Cold Toes, Hot Birds: The Joys of Winter Birding

by: Virginia Andrews

Call birders intrepid or just foolhardy, when we are out in the cold, raw wind, shivering behind our telescopes. Call the weather we love invigorating, or even character-building. But the bird picture as well as the landscape changes almost completely in winter. And this is when birding really heats up on Nantucket.

One question birders always ask as colder temperatures creep in is, “will we see any snowy owls this year?” Alas, there’s really no answer until one actually alights. Highly nomadic, these semi-magical birds can be, or not be, just about anywhere. Some years, we just totally strike out. Other years, they are all over the place. Even so, sighting one usually requires just plain luck. But this makes it seem even more like a personal gift.

Snowy Owl, photo by Vern Laux

Hope draws birders to the beaches, where the bleak landscape reminds wandering snowy owls of their Arctic tundra home. There’s food for them there. They might catch a rabbit or some shorebirds, or even a luckless snow bunting or three.

On warmer days, plump and tasty voles might wake up and be active too. An owl with a bulging crop is a happy owl. But don’t be fooled by every white blob sitting up on a dune. Washed-up buoys, bleach bottles or even balloons can look so temptingly like a white bird. One clue is, bleach bottles don’t turn their heads. See their yellow eyes and you’ve got one.

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