Winter Birds to Observe on Cape Cod

White-throated Sparrow perched on a tree limb in falling snow.

The untrained eye and ear may falsely hear and see a lack of movement while walking along a snow-covered path this time of year.

The winter is, for many, a time to stay cooped up in their homes. Surely, creatures like birds do the same – if they haven’t all flown to Florida.

But no, many birds stay the winter and are actually quite active during it. Some even come here for our coldest months, surprising as that might seem.

Common Winter Birds

You’re most likely to see some of these at feeders, in bushes and trees, and scurrying across the ground.

  • Male Purple Finch perched on a branch.

    Purple Finch – These superfans of sunflower seeds can be found in weedy fields and areas of great shrub growth. Marked by brilliant pinkish-purple heads, these finches are chunky, with notched tails.

  • Tufted Titmouse – These small gray and white birds have one of the most well-recognized winter voices and regularly show up at feeders. They line the innards of their nests with hair that they often pluck directly from animals, which adds a degree of warmth and comfort in cold weather.
  • Northern Chickadee – It is said that, where there are titmice, there are also chickadees, as the two are often seen feeding together. Both also make high-pitched, squeaky sounds. The state bird of Massachusetts is tiny, but not so diminutive: they have an impeccably well-established “pecking order” when it comes to feeding. The largest tend to have first dibs on feeding stations, while the smaller wait their turn patiently at least an arm’s length away.
  • Common Eider

    Common Eider – The largest duck in the northern hemisphere is also quite characteristic. They often flock in large groups of over 150 birds, creating undulating waves of black and yellowish-white in the air.

  • White-throated Sparrow – These plump, colorful sparrows have rich brown and black tones on their backs, white or tan throats, and yellow bands between the eyes and beak. Even in the winter, these charismatic sparrows act almost like the goats of the bird world, hopping about on the ground in search of food and seamlessly switching between low-hanging branches.

Outgoing Migrants

In mid-autumn, most hawks begin to head to the mid-Atlantic and Southern United States. Joining them around this time are some of the more colorful characters: the warblers, hummingbirds, vireos and flycatchers.

Sometimes, you’ll get some stragglers. Eastern Phoebes, a gray flycatcher and the first bird John James Audubon himself banded, sometimes stick around until late November.

Incoming Visitors

Many people act like the migrating birds mentioned above, flying the coop to Florida each year. The hardier, however, prefer to stay in cool climates – humans, to ski, and birds, to avoid subzero temperatures.

Dark-eyed Junco

That’s right: there are some birds for which the respectably cold Cape Cod winters are in fact warmer than their Canadian summering grounds. These include all manner of ducks and waterfowl, as well as the fluffy slate-gray Dark-eyed Junco. The Junco is a slighter sparrow with a pale pink beak, another common feeder bird that hops and forages along the ground.

The somewhat spooky-looking Surf Scoter is a stocky diving duck, with a velvety black body against which his sharp eyes contrast greatly. They can be found in shallow water and among breaking waves on the seashore.

Red-throated Loons are an oddity in the duck world. Unlike others who have to flop across the ground or water surface to take off, Red-throats can vertically take off, making them intriguing to watch among other ducks.

If you’re lucky, you may also spot a snowy owl – the only owl which hunts in daylight hours.

Best Spots to See Winter Birds

Any seasoned birder will tell you that the absolute best place to watch birds is firstly at your own feeder. Even if you only fill it every other day, having a feeder around allows you to learn about how birds actually behave, which is useful knowledge if you plan on going out to see them in more natural environs.

Of course, you’re not going to see any of the dozens of duck species lapping up sunflower seeds under your favorite cedar, so you’ll have to don some gloves, boots and a hat to see them.

Bring along a pair of binoculars and head to Scusset State Reservation, 20 Scusset Beach Road. If you go early, you’ll spot all sorts of small seed-eaters driving in. A quick jaunt over the boardwalk will grant you views of multiple duck and seabird flocks, and maybe even a seal.

Grebes, Gannets and Loons can be seen in force at Corporation Beach in Barnstable. But even more seabirds can be spotted at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham. Red-breasted Mergansers, Buffleheads, and American Black Ducks are all common sights here.

If you’re interested in learning more, pick up a birder’s guide to North America. Once you’ve assembled a list of birds you’d like to see, use the website ebird to track sightings of each species. There are plenty of birders on Cape Cod who take part in the pastime, many of whom are active members in the Cape Cod Bird Club.

Bird Events in the Winter

On Christmas and New Year’s Day, the aforementioned Cape Cod Bird Club takes part in international counting efforts. It’s an interactive way to learn more about birds from experienced observers, all while contributing to scientific efforts.

By Adam Forziati
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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