Considering our bitter winters, many Ohioans might be surprised to learn that winter time is actually prime birdwatching season for many beautiful species.
Many visitors come from Canada during winter when food up north is in shortage. These visitors can include grosbeaks, pine siskins, red and white-winged crossbills and common redpolls. All these feathered friends will make appearances at your average home birdfeeder.
In Ohio’s wide open spaces, where grasslands meet woodlands, snowbirds such as eagles, hawks and owls swoop in from as far away as the Artic tundra to captivate our winter-weary eyes. Although not common, more and more golden eagles are finding their way to Ohio skies in winter, drawn to the large tracts of reclaimed mine-land found throughout much of eastern and southeastern Ohio. As North America’s largest predatory bird, it averages 30 inches in length, features a 6.5-foot wingspan and weighs in at a whopping 10 pounds. Its dark brown plumage and intense dark eyes are offset by a black bill and claws, giving it a fierce appearance. Golden brown feathers on the head and nape of the neck give this awesome bird of prey its signature name.
A more familiar winter visitor to Ohio is the northern harrier. When in search of a meal, this hawk – with its 42-inch wingspan – puts on quite a show gliding slowly over open fields. Using a series of heavy wing beats, the northern harrier can hover just a few feet above its prey, providing birders excellent opportunities for observation. A well-known resident of the West, the northern harrier favors marsh, field and prairie habitats, Keep your eyes peeled as well for red-tailed hawks, one of Ohio’s most common raptors.
Owls are another perennial favorite among avian enthusiasts. And every winter, Ohio’s owl population temporarily expands from four species to seven as short-eared, long-eared and northern saw-whet owls join their saucer-eyed Buckeye brethren for the winter. The short-eared owl is the easiest to catch sight of because it is both diurnal and nocturnal, active from late afternoon through the morning hours. These owls roost almost exclusively on the ground in overgrown fields and along hedge rows, though it’s not unusual to see them perched on roadside fence posts.
Winter is visiting Ohio and so are the raptors! So put on your boots and hat, grab your binoculars and go looking for the big birds that don’t let a little winter weather keep them down.