Why We Love Winter Birding

by Brodie Cass Talbott, Educator & Trips Specialist

How do you define the seasons? While some of us use dates on the calendar, or think of the weather, birders often have a single-minded view of the seasons. For us, the four seasons most closely link to which birds we have in our area. Spring is the season of northward migration, bright plumages, and song. Summer is the season of secretive breeding birds and noisy nests. Fall comes early to birders, full-blown by August, with the explosion of southbound birds, eager juveniles, and near-daily new arrivals in our yards, parks, and skies overhead.

A photo of Mt. St. Helens with a flock of Sandhill Cranes flying in front.
Sandhill Cranes & Mt. St. Helens, photo by Adam Stunkel

Winter, meanwhile, is the season between the migrations, when our area is full of birds escaping the ice and snow of the frigid north. With one of the milder northern climates, the Willamette Valley is home to large numbers of wintering birds, and birders in this area define the season in terms of waterfowl and sparrows, gulls and raptors.

And while it is hard to compete with the seasons of migration for sheer diversity and excitement, winter birding has a charm of its own, and, I would wager, may be the season many of us value the most. Perhaps not for what birds the winter brings, but for what birding brings to winter.

While all of us have plenty of reasons to be outside in the spring, summer, and fall, winter here is a harder sell, with dreadfully short days that are, more often than not, cold, gray, and wet. Before I started birding, I hated Portland winters. The lack of reasons to be outside meant I spent most of my time inside, sleeping in and missing precious hours of daylight.

But how different winter is for birders! The allure of Sandhill Cranes on misty mornings on Sauvie Island, and the thrill of vast rafts of scaup on the Columbia River are more than enough to impel us to put on our galoshes and head out at daybreak only to discover that the weather is never quite as bad as we expected it to be.

The birding is better than we may imagine as well. Winter is when the Willamette Valley sees the highest number of raptors, with some of our most intriguing species like Rough-legged Hawks and Merlins only found in the colder months. And while we can find kestrels and harriers and hawks year-round, winter is when it seems there are one or two in every field, as untold numbers escape the harsh winters of the northern latitudes.

Rough-legged Hawk, photo by Tara Lemezis

Winter is also the best time to enjoy the wonders of waterfowl. Flocks of Cackling Geese and Snow Geese can number into the tens of thousands, especially at Sauvie Island, where, two years ago, an incredible seven species of goose were seen, including an Emperor Goose and a Brant. All across the valley, we’re treated to Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, and lakes full of ducks already in their breeding best.

Birding, however, is not just about the birds, but also the people that we enjoy them with. Particularly in these times, birding gives us the ability to spend time with our friends and family outdoors, helping to keep our spirits high and our community safe.

Snow Geese, photo by Scott Carpenter

At Bird Alliance of Oregon we offer programming that is educational, fun, and COVID-safe. Our volunteer-led outings are back after an 18-month hiatus (thank you, outings leaders!), with free trips around the Portland area. We also have trips near and far, led by our expert naturalists. And, of course, our digital classes are in full swing, with offerings on waterfowl, owls, sparrows, and gulls to prime you for enjoying our incredible winter birdlife and natural areas.

So no matter how you choose to enjoy your winter, here’s to a happy and healthy season!

If winter birding sounds like fun to you, click here for a list of classes and trips happening this winter.