A snowy owl perched on a branch, wings spread

Winter Birding with Drew Monkman

In deep winter, unless you’re an avid skier or snowshoer, it can feel a bit like the outdoor season is on pause. According to naturalist and avid birder Drew Monkman, nothing could be further from the truth.

“You can typically find 70 or so species of birds here from December through March,” he says. “Winter is also the time when you’re most likely to see really iconic species—you know, things like the snowy owl. Sometimes they call the snowy owl ‘a spark bird.’ That’s a sort of bird that sparks an interest in in birdwatching that carries on for a lifetime.”

And Monkman knows what of he speaks. He’s the author of three books: two Nature’s Year almanacs on the changing of the seasons, and The Big Book of Nature Activities, co-authored with Jacob Rodenburg. Over the course of nearly two decades, he has also written over 600 articles for the Peterborough Examiner on the subject of nature and conservation.

His work is driven by an abiding love for nature, which began as a child growing up in the Peterborough area. Although he’s lived outside of the region, he considers his hometown prime territory for birders—some of the best in the province, in fact.

“Peterborough has one of the largest, most active birding communities in Ontario. Third only, I think, to Toronto and Ottawa,” he says. One key factor is the geographical diversity of the area, which attracts a wealth of species to a comparatively small area. “This whole area sits on the edge of the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the Canadian Shield. So it has habitats and it has bird species that are typical of both regions, which creates a lot of diversity.”

That landscape, sometimes known as “The Land Between,” gives birders in Kawarthas Northumberland some unique opportunities. “In summer, you can head north from Peterborough and get birds with a northern affinity like white-throated sparrows and broad-winged hawks,” Monkman says. “Or head south, down towards Rice Lake—or even [look] right here close to Peterborough—and get more southern birds like red-headed woodpeckers.”

Although birds are sparser in the winter season, Monkman says that can actually be to a novice birder’s advantage. “Fewer species around [means] a chance to get to know the more common resident birds—the chickadees, the nuthatches, the woodpeckers, for example.” He adds that visibility is sometimes improved as well. When the leaves are down, it’s that much easier to spot a bird perched in the branches.

That said, hardwood forests are not prime birding spots in wintertime. Monkman recommends areas that provide at least a mix of hardwoods and conifers, as well as anywhere berries, seeds, and cones might provide a ready source of food. Open water is also a good bet. “There’s always a good possibility that there’ll be waterfowl,” he says. “Species like trumpeter swans and common goldeneye ducks routinely spend the winter here as long as there’s open water.”

The winter may come with a few unique advantages, but Monkman acknowledges it tends to be sparser than the warmer seasons. Since birds concentrate in areas of good habitat when it’s cold, it’s normal to travel through quiet areas with little activity for some time. He adds, however, that the presence of chickadees is often an indicator of other species. If you come upon chickadees, there’s a possibility that nuthatches, woodpeckers, goldfinches, sparrows, juncos, and maybe even winter finches like pine siskins are also nearby.

Because birds can be harder to find in winter, Monkman recommends that novice birders focus on reliable birding destinations and on birds coming to feeders. If you don’t have a feeder already, he suggests putting one up. As for go-to destinations, Presqu’ile Provincial Park always has a healthy population of ducks and gulls, and potentially eagles and hawks as well. Cobourg Harbour offers similar opportunities, while the Ken Reid Conservation Area attracts a cross-section of winter species.

All birders are best served by checking eBird.org or the free eBird app before heading out. This international database of reported bird sightings is vast in scope, but can be dialled in to focus of species recently seen in your area. It pairs well with Merlin Bird ID, a bird identification app that can identify birds by sound. Turn on the Sound ID feature and the app will immediately show which species you’re hearing. “Those apps are pretty much standard equipment now amongst birders,” Monkman says.

Armed with tools like these, even a beginner doesn’t need much more than a little patience and common sense (a set of binoculars comes in handy too, of course). Dressing in layers is strongly recommended—as is choosing a good pair of boots, because “birding can involve a lot of standing around.” Gloves have the edge over mitts when it comes to using binoculars, as you won’t have to fumble to focus them.

If heading out to the woods solo sounds lonesome, there are plenty of opportunities to join a larger group. Monkman is a strong supporter of the Peterborough Field Naturalists, one of the oldest, largest, and most active clubs in the province. They regularly host nature walks and welcome newcomers. An annual Christmas Bird Count is another excellent option in December—visit birdscanada.org to find the one nearest you. If you’re reading this closer to February, consider the Great Backyard Bird Count, which can be done anywhere from the bush to a backyard feeder. See here for details.

Monkman adds that beginners shouldn’t be discouraged from joining a count. “The more eyes there are the better,” he says. He stresses that birding is a lifelong hobby that takes practice, but there are a few things the bird-curious can do to improve their retention to improve their retention of species’ names and identifying features. “Getting out the field guide and looking at some of the birds you are likely to find, studying them, looking at the field marks that identify them; going out often,” are his main pieces of advice—but he adds, “Being obsessed doesn’t hurt either, which tends to happen with a lot of people.”

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