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From backyard feeders to coastal waters, winter offers new flights of fancy

Birds like this purple sandpiper can be seen during the winter on Bass Rocks in Gloucester.The Boston Globe

A few years ago around Christmas, I was walking in the Middlesex Fells Reservation when I saw a plump little light grayish-colored bird with a bright yellow patch of feathers on top of its head land in the branches of a nearby pine tree.

What is that? I wondered. I later identified it as a golden-crowned kinglet.

Wayne Petersen, Mass Audubon’s director of Important Bird Areas, said golden-crowned kinglets typically nest in conifer forests in northern New England and western Massachusetts, but are occasional winter visitors in the eastern part of the state.

Winter birding can be a good time to spot bird species that aren’t typically seen in the Greater Boston area during the warmer seasons.


Dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, and yellow-rumped warblers also are species that can be seen in winter in the region, said Petersen.

Winter also brings an assortment of water birds to the eastern part of the state.

“Ponds that don’t freeze attract a variety of winter ducks, including ring-necked ducks, hooded mergansers, and common mergansers,” Petersen said.

Peter Alden, naturalist, author, and cofounder of Spark Birding, a company based in Sandwich, N.H., that aids beginning birders, said winter birding has its own appeal.

“Winter birding on calmer days can be fun,” said Alden. “Hawks stand out on leafless trees and in the sky. Horticultural and invasive alien trees, shrubs, and vines — and a few natives — attract [fruit-eating] birds all winter. These include American robins, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, house finches, and European starlings. Trails by rivers often have marshy and brushy areas with overwintering songbirds.”

Our seacoasts offer the most excitement for winter birding excursions, said Alden.

“Many birds that breed in the high arctic of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska tundra and wetlands in the boreal [northern] forest, winter here,” said Alden. “Scanning via binoculars — or better, a telescope on a tripod — you may spot winter-only sea ducks such as red-breasted merganser, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, long-tailed duck, and American goldeneye.”


Some extreme birders even brave coastal storms to see which seabirds are passing through, said Alden.

Petersen said there was a large incursion of dovekies in early December along Cape Cod and Cape Ann.

“Thousands were sighted at Cape Ann, Rockport, Scituate, Manomet, Eastham, and Cape Cod Bay,” said Petersen. “They are normally an arctic bird, usually found north of New England, off eastern Canada, but sometimes big storms turn up the ocean and drive their food source — zooplankton — deep, so the dovekies fly south looking for food.”

“In Cape Ann, birders check for gulls, including such Arctic ones as Iceland and glaucous gulls, at the Jodrey Fish Pier on Gloucester inner harbor,” said Alden. “Next is Eastern Point for a rare king eider among the newly resident common eiders. Check the overlooks at Bass Rocks for scoters, great cormorants, and horned grebe. Halibut Point State Reservation on the north side of Rockport is famous for a wintering group of harlequin ducks.”

The Newburyport area features salt marshes, a large river mouth, and sandy beaches, said Alden.

A snowy owl sits perched at the top of a tree in the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

Plum Island is a good spot to see snowy owls in winter, he said.

“South of Boston there are such spots as World’s End in Hingham, Cohasset’s Little Harbor, Scituate Harbor, the Mass Audubon Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary in Marshfield, Duxbury Beach, and Plymouth Harbor to enjoy winter birding,” said Alden.


Good inland winter birding locations include Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord and Sudbury, where you might see birds like swamp sparrows, marsh wrens, and Virginia rails, said Petersen.

Even urban areas like the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown, and the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain can be good winter birding spots, said Petersen.

Brendan Keegan, an Arboretum horticulturist, and Bob Mayer, an Arboretum docent and volunteer who has led bird walks for 20-plus years, said the Arboretum has historically documented up to 63 species of birds during the winter months.

In addition to common species like black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and blue jays, Keegan said the Arboretum gets a variety of migratory winter sparrows, including white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. Great horned owls, screech owls, and barred owls are yearlong residents.

Petersen explained that some of our cold-weather visitors are northern-wintering species that move south in years of low food availability. These include Bohemian waxwings, white-winged crossbills, evening grosbeaks, and redpolls, as well as boreal owls like snowy owls, hawk owls, and great grey owls.

Any place that has a diversity of plantings, like fruit trees and berries, is likely to attract birds, Petersen said. Many birds that feed primarily on insects and other invertebrates in warm weather — like robins, bluebirds, and wrens — eat fruits, seeds, and berries in winter, allowing many of them to stay here instead of migrating.


“In many cases, suburbs are the best places to see winter birds,” said Petersen. “There are lots of plantings of trees and shrubs in people’s yards. And there’s bird feeders and water. Some birds are more common in the suburbs than in the woods in winter because there’s more food.”

Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to donlymannature@gmail.com.