In my last blog post The Best Gloves For Winter Birding and Photography, I shared which gloves I wear to keep my hands warm while birding during cooler weather. If despite being properly dressed you still don’t enjoy getting outdoors for winter birding there is another option. Birding from the comfort of a warm car can be incredibly rewarding.
With the vast majority of county rounds surrounded by open farmland and woodlots, expect to find birds specific to these types of habitats when birding by car. Birds of prey, Wild Turkeys, and songbirds including Horned Larks and Snow Buntings are all readily observed when birding by car.
When birding by car, it is generally the larger birds that I search for, those that are more easily observed from a distance. Birds of prey can be easily located and viewed from a vehicle simply by driving down area roads. During the winter months, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Rough-legged Hawks, and Snowy Owls are all readily observed along county roads and highways throughout Southwestern Ontario, Whether perched on a wire, in a large tree adjacent to a farmer’s field, or sitting on the ground, these birds are easily found.
While many of these birds can be found just about anywhere based on the abundance of suitable habitat throughout the area, there are a few resources available to improve your success. The Middlesex/Elgin/Oxford Observation Group is great for keeping up to date with recent sightings from within these three counties. Another great option for following recent observations is the eBird Species Map. Simply type in the species you wish to observe and the area in which you intend to look, and all reported sightings will appear on the map. You can narrow your search further by choosing a custom date range. Having a quick look at these websites before heading out will greatly increase your success.
There are a couple of things to be mindful of when birding by car. First and foremost, be safe. Pay attention to other vehicles including snowplows sharing the roads with you. I constantly check my mirrors for faster moving vehicles approaching from behind, and if safe to do so, pull over to let them pass. Choosing some of the less traveled roads is a great way to avoid traffic and increase your safety. Be aware of the weather and road conditions and drive accordingly. When pulling over to let other cars pass, make sure there is room for your vehicle and not a deep ditch waiting to engulf your car. Snow covered shoulders can be deceiving and having to call a tow truck will result in a long wait and an expensive bill.
Another thing to keep in mind is to be respectful. This applies to both landowners and the birds. Most of the land surrounding these roads and highways is privately owned, so observe the birds from the shoulder only without wandering across lawns and fields. In the case of Snowy Owls, these birds have traveled hundreds if not thousands of kilometers from their breeding grounds in search of food. In many cases owls are exhausted, hungry, and already stressed. Chasing them from their perch only adds to that stress. If you cannot get close enough for a decent view or photograph remember the area and return another day.
Snowy Owls will remain in an area all winter if not repeatedly disturbed and often return to the same area each winter. With a little patience and multiple visits to the same area, great views and images will be obtained without stressing the birds. I have said this before in previous blog posts, but will say it again, stay in your car. Snowy Owls are far less likely to flush from their perch if you observe and photograph them from within your vehicle. Approaching on foot for a closer look will only cause the bird to fly resulting in lost views and unnecessary stress.
If heading outdoors in the cold and snow is not your cup of tea, but you would still like your fill of birding this winter, give birding by car a try. Southwestern Ontario’s back roads are surrounded by an abundance of ideal habitat to attract and sustain a variety of birds and wildlife. Grab your camera, binoculars, a warm drink, and hit the road. Remember to be safe while driving during winter conditions and to respect the birds. If you have never tried birding by car, give this method a try. I think you will find it incredibly gratifying and you may just record a new species or two along the way.