Bird-watching in Winter

By Mary Alice Hartsock

Photographs by Glenn Bartley, Garth McElroy, Johann Schumacher, and Tom Vezo, courtesy of Visual Resources for Ornithology

When the air becomes crisp and snow begins to fall, the natural world can seem still and silent. Yet experienced bird-watchers always keep their binoculars handy, for winter provides the perfect setting to catch a glimpse of some extraordinary birds.

Bird-watchers look forward to winter in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey because it is the perfect time to spot birds that do not normally live in our area. These experts know what settings and types of vegetation attract rare birds, and they have the ability to identify them based on their plumage, behaviors, and calls.

If you are not an experienced bird-watcher, we hope the following images, descriptions, and tips will help you discover and photograph the winter birds in your neighborhood with nearly as much skill as a seasoned birder. Read more about bird migration.

White-breasted Nuthatch

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The white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) has grayish-blue feathers on its back, a white face, a long, pointed bill, a white upper-belly, and reddish-brown feathers on its lower belly. A black “hood” runs from its neck to the top of its head. In winter, you may see this bird foraging in flocks with chickadees and titmice. It’s likely to be creeping along tree trunks and large branches of deciduous trees, turning sideways or upside down as it searches for seeds, nuts, and insects. You may also spot this common feeder bird in the woods and in parks, wooded suburbs, and yards where large trees grow. © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

Bird-watching Tip
Did you know that many birds associate skyward movements with predators? That means that you may frighten a bird if you stand up from a seated position or abruptly lift your binoculars. To avoid disturbing the bird, remain still. Raise your binoculars or camera to your face very, very slowly, pulling your arms up against your torso. ~Nate Rice, Ornithology Collection Manager

 White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow, Tom Vezo/VIREO

A sharply outlined, bright white throat is the defining feature of the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). This large bird has dark stripes on its crown, a white over-eye stripe, a bright yellow spot between its eye and pointy gray bill, a rusty-brown back, and a grayish belly. You might spot it scratching in undergrowth, brush, and gardens, where it eats weed seeds and small fruit directly off plants. The white-throated sparrow is one of the most common sparrows in our area in winter. Photo © Tom Vezo/VIREO

American Goldfinch

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The American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) adult male in breeding plumage is bright yellow with a black forehead, jet black wings with white bars, and a black and white tail. The adult female and winter male are grayish brown and white. From pink conical bill to notched tail, this bird measures up to 13 cm. It forages locally, sometimes with redpolls, during the winter. It is most likely to be found in old fields, open woodlands, and along highways, especially where thistle and sunflower seeds are plentiful. Photo © Johann Schumacher/VIREO

Fox Sparrow

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Growing up to 18 centimeters, this large, plump, round sparrow (Passerella iliaca) has a short bill, reddish-brown back, rump, and tail, reddish wings, a grayish head, and an underside splotched with brown. It is found in undergrowth, searching for seeds under leaf litter yet avoiding deep snow. See if you can spot a fox sparrow foraging in a backyard thicket this winter. Photo © Johann Schumacher/VIREO

VIREO’s Top 10 Tips for Bird Photography from Doug Wechsler, Former Director, Visual Resources for Ornithology

  • Keep the sun at your back. Side lighting and backlighting rarely work well for birds.
  • For most situations, use the longest lens you have.
  • Use a tripod whenever possible.
  • Know your birds. Try to anticipate where a bird will be, and set up before it arrives.
  • On sunny days, shoot photographs early and late in the day.
  • Pay attention to the background—usually simple is best.
  • For flight shots, pan the camera following the movement of the bird.
  • Avoid shadows and lighting with intense contrast.
  • Think about composition while shooting. Don’t place the bird in the center of every frame.
  • Shoot for action and behavior; don’t just settle for portraits.

Migration and Irruptive Migrants

Most of us know that many birds fly south for the winter or retreat to lower elevations where food is plentiful. Some birds simply are more likely to migrate because their ancestors did, while others must migrate to survive. For this latter group, warmer destinations provide food, such as berries and insects, which are in short supply during a cold northern winter. Unfortunately, a number of migrants never reach their safe havens as a result of predators, overexertion, extreme weight loss, starvation, collisions, challenging weather, and a variety of other dangers encountered during their journeys.

The dangers of migration may be part of the reason that certain birds do not leave their habitats during inclement weather. Blue jays, which migrate only occasionally, mourning doves, crows, cardinals, and others forage for food throughout the winter.

Not all birds have such predictable cold-weather behavior. Unlike migratory birds, which travel from one specific site to another every year, irruptive migrants travel abruptly to a variety of sites when their regular cuisine is scarce. As winter seed-eaters that are not solely dependent upon berries and insects, they are able to find food in many different areas year-round. Scientists are still working to determine the triggers of winter bird irruptions. While some point to harsh weather and its effects on food availability, others credit food supply alone.

View more images of winter birds.

Parts of this article originally appeared in the winter 2014 issue of Academy Frontiers

All photographs are from the Academy’s Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO) collection, the Academy’s worldwide bird photography collection, which includes images of 7,300 species of birds. Seven hundred photographers and ornithologists have contributed to the collection. VIREO photographs are widely used in publications, exhibits, apps, and educational lectures.You can see 93,000 photos of birds, including all of the North American species, at vireo.ansp.org.