Beating the winter birding blues….kind of.

It has been a long, cold winter here in Centre County, PA.  After spending a sticky hot summer in north central Florida in 2012, I was looking forward to the cool temperatures (not to mention the colors) of another fall season in Pennsylvania. Dare I say I was even looking forward to the winter snow flurries. Needless to say my system was not ready for the shock of the blizzards and below freezing temperatures that blanketed the state for most of the winter (not that it is over or anything).

A good argument for staying north in the winter...the fall season can provide beautiful backdrops for your photos. (Golden-crowned Kinglet pictured)

A good argument for staying north in the winter…the fall season can provide beautiful backdrops for your photos. (Golden-crowned Kinglet pictured)

At first, it wasn’t so bad. As the warblers passed through in the fall, I was excited to explore Scotia Barrens, a local birding hot spot, spotting migrants as they headed south for the winter, oblivious to the fact that this was the last time it would be super easy to find birds for the season. They are always in a hurry to go south, but I swear a few were sticking their tongues out at me and blowing birdie raspberries, like they knew what was about to happen to me. After all, this is the first winter in six years that I have spent entirely in Pennsylvania; typically I leave in December or January. In the winter of 2006/2007, I escaped the US for a mild rainy winter, studying abroad in Wales. In the winter of 2007/2008, I tracked Whooping Cranes in sunny Florida. Half way through the winter of 2008/2009, I escaped to the beaches and mountains of Hawaii. In the winter of 2009/2010, I surveyed Wilson’s Snipe overwintering in the Gulf Coast states. In the winter of 2010/2011, I monitored Crested Caracaras near Lake Placid, Florida. Last winter, 2012, I monitored Southeastern American Kestrels in north central Florida. The point is I have managed to escape the cold for quite some time. At first it was not so bad. In early October I made a trip to the Azores (Portugal) to visit my sister and also see some amazing birds (like the native Azores Bullfinch, got it!). This trip really satisfied my need for travel, which at times can be insatiable and hard to fight. But this may have been my downfall; I didn’t go on any birding trips out of the state after that.

At the end of October, Hurricane Sandy brought some amazing vagrants to PA for what was really a once in a lifetime birding experience.  A successful trip to see the Saltmarsh Sparrow in Bucks County, along with other rarities, was another pick me up. White-winged Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, and Pine Siskins were soon to follow, which are all species I have not seen very many of. A Big Sit at Allegheny Front Hawk watch in early November was totally worth it, with loads of Golden Eagles and accipiters that were happily photographed.

Red-shouldered Hawk - adult; in my yard in Silver Springs, FL

Red-shouldered Hawk – adult; in my yard in Silver Springs, Fphotographed.

But in December, things slowed down. Way down. This is typically when I would pack my bags for the south, but not this time. Reality set in, and my birding slump started; I wasn’t going to Florida. There would be no happy Palm Warblers bobbing their tails every morning outside my window. No Red-Shouldered Hawks screaming their heads off at dawn, making sure I didn’t sleep in. No Northern Parula’s buzzing around the yard.

This Yellow-throated Vireo stayed in my yard for a few weeks in Florida

This Yellow-throated Vireo stayed in my yard for a few weeks in Florida

No Gray Catbirds pooping on my car. No angry Yellow-throated Vireos patrolling the yard. No Ospreys shrieking all day long. No Pine Warblers trilling from the woods. No baby Sandhill Cranes roaming through the streets. No Cattle Egrets perched on the neighbors fence. No groups of 15 Swallow-tailed Kites at one time to photograph (yea, that happened: see checklist here). Worst of all there were no Florida Scrub-Jays to throw peanuts at, and no baby kestrels to love (errr, I mean monitor). My last winter in Florida was hard if not impossible to beat.

Swallow-tailed Kite -Levy County, FL, April 2012

Swallow-tailed Kite – Levy County, Florida, April 2012

Sandhill Crane adult with baby

Sandhill Crane adult with baby – Marion County, Florida

Southeastern American Kestrel chick after hatching

Watching this (above: Southeastern American Kestrel chick after hatching) grow into this (below: Southeastern American Kestrel chick at 25 days old)  ….cannot be beat.Southeastern American Kestrel

Sure, in January I got a new start with a new year list, with a few special birds like Common and Hoary Redpolls (my only two lifers thus far this year…ouch). But it has been a slow start, and it didn’t help that I passed on recent trips to Canada and Florida.  The point is it is VERY easy to slip into a birding coma over the winter if you aren’t careful, especially if you work from home. You’ll find many excuses not to go birding. Like, “It’s too cold, and I am too skinny to stay warm, so I should stay home and make cookies and lasagna then eat all of it while I watch season 8 of Law and Order, so I can build some winter blubber.” Or, “It is the peak of cold and flu season and I wouldn’t want to catch germs from other birders.” Or, “I stayed up so late watching random crap on Netflix that I now need to sleep in and/or also nap to recover.” Or, “My camera battery is probably appreciating the break I am giving it from constantly charging.” Or, “This hot chocolate won’t make/drink itself.” Or, “Maybe this is the year I will enjoy watching the Daytona 500 on TV.” (sidenote: nope.) Or, “The wind chill is so cold that I cannot feel my face/extremities/butt from just walking to the post office, so why fight nature longer than I have to.” On top of these ridiculous excuses, it is easy to drag your work out over the span of an entire day, not leaving time for much else besides working and eating (OK and an occasional nap). All of this adds up to a weird human state of hibernation/torpor. It happens to the best of us (or maybe just me).

The point is, there are plenty of birds out there in the winter in the north, and you (I) just have to suck it up and get out there, because they may be just a little harder to find. You will never be angry with yourself after you do it, as there is some kind of amazing satisfaction you get from getting out in the elements and seeing first-hand how bad ass birds are for being able to survive such harsh winters. It will make you appreciate everything a lot more in life, and will make you realize just how easy you have it as a human (do I REALLY need my electric blanket INSIDE a heated apartment? I think not). More importantly, it will remind you of the reasons that you are a birder in the first place. And if you need a reminder of just how awesome winter birding can be, check out some of Alex’s recent posts from his trip to Canada, in addition to Erik Bruhnke’s adventures in the north woods of Minnesota tracking down boreal specialties (you will never feel more like a pansy after you see that Erik consistently birds in negative temperatures for prolonged periods of time…check out his Facebook page for updates/photos). There are plenty of winter activities to keep birders busy, like Christmas Bird Counts, Winter Raptor Surveys, and the Great Backyard Bird Count. In addition to enjoying the winter birds, you should try to plan a winter trip somewhere south, or start planning a summer getaway to a birding destination you have been wanting to go to.

Personally I am very much looking forward to the 2013 Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio; it seems like the bright spot at the end of a long cold winter. Brightly colored warblers will be more than abundant, and there will be more than enough birders on hand to track down this year’s Kirtland’s Warblers! Make sure to sign up sooner rather than later, as it is right around the corner! Look for more posts soon about the Nemesis Bird Team’s trip to the Biggest Week last year!