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Winter Is the Season for Waterfowl

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

When it's a cold, gray day, we’re forced to stay inside. But why? In fact, it’s a perfect day to check out geese, ducks and other water birds hanging out on our waterways.

A male and female mallard standing on ice.
A male (left) and female mallard. (Photo by Anthony Schalk)

Will County is very lucky to be on one of the main flight paths migrating birds use every year to head south for winter and north for summer. Because of this, we get lots of different birds at different times of year. Wintertime is great to see birds so used to the cold that this area is their version of a warm-weather vacation. Who needs Florida when you have Illinois?

There are also lots of birds who stick out our weather all year long.

That brisk winter weather works in our favor. Water birds, known as waterfowl, cluster together to hang out for warmth and safety during snowy months. It’s not just the same types of birds, either! You’ll find Canada geese hanging out with mallards and canvasbacks and shovelers and buffleheads, oh my.

Even gray days work in our favor. This way we don’t have to squint against the glare of the water and any snow hanging around.

Here are some tips and tricks to get started on your waterfowl adventure.

Tip No. 1: Learn your birds

There are 26 different water birds that live in Illinois. You don’t have to know every single type of waterfowl out there, but it is good to recognize a few before you ever head out to look for them.

You probably already know what a Canada goose and a mallard duck look like. Then pick two or three more to add to that list, like the mute swan, the common merganser and goldeneye. What do they look like? Sound like? Do they have any fun behaviors to watch out for? Maybe you’ll never run across them in the wild, but you’ll be ready!

A good place to start is this ID guide by Bird Watching HQ. We also love Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds as a reference. You can find lots of articles here on Willy’s Wilderness on hooded mergansers, Canada geese, pied-billed grebes, swans and goldeneyes.

Tip No. 2: Find some water

There’s no use looking for a duck in a prairie. Find a pond, river or lake where you can look for waterfowl. There are some great places in the forest preserves, including Whalon Lake, Lake Renwick Preserve, Isle a la Cache on the Des Plaines River, Monee Reservoir and Four Rivers Environmental Education Center, which sits where the Des Plaines, DuPage and Kankakee rivers come together to form the Illinois River.

Tip No. 3: Wear winter gear

It’s cold outside — dress for it! Wear your winter coat, hat, gloves and scarf. You’re not going to work up a sweat watching the birds, so snow pants and winter boots are a good idea for warmth.

Tip No. 4: Bring binoculars

The great thing about looking for water birds is that you can often get pretty close. You don’t need to have binoculars, but they are nice to see details on the birds.

Tip No. 5: Stay awhile

You will have more success if you plan on hanging out for a bit. Bring a chair, a blanket, some hot chocolate, maybe a snack. Settle in and don’t move too much. Ducks and geese might get more comfortable with your presence. They might even get closer to you.

Tip No. 6: Bring a book or an app

Books, apps and websites are great resources to figure out which water birds you’re observing. There are physical bird field guidebooks and brochures, or you can rely on the virtual version.

We love the Merlin Bird ID app. Use it to answer a couple of questions to narrow down which bird you’re looking at. Don’t forget to listen. The app can even identify bird calls when you press the record button!

These are just some ideas to get you started. Maybe you want to get serious right away and try to identify all the birds you see. Or maybe you just want to go hang out with your family or friends by the pond in winter. Point out some cool colors or patterns or calls. Count the number of birds you see. How many are the same? However you do it, enjoy this time in winter with the birds!


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