Snow Days are Prime Time for Birdwatching in Winter

Snow Creates Nature’s Photo Studio and Helps Us Appreciate Birds’ Incredible Beauty

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Many parts of the country are in a deep freeze, but we never let the frigid temps or a little snowfall stop us from birdwatching in the winter.

As a matter of fact, winter is one of our favorite times to see birds.

Bright white, untouched snow is the perfect canvas to photograph birds, and the crystalline silence is the best way to hear them.

And we enjoy examining the animal tracks in the snow and seeing wing marks where birds make snow angels.

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Red-tailed Hawk with a layer of snow the feathers surrounding its eyes

Snow is Your Friend

Seeing birds against a white backdrop is like appreciating someone without makeup and basking in the glory of their natural beauty.

And when it’s snowing, the birds don’t hibernate.

As a matter of fact, our backyard birds become quite active as the snow begins to fall.

Yes, snow presents its own set of challenges on your camera’s light meter, but the snow acts as nature’s photo studio with the right exposure settings.

You’ll capture incredible detail you might overlook against a busy background.

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When you see a Snowy Owl in the wild against a snow background its eyes and mouth are its most prominent features

Seeing the Bird’s Finer Details

Look at a photo of a bird in the snow, and what you really see is the bird and its finer details.

Seeing a Snowy Owl against a backdrop of fresh snow makes its deep yellow eyes and pink mouth the focal point, and the owl’s dark barring disappears from the frame.

Watching a Bald Eagle land in a pile of snow, you appreciate the span of its wings, the enormity of its feet, and its powerful talons.

Observing snow collect around a Red-tailed Hawk’s face draws you into their beautiful sharp eyes and makes you wonder how their strong hooked beaks don’t interfere with their eyesight.

You’ll be enchanted watching a hawk fly in the snow, gliding on the air without missing a beat.

And being out in the snow with the birds makes us appreciate what they endure in winter and appreciate their resiliency.

You might even trade-in your warm coat for a set of feathers.

Don’t let the winter blahs get you down, and instead make birdwatching in winter part of your norm.

Bundle up, slip some foot warmers in your boots, put a hand warmer in your pocket, and grab your camera and binoculars and get outside and see birds.

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Snow Owls rely on their sharp hearing to pinpoint exactly where prey is moving in the snow

Seeing Wintering Eagles

Nothing is more beautiful than seeing a Bald Eagle in the snow.

Seeing Bald Eagles in winter is to us what April is to see migratory birds. 

So that means enduring the bitter cold and lots of snow.

Having access to the Hudson River in New York and other locations like the Shepaug Dam in Connecticut, we enjoy seeing wintering eagles in the most frigid of temps.

Eagles prefer wooded areas near water, with tall trees for nesting and perching, so keep this in mind when venturing out. You might discover a hot spot while birdwatching in the cold.

Be mindful of the time of the day you start your journey since eagles are most active between 7 – 9 a.m. and again 4 – 5 p.m, and offer the best chances of seeing them.

Bald Eagle enjoying its sushi meal
Bald Eagle enjoying its sushi meal

Wintering Eagles on the Hudson River

The Hudson River is a popular landing spot for wintering eagles with tiny islands scattered throughout where you can spot them enjoying a meal, floating on chunks of ice, or perching in trees.

We like to spend the day looking for winter eagles from both sides of the river, made easy with quick access to both the Mid Hudson Bridge and the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge.

One of our favorite spots in Dutchess County is the Norrie Point Environmental Center in Staatsburg, New York.

The park offers plenty of access points to the river, and the environmental center has spotting scopes pointing to popular eagle landing spots directly across the river in Ulster County.

It’s fun counting the eagles flying up and down the river as the number reaches the double-digits making this a worthwhile trip.

Then we make a quick stop at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Estate in Hyde Park, which also provides incredible views of the river and wintering eagles.

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Nothing is more beautiful than seeng a Bald Eagle in the snow

Seeing Eagles in Ulster County

First, we check out the Kingston Waterfront, Kingston Point, and then Lighthouse Park, which offers superb views of wintering eagles on the Hudson River.

Then we head off for the woods, journeying to a pine grove on the Ashokan Reservoir shore.

The reservoir is a prime spot to see eagles year-round, but winter offers incredible viewing.

If we’re feeling adventurous, we can hit the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail and head south toward the Plattekill Gorge.

So in one day, with a little driving and hiking, we can enjoy seeing wintering eagles in different environments.

Damn Good Eagle Viewing at Shepaug Dam

Another favorite place to see wintering eagles is Shepaug Dam, located on the Shepaug Hydroelectric Facility in Southbury, Connecticut.

It takes something special to bring groups of people out to a hydroelectric station in freezing temperatures, and the wintering eagles and other birds of prey are it.

We’ve attended several events at the dam over the last few years and look forward to standing outside in the frigid temps with our fellow eagle enthusiasts.

Shepaug Dam Bald Eagle Observation Site
Shepaug Dam Bald Eagle Observation Site

Shepaug Dam is a hot spot for Bald Eagles.

Some of the eagles at the Shepaug Dam live in Connecticut year long, but others come from Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime Provinces.

Adult and juvenile wintering eagles criss-cross back and forth over the Housatonic River, and Lucy Walker and her incredible staff keep everyone updated.

All eagle sightings are logged, and you can expect to see 10 or more eagles during a short, 2-hour visit.

We also enjoy seeing various birds, including Red-tail Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Goshawks, Great Blue Herons, and various waterfowl.

But this year, with COVID-19, the program is on hold until later in February or early-March, so check the Shepaug Dam Eagles’ Facebook page for more details.

On a personal note, we hope the show goes on, even in small, limited viewing groups.

There is nothing like seeing Bald Eagles in the wild.

Shepaug Dam is an Fantastic Place to See Wintering Bald Eagles
Shepaug Dam is an Fantastic Place to See Wintering Bald Eagles

Backyard Birds and Snow

If you have bird feeders in your yard or bird patch, then you have a front-row seat for backyard birdwatching in winter.

We like to get outside and photograph birds in the snow.

And since it’s so quiet outside during a snowstorm, I enjoy filming the birds so you can hear their calls and other noises they make.

You can hear the flutter of their wings, the sounds of their feet landing on a branch, and feel the whisk of air as they fly by.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker visiting our peanut suet feeder during a winter storm
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker visiting our peanut suet feeder during a winter storm

Our favorite backyard birds are the ones that truly enjoy the snow: Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows.

The more it snows, the happier it makes these snow birds.

Juncos and White-throated Sparrows bounce around under the pine tree demanding more snow.

These songbirds bring a smile to my face on even the coldest of days.

And they’re quite content having us in the snow with them.

There’s an easy way to remember the Dark-eyed Junco. With their dark gray feathers and white bellies, the folk saying goes like this: “Gray skies above, snow on the ground.”
There’s an easy way to remember the Dark-eyed Junco. With their dark gray feathers and white bellies, the folk saying goes like this: “Gray skies above, snow on the ground.”

Mohonk Preserve for Birdwatching

We’re lucky to have the Mohonk Preserve and Shawangunk Ridge out our back door.

If weather permits, we can hike to higher elevation points with sweeping views across the valley from the summit.

Have your binoculars ready because you never know what might fly by or land on the ledge below you.

During winter hikes, we’ve encountered Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, Barred Owls, Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, Peregrine Falcons, and a Golden Eagle feasting on a deer carcass.

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You are left speechless watching a Red-tailed Hawk fly through the snow

Gear for Birdwatching in Winter

Not having feathers to keep warm, we rely on manmade tools to endure the frigid temps and keep our fingers nimble enough to operate a camera shutter or binocular diopter. 

Rechargeable hand warmers, foot warmers, heated jackets, Thinsulate tech gloves, and lots of Carharrt everything helps us endure the frigid temps and enjoy birdwatching in the winter.

Even in the freezing temps, seeing wintering eagles and our favorite snow birds make us forget how cold it is outside.

Bringing Birds to You

If you’re one of those who just don’t like being outdoors in the cold for a long time for birdwatching in winter, you can now bring the birds to you.

In response to COVID-19 restrictions, many wildlife preserves and wildlife rehabilitators offer virtual programs so you can enjoy seeing your favorite birds streamed into your home.

Christine Critters, our favorite birds of prey rehabilitator, offers free Facebook Live programs and partners with local libraries and wildlife organizations to bring their beautiful bird ambassadors to you.

Viewers light up Facebook with hearts when Christine introduces Cypress, the Barred Owl
Viewers light up Facebook with hearts when Christine introduces Cypress, the Barred Owl

See Aurora, their fabulous Bald Eagle education ambassador, Equinox, a female Peregrine Falcon, Cypress a Barred Owl, or Magma, the red-phase eastern Screen Owl with a backward wing up close.

Check out Christine’s Critters’ Facebook page or their website for their upcoming public events.

So don’t let cold weather make you overlook birdwatching in winter because it’s a fantastic time to see seasonal visitors you can’t see other times of the year and enjoy seeing birds in their natural state.

Now bundle up and get outside and see birds!

The Great Backyard Bird Count February 12-15 is quickly approaching. Connect with people around the world to watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds. Go here to learn how you can participate.

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