Make winter birdwatching your next cold weather hobby

Fly solo or grab your flock and a field guide for your first lesson in winter birdwatching.
A Snowy Owl perches against a white sky background
Courtesy of Creative Commons
A Snowy Owl eyes birdwatchers against a gray winter sky.

If you’re still braving the outdoors this winter season but you’ve run out of ideas, you might try winter birdwatching. Carolyn Byers, director of education at Madison Audubon, has had her eyes to the skies (and sometimes the ground) for years. Byers specializes in nesting ecology, chick development, foraging and other aspects of avian behavior but she says no experience is necessary to enjoy our feathery friends. She loves birding and all it entails, including the simple pleasure of a wintertime walk. While note taking is the most traditional way to track your flying finds, like most things these days, there’s an app for that. So snag your smartphone or notepad, grab a pair of binoculars and bundle up — but first, we asked Byers where to go, what to look for, and how to turn this old pastime into a new, rewarding hobby right here in town.

What are your favorite birds to look for while winter birdwatching?
I like watching all birds in winter! Winter is a great time to really get to know our resident birds. You can spend time watching cool behaviors like preening and foraging, and you can learn more about what kinds of habitats each bird can be found in. It’s also a great time of year to start identifying birds by their songs since there are fewer species around than in the summer. Some special birds that we usually only see in Wisconsin during the winter are Dark-eyed Juncos, Snowy Owls, and finches like crossbills and grosbeaks.

Where in and near Madison do you like to birdwatch in the colder months?
The University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, Pheasant Branch Conservancy and Cherokee Marsh are all great places for winter birding in Madison. If you want to get out of town a little and avoid crowds, Madison Audubon sanctuaries are fabulous! Goose Pond in Arlington, Faville Grove in Lake Mills and Otsego Marsh in Rio are all beautiful winter birding destinations. Find directions and maps here.

What are the biggest misconceptions folks have about birdwatching?
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about birdwatching is that there’s a right or wrong way to do it. As long as you’re keeping the birds safe and enjoying your time, you’re birding! You could be sitting at a window or in a lawn chair watching birds in your yard or birding for 20 hours straight and keeping a species list. Both options (and everything in between) are great! Just remember to give birds their space, especially hawks, owls and any bird that is breeding.

What advice do you have for first-time birdwatchers?
My advice to first-time birdwatchers is to enjoy yourself. Start out just observing the birds around you. If you want to learn more, make a list of the 10 or 20 most common birds to learn to identify. Keep adding to this list as you go! For more information about getting started birding, check out the Madison Audubon blog: Entryway to Birding here.

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