Birds of a Feather: Winter Birdwatching

Feeling a little cabin fever this month? Say toodle-doo to the winter blues and head outside to one of the many parks Cincinnati has to offer!

Northern Cardinal

Great Parks of Hamilton County includes 17 parks to choose from–all accessible with a $10 parking pass ($14 for non-residents). Others, including the 1,459 acre Mt. Airy Forest, are free of charge year-round. And no, you don’t need the best hiking boots and binoculars, getting outdoors in Cincinnati is all about accessibility and having fun. Winter is the perfect time to get out in the woods, crunch in the snow (or squish in the mud) and see some wildlife, especially our local birds.

Sam, Cincinnati Zoo’s Bald Eagle, photo by Dave Jenike

Bird watching is the country’s second favorite outdoor past time (right after gardening). It’s a great way to practice conservation in your own backyard, or just down the road at one the many parks and hiking trails in Cincinnati. Birds can inspire wonder of the natural world, awareness, and curiosity that can lead to scientific discovery. And don’t feel bummed that your summer favorites have gone south for the winter–visitors from Canada who “fly south” to lower 48 can be spectacular singers or amazing aerial acrobats. A little patience and a few extra layers of clothing is all you need to get outdoors and see something special.

Raptors are the most obvious visitors during winter: kestrels, red-tailed hawks, eagles, ospreys, and owls are easier to spot once trees are bare. Even the symbol of freedom, the bald eagle, is native to the Tri-State and can occasionally be spotted near waterways. Other waterfowl can be viewed on ponds or near streams–herons, ducks, geese, and swans glide across chilly waters in search for food.

Tufted Titmouse

If the rarer winter visitors aren’t your thing, picture the male cardinal, Ohio’s state bird, perched on a snowy branch. For young birders, this is one of their first identifications–easy to spot, bright coloring, and fairly large. For more auditory young birders, a first identification could be the American Robin announcing that spring is on the way. Part of the fun of learning about birds in your area are their pretty fabulous names: Belted Kingfisher, Tufted Titmouse, Dark-eyed Junco, and Hairy Woodpecker to name a few.

Check your local library for a regional bird field guide, or check out an online or app guide. My favorite is Cornell University’s Merlin Bird ID app. You can submit photos or answer a few questions about bird size, coloring, location and find out what species you saw. Additionally, that information is saved as citizen science data, where everyday general public observations are matched with collaborative projects with professional scientists. Your bird-watching numbers are collected with over 300 million observations by other users. So by bird watching in your own backyard, you’re helping real-life ornithologists (scientists who study birds and migration patterns)!

Hamilton County Park District Guided Winter Hike

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers count birds at their feeders and submit their counts online to help scientists track movements of winter populations as well as long-term distribution of species. Anyone can participate including families, classrooms, and clubs.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and show results in real time. Last year, participants in more than 130 countries counted 5,689 species (that’s 18 million individual birds!) If you want to be a part of the Count this year, simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see during February 17-20 and submit on the GBBC website.

Trumpeter Swans at Cincinnati Zoo, photo by Christina Neel

Hamilton County Park District Guided Winter Hike

Why should we count birds? We can learn a ton simply by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are constantly in flux—migrations, distributions, feeding patterns, the list goes on and on. Long-term counts, like these citizen-science ones, help scientists investigate questions like: How will climate change influence bird populations? Where do birds actually go and do they take the same routes year after year? How is bird diversity different in cities versus suburban, rural and natural areas?

Additionally, during Penguin Days, you can visit the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden for half price admission! See our North American birds, like Bald Eagle Sam by the 4-D theater or the Barred Owl in Wolf Woods. For a more global perspective, visit the inquisitive Keas near the Base Camp Café or warm up at the Wings of the World exhibit. Along Wildlife Canyon, see some of the largest birds of prey in the world—the Steller’s Sea Eagle and Andean Condor.

Cincinnati Zoo’s Barred Owl, photo by Cassandre Crawford

A few ideas for your winter bird watching adventure:

● Practice the Leave No Trace Principle: leave everything is just as you found it, and be sure not to leave any trash on your hike or park visit.
● Remember that birds are wild animals. It’s exciting to see a rare bird, but loud sounds of excitement could scare it off.
● Join a group of other bird watchers. Check out or the Cincinnati Nature Center for guided walks with other families or groups.
● Learn about bird behavior and habitats. By knowing where a specific bird likes to live or what they eat, they could be easier to find out in the wild.
● Ask questions. Animal care staff at the Cincinnati Zoo, fellow bird watchers, guides, and park rangers are very helpful and friendly to new folks.
● Consider setting up a feeder (or two) in your yard and watch bird visitors from the comfort and warmth of your home