Winter Birding in Graham County


Graham County is a Birder Friendly Community and several locations within the county are part of the North Carolina Birding Trail – Smoky Mountain Area. The Cherohala Skyway, the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness Area, Stecoah Gap, Snowbird Mountain Lodge and Fontana all are sites well known for the variety of birds that can be seen during the year.

What happens in the winter? Don’t all the birds migrate south towards the warming weather? Oh no. The diet of birds has a huge influence on whether they migrate or not. Birds that feed on flying insects are the first to leave as the cooler weather begins. Insectivorous Swallows are the first birds to head south, but they are followed by orioles, tanagers and other birds that not only eat insects but also fruits and berries.

Seed-eaters, however, stay for the winter. Seeds are most plentiful in the fall and winter. Many of these birds supplement their seed diet with the larvae and pupae of insects waiting to complete their life cycle in the early spring. For a few birds, winter is the beginning of the breeding season.

Though many people think of winter as “downtime” for birders, it really isn’t so. Birds are not quite as talkative during the winter. When the weather is cold and food is in short supply they don’t “talk” as much as they do at other seasons. Yet they are here, hordes of them, resident birds and winter visitors alike. You can go out looking for them and you should find plenty to see.

Great horned owls, Barred Owls and Screech owls are notoriously early nesters, with pairs courting in December and actually laying eggs by January in many cases. It is tremendous fun to listen to the owls call out to each other during the winter months and try and identify which owl is claiming its territory, seducing its mate and bragging about the fine nest of eggs in its nest. Since the leaves are off the trees in most cases, it is much easier to see these magnificent birds perched on the upper branches of trees.

The woodcock is the only one of the sandpiper group that prefers to live in damp, shady woods. It also begins the courtship process in midwinter. Though they don’t lay eggs as early as the owls do, the woodcocks begin displaying before many other species. In the mountains you can hear the males calling by mid-February in most years.

The birds that most of us are most familiar with at bird feeders start to sing on sunny days in January, even when the temperature is quite low. Cardinals, Carolina wrens, and titmice, Juncos, house finches, and even bluebirds can be spotted.

Advice from the Audubon Society reads, “If you go out searching for birds in the woods, bear in mind that in winter the smaller woodland birds tend to travel in flocks, so you will find many of them together or you will probably find none at all. Listen for the chickadees, because they will alert you to the presence of one of these nomadic little bands. Titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals, kinglets, and the occasional hermit thrush may round out a typical mixed woodland flock. It is theorized that the birds find protection in togetherness — each one in a group being, perhaps, less vulnerable to attack from a sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk than it would be if it were traveling alone. Or it may be that they have found that they have a better chance at finding food when moving around together. Whatever their reason, the method works.”

Most birds seem to prefer the borders of meadows. The trees provide shelter from predators and the fields usually provide seeds from wildflowers and grasses. In the winter you are most like to find such birds as sparrows and finches that like to eat weed seeds at this season. Sparrows are fun to search for in winter, because there are so many different kinds to see and their differences are subtle, making identification something of a challenge. You can really hone your birding skills on sparrows.

The variety of woodpeckers in our woods in the winter is delightful. My personal favorite is the Pileated Woodpecker. Its cry is most distinctive and it feeds on the fat grubs that live in decaying trees. It is a bit larger than the common crow and so brilliantly colored it is a thrill to see it, perched at the very top of a dead hemlock tree, or pecking out a cavity lower down the tree that will serve as a nest for its family.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker can also be spotted in the winter. This pretty bird is responsible for the rows and rows of holes that wrap around so many of the trees in the forest. They feed on the insects that live in the upper surface of the bark or hide in the crevices.

If you visit the county over Christmas you can choose to take part in the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Audubon’s 121st Christmas Bird Count will be conducted between the dates of Monday, December 14, 2020 through Tuesday, January 5, 2021. There is a specific methodology to the CBC, and all participants must make arrangements to participate in advance with the circle compiler within an established circle, but anyone can participate.

Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler. Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It’s not just a species tally—all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.

The winter months in Graham County provide an outstanding opportunity to see many birds that are hidden from view by the dense canopy of leaves during the rest of the year. Bring your binoculars, scope and camera and prepare to add numerous birds to your Bird Life List. Listening for the drumming of the Ruffed Grouse and looking for rustling in the underbrush indicating the location of its nest lifts the heart and stirs the blood. Once discovered, birding is one of the most entertaining hobbies in the world and one that will bring you back to Graham County every month of the year.

Author: Kim Hainge

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