Birding in Late Fall and Early Winter

As the fall winds down and migration slows, the remaining migrants and resident birds start to change their habits as cold weather encroaches leading into the winter months. As sad as it is to be past the peak fall migration, this time of year can also be an exciting one in Pennsylvania with lingering migrants to be found, waterfowl numbers increasing, western hummers showing up, and increased rarity potential. Additionally, PA boasts more fall hawk watches than any other state– and there are great opportunities state-wide,  late fall (November) is typically the peak Golden Eagle movement.

During the recent snow storm we had across much of Pennsylvania, it got me thinking a bit about birding strategies this time of year… where do birds hang out when the weather starts to change, and what are some ways to bird more effectively this time of year?  This short article gives a few tips for birding during this transitional period between seasons when the weather begins to take a turn for the worse.

American Pipits often perch on and near the road during snowstorms (photo by Mike Lanzone)

For much of the western and northern counties of PA the threat of snow begins in late October, and often this can concentrate birds if you know where to look. If the snow is heavy enough, an obvious place to look is the roadsides. Birds like pipits, sparrows, plovers, meadowlarks, etc. can be found by simply driving on the less busy back roads that are semi-open. Large numbers of these species can often congregate there to feed. It can also give you an opportunity to see many birds, especially sparrows and other birds like this American Pipit (above) perched in plain view or high counts of species that are forced to the open areas in roads like these Killdeer below.

Birds, like these Killdeer, often congregate in roadways during fall snowstorms (photo by Mike Lanzone)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet feeds on small midges just above a small stream (photo by Mike Lanzone)

An interesting thing I noticed this fall after receiving over 10 inches of snow the end of October, that besides a small group of sparrows and my normal resident species, my feeders were like a ghost town most of the day. The nearby fields and hedgerows were absolutely full of birds. Feeders at this time of year simply don’t hold the same number of birds as they will in the winter months. With the large amounts of seeds and berries are still present, the best place to find birds is often in the fields and hedgerows with the most food, many species stick tight to these habitats. Fields with abundant ironweed, aster and goldenrods (see below) can be excellent, and combine that with hedgerows that are flourishing with fruit bearing shrubs like viburnum spp. (various) and snow berry (Symphoricarpos racemosus) and vines like poison ivy, wild grapes, and virginia creeper and you are well on your way to a good birding day. During cold snaps and especially during periods of snow, birding small streams within these habitats can be key. The open water helps melt stream-side snow and and insects abound making them bird magnets. These small streams will often hold many of the late insectivores like warblers, flycatchers, vireos, etc. and often turn up some decent birds.

White-crowned Sparrows feeding on natural sources of seed, including ironweed and asters that are plentiful in late fall.

Three Yellow-rumped Warbles feeding on insects attracted to the warmer, protected pocket at the base of the vegetation. (photo by Mike Lanzone)

During heavy snows, even though the fields look snow covered and bird-less, don’t overlook them! Look for clumps of higher vegetation that form pockets open ground and/or protected spaces at the base of them. These areas not only attract seed eating species, but also insectivorous birds like Yellow-rumped Warblers (above) that were literally gorging themselves with insects in these sheltered pockets. Often times they will feed totally hidden, as these were before they popped out to see who was coming! Similarly, edges of ponds and lakes that have wetlands can hold large numbers of birds including sparrows and lingering warblers like Palm Warbler (below), Yellow-rumped, and Common Yellowthroats. And of course any open water can hold large numbers of many species of waterfowl as they migrate through this time of year. So when birding in in late fall and early winter, choosing areas that are more likely to have higher concentrations of birds will help you maximize your time birding.

Hopefully some of these tips will help you find more birds this time of year and make your outings more productive. Good birding!

Palm Warbler and Song Sparrow feeding in a wetland on the backside of Somerset Lake during a late fall snow storm. (photo by Mike Lanzone)

Common Loon on Somerset lake during a late fall snowstorm. Cold weather brings good waterfowl numbers to PA lakes. (photo by Mike Lanzone)