It’s winter and a great time to be in the field. The uncomfortable chill in the clean, crisp air melts away once we put one foot in front of the other and get moving. All you need is warm dry layers and a love for the outdoors.
Going afield in the winter has advantages over other seasons. First, even some of the most popular places are devoid of distractions created by others. This helps you spend more time focused on the natural experience and also increases the chance of wildlife being undisturbed. Also, when lucky enough to have snow on the ground, wildlife is often easier to spot.
Nature is fascinating and if you haven’t yet had a change to explore your warm weather haunts in the winter, you are missing out. From determining how hungry the deer are by examining what they are choosing for winter browse or looking for winter birds, the explorations in the winter world are unlimited.
What are Missouri’s winter birds?
Each winter we are treated with some great guests from the north, particularly sparrows. The Harris’s Sparrow is a large, striking bird that was first discovered in Missouri. Since it is such a far northern breeder, it was last bird in North America to have its nest and eggs found. The amazing Dark-eyed Junco can be found in good numbers. Look for stands of birches, where Chickadees or others have been knocking seeds to the ground. You may find a bonanza of a mixed flock in one small area, where Juncos forage alongside White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows with sometimes even a Song Sparrow mixed in!
The most tiny gems you should be able to seek out are Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The Golden-crowned Kinglet winters throughout the Midwest and is often found in larger deciduous trees. Listen for their high-pitched sounds and look for the distinctive facial coloring of this species with white and black streaks above the eye topped with a gold patch and a bold white stripe on the wing. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are more common in the southern states during the winter and would be more likely to visit a suet or bird feeder for sunflower seeds or peanut hearts. The ruby crown of this species is rarely observed but look for the partial white-eye ring and less bold white stripe on the wing than the Golden-crowned Kinglet. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet seems to be more tolerant than most bird species of large, approaching beings and so it may be possible to get quite close to them and fun to see how close they will approach you as they forage for food.
If you can’t do it or are just too darn lazy, bird watching is also right in your backyard. Whether or not you have a bird feeder in your yard or neighborhood, if you find an area with shrubs, native plants with berries and medium to large size trees as well as a water source you can look for two species of warblers and kinglets that can be observed in Missouri during the winter months. These birds are smaller than sparrows and have thin, pointy bills for capturing insects. It may be a bit more difficult to find these birds as they will be found mainly in shrubs or trees, not on the ground. Often they can be observed fluttering quickly away from and then back to a perch as they hover in grabs for insects.
The Orange-crowned Warbler breeds throughout Canada and in the western United States and is one of the last warblers to migrate in the fall. Most Orange-crowned Warblers spend the winter in states along the gulf coast and throughout Mexico but individuals have been known to spend the winter north of this area if there is a food supply. They mainly eat insects such as ants, beetles, spiders and flies and they supplement their diet with such foods as dried berries and seeds. Orange-crowned warblers may visit a suet feeder. Look for these small, gray and olive-colored birds with sharp bills in shrubs and dense vegetation.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler winters across much of central and southeastern U.S. Their main diet is also insects but sometimes can be attracted to feeders with sunflower seed, raisins, suet and peanut butter. The best field mark for this species is a bright yellow rump patch along with a yellow patch on the sides of the breast that contrast with brown, gray and white coloration in females and young birds and blue-gray and white in adult males. They are most commonly found in deciduous trees.