Winter is perfect bird-watching weather.
It's deep winter, the time when the nonskiing majority often feels an irresistible urge to curl up by the fire and stay there until daffodils trumpet the start of spring. A few snowy weeks later, however, serious cabin fever sets in.
An uncommon-but-sure cure is to get out and go bird watching, Deborah D. Cary, director of Central Sanctuaries for Mass Audubon, says.
Really? In winter??
"Actually it's spectacular in winter because there isn't so much foliage around to distract you. You get a much clearer view of the birds," Cary said. "You can see their flight patterns better, and it's quieter when there's a lot of snow on the ground. Listening for a bird call is a key way to identify a species so it works great in winter."
Audubon sanctuaries offer guided bird walks in winter to help you get the hang of where the birds are hanging out in cold weather. You also will learn something about their winged ways. You might see chickadees, blue jays and wrens but they are not the same ones you see in summer. That's because almost all birds are migratory to some extent, Alexander Dunn, a natural history guide at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, said. Some birds, such as the Arctic tern, travel 10,000 miles twice a year, basically from pole to pole and back. But our backyard birds might only migrate a few hundred miles so that in winter we have birds from Canada who head south to Massachusetts before the deep freeze hits their homeland. Meanwhile, the chickadees, jays and others that hop around our yards in summer have flown down to the Carolinas for the winter. They return as their Canadian cousins hightail it home in the spring.
So why is Massachusetts warm enough for one chickadee and not for another? Because they're a little bit like people, apparently. "Some of us spend the winter here and some of us go to Florida," said Dunn, who is the outreach coordinator at Worcester Art Museum.
If you can't tell a robin from a roadrunner, you might want to check out a new blog Dunn has started, The Daily Bird New England (http://thedailybirdnewengland.blogspot.com). The blog is like a "word-of-the-day" calendar for beginner bird watchers. Each day a brief entry describes a kind of bird that can be seen around here whatever the time of year it happens to be. The idea is that, if you visit each day, you can develop an understanding of birds in rhythm with the seasons.
"There are loads of websites and blogs about bird watching, but a lot of them are based around personal photographs, personal sightings and places that people like to go that are specific to a particular region," Dunn said. "I wanted to basically do a website where people could go to learn about bird watching - and learn in pace with the season, so it's based in what's going on right now outside your window."
Follow the blog long enough and you might become a twitcher, which is what obsessive bird spotters in England are called. Birders throughout the world are obsessed with their lifetime checklists that keep track of all the birds they've ever seen. The idea, in bird circles, is to have a very long list, so when a rare bird is spotted in the British Isles, twitchers, sometimes thousands of them, flock to the location, though it be many hours away from where they live. "These are people who will take a six-hour car ride to see a bird they've never seen, check it off their list and then drive back home," Dunn said.
Dunn says he is not a twitcher, but he's all for going the distance where a special bird is concerned. He will be a co-leader for a Broad Meadow Brook-sponsored trip to Plum Island, a barrier island off the northeast coast of Massachusetts, on Jan. 29. The group will be on the lookout for the magnificent snowy owl, which usually lives in the far north tundra but comes south for the deepest part of winter. To a snowy owl, Plum Island in winter looks a lot like home. "It's similar to the tundra that these birds spend the rest of the year on," Dunn said. "In the winter they get pushed down to these little pockets of flat frozen land. They'll show up sometimes at Logan Airport or Duxbury Beach and places that look like that, but Plum Island is a really reliable place."
Of course they are white (hence the name "snowy") and you are trying to pick them out against a snow-covered background. Still, bird watchers give a hoot about catching a glimpse of one.
"There's just something about them," Dunn said. "They're this massive bird. You see them flying silently over the frozen expanse, you have the sense that you're suddenly transported to the Arctic. If you get a close enough look, they have these yellow and black eyes and when they lock on you it's kind of a looking-into-your-soul kind of thing. It's really powerful."
For more information see www.massaudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Broad_Meadow, or call 508) 753-6087.
CUTLINE: Alexander Dunn, a natural history guide at Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, peeks out of a bird blind, above. Dunn has created a blog called The Daily Bird New England.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/DAVID NILES