Some of the birds in our area year-round may be a bit more noticeable against the often-gray backdrop winter provides. The bright plumage of both cardinals and blue jays can catch the eye against the dreary winter sky, for example, but they aren’t the only year-round residents. Woodpeckers are also around all year, but are often easier to spot in the winter, Bryerton said, whether its because the trees are bare or because their trademark pecking sound is more noticeable in the quiet winter months.
Be forewarned, though, that some of our year-round residents look different in the winter than during the warmer parts of the year. Take the goldfinch, for example. The male goldfinches are bright yellow, almost canary-like, during the spring and summer, but in the winter they have a more drab greenish-yellow color, Bryerton said.
A few sparrow species, notably the dark-eyed junco and American tree sparrow, are winter-only residents of northern Illinois and, as a result, are often sought out by bird-watchers. The rusty-colored tree sparrow is commonly seen feeding on the ground in snow-covered fields, while the usually gray-plumed junco is a forest bird seen among the trees, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports.
Waterfowl is also a popular attraction for winter birders, said Chris Gutmann, facility supervisor for the Forest Preserve District’s Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. During this time of year, our area is home to an abundance of water bird species beyond the always-present Canada geese.
Among the waterfowl to keep an eye out for are mergansers, common goldeneyes, buffleheads and scaups, Gutmann said. An added bonus is that winter is courting time for some kinds of waterfowl, which means their colors are brighter and more eye-catching.
“For those species, this is the time of year when their plumage is the most stunning,” he explained.
Another big draw for winter bird-watchers is owls. Most owls are nocturnal and begin to get active around dusk, so with the early sunsets in winter it can make it easier to spot an owl, Bryerton said.
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A few owl species, including the short-eared owl and the snowy owl, are here only in the winter, so this is the only time of year to catch a glimpse.
The snowy owl is also an example of a bird whose numbers fluctuate from year to year. Some years they are here in large numbers, called irruptions, while other times there are not nearly as many. The reasons for these irruptions vary among species. For example, snowy owls have winter irruptions in the northern United States based on food availability in their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
“Birders always hope for irruptive species,” Gutmann said, adding that other species that sometimes winter here in large numbers include Bohemian waxwings, common redpolls, crossbills, evening grosbeaks and pine siskins.
One more bird to keep an eye out for in our area this winter is the bald eagle, especially along our area rivers. In fact, Illinois may be home to one of the largest winter populations of bald eagles in the country, according to Bird Watchers Digest.
Where to Look