"Bird Guy" Ryan Burnett Shares Secrets for Viewing Feathered Friends in Winter

Ryan Burnett, FRLT member and Sierra Nevada Director for Point Blue

Don't despair if your favorite songbird has migrated south for the season! The winter months provide opportunities to meet new birds and observe different behaviors. We asked Ryan to share his tips for winter birding.

Ryan serves on FRLT's Land Protection Committee and is the Sierra Nevada Group Director for Point Blue Conservation Science. To school children in Chester, he's known simply as, "The Bird Guy."



1. During December and January, what birds are fun to watch for? Who's around or passing through? 

Winter is a great time of year for seeing raptors like Rough-legged Hawks and Ferruginous Hawks. The number of Bald Eagles around Lake Almanor increases in winter when they are easily observed on day visits. Also Merlin--one just flew by my office window!

Rough-legged Hawk in Sierra Valley. Kristi Jamason

Also, on warmer days without heavy ice, check the sewage ponds and other ponds for uncommon waterfowl like Hooded Mergansers and Barrow's Goldeneye.

Are these water fowl just passing through? Here seasonally? 

There are at least 9 species of waterfowl that breed in Plumas County and another 10 or so that just spend their winter here from breeding grounds further to the north (Hooded Merganser, Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye, Lesser and Greater Scaup, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback, Redhead, Northern Shoveler, and Tundra Swan) which results in some of the highest waterfowl diversity anywhere in the North America in winter.

Tundra Swans on the Chester Causeway at Lake Almanor by Jan Davies


2. What are some of the good spots to see these birds in the Feather River Watershed this time of year?

Lake Almanor is a great spot for wintering waterfowl, sewage ponds throughout the county but especially in Quincy and Chester, and of course Sierra Valley come to mind.

NOTE: We invite you to visit FRLT's conserved properties, which are wonderful for birding:

3. Other fun species to watch for? 

Finches and wintering sparrows. Evening Grosbeaks--one of the most splendid resident birds of the upper Feather River watershed--are usually much easier to see in winter when they join up in large flocks often in towns especially in areas with lots of cottonwoods. Wintering sparrows--including Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows--are winter visitors from the tundra that hang around in small numbers at the lower elevations of the county. 

Juvenile White Crowned Sparrow by Kristi Jamason

There have been a couple of Harris’s Sparrows (a relative of the Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows) sighted here in winter which is a rare bird for Plumas County; they normally winter in Oklahoma and Texas. A few White-throated Sparrows, another rare species (though not as rare as Harris’s) can usually be found this time of year as well.

As we get into the latter half of February the first signs of spring are often the first sightings of Tree Swallows and the resounding calls of our beloved Greater Sandhill Cranes returning to their breeding grounds.

4. When is the best time of day to spot some of these birds? 

Birds are almost always more active in the morning but less so in the winter and winter raptors and waterfowl can be easily observed any time of day.  I avoid bird watching early in the morning in winter because when it is too cold the birds just aren’t active early on. Really, any time of day in winter. You don't have to get up early!

5. During a dry winter, are there bird species we might be more or less likely to see as we move into spring?

I don’t expect we will be less likely to see species in the watershed but certainly some of the more marginal wetland areas may be dry this year and thus species that require wetland and open water will concentrate in the larger more permanent water bodies. If it stays dry through winter we would expect to see species returning earlier or beginning to sing earlier this spring.

6. Any recommendations for birding this time of year with kids?

Waterfowl are a great group of species to get kids started bird watching.  They are colorful and easily observed. Hawks and eagles usually excite as well.   

7.  Do you have a favorite birding guide for this region that works well for families or amateur birders?

I like the Sibley Guide to Western Birds -- fewer words, more pictures, and it is nice and small so you can easily carry it with you.  For the more serious birders, the new Birds of the Sierra Nevada by Beedy and Pandolfino would be a nice addition to get your new year of bird watching in the Feather River watershed off to a good start.

Article adapted from an interview in 2014.

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Photo Credits: (1) Rough-legged Hawk in Sierra Valley by Kristi Jamason. (2) Tundra Swans in late winter at the Chester Causeway at Lake Almanor by Jan Davies. (3) Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow in Sierra Valley by Kristi Jamason.

Sunday, December 1, 2019