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Birds to look for when winter winds kick up

winter winds
A Herring Gull flying in calm wind (upper row) and in high wind (lower row). Art by David Sibley

Across much of the world, winter is a season for studying waterbirds, and if you have access to a large body of water (ocean, large lake, or river), then it’s worth looking for waterbirds during storms. This has the potential for some of the most exciting birding.

Birds sense the lower pressure of a storm and respond by searching for food. Strong winds make it difficult or impossible for birds to rest on the water, so they gather on beaches, open fields, or parking lots where they can rest, or they simply fly. Ocean birds have adapted to wind, so windy conditions (to a point) might be preferable, as the wind allows them to travel faster with less effort. And strong waves along the shoreline can stir up the sand and mud there and create a bonanza of food for gulls and other birds. All of this means that storms make waterbirds more active and more visible.

If you’re watching birds like gulls during high winds, it’s important to keep in mind that their flight style changes under those conditions. The shapes, proportions, and movements of gulls that you’re used to from lazy summer days at the beach will be replaced by a very different appearance during a storm.

The changes in flight style are similar to what the birds do when they choose to fly at high speed — for example, when chasing or being chased, or when traveling with some urgency. You can see this occasionally even in calm air, but during a storm, with the air moving so quickly, all birds have to fly at high speed all of the time.

In general, they look sleeker, more powerful, and more angular in high winds. Wings are pulled in closer to the body and sharply angled at the wrist. This makes the wings look thinner and more pointed. The body feathers are pressed down smooth and the head and tail held firmly in line with the body, forming a sleek torpedo shape.

Watch for these changes in flight mode and speed whenever you see birds flying, and if you’re able to experience birding during a storm, pay attention to how differently the birds fly.

This article was published in the January/February 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

More from David Sibley 

How birds move in foliage can help you ID them

How to find birds in extremely cold weather

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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