1/2/2014 – Birdwatching

With the Holidays and winter solstice behind us you might be struggling for a way to enjoy the short, cold days of winter. The perfect antidote is close at hand. This week’s Places We Love is all about enjoying the winter bird scene either through a feeder in your own backyard or by pulling on your boots and taking a walk to see what you might find.

In the winter, one of the best ways to get to know the birds in your neighborhood is by setting up a feeder or two outside a favorite window. Consider getting feeders that are easy to clean, easy to refill and might attract a few different kinds of birds. For example, a thistle sock will attract goldfinches and a platform feeder with a mixture of seeds, nuts and fruit will bring in the red-bellied woodpecker. If squirrels might be your top customer consider how you might squirrel-proof your feeder area. Once you are all set up you might borrow a guide from the library and pick up binoculars for a closer look at who is frequenting your birdy buffet.

What can you expect to find this time of year? Northern cardinal, woodpeckers (downy, hairy and red-bellied), mourning dove, blue jay, chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, finches and Carolina wren are a good start. The winter bird population is a mix of year-round residents and winter migrants. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows winter in the mid-Atlantic but summer in Canada during the breeding season. Some American robins and Canada geese spend winters here as well while warblers head towards warmers climes. You might also have an occasional flock of red-winged blackbirds, a curious hawk or two or something that is highly variable each year such as a pine siskin or white-winged crossbill. You might consider making note of your daily observations.

One great thing about watching birds in your own backyard is that you can do it in concert with other birdwatchers from around the world. Each year, the Great Backyard Bird Count gets just a little bit bigger, last year being its first international bird count. Put on by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon and Bird Studies Canada, this four-day event captures a real-time snapshot of the world’s bird population. Last year participants reported birds from all 7 continents, including 111 countries and independent territories. Bird watchers reported 4,004 species from about 180 bird families–39% of the world’s bird species and 78% of bird families. The value of this data is incredible. It can detect trends in populations, disease, climate and so much more. The best part is that it takes as little as 15 minutes and any skill level can participate. The 2014 count is from February 14 to the 17, for more information visit birdsource.org/gbbc.

Another great way to enjoy birds in the winter is to join a flock for a winter bird walk. You never know what you are going to see—each year there are exciting things to share with other birders. For example, this year snowy owls are popping up all over the region (check out phillybirdnerd.net). Whether you are a first-time bird watcher or an expert, you will always learn something new and meet some great, friendly people too.

Speaking of friendly people, a great way to get started in birding is through the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club. Founded in 1890, this was the second American bird club. Although, DVOC has outlasted the first established club. This all-volunteer group is dedicated to birders and bird-enthusiasts in the Delaware Valley Region, offering interesting trips with an open door to birders of all abilities with someone always willing to take a new birder under their wing.

If you are looking for a place to go spur of the moment or by yourself you can’t go wrong with a natural area with water this time of year. The Conowingo Dam and the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge are two local favorites of my own. The Conowingo Dam attracts hundreds of interesting birds, especially gulls, herons, waterfowl and bald eagles. Winter is peak season at this spot. The by-product of electrical generation at the dam is the creation of great meals for fish-eating birds. The John Heinz Wildlife Refuge is also a fantastic winter spot. Great for exercise and offering interesting birds at every turn, you can spot everything from kinglets to owls on their trails. Great horned owls, one of the region’s earliest breeders, are sometimes spotted at the Refuge on the nest even when there is still snow on the ground.

Your participation in local bird activities is not only fun for you but the data you collect can be locally, and even internationally, significant. The hard work of the Lower Merion Conservancy’s BirdWatch volunteers has detected trends in climate change, bird population dynamics and so much more. If this week’s Places We Love has peaked your interest in birding, come out and give it a try at these two local events listed below.

The Lower Merion Conservancy is holding its Winter Bird Count this Sunday, January 5 starting at 8:30 a.m. sharp, meeting in Rolling Hill Park, 1301 Rose Glen Road in Gladwyne. All levels are welcome!

On Saturday, January 11 you can join in the 28th highlights the incredible bird diversity found within the city limits. For more information, visit DVOC.org and look under the ‘next field trips’ section.

Patty Thompson is the Executive Director of the Lower Merion Conservancy. She can be reached at patty@lmconservancy.org.