Fighting the Doldrums of Late February Birding

Birding is a year-round activity. It’s probably one of the best things about it. But without a doubt there are peaks of activity that ignite the fire in all birders and gets the masses out every morning. Obviously, I’m talking about migration. We all crave it; those warm spring mornings in early May, teaming with melodic songs and endless possibilities. What about those cool afternoons in October, where a wave of drab colored warbles fill every tree in your favorite migrant trap? Migration is a magical time, and in the Northeast, we get it twice a year. Even once migration has ended, there are still some landmark periods on the bird calendar that keep the binoculars to the eyes. July and August can be a bit of a slog, but the weather is usually great, and breeding activity is still going strong, so it gives us all a chance to work on younger bird plumage and weird vocalizations and check out the impossible craft of nest building. Come the middle of August, shorebird migration is back in full force, and everyone sets their eyes to radar and wind forecasts to prep for songbirds.

By mid November, most serious movements have come to a halt, but there is always the stray rare waterfowl and arrival of the winter specialties, like an influx of juncos and white-throated sparrows. Plus, it’s CBC season.Then January hits, and it’s a listing reset! Sure, the weather sucks, but everything you see is a first-of-year. Plus, it’s a great time to chase rare gulls and ducks. And remember how awesome juncos are?

Juncos are one of my favorite winter birds, and what’s even better is they are so common (photo by Steve Brenner, RI 2017)

But come February, the rubber meets the road. You’ve seen all the finches and nuthatches you are going to see for the year. We’re still a solid month away from migration, and 2 months from the really good stuff. And it’s usually pretty damn cold out. Even when it’s unseasonably warm, that doesn’t help much: yeah, it’s not freezing outside, but a bout of 50 degree weather isn’t going to send magnolia warblers up north 50 days ahead of schedule. It is still the same 6 chickadees that were mulling about when it was 20 degrees outside. All that’s left to remind you of the bounty of summer is an empty nest in a leafless tree.

Empty nests in winter are always a bit of a downer. (Steve Brenner, RI 2017)

So what to do after you’ve chased all the orioles and listened to all the podcasts featuring Drew Weber? Is there any hope for the slowest birding time of the year?

Of course there is.

Work on the common birds

Yeah, it’s becoming an old cliche at this point. But while you may not think it you need any more work on downy vs. hairy woodpeckers or song sparrow vs. everything else, it can never hurt to study the common species of your particular area. It’s easy to forget that chickadee vocalizations and titmouse vocalizations are not all that dissimilar, and I don’t know how many times I’ve seen good birders get tripped up (myself included) by a titmouse song in the woods in late April or a Carolina Wren in May thinking they are some type of rare warbler. And what about robins? A little refresher on their song never hurts to prep for the arrival of rose breasted grosbeaks and scarlet tanagers. But an oft forgot trait of robins is the other variety of vocalization that sound like a million other things. The high pitched ‘zee’ of a robin is quite similar to waxwings and even some warblers. And getting to know the robin flight call and body shape as they dart overhead will really save you time and frustration when spring rolls around, and you can often directly compare them to waxwings in late February. So the time you put in now will pay off come migration.

Robin just waiting to have its flight call be mistaken for something else. (photo by Steve Brenner, RI 2017)

Not robins! Cedar waxwings in winter are a great call to work on while nothing else is around. (Photo by Steve Brenner, RI 2017)

Look at gulls

First and foremost, I am not a gull expert and this is not a post about gull stuff. Also, this activity can be way better for folks along the Great Lakes than for a lot of people in other locations. But it’s the same type of principle as the ‘common bird’ suggestion. Most of us will go the whole winter with nothing more than black-backed, herring, and ring-billed gulls, but why not take some time to study them, photograph them, and do your best to really distinguish the two most common gulls in your area from each other? And who knows – you might find yourself getting hooked on gulls and begin a gulling deep dive into subspecies, hybridization, molt, and all that fun stuff.

Black-headed gull on a dreary winter morning. One of my top 3 favorite gulls, proving that gull watching isn’t the worst thing in the world. (photo by Steve Brenner, RI 2017)

Look at ducks

Pretty much the same deal as the last suggestion. Cherish these aquatic beauties as they begin to reach their peak level of looking sharp as hell. Even if it’s just a pair of bufflehead or black ducks, you can still take the time to appreciate the elegance of the ‘common’ bird.

Everyday I’m Buffalin’ (photo by Steve Brenner, RI 2016)

Look at your local Red-tail

Because you have one and hawks are awesome.

Travel South, or anywhere

This one is easy – go to Florida for some southern bird action. Or take this opportunity to randomly list in a nearby county or state where you never normally go. Your ebird map will look better and your county ticks will go up.

Enjoy the Early Signs of Migration

That’s right, by the end of February and early March, some birds are already on the move. Sure, it’s the biggest, cruelest tease of all time when blackbirds arrive and start singing with the song sparrows – but that small sliver of hope could be just enough to get you through until April. But mostly you want to yell at the song sparrow because it’s not spring yet and you wish there were more birds around.

At least this song sparrow is singing in February (photo by Steve Brenner, RI 2017).

And speaking of early signs of spring, why not go out at dusk and listen for woodcock! I’ve already caught heard a few peenters in southern New England already this year. Use late February and early March as a great chance to get a handle on our strangest and earliest breeding shorebird. And better yet, see if you can notice any changes between early March and late April in terms of singing ground activity. Most folks tick off woodcock by the end of March and don’t bother to check for them again.

A pair of woodcock, hoping you’ll check them out in early spring (Photo by Steve Brenner, RI 2016)

But in the northeast there is an interesting dynamic of breeders vs migrants at singing grounds, and if you hit a singing ground on a good night where there are peak migrants and some actual locals attempting to breed? Well, it’s a hell of a show (this time is somewhere around the last week of March/first week of April in RI). And even if you get skunked in early March on timberdoodle, it’s a great excuse to be outside at night and maybe hear some owls.

P.S. My personal pledge

Finally, I pledge to not have the same terrible, awful conversation that I have every damn spring with my friends who are tired of my nonsense. It goes something like: “I don’t know, everything is really delayed this year. I remember last year, we already had parulas and yellowthroats by this time. It’s gonna be a weird year…….”