The weather outside may be frightful, but winter birding can be delightful.
In the colder months – November through March – the Louisville area’s resident birds are joined by a number of regular visitors from the north. Going in search of these winter guests can make for a rewarding day in the field.
The shorter and colder days keep birds active throughout the daylight hours, so getting into the field at dawn is not as important. And the absence of all those pesky leaves makes birds easier to find.
White-throated Sparrow, Photo by National Audubon Society
Sparrows are probably the most common winter visitors to the Parklands. Two species – White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos – are the most numerous and most visible. Look for them in the abundant shrubby edge habitat between fields and woodlands, as well as in hedgerows. Swamp Sparrows are also relatively easy to find. Not surprisingly, you can expect to find them in wetter areas, including dense vegetation around ponds.
If you venture into wooded areas, keep your eye on the tree trunks. That is where you will see Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers – which are good-sized woodpeckers and easy to spot – and Brown Creepers, which are not. They are small and very well camouflaged. Seeing one is a real winter treat.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Photo by National Audubon Society
Even more difficult to find are the aptly named Winter Wrens. These tiny birds prefer dense thickets of tangled vegetation in wooded areas, and usually stay well hidden. You are much more likely to hear one than see one.
Kinglets also are very small, but much more visible. They come in two flavors: Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned. Look for them flitting about in the trees in the company of the resident Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. But don’t expect to see the crowns, especially the ruby ones. They are there, just not always on display.
Two other common wintering birds are Yellow-rumped Warblers and Hermit Thrushes. Like many of their close relatives, they arrive during the fall migration. Unlike most warblers and thrushes, though, they don’t keep going. Instead, they hang around unless extremely harsh weather pushes them farther south. Look for both along the edges of wooded areas.
Rusty Blackbirds, Purple Finches and Pine Siskins are here almost every winter, but not in great numbers. All three are often found in flocks of other, more common species. Rusty Blackbirds may be in the company of Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and similar species. Purple Finches are frequently in with House Finches, and Pine Siskins can be found associating with American Goldfinches.
Hermit Thrush, Photo by National Audubon Society
Most of these winter birds tend to be flexible when it comes to habitat – they have their preferences, but can turn up almost anywhere. Not so with the Red-breasted Nuthatch. These noisy little birds have a decided affinity for conifers, especially pines. There are almost always a few around, but they tend to be almost absent some years and present in others – a phenomenon probably driven by conditions to the north. They have been relatively plentiful his year.
Two species of raptors also visit our area in winter. If you see a hawk with a bright white rump patch hunting low over open fields, it’s likely a Northern Harrier – formerly known as a Marsh Hawk. Not as common, or as easy to spot, is the Merlin, a falcon that is a bit larger than our resident American Kestrels. There has only been one reported thus far in The Parklands at Turkey Run Park.
The final, prominent group of wintering birds are waterfowl, mainly ducks. About 20 species of ducks are regular winter visitors to our area. They tend to stick close to larger bodies of water such as the Ohio River, and there a few reports from The Parklands. But wintering ducks regularly appear on smaller ponds such as those in Beckley Creek and Turkey Run parks, so it is always worth the time to check them out.
So keep an eye out for these winter guests as you are out and about in The Parklands over the next few months. If you’d like to go in search of them in the company of experienced birders, Louisville’s Beckham Bird Club often conducts field trips in The Parklands. Non-members are welcome, and the veterans are always willing to assist beginners. A full schedule of trips can be found on the club’s website at http://www.beckhambirdclub.org/field-trips.html.
Learn more about the birds listed here by visiting the Cornell Laborabory of Ornithology online bird guide at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide.