Bird watching in the dead of winter? Isn’t that usually a warm weather endeavor? Well, maybe for the casual backyard birder, but for those who head outside in search of anything from owls to hawks, mergansers to harlequins or even chickadees to nuthatches, winter is prime time.
“Birding is fantastic during the colder months,” said Mary Beth Tomko of Deer Park, who goes with her husband, Paul, every chance she gets. “I love the melodies, the colors, and just being outside. There’s a social aspect that’s fun, plus the thrill of the chase and the adrenaline rush of spotting a species you’ve never seen before.”
Wendy Murbach of Merrick agrees with Tomko, adding that, with all the different species, plumage variations, bird behaviors and calls, “you’ll never stop learning once you get serious.”
The best ways to get into birding, according to Syosset’s Stella Miller, president of the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society, are to take a group bird watching trip or join a local chapter of the Audubon Society. “Just being around experienced birders really cuts the learning curve,” Miller explained. “Veteran bird watches love to share their knowledge and can quickly teach you how to identify birds by both sight and sound.”
Dress Warm But Travel Light
Winter birding may be fun, but it is also cold. Dress in layers, starting with thermal undergarments, a warm shirt, sweater or sweatshirt, and a coat that will block the wind. Top it all off with a knit hat and scarf. A good pair of hiking boots are a plus, and absolutely necessary if your search will take you near the water. Water resistant gloves are also essential.
Don’t weigh yourself down with too much gear on your bird watching excursions. A pair of binoculars are essential and a spotting scope is a big help, especially for identifying sea birds far off the beach. Bring along some small snacks and something to drink as hiking to the best spots for viewing may make you hungry and thirsty. Many birders prefer to leave their cameras home believing it better to concentrate on the birds themselves than f-stop settings.
Half the fun of any birding trip is checking off species you’ve seen for the first time. Carry along a small note pad for scribbling down notes and sightings. Then transfer details to a more formal birder’s journal when you return home.
There is no shortage of birding resources available these days. Novice bird watchers will find that Peterson’s Field Guide is easy to follow, as is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region. The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America is also a terrific source, especially for its description of bird songs and their calls. Intermediate and advanced avian fans may prefer the Sibley Guide to Birds, or The Field Guide to Birds of North America by National Geographic.
Great Places To Bird Watch
Almost any waterfront area sporting a stretch of undeveloped coast will attract ducks and sea birds. Fields and woodlot edges are also excellent encounter points and may reveal upland game birds including bobwhite quail and pheasant. Hawks tend to patrol large fields while great horned owls relish the deep, dark woods. As you might expect, parklands make great starting places.
Keep in mind that this is a passive, non-consumptive sport. Watch from a distance that will not disturb, harass or stress the birds in any anyway.
Once you’ve explored possibilities close to home, consider the following Long Island wintertime birding hot spots:
Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge
Location: Noyack Road, Sag Harbor
Cost: $4.00 per car
Hours: Dawn to dusk
This is a great place to bring the family – or a date. Step onto the well-groomed 1.5 mile trail and hold out a palm full of black sunflower seeds. Within a minute or two tiny black-capped chickadees will land on your fingers to accept their free lunch. The key is to keep your arm outstretched, hand flat, palm-up with fingers together and fully extended. Stand perfectly still and the birds will offer a terrific view of their varied blue plumage while you wonder how they can eat so much yet weigh so little.
When you run out of bird seed, or your arms grow weary, continue on to spy loons, horned grebes, terns, osprey and, possibly, a peregrine falcon or northern harrier hawk. The trail brings you past varied habitat including pond, bay, salt marsh, tidal flats, kettle holes, grasslands and freshwater marshes.
Edgewood Oak Brush Plains Preserve
Location: Commack Road, Deer Park
Cost: Free (Access by DEC Managed Land Access Permit)
Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
Established in 1987, this transitional terrain lacks a primary water source but sports over 850 acres of fields, pitch pine and woods – along with the second largest oak brush plains remaining in New York State.
“Walk due east to the main road, then head south to loop around the field,” suggested Mary Beth Tomko, “That will allow you to see both the forest edge species and field birds. For a longer hike, up to five miles, continue straight back to the second field. In addition to birds, you may cross paths with red fox here, and the botanists among us will recognize a variety of threatened or uncommon plants.”
The Tomkos have recorded over 100 species of birds at this location, including great horned owls, red tailed, coopers and sharp shinned hawks, bobwhite quail, whippoorwills, blue birds, American woodcock, various wood peckers, fly catchers, threshers and a mix of warblers.
Location: Commuter’s Parking Lot at Massapequa Train Station, or from north side of Sunrise Highway east of the Massapequa Train Station
Open: 7 days, sunrise to sunset
At 423 acres, this park surrounds Massapequa Creek and sports a great hiking trail. The mix of woods, brush, creek and ponds draw plenty of feathered visitors. Expect to see titmice, woodpeckers and chickadees, snipe, ring necked ducks, pintail blue-winged and green-winged teal, mallards, wood ducks and plenty more. Be sure to return here in late September and October next year to intercept the hummingbird migration. The speedy little fliers come to sip nectar from the flowers of blossoming jewel weed, wetland plants which look like orange inpatients.
Montauk Point State Park
Location: East end of Rt. 27, Sunrise Highway, Montauk
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Cost: Free during winter months
Phone: 631- 668-3781
Many veteran birders believe Montauk Point to be one of the best bird watching spots in the country. During the winter thousands upon thousands of sea ducks and gulls stop here, including uncommon or rare ones like the thick-billed murce, Atlantic puffin, king eider or Harlequin duck.
Start at the concession stand and work around the south side bluffs all the way to Camp Hero to see all three species of scooter and common eider. Before heading home, check out Montauk Inlet off East Drive for an interesting mix, the rocks near the easternmost parking lot at Ditch Plains for Harlequin ducks, or Culloden Point for red neck grebe.By Tom Schlichter
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