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The Joys of Winter Birding


The joys of winter birdwatching? OK, in summer maybe.  But why winter?

If you can’t really know a person unless you have been with them in all sorts of moods and conditions, from sunny to stormy, the same is true of a place. Winter brings a completely different set of birds.

What draws us to look at birds? Often it’s what birders call “the spark,” a bird so breathtaking that it seemed to call out to them personally. It was beautiful, or strange, or consoling in a moment of grief. Or it just looked back, meeting their eye in a still, simple moment.

“I saw a black-throated green warbler outside the window of my high school. We had a bird book at home, and I found I could identify it,” Edith Andrews, my late mother, said about the bird that first drew her to a lifetime of birding.

For others it might be the first oystercatcher, a late osprey or an early killdeer.

“It just walked ahead of the car on the dirt road. I moved a little, it moved a little, looking back over its shoulder at me. It seemed really tired.”

Couldn’t you just sit by a nice warm fire on a snowy day and look at a picture? 


Birding is not just a glazed perusal of another person’s camera-assisted experience. Seeing a bird alive in nature is your experience, belonging to you alone. It speaks to the place, the season, the time of day, the angle of light.

To have an experience with another living being is to open a window to the variety of life. It is to shove aside loneliness and recognize how varied the meaning of home can be. It is part of what we call a sense of place.

Some winters have been graced by snowy owls. If there’s a gateway drug for winter birding perhaps it’s the snowy owl. Sometimes they come here, sometimes they don’t. Their very inconsistency makes us continue braving the cold to look. They have to be a little magical, these visitors from the far north. Because, even without snow, there’s no denying that being at the beach with temperatures in the 30’s with a 40 mph wind and near 100 percent humidity can be bone-chillingly raw.

This is not to suggest that a bathing suit is necessary or even suitable winter beach attire, although we have met members of the (human) polar bear club in our travels. Warm boots, wool socks, gloves, windproof/ waterproof jacket, hat and hood are recommended outdoor clothing.

But once suitably attired, there is a lot to see. It can even be invigorating. Scan the ocean with the naked eye and perhaps it seems empty, devoid of all life. Grab a pair of binoculars or look through a telescope and the picture changes.

Birds that winter here have waterproof, wind-proof feathers to keep them insulated, even better than the best down jacket. From eiders – source of that cozy material, eiderdown – to loons, to long-tailed ducks, razorbills and more, Nantucket is their vacation idyl, their Miami Beach.

When ice clogs the Arctic Ocean, when the boreal forest is buried in snow, when ponds and lakes freeze in New England and points north, open water, saltwater beckons. Harlequin ducks are among the most beautiful of our winter residents. Winter gulls are another draw. The beauty of the white-winged gulls is extraordinary against a pewter-gray sky.

Iceland, glaucous or Bonapartes, we see them regularly. Sometimes a little gull flashes its chiaroscuro plumage as it makes its living in what seems an inhospitable environment. It usually requires a pelagic trip to see birds like these. But with luck and a favorable tide we can see them right from shore.

But it’s not just the usual winter suspects that draw us out. Sometimes a strange or rare bird turns up. A painted bunting, a magnificent frigatebird, a purple gallinule. You never know what might pop up at your feet, when you are least expecting it. A tundra or a trumpeter swan might join the redheads or wigeon in one of our freshwater ponds. We even have yellow-rumped warblers, completely at home here in winter, noshing on bayberries.

The Christmas Bird Count is an event island birders look forward to every year. It’s a chance to meet up with old friends or bird with new ones. Started long ago as a preservation measure, the CBC successfully changed hunting culture into science.

Most early 20th century sportsmen already prided themselves on their knowledge. So perhaps it was not a far reach from trophy hunting to data hunting. It still satisfies a primal urge to get out and see. Perhaps birders are just hunters who don’t come home with dinner. We want to know what’s what.

How many birds are on Nantucket? We can’t answer that question exactly. But we can say for one winter day in any given year – 2012 let’s say – 55 observers tallied 349,637 individuals of 138 species. It becomes part of our cumulative knowledge.

Winter? It’s a great time of year for birding. And we can say we really know Nantucket.