For avid birders like myself, birding in cold weather is a given. Others who are new to birding, or not as fanatical as I am, may not realize the full potential of winter birding. For me winter birding has several benefits. First it keeps me active. Finding a place outdoors with a network of paths or trails to walk and plenty of birds to see is a great way to combine my favourite hobby with exercise. The combination of the two helps not only my physical health, but my mental health as well. Birding and being active in the outdoors is the perfect cure for the winter blues. Take last winter for instance; so many people were unhappy with the cold weather and relentless snowfall, but I embraced it. I found myself outdoors every chance I had, searching for bird species that overwinter across our region. Without my connection to the outdoors, I definitely would have been left feeling rather down with winter.
During extreme weather, the chances for rare or unusual sightings are much greater. Some birds that do not typically migrate to our area may find themselves here in search of food. This was the case last winter when I observed two Red-throated Loons on the Thames River, the first recorded sighting of this species in Middlesex County since 1898. Irruptions, the sudden increase in a bird population in an area, also can take place during extreme weather conditions as birds follow or search for a food source.
Several bird species do migrate annually into our area to spend the winter. Getting out in the cold is a necessity if we want to view these birds close to home. London is blessed with the Thames River. The number of waterfowl species that migrate from the far north to spend winter on the open river and feed is remarkable. It is only during winter months we can observe White-winged Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and Common Goldeneye to name a few along the river. The narrow watercourse provides excellent views, even without the use of a spotting scope or binoculars.
Snowy Owls are frequently seen across our area during winter months. Last season’s irruption was quite spectacular. These large white Owls were seen north, south, east, and west of the city, with a few reported sightings within the city limits. The greatest numbers were to the south of the city, with several sightings coming from the Scotland Drive and Old Victoria Road area, and around the city dump on Manning Drive. Another popular location to observe Snowy Owls is in the Strathroy area. Snowy Owls often return to the same area each winter and have been recorded in this location annually for several years. A local birder reported seeing one along Egremont Drive outside of Strathroy on Friday.
Northern Shrikes are another fascinating bird that inhabit London during winter. Westminster Ponds, Fanshawe Conservation Area and Greenway Park are all locations where I have observed these birds. Shrikes are unique in that they are a predatory songbird, feeding on small birds and rodents, often impaling them on thorny trees and wire fences. Roughly the size of a Blue Jay, they can be found over open fields, and along forest edges where they prefer tall trees for perching. Shrikes will often kill more prey than they can consume and store their prey for a later meal.
Winter is also a great time of year to view raptors. These large birds are more easily viewed at this time of year when there are no leaves on the trees. Owls are often sought out by winter birders for this reason. Among the largest Owls in our area, the Great Horned, begins nesting as early as February. Listening for pairs hooting back and forth at dusk is great way to locate these birds in winter. Returning under better light conditions to the same area often results in nice views. Remember to respect the birds and not approach too closely especially during nesting season.
Bald Eagles are a large raptor that are more readily observed during winter months in the city. They too use the Thames River as a food source and are easily found on various stretches of the river. One of my favourite places to view Eagles is at Greenway Park. These birds often perch in the tall Poplar trees directly across from the Greenway Pollution Control Plant, providing excellent views.
Winter birding is quite enjoyable when dressed for the weather. Let’s face it, no activity is fun if you are not comfortable. Investing in some quality winter clothing is the first step to successful winter birding. If you are wondering what I recommend wearing to stay warm, I wrote a post last winter on this subject which can be read here.
With winter days so short and much of our time spent indoors at work or the hockey arena, getting outside can be a huge benefit. I think if you try it, you will agree that partaking in an outdoor hobby is a great way to enjoy winter. Birding is a low impact, inexpensive, physical activity that is fun for the whole family, regardless of age or gender. If you are looking for new past time this winter, then why not give birding a try?