Ask a roomful of birders their favorite season and you probably won’t hear many praises of winter. As temperatures drop, the appeal of venturing outdoors for extended periods of time diminishes for all but the most dedicated photographers and birdwatchers. However, winter provides unique benefits for the bold and bundled. Leafless trees make for easier spotting and white snowy environments make for beautiful settings for photographs. Best of all, winter welcomes its own seasonal lineup of characters, if you know where to look. This article introduces a handful of locations known for their winter bird offerings—from opportunities to encounter a rare arctic species to witnessing awe-inspiring mass congregations.
Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota
Legendary among birders for its resident population of Great Gray Owls, Sax-Zim Bog consists of 300 square miles of winter wonderland in Northern Minnesota. Comprising a diverse mix of habitats ranging from tamarack bog to maple forests, Sax-Zim serves as a winter home for a variety of northern species such as Hoary Redpolls, White-winged Crossbills, Northern Shrikes, Northern Hawk Owls, and the occasional Snowy Owl. Permanent residents include Boreal Chickadees, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black-backed Woodpeckers, Canada Jays, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Pine Grosbeaks. Don’t forget to dress warmly because temperatures regularly drop below zero and can get as extreme as -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Niagara River Corridor, New York
Arguably the best place in the world to observe gulls and waterfowl in truly astonishing numbers, the Niagara River Corridor has been known to post single-day counts exceeding 100,000 birds. Bonaparte’s Gulls alone have been counted in numbers up to 70,000. Herring Gulls, Canvasbacks, and Common Mergansers also congregate in massive numbers in the region, leading to its designation as a Globally Significant Important Birding Area by the IBA program. Alongside 19 species of gulls, you can find an eclectic mix of water birds, including Redheads, American Wigeons, Common Goldeneyes, Long-tailed Ducks, and Tundra Swans. This destination has the added benefit of Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest state park in the country with views sure to impress any non-birders you may have dragged along for your winter adventure.
To experience the avian equivalent of a whiteout this winter, take a trip to Lamar, Colorado where, each February, hundreds of thousands of Snow Geese fill the sky, fields, and reservoirs en route to their arctic breeding grounds. Accompanying the flurry of white feathers is the annual High Plains Snow Goose Festival, one of Colorado’s largest annual birding festivals featuring speakers, tours, and even a photography contest.
Eastern Upper Peninsula, Michigan
No article on winter birding destinations can forget to include the frequent stomping grounds of a bird synonymous with the season: the Snowy Owl. This arctic resident extends its range into the lower 48 states to varying degrees depending upon changing migratory conditions each year. Even in years of relative scarcity, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, particularly Pickford and Rudyard townships, are reliable places to encounter this memorable species. Adapted to open expanses, fields and shorelines are its preferred habitat in the area. Although less common, Northern Hawk Owls and Great Gray Owls have also been spotted in the region. Northern Shrikes, Pine Grosbeaks, Canada Jays, and Boreal Chickadees can be found in forested areas in the Upper Peninsula while visiting Glaucous, Iceland, and Thayer’s Gulls frequent small bodies of water and landfills in the area.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Not every winter birding trip requires packing a scarf and gloves. Winter is the dry season in the Everglades, which means two things for birders: fewer mosquitos and more birds. As smaller bodies of water dry up, the hundreds of species of birds that call the Everglades home congregate around permanent bodies of water in the area. This makes it easier to see more species without needing to traverse the sprawling 1.5 million acres of wetlands comprising the park. Start with the Anhinga Trail, named after the large, black “snake bird” that you may spot swimming with its long neck and head poking out of the water to hunt or perched in the trees drying its wings. Keep an eye out for the dapper Purple Gallinule hunting among the lily pads, as well as a variety of herons, egrets, ibis, and cormorants. Mrazek Pond is another hotspot known for its diverse population of wading birds. Don’t forget to keep one eye to the sky or you may miss one of the numerous raptors inhabiting the park. Conclude your visit in Flamingo, the southernmost tip of the park, where you can find Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, White Pelicans, and the occasional American Crocodile and manatee.
Klamath Basin, Oregon
On the complete opposite side of the country is the Klamath Basin, a beautiful destination along the Pacific Flyway that hosts the largest wintering population of Bald Eagles in the contiguous 48 states. In addition to the hundreds of Bald Eagles that spend their winters in the area, an assortment of other raptors frequent the region, including Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, and Great Horned Owls. Birds of prey are not the only visitors to this region, which is also home to a wide range of geese, swans, ducks, and wading birds. Each year Klamath Falls hosts the Winter Wings Festival, one of the longest running birding festivals in the country, with speakers, field trips, and a photo contest.
Port Aransas, Texas
Situated along the coast of central Texas, Port Aransas is a popular wintering destination for birds traveling the Central Flyway. Visit in the winter and you are likely to meet the tallest bird in North America: the Whooping Crane. A species once withered to double-digit numbers in the wild on account of overhunting and habitat loss, the area serves as a winter home to the last naturally occurring population in the country. Fortunately, conservation efforts have aided the recovery of this endangered species, with the Texas coastal bend welcoming more than 500 cranes each winter. The hard-to-miss birds can be spotted hunting in the wetlands of the Port Aransas Nature Preserve, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and neighboring Goose Island State Park. Plan your visit around the annual Whooping Crane Festival to learn more about these fascinating birds. While in the area, be sure to visit the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, which includes a boardwalk and covered observation tower, perfect for watchers and photographers alike. Visit in the winter and you are liable to see White Pelicans, Marsh Wrens, Painted Buntings, Cinnamon Teals, and Green-winged Teals, as well as a colorful assortment of permanent residents.
As you prepare for your winter birding adventures, be sure to check out Todd Vorenkamp’s Essential Tips for Cold-Weather Photography, as well as Bjorn Petersen’s How to Expose for Snow Properly. For essential birdwatching and photography gear, tips, and more articles, click here.
Where is your favorite place to see birds in the winter? Share your experiences and recommendations in the Comments section, below!