Fowl Weather – Winter Birding Basics, NEO-Style

Fowl Weather – Winter Birding Basics, NEO-Style

By Matt Valencic


Birding in Northeast Ohio is good every month of the year if you know where to go and what to look for. That’s because more than 300 species of birds either live, breed, pass through or overwinter in NEO each year. Because it’s almost winter, let’s talk about birds we look forward to seeing during the next few months and what you need to enjoy watching them.


Basic equipment consists of decent binoculars and a bird field guide.


Binoculars range from $50 to $3,000, with “decent” binoculars generally costing $150 to $300. Two important features are magnification, also called power (7x, 8x and 10x), and diameter of the objective lens (32mm, 42mm, 50mm). Beginners might consider 8 or 10 x 32 (lighter, smaller binocular) and 8 or 10 x 42 (a bit larger but more light for overcast days). Read online tutorials about choosing binoculars and try them before you buy them.

Consider field guides by Kaufman, Peterson, Sibley or Stokes.



November brings southbound waterfowl of all kinds to NEO. Ducks, geese, swans, loons, grebes and gulls arrive in large numbers and stay until lakes and rivers freeze. Small lakes freeze early, usually by the end of December, forcing water birds to coastal states. Birds on Lake Erie, however, generally find open water through most of the winter. Popular viewing areas along Lake Erie include the Cuyahoga River (Scranton Flats area, and Wendy Park and Whiskey Island), Edgewater Park and Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve near downtown Cleveland, Huntington Beach in Bay Village, Sims Park in Euclid, Headlands Beach State Park in Painesville Township, and Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park in Fairport Harbor.

More than 20 species of ducks arrive here from as far north as the Arctic tundra. “Dabbling ducks” such as mallards, teal, northern shoveler, pintail, American wigeon and gadwall can be found in shallow water where they eat both vegetation and various invertebrates. “Diving ducks” such as scaup, redheads, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks, ruddy ducks, mergansers (three kinds), buffleheads and common goldeneye will dive in deep water for fish, mollusks, invertebrates and vegetation. Mingling with the ducks will be horned grebes, common loons, American coot and different species of gulls. You will often find mixed groups of waterfowl just floating with their heads tucked under one wing. Good luck with those IDs.

One of the most spectacular sights in November is the migration of tundra swans. They can be heard calling loudly almost anywhere in Northeast Ohio as they fly high in large groups. You don’t need binoculars to enjoy the sight. They look creamy white when compared to Canada geese but sound different, and the flights can be in a “V” or more randomly spaced.

If you are near a large lake, you may see them land and rest for a few hours or overnight. Last November, I counted almost 1,000 birds flying over LaDue Reservoir (Geauga County) in just three hours. Many Northeast Ohio lakes host swans, but here are a some to consider: Bass Lake and Headwaters Park in Geauga County, Mosquito Creek Lake in Trumbull County, and Berlin Lake and West Branch Reservoir in Portage County.

Lake Erie Rarities

Four large rivers (Black, Cuyahoga, Chagrin and Grand) drain into Lake Erie and are the ideal habitat for thousands of gulls, ducks and other water birds during the winter.

Hardcore birders look forward to searching those huge flocks for birds that don’t normally come here or show up in very small numbers. It’s often like finding a needle in a haystack, but they view it as a challenge, especially in lousy weather. Consider yourself fortunate if you find one of these: jaeger, brant, king and common eider, harlequin duck, Iceland gull and glaucous gull. Check your field guide to learn about each.


Several varieties of hawks and owls come from Canada and the Arctic to spend the winter in Northeast Ohio. Northern harriers and rough-legged hawks favor large, open fields where they hunt during the day for small rodents (mice and voles). At dusk and dawn, they are joined by short-eared owls — the fighter jet of the bird world.

At night, long-eared owls work that same habitat, which is why so few are seen, except when birders stumble on them roosting nearby during the day. The merlin, a 10-inch falcon, hunts small birds in open areas. Large cemeteries are good places to look for them, often perched atop evergreen trees.

The snowy owl is the rock star of winter raptors. Born on the Arctic tundra and fed a diet of lemmings, young birds are driven away by adults because of limited resources during the harsh winter. In Northeast Ohio, they favor large open areas along Lake Erie, especially around the airports (Cleveland Hopkins International and Burke Lakefront) and on the breakwaters off Wendy Park and the East 55th Street Marina. In Lake County, check Fairport Nursery Road, a two-mile stretch through prime habitat, and the breakwater off Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park. When looking for snowy owls, stay on public access roads and be watchful of traffic and restricted entry sites.

Finches and Friends

When seed crops of pine and spruce are low in Canada, many small birds head south in large numbers. This is predicted to be one of those years — called an irruption (flight) year — when redpolls, crossbills, nuthatches and finches arrive in Northeast Ohio in large numbers. Be sure your backyard feeders contain thistle seed (nyjer), black oil sunflower and suet if you hope to attract purple finch, common redpoll, pine siskin and red-breasted nuthatch.

You can also visit many nature centers for indoor viewing of outdoor feeders. Try Penitentiary Glen Reservation in Kirtland, The West Woods in Russell Township, Swine Creek Lodge east of Middlefield, Liberty Park in Twinsburg, F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm in Akron and Rocky River Nature Center in North Olmsted.

If you take a winter walk in the parks, check conifers with hanging cones for red crossbills and white-winged crossbills. If there are alders or hemlocks along the trail, look for pine siskins and redpolls feeding on the small cones.

The final winter birds to consider are snow buntings and horned larks. These small, sparrow-sized birds feed in large flocks (sometimes 100 or more) on fields where corn and soybeans have been harvested. Take a drive along quiet country roads and look for the birds feeding or flying over the fields. You may also see a northern harrier working the same field.

Car Birding

Lousy weather = good birding. When the weather is nasty, birding from your car is a legitimate option. This works especially well along country roads and when the road parallels a lake edge. The car keeps you warm, acts like a blind and allows you to bring some of your friends along. Many eyes will also improve your odds of seeing more birds.


Matt Valencic saw his first Blackburnian warbler in the Adirondacks when he was a college student. He’s a member of the Audubon Society of Greater Cleveland, creating and sharing birding programs throughout Northeast Ohio. Visit


More Feathered Friends

By Marie Elium


Juncos, white-throated and American tree sparrows, and other birds turn up at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Cleveland, says Julie West, a longtime volunteer who runs a bird banding station at the Nature Center in spring and fall and is an Honorary Life Trustee.

Keep an eye out for yellow-rumped warblers, pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches and winter wrens, along with an occasional golden-crowned kinglet, in addition to the permanent resident songbirds and woodpeckers.

“This winter, I would not be surprised to also see purple finches. If there is open water, the Doan Brook might offer mallards and wood ducks, while Lower Lake might offer diving ducks. Red-tailed, red-shouldered, and Cooper’s hawks are there, although not always seen. A merlin is less likely, but possible. Similar possibilities occur at Horseshoe Lake,” West says.


Blackbrook Audubon Society, like other birding groups in the area, organizes field trips for new and experienced birders. The group plans to go to Presque Isle in Pennsylvania next spring, but hosts closer trips throughout the winter months, says member Laurie White.  Some members’ favorite winter birding locals are Veteran’s Park, in Mentor and the Walter C. Best Wildlife Preserve in Munson the Conneaut Harbor and sandspit in Ashtabula County and Hayes Road in Geauga County.

Penitentiary Glen in Kirtland and The West Woods in Russell have visitor centers with bird feeders stocked by staff to view birds from indoors.


Counting Crows & More

The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count is on various days from Dec. 14 – Jan. 5. Participants can walk to an assigned area, go with naturalists at a local park district or birding club, or report birds at their backyard feeders. To participate, visit


About the author

Marie Elium spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter in Virginia and Ohio before switching to freelance writing when her two children were young. The kids are now Millennials, but writing continues to be one of her favorite endeavors. Marie was named editor of Northeast Ohio Boomer and Beyond magazine in November 2015 and is a graduate of Miami University. Marie can be reached at [email protected]

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