Conserve Wildlife Blog

Winter Bird Watching in New Jersey

January 31st, 2023

by Sherry Tirgrath, Wildlife Biologist

While many residents of New Jersey prefer to spend winter days indoors and away from the cold, there are those dedicated birdwatchers that view the wintertime as an opportunity to get outside and observe species they normally wouldn’t see during the rest of the year. New Jersey hosts a variety of migratory birds, some escaping the freezing temperatures of their Arctic breeding grounds during the harsh northern winters. There are many species that both breed and winter in the Garden State and are easier to locate and observe while trees are bare.  Located on the Atlantic Flyway, New Jersey is also a prime spot for coastal bird watching during the fall and spring migration, with Cape May being one of the most active bird watching hotspots in the country.

A black-capped chickadee on a snowy day. Photo by Blaine Rothauser.

Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey conducts bird surveys as part of supportive research for many different projects. Bird watching and surveying is a significant effort in wildlife conservation, as it allows biologists to develop inventories of species utilizing sites and suggest management protocols to protect vulnerable populations, as well as for re-sighting banded individuals and tracking their movements. Citizen scientist projects and records, like eBird, allow the public to contribute to data collection on bird observations and can also play a role in determining protection measures for various sites.

Although breeding populations are not present during the winter, some CWF biologists are still hard at work collecting data on species that rely on resources available in NJ during the cold months. Some predatory birds, such as the state-endangered red-shouldered hawk, reside in NJ year-round. Red-shouldered hawks prefer areas of contiguous mixed forest, sometimes utilizing forest edges for hunting, and may be easier to spot during the winter when there is less foliage cover. On the flip side, there are raptors that can only be found in NJ during the winter, like the rough-legged hawk and the snowy owl. Species like the long-eared owl, northern saw-whet owl and the state-endangered short-eared owl increase in numbers in NJ during the winter months as they migrate south from their northern breeding grounds. You are more likely to observe these species from November until April, since visibility is increased with less leaves and shorter daylight hours means more owl activity.

Bird watching along the coast increases in popularity during the fall and spring migrations, but there’s still plenty to see in between. In fact, tons of waterfowl and seabirds flock to the NJ coast for the winter. For example, our state hosts one of the largest populations of wintering Atlantic brant on the East coast. If you’ve got a scope, binoculars or a strong set of eyes, you may even notice some brant amongst their large groups wearing colored leg bands or backpack transmitters. These brant have been tagged as part of a collaborative NJDEP brant study, and band codes can be reported to the US Bird Banding Lab. Other birds you’re likely to observe in coastal areas during the winter include red-breasted mergansers, common and red-throated loons, and a variety of brilliant ducks. If you’re lucky, you may even spot some interesting seabirds, like dovekies and razorbills, although you’ll have a better chance with an off-shore bird watching experience by boat.

Winter bird watching can even be done from the comfort of your own home, if heading out to the shore or into the woods isn’t your thing. Many beautiful backyard birds can be attracted to your home with feeders, including some winter migrants that you won’t see any other time of the year. Dark-eyed juncos are one of the most common migratory songbirds in NJ during the winter months. They’re easily distinguished with their dark slate upper body and wings, light-gray bellies and flashy, white-striped tails. Besides groups of juncos, you’ll likely find other wintering sparrows, like the white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. Both species sport black and white stripes on the top of their heads, but the white-throated can be distinguished by its characteristic white throat patch and yellow marks between their beaks and eyes. Those with an ear for bird calls will probably hear the wintering red-breasted nuthatch before they notice it crawling up and down a tree trunk. Nuthatches are unique climbers since they can traverse trees going up, down or sideways. They are incredibly quick and agile while climbing and can locate insects that other climbing bird species may have missed. If you’re good with a camera, backyard birds make excellent and reliable photography subjects. So, if you hate winter but love birds, you might find yourself enjoying the season a little more by getting out to bird watch. Our winter migrants are only here for a limited time each year, so might as well make the best of it while you can.    

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