70 or more species can be seen locally during the winter months

Peterborough Examiner  – December 1, 2023 – by Drew Monkman  

With winter almost upon us, we sometimes need a little extra motivation to bundle up and head outside.  Looking for birds can provide both purpose and interest to any outing. Yes, the winter landscapes can be quiet for long stretches of time, but armed with a little patience, birds are there to be found. It’s all a matter of knowing where and how to look. And, you never know what you might find – a snowy owl could be just around the next corner. With a little effort, you can easily see 70 species in the Kawarthas from December through March.    

If you don’t have them already, two amazing free apps are part of standard birding equipment these days. Download the eBird app to explore local sightings and record your observations and the Merlin Bird ID app to assist with identification. Merlin even has a Sound ID feature that instantly identifies the birds chattering around you.

It’s important to know what birds to expect. Rather than provide the full list here, I encourage you to go to eBird.org.  Click on Explore and then on Bar Charts. Select a region (Canada and Ontario) and sub-region (Counties in Ontario). Click Continue and choose Peterborough or another county. You’ll see bar charts that show what birds are usually present and in what numbers. You should also check eBird regularly for recent sightings. Just go back to the Explore page and enter your region (county). Because day-to-day bird movement is more limited in winter, if a bird is spotted at a specific location one day, it’s likely to be there the next. 

Keep in mind that the mix of species present in winter changes somewhat from year to year. This depends on factors like whether water bodies are open or frozen and on the availability of wild food. The most variable species are the so-called winter finches. They include redpolls, siskins, grosbeaks and crossbills.  

From top left clockwise: Snowy owl (Drew Monkman), American kestrel (Don Munro),
snow buntings (Don Munro) and red-bellied woodpecker (Drew Monkman)

Finding the birds

Putting out feeders to bring the birds to you is a great starting point. You’ll attract the most species by having a feeder each for black-oil sunflower seed, nyger seed, and shelled peanuts. You should also scatter white millet on the ground for sparrows and juncos. An excellent resource for feeding birds can be found at https://feederwatch.org/

It’s even more satisfying, however, to head out into the field and find birds yourself. Just be sure to layer up because birding can involve a lot of standing around, often in windy conditions. Here are some suggestions to help you find more species.

1.Watch and listen for chickadees. Their presence often indicates that other birds like nuthatches and woodpeckers are also nearby. By pishing – softly, but rapidly repeating the word “pish” – these other species will reveal themselves and often fly in close to investigate the source of the unusual sound.  

2. Drive along back roads and look for birds perched in trees or on telephone wires. This is the best way to find species like hawks and falcons. Keep an eye on roadside shrubs for sparrows and on farm fields with grain stubble or fresh manure for snow buntings. The buntings feed in large, nervous flocks which fly about close to the ground like swirling snow. In overgrown fields with small trees, watch for northern shrikes. These robin-size, solitary birds are easy to spot and identify because of their habit of perching at the very top of a tree. You might also see birds on the road surface itself, especially where dirt has been exposed by a snowplow. Some species swallow grit to enhance the gizzard’s ability to pulverize food.

3. Keep an eye skyward for ravens, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, and Cooper’s hawks. The latter can be identified at considerable distances by their unique “flap-flap-glide” flight pattern. 

4. Check out lakes, rivers and even small creeks with open water. Waterfowl like trumpeter swans, common goldeneyes and common mergansers all overwinter in small numbers. Gulls, too, are often present. You might get lucky and even find a kingfisher or a great blue heron. In early spring, meltwater ponds in fields can also attract ducks waterfowl.

5. Look for tangles of wild grapes and trees laden with berries. Birds like robins, waxwings, and pine grosbeaks depend on fruit in winter and often come to buckthorn, crabapple and mountain-ash. Suburban neighbourhoods are often good locations for these trees.      

6. To see owls like the barred and great horned, drive slowly along wooded country roads at twilight. You might also try heading out before sunrise to listen for their hooting. Eastern screech-owls will often respond to a broadcast of their call from a portable speaker.

Some locations to try

There are a number of locations in the Kawarthas that birders visit regularly. eBird refers to them as “hotspots”. For general birding, check out Beavermead Park and the feeders at Ecology Park; Rotary Park and the Rotary Greenway Trail between Hunter Street and Parkhill Road; the Trent-Rotary Rail Trail from Trent to Douro Ninth Line; and Moncrief Line at the Peterborough Airport. If you want to handfeed chickadees, go the Miller Creek Wildlife Area and take along a bag of sunflower seeds. 

For waterfowl and gulls, try the Lakefield Sewage Lagoons, Little Lake, Lake Katchewanooka just west of Young’s Point, the Otonabee River (especially between Lock 24 and Lakefield), and Pengelly Landing on Rice Lake. In March and April when there’s standing water in the fields, try the Mather’s Corners meltwater pond just west of Keene. Note that a spotting scope often comes in handy at these locations.

A few roads that can be quite productive in winter are Second Line Road south of Peterborough (bluebirds possible); County Road 6 from Lakefield to County Road 44; Hooton Drive just west of Peterborough; and Division Road east of Peterborough.

If you want to travel further afield and see a wide range of waterfowl species, gulls, and possibly hawks and snowy owls, it’s always worthwhile driving down to Lake Ontario and visiting Cobourg Harbour, Darlington Provincial Park, and Second Marsh/McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve. Snowy owls reliably turn up in the Lindsay area most years, too, especially along Post and Elm Tree Roads.  

Many birders also head north to Algonquin Park to see winter finches, Canada jays, and boreal chickadees. Some of the best locations in the Park are the Visitor Centre, the Spruce Boardwalk Trail and Opeongo Road. Check Nipissing District on eBird before you go.

Join up with other birders

To meet and learn from other birders, I recommend taking part in one of the bird outings organized by the Peterborough Field Naturalists. New outings will be posted soon at https://peterboroughnature.org/  Another option is to participate in a Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This is a day spent counting as many species and individual birds as possible. Beginners are always welcome. The Peterborough CBC takes place on Sunday, December 17 and is coordinated by Martin Parker (mparker19@cogeco.ca). The Petroglyph CBC will take place either December 27 or January 2. The coordinator is Colin Jones (cdjonesmclark@gmail.com). 


Alarm:  COP 28 began yesterday in Dubai and will continue through December 12. It’s hoped that the conference will help keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 C as was settled upon in the Paris Agreement in 2015. However, current pledges put the world on track for a 2.5-2.9°C temperature rise this century. To make matters worse, there are now revelations that the host nation, the United Arab Emirates, planned to use meetings about the COP28 climate summit to promote deals for its own national oil and gas companies. 

Carbon dioxide: The atmospheric CO2 reading for the week ending November 25, 2023 was 421.21 parts per million (ppm), compared to 418.38 ppm a year ago. When the Paris Agreement was signed nine years ago, CO2 was at 399 ppm.

Drew Monkman

I am a retired teacher, naturalist and writer with a love for all aspects of the natural world, especially as they relate to seasonal change.