From the Winter 2019 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
Bird watching in January and February can bring tears to birders’ eyes—literally, as birders battle bracing winds and snow-blinding sun while wincing resolutely into scopes. Eyebrows may begin to crust over with ice and extremities may lose sensation, but it’s all worth it for the chance to see massive flocks of waterfowl out on rivers, lakes, and coastal waters.
Winter is the time when ducks and geese are prone to communal behavior. Open water—which many waterfowl need to feed, and which offers safety from land predators—is in short supply, so prime areas attract birds by the thousands and occasionally the millions.
“These birds are getting together for protection first and foremost,” says waterfowl field guide author Kevin McGowan. “There’s safety in numbers.” The result is abundant congregations of open-water-loving species from teal to Tundra Swans.
Thanks to thousands of dedicated birders who turn their observations into citizen science through eBird, it’s easier than ever to decide where and when to brave the elements in search of a winter waterfowl wonderland. The eBird Hotspot Explorer lets birders zero in on the best birding locales, and the High Count tool allows birders to see the largest number of birds recorded in a single eBird checklist. Here are just a few of the eBird Hotspots for waterfowl that have produced legendary concentrations of birds on the water in winter.
At the northern end of the Central Valley of California sits the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, more than 10,000 acres of federally protected habitat that supports migrating birds throughout the fall, spring, and winter. According to eBird, high counts for the state of California were recorded in this refuge for both Snow Geese (250,000 on January 30, 2004) and Greater White-fronted Geese (200,000 on October 18, 2014). Other notable winter counts include 20,000 Northern Shovelers on January 23, 2010, and some eye-popping historic counts from the 1970s: 20,000 American Wigeon and 80,000 Northern Pintail in January, 1975. Snow Geese by Dominic Garcia-Hall/Macaulay Library.
The easternmost point in New York state, Montauk Point lies on the eastern tip of the south fork of Long Island. It’s one of the best places in the Northeast to see large congregations of sea ducks. In January and February of 2011, birders recorded New York state all-time high counts of Black Scoters (105,000), White-winged Scoters (100,000), Surf Scoters (100,000), and Common Eiders (15,000). East Coast rarities also show up at Montauk Point during the winter. According to eBird checklists, King Eiders, Harlequin Ducks, and Pacific Loons are all visitors to this hotspot from December to February. Surf Scoter by Kurt Hasselman via Birdshare.
For winter waterfowl watching in a T-shirt and shorts, consider Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas. The refuge was created in 1946 to protect large wintering populations of Redheads, which are still found in abundance here. An astounding count of 100,000 Redheads on January 24, 2011, remains the high count of this species for the entire United States. Other waterfowl species often show up at Laguna Atascosa by the tens of thousands every winter, including nearly 20,000 American Coots in January 2015 and 24,000 Ruddy Ducks in February 2015. Redhead by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library.
During a severe cold snap in January and February of 2014, most of Lake Huron froze over, and waterfowl from across this Great Lake headed south in search of open water. Birder Jerry Jourdan heard a rumor about several thousand ducks near Port Huron and headed to a bridge across the St. Clair River, where he was astonished to see massive clouds of Long-tailed Ducks. After some careful counting, he submitted an eBird count of 50,000 Long-tailed Ducks on the river that day, the highest total ever recorded in Michigan. Jourdan says his best vantage point was from Pine Grove Park, a small riverside city park in Port Huron. Long-tailed Duck by Kyle Blaney/Macaulay Library.
While much of the fresh water in Pennsylvania is locked under a sheet of ice in mid-February, Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area sometimes has open water in the middle of its largest lake, the Middle Creek Reservoir. Such was the case in 2018, when an eBird observer counted 40,000 Tundra Swans and 135,000 Snow Geese on February 21. Because such large numbers of these two species pass through Middle Creek each year, the site was designated as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society in 2010. Tundra Swan by Ian Davies/Macaulay Library.
Loess Bluffs, located in the northwest corner of Missouri near the borders with Kansas and Iowa, is a major stopover for many waterfowl in late winter and early spring, including Snow, Ross’s, and Greater White-fronted Geese. Over 1 million Snow Geese are often spotted at the refuge in February and March. On the morning of March 5, 2016, eBirder Joseph Mosley counted 1,350,000 Snow Geese, and on February 29, 2012, eBird project leader Chris Wood counted 6,250 Ross’s Geese, both high counts for the state. Ross's Goose by Marshall Iliff/Macaulay Library.
eBird Tip: Use Hotspot Explorer to find winter waterfowl hotspots
Looking for eBird Hotspots in Ithaca, New York, reveals a handful around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (cluster in the upper right of the map). Find these eBirding tools and more in eBird Explore.
- Explore Hotspots allows you to zoom in on a data map and see color-coded pins for popular birding locations. Filter by month to see what spots are the hottest during winter, and click on the pins to see a list of all the birds seen at that location, with the most recent sightings at the top.
- High Counts show the highest count of a species submitted on a single eBird checklist. Searching high counts for Michigan between the months of January and March led us to discover the amazing Long-tailed Duck observation featured in the above slideshow.