Why I love winter birding

Some people enjoy spring migration, others fall migration. Me? I love it all, but I think I love winter birding the most! Winter brings so many different birds to our area from small kinglets and sparrows, to different ducks, to large swans and I enjoy them all!

I love going for walks and hearing the calls of Ruby-crowned Kinglets coming from the bushes and stopping to search for the source and then spending time watching them flit from branch to branch in search of an insect to munch on. They are so fast, it is almost impossible to catch them sitting still.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet pausing for a brief moment before continuing its pursuit of insects. (Canon R6 @ 500mm SS 1/1600 f/7.1 ISO 25600)

Another favorite winter pastime is sipping my morning coffee while listening to the sweet songs of the White-throated Sparrow before starting my day. They are another fun one to watch for a while on walks. You can often find them hiding in bushes and shrubs where they like to shelter in between trips out in the open for food. I love watching them scratch in the mulch and dirt looking for insects and seeds to eat. They seem to be a curious bird that will often come out to investigate if you make a phishing sound.

White-throated Sparrow (Canon R6 @ 1/1250, ISO 1600, f/7.1)

But one of my favorite aspects of winter birding would have to be all the beautiful ducks and other waterfowl that call the eastern part of North Carolina home for a few months each year. One of my favorite spots to sit and watch them would have to be Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge just south of Nags Head out on the Outer Banks (coast). Winter can be cold so be prepared. I had the pleasure of spending a few days there a couple of times this past winter and I had every kind of weather from calm, clear days to cold, rainy, very windy days but I made the best of each condition.

Of course my favorite shooting condition would have to be calm, clear days because you can get such beautiful reflections when shooting on water. That was something I had never really considered until a friend mentioned it to me, makes sense though doesn’t it? Now I pay much more attention to the weather before planning my trips.

Redhead (Canon R6 @ 400mm 1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 500)

Pea Island NWR is such a great place. More than 350 bird species have been spotted there since it opened in 1938. There is a Visitor’s Center with a small parking lot and bathrooms, if needed. You can walk along the half mile long wildlife trail taking in views of both the North Pond and the New Field Pond. There are also many places where you can pull over and watch for the various birds, anything from a few sparrow species to the many variety of duck species that winter here to larger birds like Snow Geese and Tundra Swan. I even had the pleasure of watching a few Bald Eagles hunting over the North Pond a few times on a recent trip, flushing all the ducks from the water in a large, fast moving cloud of birds! They eventually settled back down but much further out on the pond.

Bald Eagle flushing the ducks while hunting. Taken from the trail (Canon R6 @ 500mm 1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 160)

While at Pea Island you can walk down to the edge of the pond. I like to walk slowly towards the water trying not to startle and flush the birds. Once at the water’s edge, I like to crouch or sit quietly and let them come towards me. This technique makes for some nice eye-level shots.

Female Canvasback at the North Pond taken on a calm, fairly clear day. (Canon R6 @ 400mm 1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 320)
Northern Pintail taken at North Pond on a calm, cloudy day. (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 250)
American Wigeon on a calm, clear day (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 320)
Redhead drake shaking off the water after coming up from a dive. (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 2000)
Canvasback drake going for a dive. (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 1000)

As I said earlier, you can also pull off along Highway 12 to take in the sights. Just be mindful of the signs asking you to stay off the dunes and out of nesting areas as many different birds nest here.

American Avocets from a quick pull off on a clear but breezy day. (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 640)
American Avocet foraging in the shallow water for aquatic invertebrates. (Canon R6 @ 500mm, 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 800)
Sunrise with the Snow Geese taken early morning at a pull off along Pea Island NWR (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1250, f/7.1, ISO 320)
Snow Goose fly by! (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 500)
Thousands of Snow Geese call eastern NC home for the winter. Here a gaggle of them flies by. (Canon R6 @ 176mm, 1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 250)

Of course once you have finished at the ponds you can walk across the street and walk along the beach to look for visiting shorebirds. You never know what you may find! I have found many shorebirds from Sanderlings to American Oystercatchers to Willets to Semipalmated Plovers while walking along this stretch of beach. I even got some close looks at some Northern Gannets.

American Oystercatcher (Canon R6 @ 472mm, 1/1600, f/7.1, ISO 1600)
Cute little Semipalmated Plover (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1000, f/8, ISO 250)
Northern Gannet flying by. (Canon R6 @ 500mm, 1/1250s, f/7.1, ISO 160)
Northern Gannets (Canon R6 @ 400mm, 1/1000s, f/5.6, ISO 800)

One of my favorite shorebirds would have to be the American Oystercatcher. I love watching these beautiful birds foraging for food along the water.

A happy American Oystercatcher and its catch. (Canon R6 500mm. 1/1250s, f/7.1, ISO 1000)

But I think one fun highlight of a recent trip would have to be watching this Willet cough up a pellet of undigestible bits of things it had eaten. It seemed to struggle for a bit before coughing up the pellet, stretching, and then walking away.

The Willet and the after pellet stretch! (all above Canon R6 @ 300mm, 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 640)
Sunset over the North Pond with the Snow Geese (Canon R6 @100mm, 1/250s, f/4.5, ISO 125)

Of course you have to end your day back at one of the ponds for sunset with the Snow Geese when they are around! I am already looking forward to birding next winter! Now to get ready for spring migration and the return of warblers and hummingbirds! Who’s ready?

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