Winter can be a fantastic time for birding, but as temperatures drop into single digits and even lower, it can be uncomfortable and unsafe for birders to be outdoors. By taking the proper precautions, however, the coldest days don’t need to freeze your birding ambitions.
Why Cold Weather Birding Can Be Hot, Hot, Hot
It might seem like the best idea on a cold winter day is to stay cuddled under a favorite quilt in a warm and cozy house, but you’d be missing out on some fantastic birding opportunities. As temperatures drop, many birds are more active since they need to forage and hunt more frequently to consume enough calories to maintain their body heat. Even owls and other raptors may be more active in the daytime, offering chances for phenomenal sightings and views.
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Small birds will be flitting about more frequently as well and may be more likely to visit feeding stations for a quick, easy meal. Furthermore, as water sources freeze, waterfowl and water-hunting birds such as kingfishers and eagles will congregate in smaller areas where they can still access open water. Birders who take advantage of these cold-weather behaviors will be amazed at how hot their birding can be.
Keeping Warm in the Cold
Birds have built-in down coats, but birders have to dress carefully and choose their winter attire thoughtfully to keep warm on cold days. Dressing in several thin layers of warm fabrics such as wool, flannel, and fleece is better than just one or two bulky, thick layers. Multiple layers will also allow birders to more easily adjust their attire if the temperatures warm up throughout the day. Long sleeves, long underwear, taller socks, scarves, gloves, and hats with ear flaps are all good for winter wear and will help cover more exposed skin to avoid extra chills. Flannel-lined pants are a great option for the coldest days, and insulated boots are essential for keeping toes extra toasty.
In addition to dressing well for colder weather, other steps can help birders keep warm when they’re out birding in the snow, ice, and bitter winds.
Eat breakfast before birding.
A healthy, calorie-rich breakfast will help “stoke the stove” as it were, providing suitable calories to heat up a birder’s core and keep them well-fueled for a chilly day of birding. Consider warm, healthy foods such as oatmeal and other whole grains that will provide good nutrition as well.
Stay hydrated with warm drinks.
Dehydration can occur just as easily in winter as it can on hot days. Carry along a thermos of hot coffee, cocoa, or tea to sip throughout the day or opt for savory sips with broth or soup to stay hydrated and warm at the same time.
Skip the alcohol.
A nip of alcohol may seem to spread warmth through your chest, but drinking alcohol will ultimately lower your core temperature by expanding your blood vessels. This will only cool you off more quickly, despite the temporary, deceptive warmness.
Wear sunglasses to protect sensitive eyes.
Sunglasses will cut the glare off snow and ice to protect your vision and allow you to more easily see different details and colors for identifying winter birds. Furthermore, sunglasses will also decrease wind around delicate eye tissues and help keep your face warmer.
Keep dry inside your clothes and out.
If you get wet, you’ll get cold—and that goes for sweat as well. Opt for enough layers to keep you snuggly warm but won’t cause sweating. Brush snow off your clothes and watch out for puddles or thin ice that could lead to dangerously wet feet.
Eat calorie-rich snacks throughout the day.
Keep your energy up for a full day of winter birding by nibbling on high-calorie snacks that will provide good fuel for a warm body temperature. Trail mix, nuts, raisins, chocolate, granola, avocado, peanut butter, and whole grain bread are all tasty choices.
Stick to sunny areas out of the wind.
Take advantage of solar heating even on cold winter days by staying in sunny areas for birding. At the same time, however, be alert to strong winds in open areas that can create wind chills and cool you off more quickly.
Add hand warmers to your pockets.
If your fingers get extra cold and you’re having trouble focusing binoculars, flipping pages in your field guide, or manipulating your favorite birding app, add instant hand warmers to your pockets. Bring along a spare pair for use later in the day as well.
Despite all the precautions you may take to keep warm, it is important to be alert to the first symptoms of hypothermia, just in case. Uncontrollable shivering, clumsiness, and fatigue can all indicate the cold is a bit too much. Individuals with arthritis, diabetes, poor circulation, or thyroid conditions are also more sensitive to extreme cold and should be aware of their own limitations before going birding on the coldest days.
Winter birding can be amazing, and every birder will feel a rush of heat when they see a fantastic bird or witness stunning behavior on chilly winter days—so long as they take the proper precautions to keep themselves warm, comfortable, and safe for all their winter birding adventures.