In the late summer and early fall, many warblers, thrushes and other summer resident songbirds migrate to destinations as far south as South America. Left behind are Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers and many other year-round residents. They are joined for the winter by another group of migrants for whom we are the south. Here’s a look at some of the winter-resident birds you can find in Arlington:
Often called snowbirds because they seem to arrive not long before the snowy weather begins. Some Dark-eyed Juncos make a vertical migration, meaning they move from mountains to lowlands as winter approaches, rather than heading south. They frequent feeders but usually feed only on seed spilled on the ground. Juncos tend to forage in a flock during the winter with the more dominant birds holding the safer middle of the group and subordinate birds on the more dangerous edges.
These birds nest far into northern Canada, so our relatively mild winters probably present little challenge to their survival. Another common winter bird often seen at feeders, White-throated are a fairly easy sparrow to identify, in part by their black-and-white or black-and-tan striped head and white patch on their throat. You might also catch snippets of their thin “oh sweet, Canada, Canada” song, especially later in the winter.
Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglet
Tiny and always on the move, kinglets can be a can be difficult to see well enough to identify without binoculars. Sometimes, though, if you stand or sit quietly when they appear, you are rewarded with very close looks. Both species feed on insects, even in winter. They are adept at finding insect and spider eggs, various insect larvae and pupae, and adult insects and spiders stashed away in various hiding places. Of the two, the Golden-crowned is the most likely to reveal its crown to an observer.
Tiny and with plumage on their back that mimics tree bark, Brown Creepers can be a challenge to spot. They spiral their way up tree trunks in search of the insects and spiders that, like kinglets, get them through the winter. Their long, down-curving bill is the perfect tool for plucking these delicacies from cracks and crevices. When a Brown Creeper nears the top of one tree, it flies down to the base of another and spirals its way up again and so on through the forest.
The Hermit Thrush replaces the melodious summer-resident Wood Thrush in our woods during the winter. They are often found on low branches or on the ground where they have a rather robin-like stance, not surprising since they are a smaller member of the same family. Unlike a robin, they have a brown back and a buffy breast with smeary spots. Hermit Thrushes also tend to slowly bob their rufous-colored tail when perched. They switch from a mostly insect diet in the summer to more of a fruit diet in fall and winter, including poison ivy berries!
Winter Wrens are my favorite winter songbird, combining cute and tough into a tiny, seemingly fearless package. They spend much of their time on the ground foraging for insects and spiders and venturing into places where I’d fear to stick my hand. A short stubby tail and mostly dark brown plumage without a noticeable eye-strip distinguish Winter Wrens from our larger, year-round resident Carolina Wrens. Sometimes they’ll give a little burst song in winter and it’s hard to believe that all that sound comes out of such a tiny bird.
Folks are sometimes surprised to learn that this is a real bird and not just a made-up name. Strictly speaking, a member of the woodpecker family and not a songbird, sapsuckers really do drink sap from shallow “wells” they drill into trees with their stout bills. You can tell if sapsuckers are using a tree by the rows of sap wells ringing the trunk or branches. Many other animals take advantage of this food source, such as insects, gray squirrels, flying squirrels, and early-spring arriving hummingbirds.
Winter Birding Programs
Long Branch and Gulf Branch Nature Centers are offering a variety of birding programs for families and adults this winter. Register online or at 703-228-4747.
Hawks in Arlington
Saturday, Feb. 11, 9 – 11:30am
Adults. Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks all call Arlington home. We’ll learn to tell these four hawks apart and how they survive in urban areas. After our discussion, we’ll go out to look for hawks and other birds. Teens ages 12 and up are welcome. For information: 703-228-6535. Meet at Long Branch Nature Center. $10. #622947-J
Northern Virginia Bird Club walks
Join members of the Northern Virginia Bird Club for one or all of these informal walks through Long Branch and Glencarlyn Parks in search of resident and migratory birds. Experienced and beginning birders welcome. Bring binoculars and field guides if you have them. For information: 703-228-6535. Meet at the parking lot at Long Branch Nature Center. Free.
Wednesday, Dec. 7, 9:30 – 11am #622947-D;
Wednesday, Jan. 4, 9:30 – 11am #622947-E
Wednesday, Feb. 1, 9:30 – 11am #622947-F
Owl Pellet Dissection
Saturday, Jan. 14, 1 – 3pm
Ages 10 to 17. Use your detective skills to dig carefully through owl pellets to find the bones of what owls eat. Then we’ll reconstruct the skeletons to discover what animals were eaten. You will get to take home your findings! $10. #622927-E
Families ages 8 and up. Join our new bird watching series for families! We’ll visit different birding spots in Arlington throughout the year and build our County bird lists. Birders of all experience levels can participate and loaner binoculars are available. For information: 703-228-3403. Free.
Winter Bird Hike to the Potomac
Saturday, Jan. 14, 8 – 9:30am
We’ll explore the forests in search of winter birds, including Brown Creeper, Winter Wren and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Then hike to the Potomac River to search for waterfowl. One mile round trip over irregular terrain. Meet at Gulf Branch Nature Center. #622857-I
Waterfowl at Gravelly Point
Saturday, Feb. 4, 8 – 9:30am
Gravelly Point is a great spot for viewing winter waterfowl on the Potomac. We will bring spotting scopes, and stroll around the park looking for winter specialties and maybe a Peregrine Falcon. Flat terrain. Meet at Gravelly Point – George Washington Memorial Pkwy, Arlington. #622857-J