Winter is Great for the Novice Birder

The author's little brown bird, in this case, is a mourning dove.

I began my hobby of birding when I was a student at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. While taking an Ornithology course with Guy Baldassarre (1953-2012), students were encouraged to work on their life lists by seeing as many birds as possible outside of the classroom for extra credit. And do you want to know something? Spotting a little brown bird while it fleetingly perches on a brown branch amongst fluttering leaves is a challenge for a novice birder. 

Enter winter birding. No one can deny that winter happens in Syracuse, so with a brand new love of birds I often found myself at Green Lakes State Park clomping along in my heavy boots , a pair of binoculars at the ready.  Interestingly, it occurred to me that winter birding was a great way to hone my skills in a number of ways.

One obvious advantage of winter birding is that there are no leaves to block your view. In the winter, there is nothing between you and the bird you are trying to spot but bare branches.

A second advantage of winter birding is that the birds don’t seem to be in quite as much of a frenzy as they do during the summer months when they are racing against the clock to get their chicks fed and fledged before fall. Chickadees are notorious for being curious birds that will come check out passersby, and in the winter they will often follow a person down the trail, giving you time to locate and focus on them.

Winter birding also presents an opportunity that summer birding does not: the ability to track a bird’s habits when it is on the ground. Tracks in the snow can give you a greater insight into an individual’s, a population’s, or a species’ behavior during the winter months in a way that is lost in the summer. I know that around my house, tracks in the snow indicated that the juncos and sparrows are taking haven in my holly bushes, which I can use to my advantage to locate my subject with greater ease.

Lastly, winter birding can hone your observation skills for one special reason: pretty much all birds in the winter look like little brown birds. It is definitly a challenge to tell one species from another but the upside is that it is a great way to know your year-round residents well so that you can confidently move onto identifying the migrants in the spring.


gabriellewheeler_profileStory and Photo by Gabrielle L. Wheeler