For me, I love how birding is something you can take with you wherever you go. It can be a quiet activity on your own, or an experience enjoyed with others. The coo of a Mourning Dove outside your window. The fluted sound of a Wood Thrush accompanying you on a hike. Birds add richness to our lives if we are simply open to it – and they are just beautiful to look at!

Birds themselves connect us across ecosystems, across continents, and across cultures. It’s fascinating to wonder where a small warbler spent its winter before migrating across open water back to a forest in the mid-Atlantic.

I’m amazed by birds for the incredible creatures they are, but also by what they can tell us. They are windows to understand the surrounding ecosystem in deeper ways. Once I started learning about birds, I began to see the local landscape through a different lens. I came to appreciate it in new ways for the life it supported – or could do better to support.

Unfortunately, bird populations are steeply declining in almost every habitat type. Because birds are easily visible to people, they have long served as indicators of ecosystem health. The past few years, I’ve enjoyed submitting bird observations through Cornell’s citizen-science platform, eBird. It has been a rewarding way to learn about birds, and help scientists understand their temporal and spatial distribution. Data from eBird is available to the public, and researchers have used it to help inform conservation decisions.

A Bald Eagle sitting on a tree branch.

Winter can be a productive time for Bald Eagle sightings in the mid-Atlantic as some birds seek unfrozen, open water from points north. Photo credit: Chesapeake Bay Program, Will Parson

You don’t have to be an expert to use eBird or to contribute to citizen science! Millions of observations have been submitted by everyday people all over the world. Cornell’s free Merlin Bird ID app can help you identify an unknown bird by photo or sound recording. If you are new to eBird, check out the free eBird Essentials course for some pointers, and you’ll be on your way to submitting your bird sightings with confidence.

If you’d simply like to put a name to a few commonly seen birds, this short list will get you started. For more detailed accounts similar to a field guide, resources including All About Birds and the Audubon Guide to North American Birds are reliable sites to learn more about specific species. Getting out in the field with a local birding group is a good way to meet others, and discover new places and birds.

But it’s winter you say – haven’t most of the birds flown south? Not all of them. In fact, some birds we see in the mid-Atlantic this time of year are overwintering here from points farther north. White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, the colloquial “snowbirds”, arrive just as fall begins to fade. Both of these winter visitors can often be seen scratching at the ground below a feeder for fallen seed.

A Dark-eyed Junco bird standing in the snow

A Dark-eyed Junco lives up to its nickname as a “snowbird” on this wintry day in Columbia, PA. Photo credit: Emily Broich

Speaking of feeders, winter can be a productive time to study the backyard birds that visit them. Black oil sunflower seeds seem to be a crowd pleaser. The rest of the year, many backyard birds are more likely to forage on insects needed to rear their young.

Despite the cold weather, winter birding also offers other rewards. It is a great time of year to listen for owls calling early in the morning or around dusk as they begin their courtship and nesting earlier than songbirds. Since trees have lost their leaves, it is often easier to see their silhouette if you follow the sound.

So take a look outside, or even just out the window. Perhaps a friendly visit from a Carolina Chickadee to grab a sunflower seed from your feeder will add a note of cheer to a cold winter day.