december

Birding Howard County, Maryland


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BIRDING YEAR - December

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  • Until lakes and reservoirs are completely frozen, continue to check them for waterfowl. As water freezes and the season progresses, most loons, grebes, and ducks will move on, but there are always a few that linger in the small amount of remaining open water.
  • The large number of Mallards at local lakes affords ample opportunity to observe their courtship activity that starts in late fall and continues through the winter.
  • A few Common Mergansers usually begin to arrive in late November and early December. By mid December their numbers begin to build. For reasons that are not apparent, in some winters the total may reach 1,000 or more on Triadelphia Reservoir—providing it remains ice-free and the water levels are normal. Four of the last five years, these winter numbers have been among the highest in the state—an unusual circumstance for any species in this Piedmont county. Because both reservoirs are closed to the public from December 15 to March 1 (or later if there is still ice), the best vantage point during that period is Brighton Dam. By standing on the sidewalk on the north side of the dam any time from about 3:00 p.m. until dark, it is possible to watch the mergansers fly from the main reservoir into a cove at the left side of the dam. In the morning, the process is reversed. (On weekdays, nearby traffic is worse in the morning.) Red-breasted and Hooded mergansers may also be present, but normally there are only a few of those species.
  • During the colder months, watch powerlines, utility poles, and leafless trees along major highways for perched hawks. In open areas in the western part of the county, keep an eye out for a Rough-legged Hawk or a Northern Harrier hunting low over fields. Both of these species occasionally winter in the county, the harrier more consistently. Neither species is easy to find.
  • Although unusual gull species are most likely in January and February, Iceland and Glaucous gulls have been recorded a few times in December. Lesser Black-backed Gulls have now become almost regular each winter, but that may be limited to a single sighting.
  • By December, Northern Saw-whet Owls may have taken up residence in pine plantations and in dense, viney, deciduous tangles. Finding a perched saw-whet owl, whether after a long search or as an accidental encounter, is not soon forgotten.
  • Check tangles and exposed tree roots along riverbanks and hillside streams for the tiny, secretive Winter Wren. Fortunate is the individual who hears the liquid song of this mouse-like bundle of energy in the "dark of December."
  • Birds are never evenly distributed in a given habitat, but in winter it is more obvious than during the breeding season. In wooded areas and along wood edges, look and listen for small mixed flocks of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, kinglets, woodpeckers, and Carolina Wrens as they move through an area. In more open brushy situations, look for various sparrow species, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and American Goldfinches. Check individuals in any grouping carefully for the less common species that may accompany the flock.
  • Now and then an escaped caged bird is spotted at a feeder, but more exciting is the lingering warbler, thrasher, or oriole. Once in a great while someone finds a geographic stray such as a Varied Thrush, Dickcissel, or Yellow-headed Blackbird. Severe winter weather, especially heavy snow, prolonged cold, or ice storms tends to produce the most reports of vagrants or lingering migrants. If neighbors or friends mention a strange bird at their feeders, please check it carefully. Birders don't have a corner on rare species! The first county Painted Bunting record is based on a photograph taken at a feeder. The bird was present for several weeks, but the homeowners did not realize the rarity of their visitor. If you spot a rare bird, try to obtain a photograph and please report the species to this website so that interested birders may attempt to see it.

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