On occasion, winter birding requires great patience. In particular, cold, dreary, cloudy mornings tend to keep woodland birds hunkered down (while waterfowl can congregate by the thousands on any available open water). The great migration will begin soon, ushering in the time of year when even casual birders visit natural areas after a random sighting of a summer tanager or common yellowthroat in their suburban backyard.
But winter birding in Missouri's woodlands is just as rewarding, offering the chance to see large flocks of striking cedar waxwings as well as a warbler that you won't see during the summer in Missouri. Some of the warblers that officially winter in the southern US can be seen here on rare occasion, but the yellow-rumped warbler, a winter resident in Missouri, is the most commonly encountered. The winter plumage of yellow-rumped warblers can be rather variable, ranging from striking and colorful to drab, but they always possess unmistakeable patches of yellow above the tailfeathers and on their sides. Yellow-rumped warblers breed in Alaska, Canada, and in the upper northeastern U.S., but during the winter months in the Ozarks, they're easily found in woodlands, in brushy areas of old fields, in blackberry brambles, in pretty diverse habitat types. (I usually find them fluttering about in small groups in the woodland canopy or along a brushy fencerow with a nearby woodlot.)
Palm warblers are less commonly seen in the upper reaches of the Ozarks, but can be (somewhat reliably) found in the lower reaches of the Ozarks. Their official winter range extends from north Louisiana to Panama, but on occasion they appear in the Christmas Bird Count list for southeast Missouri. I've seen them in the Ozarks around the Eleven Point River. While palm warblers possess a uniformly brown winter plumage, their habit of wagging their tail feathers up and down while they forage on the woodland floor is distinctive. Look for palm warblers in the interior of intact woodlands and true forest. Riparian zones along Ozark rivers can harbor palm warblers during early spring as they migrate to Canada and the upper northeast U.S. to breed.
In the dead of winter, one is less likely to see orange-crowned warblers in Missouri, but in recent weeks, several sightings of them have occurred here. Known primarily from the Western U.S. during the breeding season, they winter in the southeast U.S. and are regular feeder visitors in coastal Louisiana. The orange of "orange-crowned" is seldom visible, and when it is, it's not very noticeable, merely a slip of orange on a brown head. I've seen them this month in open woodlands in a small, brushy stand of sassafras. Occasionally, Christmas Bird Count participants in Missouri will detect orange-crowned warblers, but they're uncommon.
Similar to orange-crowned warblers, sightings of common yellowthroats in winter months are uncommon. They breed in Missouri, and are usually found in low, wet or brushy areas. In the winter, common yellowthroats lose their unmistakeable black mask, but maintain a pale yellow throat. Finding a common yellowthroat in the winter is always a treat, and may require documentation if found during a Christmas Bird Count.
Check in here for bird sightings in Missouri, a listserve for users to post sightings. Top on the list this week in the Ozarks is the short-eared owl hanging around the Fulton airport, and the golden-crowned sparrow and spotted towhee that arrived earlier this month at a feeder in Linn. If you're around Rolla, look for the Eastern phoebe at DeWitt Pond around Bohigian CA. Brown thrashers spotted north of Columbia, so they're probably in the Ozarks. Winter birding can be fun!