Winter is a great time to come hiking or bird watching at Mason Neck State Park. Many species are here only in the cold weather, such as the elegant Tundra Swan and the dramatic Hooded Merganser. Winter snows can also reveal tracks of more reclusive animals, such as foxes and deer. If you’re unfamiliar with visiting the park in winter, or with wintertime birding in general, here are some tips to help you plan and enjoy your trip.
What can I expect to see?
In addition to permanent residents like cardinals and chickadees, you’ll see winter-only birds: Ruddy Ducks, Common Loons, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and many more. You may also be lucky enough to see bald eagles’ courtship displays. Check the wildlife log in the Visitor Center when you arrive, to find out what’s been seen recently. Don’t forget to add your own observations before you go home!
Where will I see it?
Hiking the Bay View Trail is your best choice for seeing both songbirds and waterfowl. Large mixed rafts (floating flocks) of ducks & other waterfowl can be seen on Belmont Bay, visible from several areas in the park. Songbirds often congregate in brush piles or bushes. Bald eagles are most often seen flying across the bay.
When should I come?
Birds are most active first thing in the morning, and we open our gates at 8:00 am. I particularly recommend visiting during and after a snowfall, when birds are hunting frantically for food. Another special winter moment can occur after several very cold days and nights. If the bay has frozen over, you may find dozens of eagles scraping minnows from the ice– we’ve seen as many as 50 out there at once! Also consider one of our guided bird walks: Wild for Winter Waterfowl is held the first three weekends in December, from 10:30-11:30 am both Saturday and Sunday.
What special equipment should I bring?
In addition to your usual birding gear (binoculars, a field guide, and so forth), make sure you’ve got proper warm clothes. The park is usually windier than inland areas, so expect additional wind chill– gloves are a must for using your binoculars. Waterproof hiking boots (not sneakers!) will keep your feet warm and dry even if there’s snow on the ground. A thermos of hot coffee or cocoa can improve even the chilliest of birding trips.
Even if you’re a complete newbie to winter hiking or bird watching, give it a try this season. You’ll be amazed at how different a place the park is in the winter, and how rewarding. Whether you have a single target species like Tundra Swan or Bald Eagle, or want to rack up as many species in a day as you can, Mason Neck State Park is a great place for winter birding. Hope to see you soon!