To everything there is a season, and that is true for birding.
Spring and autumn get all the press because that is when the warblers and other tropical migrants pass through on their way north to their breeding areas of choice, or south to the warmer and buggier areas when it is cold up here. Summer is when a lot of birders go to the cooler shore for shorebirds or brave the bugs for the mountains.
I happen to like winter birding when the leaves are off the trees, the cold is bracing and the crowds are sparse. That‘s one reason I like to go to Scherman Hoffman.
Don‘t go expecting to find warblers or the other birds that sing in spring. They won‘t be there. That doesn’t make the birding any less interesting.
There are lot of birds that fly south to the rest of the Lower 48 when the cold comes on. Imagine, they consider New Jersey warm enough for them - a funny concept to remember when we are shivering from what we consider arctic winds!
Some of these winter visitors are rather common, especially at the Scherman Hoffman feeders. The junco, for instance. This slate-gray and white little guy - and in New Jersey it is always a guy because the browner females fly farther south for the winter (perhaps the males stay farther north so they can get to the breeding areas quicker) - is a pretty reliable indicator that winter is coming on.
This white-throated sparrow is another. The male’s white “eyebrows” and the yellow spots on either side of the bill near the eye get brighter as the winter goes on. Unlike the junco, males and females winter together, and you will hear the high whistling heard as “Oh Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” as the territorial battles begin.
Others are not as common, like the American tree sparrow with its distinctive reddish cap and a bi-colored bill, gray on top and yellow below.
I have never seen a rough-legged hawk at Scherman Hoffman - redtails and red-shouldered hawks or either type of accipiter are more the norm - but roughies are a bird of the tundra and sometimes in winter it will come down to a similar grassy habitat, even a landfill like the one abutting the DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst, near the Meadowlands (Got rats?), which draws a lot of different raptors every winter.
Short-eared owls usually show up in birding reports in winter, such as the one Mike Anderson unexpectedly found at the Scherman one morning during his Friday bird walk, but a less-common visitor is the snowy owl, which as the name implies is very white, as befitting a big owl that hunts by day in the arctic. The number of snowy owls making it into the lower 48 depends on how good the food supply has been up north. This year a lot of snowy owls have been reported, such as the one that’s been at Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County, NJ., for the past few weeks.
No leaves makes it easier to see the yellow-bellied sapsucker drilling holes in a tree, or to locate its more raucous cousin the redbellied woodpecker when it calls. I’ve seen purple finches and cedar waxwings come in for the seed or fruit provided by the trees.
It’s too bad there are no big ponds at the center because winter also means ducks. The common eider and the harlequin duck are standard winter ducks at the rocky jetty of Barnegat Light. If you look on a local pond before it freezes chances are you will find one or more of the three types of mergansers (common, hooded and redbreasted), ruddy duck or ring-necked duck. When I was last at Scherman I didn’t find any wood ducks on the Passaic River but at Great Swamp were hooded mergansers, black ducks and the more common mallard in those waters that had not been frozen by the recent cold.
As I said, one advantage of winter birding is the leaves are off the trees. Redtailed hawks are easy to see from a great distance when they sit in a bare tree, and it makes it easier to find the white-breasted nuthatch or chickadee calling from a limb over my head.
But perhaps the best thing about winter birding is you don’t have to even go outside. If you have a feeder out - better still, many feeders holding different types of seed or suet as the sanctuary has - the birds will come to you. Try it and you’ll be amazed by what you can see.
Margo D. Beller
Join the Great Backyard Bird Count at Scherman Hoffman--Saturday February 18 from 8am to 10am. Join us as we spend some time outside counting birds, then we'll head indoors and continue "window" counting while enjoying refreshments. This program will be combined with our regularly scheduled Saturday morning bird walk, and it's free. Join us!