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Guest Post by Judy Roberts — Winter Birding

Judy Roberts is a freelance writer who is inspired by the natural world in her garden and in the woodland habitat she and her husband foster for birds and other wildlife around their Ohio home.

Unless you live in a tropical paradise year-round, the winter months are bound to leave you in a funk, particularly after the rush of Christmas ends and the decorations are put away.

If you can’t escape to a sunnier, warmer climate, it’s good to have some personal strategies for winter survival. One of mine is something that can be done indoors or out, at little or no expense, and when the weather is delightful or frightful.

Bird-watching – an activity I once considered the province of rather odd people who dressed in khaki and wore sensible shoes – is one way to enjoy winter instead of just enduring it. Wherever you live and even if you haven’t noticed, birds are part of your surroundings, and observing their winter habits can be pure pleasure.

Imagine beginning a winter day by looking out the window, not just to check the weather, but to see what your bird friends are doing. A downy woodpecker is happily picking seeds out of a block of suet and goldfinches are jockeying for position at the tube feeder. Instead of lamenting a gray day and sinking deeper into seasonal affective disorder, you’ve redirected your attention outside and focused on the life that teems there, even on the darkest, coldest days.

If you choose to venture outside, you will be treated to a variety of bird sounds, like the call of the nuthatch, the chirping of finches, and at dusk, the mating calls of owls.

Before you trot off to a store to invest in a feeder and seed, however, a good way to sample the birding experience is to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count on the weekend of Feb. 18-21. All you have to do is look at a given spot in your yard or a park for at least 15 minutes, count the birds you see, and submit your checklist. You can spend more than 15 minutes and go to additional sites on one day or all four. GBBC asks only that you turn in a checklist for each day and location. You’ll find instructions on their site. They also will provide you with a regional checklist so you can learn what kinds of birds you are most likely to observe in your area. By clicking on each name you’ll get a description and photo of each bird.

If birding is love-at-first-sighting for you, then by all means get yourself a feeder and some seed and a good bird book. You can get a simple tube feeder for under $10 at most big-box or hardware stores. Fill it with black sunflower oilers, most likely to attract interesting birds like woodpeckers, cardinals, chickadees, finches, titmice, and nuthatches.

If you want to take it up a notch, consider suet blocks and a holder – certain to draw woodpeckers – and a heated bird bath. Whatever you do, once you begin feeding in the winter, do try to continue doing so, especially if you live in a rural or otherwise isolated area where birds are unlikely to find alternative feeders. As for bird books, find something appropriate for your part of the world with good illustrations and written descriptions. Some mainstays are the Peterson, Kaufman, and National Geographic field guides. Birds, one of the Golden Guides from St. Martin’s Press, is especially well-suited to beginners.

Should you discover that your interest in birds is bordering on a passion, there’s one more thing you can do to enhance your winter birding activity: For a nominal fee, you can join the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch and become part of a nationwide birding community. From November through early April, FeederWatch participants report their sightings weekly, helping scientists track winter bird populations and trends. Information for Project Feeder Watch located here.


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