Winter and birding seem like an unlikely pair. “What is there to see in the winter?” people often ask.
The truth is that winter in southern Ontario offers some extravagant avian rewards. What better remedy is there for the winter blues than the sight of a bufflehead gliding across frigid Lake Ontario and flaunting his iridescent plumage?
I believe that winter is an ideal time for birding. Ducks, for example, are at their most colourful in the winter. A quick trip to Humber Bay or Colonel Samuel Smith Park, both in southwest Toronto, can bring you face-to-face with dozens of waterfowl species. Some of my favorites are the hooded merganser, with his gorgeous bee-hive hairdo, and the red-breasted merganser, with his spiked hair chiseled into tight zigzags. Long-tailed duck, greater and lesser scaup, redhead, American wigeon and scoters of every persuasion (black, white and surf) also make for exceptional viewing.
There is always a chance that a fabled visitor, such as the harlequin or wood duck, will make an appearance. These two are so striking you might think they were hand-painted by the most talented of artists.
Ducks aside, winter is also the perfect time to see owls, especially the majestic snowy and more elusive long and short-eared owls.
No matter how many times I see a snowy owl, I never cease to marvel at the bird’s fierce and magical demeanor.
We happen to be in the midst of a second consecutive snowy owl invasion year, which you can read more about here.
Winter birding also brings the added excitement of surprising visitors — usually vagrants who have lost their way and flown here by mistake. Some memorable visitors this year in the Greater Toronto Area have included painted bunting (from Texas), black-backed woodpecker and Harris’s sparrow.
Some of my most rewarding winter birding experiences have been watching common birds at feeders. I can think of no sight more stunning than a fiery red northern cardinal against a barren winter landscape. The call of a chickadee breathes life and whimsy into freezing days, a pine siskin — a grayish brownish finch — astounds us with its dazzling yellow wing bars, and the sight of an intrepid red-breasted nuthatch creeping headfirst down a tree will convert even the most skeptical into a die-hard winter birder. The tapping of a woodpecker — a downy, a hairy, a red-bellied or even something as exciting and rare as a black-backed — will lighten up the dreariest of days.
There’s something fabulously hard-core about winter birding. Standing outside with binoculars in hopes of finding a skittish flock of common redpolls in -15 degree weather definitely feels like I’m earning a badge of honor. Alternatively, it could mean that I’m hovering on the edge of insanity. Either way, you can rest assured that I’m out there with an unstoppable grin on my face.