Winter Bird Watching: 8 Winter Birding Tips For Beginner Bird Watchers

Want to see more enchanting seasonal birdies? Our expert guide reveals the secrets to happy winter bird watching

chickadee sitting on spruce branch covered in snow in winter
(Image credit: Saeedatun / Shutterstock)

Your garden may be resting over winter, but if you enjoy some winter bird watching, you'll appreciate that there is still plenty of life to appreciate out there. Birds don’t hibernate and while some fly south for the winter, there are still plenty of beautiful feathered friends around. Birding in winter is a fun, relaxing physical and social activity that can help you beat those winter blues.

Getting off the couch for some cheeky bird watching in winter has major benefits. As well as keeping boredom at bay, it opens the door to physical activity; as much or as little as you desire. It’s also a way to meet other people who share your interest in bird watching and the outdoors. It can even lead to a new hobby like photography. Plus, by exploring your area or monitoring your own bird garden, you'll become a budding ornithologist, learning all about your area's specific birds and their fascinating habits. 

Winter Bird Watching Made Simple – 8 Steps To Happy Bird Spotting

It depends on where you live as to which birds might be winter denizens. For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, you can bet on seeing common backyard birds that breed in the Arctic, resident species, and water birds like cormorants and herons. Other winter birds that might catch your eye include American goldfinch, black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, house finch, house sparrow, jay (both blue and steller), mourning dove, northern cardinal, pine siskin, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatch. 

To discover the joys of spotting these feathered fellows, you just need our expert guide to the best bird-watching etiquette, where to look, essential kit, and how to connect with other bird lovers. Here we’ve compiled our eight best bird-watching tips to help you get the most out of winter birding during the quiet garden months. 

1. Make Sure You Dress Warm

If you live in an area that gets snow and/or freezing temperatures, dressing correctly for the outdoors may be second nature. However, usually when you leave the house in the winter you’re not going to sit still outside for any length of time which requires extra layering. And that’s one of the keys to taking time for successful winter bird watching. Layering is crucial.

You should wear a base layer, mid layer and outer layer. Make sure to wear a rainproof jacket over your layers or even wind pants and a jacket depending upon the weather. Bring sunglasses, gloves, a scarf and a hat as well. And don't forget a thermos of cocoa or coffee to warm you down to your toes!

2. Grab the Right Gear

Once you have your outdoor outfit figured out, you need to decide what gear to bring for your winter birding. This depends a bit on where you plan to go bird spotting. If you're winter bird-watching from the car, you may only need binoculars. If you’re hiking somewhere, you may want to take photos, in which case a smartphone or professional camera equipment should be on your list. A waterproof notebook is also a handy piece of gear. You'll want to take notes on the location and activity of any birds you see, and possibly even do a sketch of them. 

If you're stepping outside a warm car, you may want ice cleats, hand warmers, an extra pair of socks, and a microfiber cloth to wipe your binoculars or camera lens. If you’re really going farther afield, pack gear as if you were going wilderness hiking. That means packing emergency supplies – and always letting someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. 

3. Be Mindful of Birding Best Practices

Keep in mind that although you are searching for birds to watch, they may not be as excited to see you. They are, after all, wild animals. Wild animals tend to react when humans get too close by fleeing – and birds are no different. So approach the process of winter birding with all due respect and consideration. Adopt some safe wildlife viewing standards to get the most from the experience.

Use your scope or binoculars to get that spectacular view of a snowy owl, rather than stomping through the brush to get just a little bit closer. Use marked trails if possible, speak softly, and move slowly and quietly. 

4. Look for What Birds Like to Eat

If you’re looking for teenagers at home, the best place to look is the kitchen, where the food is. So it is with birds, too. They are often hungry after a long flight, or struggling to find food in the more inhospitable snow and ice. So it’s a good idea to know what kind of food they’re searching for. 

Find the food source, and you will find the birds. Waterfowl are easy. Find the nearest source of open water and you'll likely find all manner of waterfowl. Other birds subsist primarily on berries and seeds so depending on the species, an open meadow or thicket might be the perfect birding place. Search out native fruit trees – and consider growing your own! Other birds eat primarily arthropods – invertebrates such as spiders, millipedes and centipedes, and insects. These birds tend to haunt trees and the cracks and crevices of rock-filled landscapes. 

5. Look Near Open Water or Sheltered Areas

As mentioned, open water is a great place to find birds – and not only waterfowl. Other species of birds may be hanging around the outskirts of a lake, nibbling on the seed heads of grasses, or investigating the crevices of the surrounding shore.

Plus, most birds need to drink water every day, so a source of freshwater is sure to draw them in. Keep an eye out for these places, and make them a regular part of your winter bird watching excursions. Consider incorporating water sources for birds into your own backyard, too. You'll be surprised at some of the visitors that will pop by, even in the dead of winter!

6. Listen for Chickadees

Chickadees are talkers. They also don’t migrate, so you’re sure to find some on your bird watching adventures. One call a chickadee makes is a warning call which alerts other members of incoming danger. Other birds – such as creepers, kinglets, nuthatches, vireos, warblers, and even woodpeckers – associate with chickadee flocks. They even take advantage of the chickadee alarm system. 

Woodpeckers also take advantage of the chickadees' cache system. Chickadees will often hide seeds and other food in various areas to go back to later. The woodpeckers note this hoarding behavior and often swoop in to nab the prize. So why not take advantage of this knowledge to attract woodpeckers and the like? Position yourself where you suspect these hidden treasures are most likely to be kept – and wait for those winged feeders to happen by!

7. Bring Birds to Your Own Backyard

If you absolutely cannot drag yourself away from your cozy home, set up some bird feeding stations in your yard. Don’t worry, birds don’t become dependent on your feeders. If you took them down, the birds would continue to forage for food as nature intended. What is more important is that you clean your feeders. Dirty feeders spread diseases amongst bird populations which can kill them. Clean your feeders every couple of weeks (more when it’s hot and humid) for safe and happy winter birding. The same goes for any birdbath planters you may have.

Another way you can entice birds to your backyard? Don’t cut back grasses and perennials for the winter. Their seed heads are a valuable food source for many birds. Plan ahead a little, and when you landscape, include bird-friendly plants that provide food, nesting material and shelter. 

8. Connect with Fellow Bird Lovers

Some people love the quiet, peaceful, solitary pursuit of bird watching, while others like to share their experience. For those who are more social, bring the family or some friends out to birdwatch with you. Or join a local birdwatching club. Some parks and wildlife refuges offer organized bird walks, events and meetings. You can also connect with bird lovers online. 

If you absolutely can’t face the chilly temperatures, birdwatching can be enjoyed on the internet. Audubon and Cornell have wonderful live cams you can watch, and there are dozens of other sites as well. Alternatively, you can just watch videos of bird behavior, which can also be found on the internet. Happy birding!

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.