch the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ontario Feeder Cam to see some winter birds up close!
The Northern Goshawks are used as an indicator species since they are at the top of the food chain. Few Northern American raptor species are as likely to initiate a tick-the-bird-or-die-trying twitch like the Northern Goshawk. The largest North American accipiter, these powerful, elusive hawks hunt rabbits, hares, squirrels, and other large birds in dense forests and can be found zipping through the trees at high speeds. They’re found year-round throughout the Rockies, and throughout the mid to northern U.S. in the winter. Adults are distinctive, with heavily barred chests, steel grey back and wings, and deep red eyes. But don’t be fooled— juvenile goshawks look very similar to Coopers and Sharp-Shinned hawks.
Red & White-winged Crossbills
Finding Red Crossbills and White-Winged Crossbills I can be challenging — but the real challenge is getting close enough to actually to see their twisted bills, which they use to prize seeds out of pine cones.
Males of both species are a brilliant scarlet, while the females are olive green. You can tell them apart by the white dappling on the wings (called wing bars), on the White-Winged Crossbill.
Both species are found year-round throughout the Rockies, and throughout the mid to northern U.S. in the winter. One important tip is to listen closely if you happen upon a flock of Red Crossbills — the species has 10 distinct call-types, and different sub-populations specialize on different types of conifers.
Look for all three rosy-finch species — Brown-capped, Grey-crowned and Black are all Rocky Mountain winter specialties. The Black and Gray-crowned are found throughout the west, while the Brown-capped is only found in Colorado and northern New Mexico. All three species are poorly studied by scientists because their breeding ranges are very small and incredibly remote.
Check eBird for common locations, as many flocks return to the same well-stocked winter feeders each year. The three species aren’t difficult to tell apart when they’re side-by-side, except when a flock of 50 of them is milling frantically around a feeder.
Another bird and feeder favorite are the Hoary and Common Redpolls, which are well adapted to life in frigid arctic climates. They’re found year-round in northern Canada, where Common Redpolls sometimes burrow into the snow to stay warm. Hoary Redpolls have feathers on a greater extent of their bodies than other birds, and sometimes if temperatures get too warm they’ll actually pluck out their own feathers to help regulate their temperature.
The beautiful, sparrow-sized Snow Bunting breeds on the high Arctic tundra, where they nest in rock crevices lined with feathers, fur, grass, and moss. Their winter range extends to the northern half of the U.S., where they’re often seen foraging in flocks in snowy winter fields.
Male Snow Buntings have to work at achieving their striking black-and-white breeding plumage. After their late summer molt, the plumage on their back and wings is brownish-black. Males wear off the brown-colored feather tips by rubbing themselves against the snow, resulting in pure-black coloration by the time the breeding seasons starts.
There is just one of three waxwing species in the world. The Bohemian Waxwing breeds in northwestern Canada, occasionally erupts down into the northern U.S., mostly in the west. Named after gypsies, Bohemian Waxwings roam large distances in winter to search for berries, other fruit, and insects. Be careful not to confuse them with the similar-looking Cedar Waxwing: Bohemians have red and yellow wingtips, a dark black chin, rust-colored feathers under the tail, and more of a greyish coloration.
Ross’s & Snow Geese
The next time you see some Canada Geese, stop and take a closer look because hidden among them might be a few Ross’s Geese or Snow Geese. Both species are snowy white, with black wing tips and pink beaks. They breed on the Arctic coasts and winter in just a few spots in the U.S., where you can find them in flocks together anywhere other winter waterfowl and geese congregate, including open lakes and agricultural fields.
The two species are difficult to tell apart unless they’re sitting side by side: The Ross’s Goose is smaller and more delicate, with a shorter neck. Meanwhile, the Snow Goose has a larger, chunkier bill with a dark line, or “grin patch” near the gape.
This is the Evening Grosbeak. Like the crossbills, these finches of the northern conifer forests often “irrupt” further south into the continental U.S. in the winter as they search for food. Flocks are common, where you can get an up-close look at their beautiful colors: Males are an eye-popping yellow, with black swings, and a bold eyebrow. Females are more subdued, but have a fantastic, green-colored beak.
Serious birders still remember back in the winter of 2013-2014, when thousands of Snowy Owls irrupted into the lower 48, turning up as far south as Florida and the Bahamas. Similar but not quite as epic, owl irruptions occur roughly every 3 to 5 years. But even in the off years, a few Snowy Owls still push into the northern U.S. Keep an eye on your local eBird listings for sightings near you, and read birder Tim Boucher’s advice for taking advantage of these winter invasions.
The cardinal’s splash of feathery red is a welcome contrast to the snow and bare branches of winter. The male has a black “face mask,” a distinctive shaggy crest and a thick bill for crushing seeds. It is a common feeder visitor, often visiting in pairs — the female has a similar shape, but is mostly brownish. It was one of the most commonly-seen birds in many places throughout the country.
North America’s smallest woodpecker is black and white, and the males have a touch of red on the back of the head. It can be found in almost every state, including Alaska. It’s often mistaken for its larger relative, the hairy woodpecker, although the downy has a smaller bill in comparison to its head. When not pecking wood in a search for insects, it is notably attracted to bird feeders stocked with suet.
This one of the most widespread birds of prey in the U.S. While many raptors go south for the winter, the red-tailed hawk can be found soaring over a wide variety of habitats — including suburban neighborhoods — in much of the U.S. all winter long. If it visits feeders though, it’s not there to eat the seeds!
As the name suggests, most of them do have red tails. Although there are regional variations, they are usually darker brown above and lighter below, with the namesake red tail feathers on the adults.. It is one of the larger hawks in North America.
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