Updated: Apr 1
Winter in Wyoming can be miserable. If you want to get over the windblown blues, learn the most effective way to bird in our tough conditions!
Here are FIVE basic principles I live by when birding in Wyoming's winter:
That's right, I live by the five F's in winter. (I need tricks like this to help me remember what I'm supposed to be doing...) Today, let's break each of the five F's down, to prepare you for the frozen fingers and accidental ditch trips that lay ahead.
Feeders - Use Them
Sometimes, the easiest way to find birds in a Wyoming winter is to let them come to you. You may not be able to bird in a blizzard, but a bird-friendly yard, with feeders, sure can provide a space for birds to be sheltered and well-fed. Plus, you can watch them from the warmth of your home!
Your feeding setup does not need to be complex. I recommend two feeder types, with three to four types of birdseed. My recommendations on feeders type are platform and tube. I personally prefer homemade platform feeders built to accommodate a specific space. Wood platform feeders are enduring, just provide a way for moisture to drain off the feeder. I prefer to put black oil sunflower seed and unshelled peanuts on platform feeders. Why platform feeders? They allow jays, grosbeaks, and larger finches to feed easily. Smaller "house" feeders can have hard angles that are impossible for larger birds to feed on. While I use sunflower seeds and peanuts from September through May, I may switch to a cheap filler seed in summer when my resident birds are mainly House Sparrows and House Finches. They have not complained yet...
Tube feeders are optimal for smaller birds. I keep two or three small feeders filled with thistle or nyjer seed from September through May. If you use large, PVC tube feeders, you can fill these with black oil sunflower seeds as well. If you want some diversity, use one thistle feeder and one safflower feeder. You will attract a larger variety of birds with a larger variety of foods.
You may also choose to use a suet feeder. Suet feeders, generally, are cages that hold blocks of fat, filled with other bird treats. They attract woodpeckers and nuthatches. However, they also attract European Starlings, so you may want to hang suet feeders in locations and positions that are difficult for starlings to use them. However, you could just accept and love the European Starling...
If you want to avoid the big, bossy birds though, you can also try these tips from Audubon Rockies.
Lastly, an overlooked aspect of feeding birds is water. In winter this can be tough, but if you have the opportunity to provide heated water at your feeders, do it. This is the best way to attract unique species. If you are the only open water during cold snaps, birds will catch on rather quickly.
Now, if you cannot have/obtain feeders, you will need... a four-wheel drive!
Four-wheel Drive - You Need It
Snow, ice, mud, repeat. This is the cycle that roads in Wyoming experience in winter. How do you combat this vicious cycle? A vehicle with some clearance and four-wheel or all-wheel drive. It's true, you can survive without it, but I highly recommend it for a more enjoyable winter birding experience! And you can trust my recommendation, I have dug my vehicles out more times than I can count on all my appendages.
If you have the aforementioned four-wheel drive, you can use it to find... finches!
Finches - Find Them
Finches are a hardy family of birds that are adapted to some of the most unforgiving environments in the continental US. It makes sense then, that these birds are commonplace in Wyoming. Ifff, you know where to look.
Where should you look? See our first F (eeders).
Feeders are the easiest place to find winter finch flocks. They find sources of food that help get them through the harsh season. They often move cyclically through areas that have multiple feeding sites. Those with large feeder set-ups know the schedule, to the minute, of the flocks visiting their feeders. One great example of this is in the little town of Big Horn. A local has spectacular flocks of winter finches visiting her feeders all season long. You can read more about that here!
If you have no feeders to set your "nockies" on, you need to find naturally occurring food sources. Roadsides, weedy ditches, waterways, and ag fields can all provide opportunities for finches. Look for plants that produce hardy (and hearty) seeds that finches can feed on. If you are in higher elevations, look for trees that have a healthy cone crop. Finches that depends on the cone crop will stick close to areas with abundant food sources.
Of course, if you strike out finding finches, you can scope... fields!
Fields - Scope them
Agricultural fields in winter can be a boon. Waste grains, haybales, and tundra-like conditions can attract a variety of avian life.
Harvested cornfield? Look for waterfowl feeding!
Stack of haybales? Check for large flocks of meadowlarks riding out the winter!
Stubble field covered in snow and ice? Watch for the ice gems that are Snow Buntings!
If you strike out on all the above, you have one last hope... open water!
Frozen Water - Avoid It
I do not mean frozen water on your sidewalk or in your pipes. I mean frozen waterways where you can find many species of birds in the summer. How do you avoid these? Know where your warm waters are.
Man-made projects like dams and powerplants often provide year-long open water. As the water comes out of the facilities, it is usually warm, and even the coldest of ambient temperatures cannot cause it to freeze. What does this do? It provides food, habitat, and water for countless species! Red-throated Loon has been recorded in Wyoming in winter at Alcova Dam. Why? The water stays open. Sea ducks, loons, swans, and a number of other species all utilize this open water.
Warm springs are the next best bet for winter birding. Warm springs in Yellowstone provide habitat to Virginia Rails all winter long. In YELLOWSTONE!! Winter Wrens have been found along the Big Horn corridor during winter, largely due to the open water the warm springs provide for the area.
If you cannot find open water, then return to my first tip. Feeders.
See? This is one big cycle. If after all of these steps, you are still striking out, then keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming release of "Birding in Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park" due in 2020! The guide will have over 400 of the top birding locations in Wyoming, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
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