Experience continued bird watching in winter

Published 8:01 am Monday, November 14, 2011

When the first threat of frost starts to creep down the mountains and your breath clouds on a cold morning, many people start to think of indoor activities to last them through the long, cold winter.

Even some bird watchers relax and put their feet up after the last warbler has fled the onset of cooler weather. But these cool, slow winter days do not mean that birding is over for the year. There are still places to go and birds to see, plus you have that added advantage of there being no leaves for birds to hide behind.

The rule of thumb during the winter months is to leave the dense woodlands and head into the open countryside. Find any stretch of marsh or open water and that is where the birds are easier to see. Dense thickets, especially in the wetter areas, may hold sparrows, wrens and lingering warblers.

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Ducks, geese and gulls are found on lakes, larger rivers and reservoirs, and open fields create the best habitat for meadowlarks, pipits, snipe and birds of prey.

Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina there are plenty of good areas in which to stretch those winter-weary legs and enough birds to keep the binoculars warm.

If ducks aren’t your bag, head into the country and walk along any brushy edge and you are sure to flush some sparrows. Unlike the House Sparrow, a European import, most of our native species have rich songs, a far cry from the insistent cheepings of the more familiar inner city sparrow. Although many of the birds that you flush from the hedgerows may look brown and featureless, all of these sparrows sport a wide range of head-stripes, wing-bars and streaks. Their feathers are far from dull and brown. All are worth the quiet and stealth needed to get that extra look.

Winter belongs to the raptors or birds of prey and the results from a good winter day out in the field could include sightings of up to eight species. American Kestrels are a common sight as they perch on the utility wires while they scan the ground below for food.

Northern Harriers quarter the fields like the balsa-wood airplanes of our childhood, and the stately Red-tailed Hawk is the common large all-brown bird of prey in many habitats throughout our area.

But where would one go to see birds in the local area, and enjoy a good winter walk? Here in Polk County, there are wonderful trails at FENCE running through a wide range of habitats or you can drive up the mountain to Jackson Park in Hendersonville where they run birdwalks on the second Saturday of every month.

Organized walks at your local parks or nature centers are excellent ways to be introduced to bird watching. The leaders are knowledgeable about the local birds and know where to see them. Take advantage of their expertise and start to learn about the birdlife in your area.

The winter is a good time to learn about birds, as winter birding is free from many of the hazards of summer, such as heat, ticks and mosquitoes and, as I mentioned earlier, the vegetation is but a shadow of its summer glory. Also there are fewer species to choose among, as many birds have left to go south for the winter.

You may not learn all of those little, brown sparrows on your first walk, but give yourself a little time and look carefully at the bird’s feathers and how it flies. Before long you will know many of the common birds and one day you too may end up leading walks for other beginners.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. WWW.birdventures.com

He and Chris also own and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on any of the birding activities in the area, drop by the store or check his website at www.asheville.wbu.com