Five Simple Tips for Cool-Season Birding

Photo by TWF friend David Sloas.

Five Simple Tips for Cool-Season Birding

By Tony Lance, Tennessee Wildlife Federation

There are some universal dos and don’ts when it comes to bird-watching, but birding in the fall and winter presents its own set of challenges. Here are five simple tips to help you get the most out of your time in the field.

  1. Check your Optics – Birding in the colder months often requires observers to get glimpses of birds that are more distant than they are accustomed to seeing. Those Lapland longspurs that you’re trying to add to your life list? The odds are good that you’ll spot them on the ground deep in a furrowed field. Good binoculars or, better yet, a spotting scope will make it easier to get a rewarding look at them.
  2. Review your field guide – Identification challenges are a part of birding regardless of the time of year, but fall and winter can be especially tough. Waterfowl, gulls, sparrows, and birds of the open field can be difficult to tell apart. Even experienced birders occasionally have to look over their bird books to tell the difference between a savannah sparrow and a song sparrow. A half-hour of studying your target species before you set foot outside will increase your chances of spotting an uncommon bird.
  3. Look in the right places – Birds, particularly the more prized species, can be very localized in the colder months of the year. Before you go out do some research and find out where others are seeing birds. There are three excellent ways to do so: eBird, TN-Bird, and the Tennessee Birding page on Facebook. Each has its own appeal, and many birders utilize all three. eBird (eBird.org) is an online database that allows birders to submit their sightings and review maps showing the distribution and abundance of species. TN-Bird is an email discussion group, operated by the Tennessee Ornithological Society, for birders to post sightings and bird-related news. Sign up by going to freelists.org/list/tn-bird. The Tennessee Birding page on Facebook is a general forum for birders in the state which has become quite popular in the last year.
  4. Learn to Listen – In the fall and winter hearing distant birds may be your only clue to their presence, so knowing their sounds is a valuable skill to have. Always familiarize yourself with the calls of the species you’re targeting. Chances are you’re going to hear a red-breasted nuthatch before you see it. If you recognize its toy trumpet call you’ll increase your odds of getting a look at this little guy as it forages high up in pine trees. Also consider adding a birding app that contains bird sounds to your smartphone.
  5. Dress the Part – Birds that are found in Tennessee during the colder months are perfectly adapted to frigid temperatures, and they handle winter winds much better than we humans do. If you want to see that short-eared owl that’s been reported, prepare to bundle up and dress in layers. Gloves and warm headwear are a must. It’s no fun focusing in on a rare bird when your fingers are numb and your hands are shaking.

Got other tips? Leave them in the comments section below. Thanks for reading! Remember: Tennessee’s wildlife is YOUR wildlife!

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A longtime birder and beekeeper, TWF office manager Tony Lance is most at home being outdoors hiking and backpacking. He has been a member of the Tennessee Ornithological Society since 2008 and often leads TOS birding trips in Middle Tennessee.

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