When I started birdwatching, I had no idea that it was a year-round sport. Although winter birding lacks the tremendous variety of spring birding – with its flashes of multi-colored warblers – it has a great deal to offer.
In fact, winter birding commands a certain respect. There’s a toughness to birders who are willing to stand in -21 degree Celsius weather, sporting a fantastical array of snow pants and powerful, cold-defying gloves, just to see the latest avian wonder. There are a surprisingly large number of us out there with binoculars, scopes, balaclavas, sheer determination and possibly a bit of mad enthusiasm.
Owls are one of the highlights of winter birding. This year we’re in the midst of a snowy owl irruption. A wonderful crowd-funded program called Project Snowstorm, run by the brilliant Scott Weidensaul and his colleagues, enables us to track snowy owls across the continent and to learn more about the irruption. And believe me; they’re all over the GTA and the province, and even as far south as Florida. Magical and majestic great grey owls are also winter regulars in these parts, and I recently saw a beautiful one up-close in Brooklin, northeast of Toronto.
One of the best places to go owling is Amherst Island, where one can see five species of owls in a day. The famous Owl Woods are currently in great danger because of a proposal to build an industrial wind turbine that will threaten wildlife on the island. There are ways to help protect the island, but we have to act quickly and get comments and letters in by March 8th.
Whereas spring birding is fairly predictable, the winter presents a palette of surprises. Exquisite vagrants appear in our midst by accident, when they are flown off-course. This season, I saw a spotted towhee and a varied thrush, both of which are west coast residents in southern Ontario by perverse twists of fate. Although I’m a big proponent of getting to know common species, chasing rarities offers a chance to explore new areas of the province. I was thrilled to discover the hamlet of Glen Williams while looking for the spotted towhee – with a delightful bakery, incredible artist studios, and a fantastically curated used bookstore.
It’s also the season of our glorious local waterfowl, decked out in their most fabulous plumage. Hooded mergansers glisten even against the dreariest of skies. Common goldeneye, bufflehead and long-tail ducks delight even in the most inclement weather.
Even though I’ve become a fan of winter birding, I am still looking forward to the spring. In about six weeks, we’ll be seeing our first warblers and the sky will be filled with colour and song. And that might be the very thing that keeps winter birders going!
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She also blogs about birds, words and other essential matters at: birdsandwords.wordpress.com.