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Even as New England heads into a deep freeze and the landscape gets covered in a glittering blanket of white, the rewards—and surprises—of winter birdwatching abound. Whether your favorite place is a meadow, coastal area, or in the woods, “Winter is a great time to bird watch,” says Russ Hopping, The Trustees’ Director of Ecology. “The coast is especially productive as many northern birds are visiting and spending their winter with us.”
Birdwatching in the winter requires little in the way of equipment, expense, or experience. All you need is warm clothing, good boots, binoculars, a field guide—whether in a pocket or on a smartphone—and an enthusiasm for nature. Places to look for birds are just about everywhere. In wooded areas, such as Bartholomew's Cobble in the Berkshires, leafless trees make it easier to spot birds flitting among the branches. The empty canopy opens a broad view of the sky to spot hawks, vultures, and other birds flying overhead. The woods are quiet as birds are less vocal than in different seasons and human visitors are far less numerous. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, blue jays, and woodpeckers are good bets to be seen. Venture to the brushy edge of the woods and mockingbirds, Carolina wrens, cardinals, and sparrows pop up from the bramble to see what is walking by. Brown thrashers, cedar waxwings, and eastern towhees are other winter possibilities in this type of habitat.
Owls stand guard over the frozen woods and Laurie Nehring, a naturalist for The Trustees, holds evening “owl prowls” at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard. Great horned owls and barred owls are the regular quarry for these excursions. Nehring is adept at imitating the “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” call of the barred owl, which often brings the impressive birds closer to the prowler groups. “There's nothing more exciting to me than being with a group of night explorers, hiking slowly along a trail with nothing but the moon and stars lighting the way,” Nehring says. “Sometimes owls silently land right over our heads, on a bare branch, and look down at us with their big brown eyes, hooting directly at our group!”
Coastal areas are otherworldly in the winter. Gone are the beach crowds and noise, leaving expansive views of sand, snow, and ocean water. A wide variety of birds utilize the coast during winter, even though the scene may appear desolate at first glance. Many shorebirds are hardy enough to remain in New England throughout the cold months: Sizable flocks of sanderlings chase the waves just like they do in the summer and purple sandpipers, rarely seen in other seasons, congregate on rocky islands off the coast. Sandy beaches and other low-cut open areas are also good places to look for more elusive snow buntings and horned larks.
The ocean is a foreboding force in the winter, but for a significant number of waterfowl, the waters off the New England coast offer all the comforts of home. A spotting scope is helpful for picking out these fowl, but a good pair of binoculars will bring them closer as well. Eiders, mergansers, goldeneye, bufflehead, scaup, long-tailed ducks, and scoters bob among the waves. Common and red-throated loons, in their dull winter plumage, can also be seen off the coast amid the ducks.
Coastal areas are also the most reliable places to look for the snowy owl, a remarkable bird from the Arctic that shows up in New England in varying numbers each winter. Once recent winter—2013—brought an impressive number of these birds to the region. Check out Castle Hill and Crane Beach—both part of the Crane Estate in Ipswich — for snowy owls. Trustees hold Snowy Owl Prowls throughout the winter in search of these rodent-eating Arctic visitors.
Lakes, ponds, and rivers also offer rewarding birding opportunities in the winter. Common and hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, bufflehead, American wigeon, and green-winged teal frequent these haunts and will remain as long as the water doesn't freeze. Try Shovelshop Pond at Governor Oliver Ames Estate in Easton, or Gordon Pond at Norris Reservation in Norwell to look for these freshwater gems.
Winter birdwatching is affordable, accessible, flexible, healthy, and rewarding. Snow covering the ground and branches only adds to the magical feel of being out there among the birds. Bundle up, grab your binoculars, head to your favorite Trustees property, and start counting!
Chris Bosak lives in Danbury, CT, and writes for the News-Times in Danbury, and the Keene Sentinel in Keene, NH. His website is birdsofnewengland.com.