As summer ends and fall begins, it is not too soon to think of winter bird watching. Early fall is the best time to plan and prepare for winter bird watching. However, you can start anytime during the year.
When you mention bird watching, most people think of spring, summer and fall. Spring and fall are good times to look for migratory birds that may not spend the summer where you live. Places such as Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania is one site where you can watch migratory birds. There are other sites throughout the world.
The summer of course is a great time to watch the resident birds raise their young and learn their survival skills. But the most overlooked time of the year to watch birds is the winter.
This is the time when bird feeders and heated birdbaths attract a wide variety of birds that are sometimes hard to spot during the other seasons. Without the leaves on trees and food harder to get, these birds are more likely to spend time around your feeder and bird bath. The more elusive and shy birds are easier to spot and the bold ones, such as the Chickadee’s, will land on your hand for some black oil sunflower seeds. Nothing is quite as thrilling to a bird watcher then having a sweet little Chickadee look you in the eye and snatch a seed right from the palm of your hand. Do note that it takes time and patience to get the birds to eat out of your hand.
But a real treat is to get a glimpse of a Pileated Woodpecker in the winter. Despite being large (15”) this is a very shy and hard to spot bird. Because of its loud pecking, and the large holes it makes in trees, you are more likely to see where it has been or hear it rather than actually see it. This bird is very difficult to sneak close enough to in order to get a good look. I find that it is even more difficult to photograph it because if the bird sees you it will fly away.
If you want a real treat, put out a wildlife seed block and you will have just about everything that lives in your area paying a visit. Here in the Pocono’s I have a huge flock of turkeys that come for three square meals a day.
Winter bird watching can be very successful if you put up squirrel proof bird feeders (such the Brome standard pictured here) filled with sunflower seeds. A platform feeder for the ground feeders (such as Dark-eyed Junco’s and doves) as well as the larger birds can be filled with a wild bird seed mix. The Brome squirrel buster bird feeders are the only ones that I have used that really work, and the birds love them.
Here a rare Red-headed woodpecker visits my platform feeder.
On very cold harsh days I occasionally supplement the seeds with freeze dried meal worms. The worms also help the insect eating birds that may stay in the area, such as Bluebirds. They also help Robins who may come too early in the spring or get caught in a late snow storm.
If there are bears in your area, they are less of a problem in the winter and you can leave a bird feeder outside at night. But to be safe, take it in. Keep in mind that birds typically are most active at dawn and dusk. Although during harsh days they will feed throughout the day.
Do not take in your hummingbird feeders until there is a risk of the nectar freezing. While resident hummers may have migrated, some of the northern hummers will appreciate a chance to feed as they pass through.
The safest and best heated bird bath is the model pictured. You do not want to put a heating element in your regular bird bath because if the deer or other animals drink the birdbath dry the element will fail. This bird bath is safe if the water is drained out of it.
You can also get a large branch or small tree trunk and make a wonderful woodpecker feeder by drilling two one inch holes through the trunk. An eye hook and a simple dog leash clasp that you can buy at a hardware store with some clothes line or wire to hang it, works well.
I put the clothes line over a branch of a tree to pull it high so the deer will not eat it and then tie it off so I can raise and lower it to fill it. You can find inexpensive suet cakes at outlets like Ollies and cut a one inch slab off of the cake and push it into the hole. You can also pack the holes with suet from a butcher or ask the butcher at the local supermarket to save you suet. The prepared suet cakes can be used year round since they are OK in the heat but the natural suet does not do well in the warm weather. You can also make your own suet which can go into a cage suet feeder or the log feeder. The log feeder pictured here is one I made.
If possible, place your bird feeders where the birds have shelter. This will keep them safe from predators such as hawks. Hanging a bird feeder from a tree, or near bushes will help you attract a wide variety of birds. In the winter I also add a peanut feeder with split peanuts to my collection of feeders. I also use shepherd’s hooks to hang feeders near trees and bushes. This makes it easy to maintain your feeders.
It is important to wash your feeders at least once a week to help prevent the spread of disease and make the seeds visible. There is always dust and dirt that can collect in some tube feeders that will clog the drain holes in the bottom. So maintenance is important.
Watching the local birds from my office window during the winter is a real treat for me. I have found that by watching their habits, I can often tell what the weather is going to be the next day. It is amazing how the birds know when a storm is coming and will eat extra food. Many birds also hide food in trees and other areas to eat during bad weather.
Bird watching is also an educational experience for children. They can use a bird book and try to identify the various birds that come to your feeders.
Happy bird watching!