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Don’t sleep on the winter birds

February and March are usually the best months to observe Greater Scaup in Middlesex County. A female and male are pictured here. Photo by Paul Nicholson.

One of the many great things about being a bird watcher is that you can revel in the fruits of every season. There’s no need to pine away, impatiently waiting for peak migration in May. There are birds here now, and the winter months are our only opportunity to see some of these species.

Let’s start with the obviously-named ones such as Snowy Owl, Snow Bunting, Snowbird, and Snow Goose.

There are Snowy Owls that overwinter around London every winter. These birds nest in the high arctic, but migrate south each December. By late March, most of these striking birds will have returned to the Arctic, so never mind the snow and cold. The winter months are our one chance to revel in this bird’s beauty.

The numbers of Snowy Owls being seen this winter in Middlesex County are lower than in recent years, however there are still sightings being posted in the region. In a previous Bird Friendly London posting, I shared tips about finding Snowies in Middlesex County.)

Snow Buntings can be seen regularly now on fields and along quiet county roads. These pretty birds will migrate north to the Arctic archipelago by early April. They are highly social, so they are most often seen in flocks. They may also be in a mixed flock with Horned Larks or other birds. Watch in particular for sparrow-sized birds with black wing tips on otherwise bright white wings.

The nickname of the Dark-eyed Junco is the Snowbird. This is another handsome bird that overwinters in southwestern Ontario. They hang back through April but then the fly north to their breeding grounds. The Junco has a grey back, head, and chest. Its belly is white. The tail is grey with a white flash on each of the outer edges.

Snow Geese are best seen in and around London through the winter. Although they aren’t winter residents here, some will inevitably drop in to feed and refuel while on their migration route. There were some seen just north of Lake Fanshawe in January. We will have the chance to see others in the area before the winter season is out. Most Snow Geese are white with black wing tips. Interestingly however, there is a so-called blue morph Snow Goose that has a white head with a grey-blue neck, body, wings and tail.

There are lots of other birds that are best seen during the winter months including many duck species. If you want to flesh out your bird list, this is a good family to focus on. This is prime time for sightings of Ring-necked Ducks, scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, mergansers, Canvasbacks, and others.

This is the best time to try for certain winter sparrows and finches as well. The American Tree Sparrow is abundant now but will migrate north, above the boreal forests in the early spring. Look for a sparrow with a rusty cap, a rusty eyeline, and a two-toned bill.

The Common Redpoll, a member of the finch family of birds, is another species to watch for in the winter. They will frequently be foraging for seeds in brushy areas. With an obvious red patch on its forehead, it is a well-named bird.

Apart from the Snowy Owl, there are some other raptors that overwinter in Middlesex. Through late January, a Barred Owl in north London impressed many birders. The best area to observe Golden Eagles is in the south-west corner of the county near Skunks Misery. Short-eared Owls can be seen hunting some evenings over the fields near Melbourne. That area is also a good area to spot Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Shrikes. While not raptors, Shrikes are honorary raptors. Their nickname is the Butcher Bird because they eat songbirds and small mammals.

As ever, the “Explore” function of eBird Canada or the birds alerts that you can subscribe to through eBird are powerful tools to assist you in your winter bird watching.

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