Finding Uncommon Birds in Winter – Open Water

On my first Christmas Bird Count several years ago I came to know the importance of water in a bird’s life.  It was a typical December in North-Central Illinois and Tom Williams and I were doing the NW corner of the Hennepin CBC.  Typical meant that it was cold, snowy, and everything had frozen up weeks ago.  Since we didn’t have a portion of the Illinois River, which was kept open for barge traffic, we wouldn’t have any open water.  But Tom had done the count for several years and knew a spot that should.

And yes there was a spot.  On the side of a country road that ran along of the river bluff, was a seep where water would slowly come out of the bluff.  It would run along the road for 50-60′ and then go under the road and form a bog on the other side.  So in the middle of all this ice and snow was open water and a green, mossy landscape.  Tom said unless it was a real hard winter there was always some open water. Perfect for uncommon birds like snipe and Swamp Sparrows.

And the birds we did see!  There was every bird you should see in North-Central Illinois in winter – jays, cardinals, nuthatches, woodpeckers – big and small and red-headed, finches, titmice, etc.  Plus a Northern Waterthrush and Brewer’s Blackbird.  I still think that those are the best birds I ever had on a CBC.  And it was my first CBC.

This Winter Wren was found on one of the few open patches of water on the I&M Canal on a 2011 CBC.  We would walk the 4 mile segment of the canal, that year through snow, hoping for spots of open water and birds.

This Winter Wren was found on one of the few open patches of water on the I&M Canal on a 2011 CBC. We would walk the 4 mile segment of the canal, that year through snow, hoping for spots of open water and birds.

The importance of seeps was reinforced this year when I found a seep at Driftwood SFA during the Johnson County CBC.  At that location I found the only Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, and Eastern Phoebe found on the count, which are all uncommon for the count.

From those experiences I have learned the importance of water in a bird’s life.  Especially in a cold winter like this one.  And I also learned where to look for birds in a hard Midwest winter – Open Water.  If you can find open water in winter you can usually find common and uncommon birds.

These Bald Eagles are on Plum Island just down river of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam in Illinois.  I wish I had a picture but the water above the dam was frozen and birds - eagles, gulls, and other waterfowl -  would congregate below the dam feeding in the open water.

These Bald Eagles are on Plum Island just down river of the Starved Rock Lock and Dam in Illinois. I wish I had a picture but the water above the dam was frozen and birds – eagles, gulls, and other waterfowl – would congregate below the dam feeding in the open water.

Open water in the Midwest can take several forms.  Open rivers and creeks.  Particularly ones that have a lock and dam where birds might congregate on the open water side.  Ponds, especially ones that have some sort of bubbler or aerator to keep the water from freezing.  The previously mentioned seeps.  Drainage ditches where constant runoff from a warm building might keep it open.  And creeks that never freeze for reasons I probably don’t want to know.

One of the few areas of open water this past winter and waterfowl would congregate there.  I wonder why it didn't freeze like other creeks?  Or do I really want to know?  Hurricane Creek - Franklin.

One of the few areas of open water this past winter and waterfowl would congregate there. I wonder why it didn’t freeze like other creeks? Or do I really want to know? Hurricane Creek – Franklin.

Can you think of any other forms of open water in winter I might have missed?  Please post in the comments section.

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