Birding in Winter

Common Merganser_Winter Bird Count_FCNC-CO_LAH_2471-001

I have a tendency to be a fair-weather birder. Give me warm, sunny days, balmy breezes, and sparkling blue ponds and lakes. Trees are full of leaves, bugs, and birds. With all the summer migrants in town, trip lists run long. Singing males are easier to spot, and the rituals of mating and raising young, offering additional opportunities for the wildlife photographer.

It has taken me a long time to appreciate winter birding. Temperatures dip below freezing and it may snow. Roads can be treacherous, providing unwanted excitement just getting to the birding destination. Many birds have heeded to call to migrate, and those left behind tend to be drab, matching the winter landscape. And then there’s the silence. I hear no songs, not even much chirping. Yes, there are birds out there, but where?

And yet…

Northern Shoveler_BosquedelApacheNWR-NM_LAH_7745fYes, the weather may be frightful—but we often get lovely brisk-but-sunny days even in the coldest part of the year. Because the water has a layer of ice on it, you can see the birds’ legs, a boon for figuring out which duck or (non-Ring-billed) gull you’re looking at. Those bare trees mean that no leaves hide the birds. For someone who IDs birds by sight much easier than by sound, it’s a relief to be able to see them.

This time of year, fewer people are outside hiking the trails, fishing, or just having a raucous good time—and scaring away the birds in the process. I’m often the only one at a birding spot that’s quite popular in the warmer months. I don’t mind people enjoying the outdoors, even if their idea of a good time doesn’t match mine, but in winter, it seems as if all of nature is putting on a private showing, just for me.

Photographers with Sandhill Cranes_MonteVistaNWR-CO_20100321_LAH_0740.nef

The cold provides another benefit. There are no mosquitoes. No gnats, no ticks, no snakes, no bears…. Just us and the birds. I’m not going to complain!

The summer birds are gone, but there are some species that only show up along the Front Range in the winter, such as Rough-legged Hawks, American Tree Sparrows, and various strays from further north (such as the Bohemian Waxwings that were just sighted in northern Colorado). Others, such as Rosy-Finches and various Dark-eyed Juncos are more accessible.

And then there’s the silence. Even birding in a city park, or at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a national wildlife refuge with a view of the downtown Denver skyline, it feels as if civilization is a million miles away. There’s a hush we don’t often experience in the midst of our technology-saturated world.


The landscape initially appears monochromatic—all gray or brown—but take and longer look and subtle pastels emerge. Yellow willow branches, red osier dogwood, golden dried grasses—the colors are there.

With the sun lower in the sky, much of the day is lit by the golden glow we photographers adore. Sunrises and sunsets last longer than they do in June. And a later dawn means that there’s no need to get up at some ungodly hour to catch the early birds.

Snow Geese dawn_BosquedelApacheNWR-NM_LAH_6358

The birds may not be mating quite yet, although ducks have already molted into their breeding plumage, and owls are picking out nesting sites. But there is plenty of other action. On Christmas Eve, I watched a small flock of gulls fight over a crayfish, squawking, fighting, then chasing off the losers, and took this series of photos:

When the day is dark and cloudy, with snow flying and the day’s high is in the low 20s, I’m happy to stay indoors and just write about birding. But then I remember that some of my favorite photos were taken in the snow, and I wonder—should I be out there birding?

Birds, from top: Hooded and Common Mergansers; Northern Shoveler on ice,; birding Monte Vista NWR; Dark-eyed Junco, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Rough-legged Hawk, American Tree Sparrow; Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR; Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache NWR; Ring-billed Gulls (3)

Last week’s quiz bird is a House Sparrow.

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