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Layering Up and Down

Owl, short-eared cohansey nj jan 22 2011 dpf 013
[Short-eared Owl photographed over the marshes of NJ’s Cohansey River during a bitterly cold Cape May Bird Observatory Winter Marsh Raptor Survey, which involves repeated scans every fifteen minutes, from an hour before dark until a half-hour after – good warm gear is a must! Photo copyright Don Freiday.]

Since cold weather lays heavily upon much of North America, let’s follow up on my first blog, which dealt with the “base layer” of clothing. Recall that the base layer is the critically important one next to your skin, a.k.a your “thermal underwear.”

Most birders are familiar with the concept of layering clothing, but perhaps don’t apply layering as effectively as they could. If two layers are good, five or six can be better! Multiple clothing layers allow complete flexibility when conditions change. Layers also trap air between them, and air is a poor conductor of heat away from your body.  So, when it’s really cold, I often have five or six layers on my upper body.

For example, during CMBO’s recent winter marsh raptor survey, when the temperature hovered in the teens with that typical east coast dampness (thank goodness it wasn’t windy!) and we had to remain essentially stationary outdoors for an hour and a half, here’s what I had on, from the inside out, on the upper half of my body:

– base layer: a zip-turtleneck of Cabela’s MTP long underwear, expedition weight;

– a zip-turtleneck of Patagonia’s Capilene 3;

– another zip turtleneck of Cabela’s MTP, this one designed for archery hunters with thumbholes in the sleeves that keep the sleeves (both of this garment and the ones you’re wearing beneath it) pulled up over your wrists;

– a Nano-puff jacket by Patagonia (an awesome, though pricey, addition to the birder’s wardrobe, as warm as a heavy wool sweater with almost no weight or bulk);

– a 800-fill-power down sweater by Marmot;

– on top, the lighweight, incredibly warm Micropuff jacket by Patagonia (this could be my favorite cold weather garment).

That’s six layers, and I was warm but could still move freely as I watched and photographed as many as three Short-eared Owls hunting the salt marshes where the Cohansey River meets Delaware Bay, not to mention multiple Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, and 2 Great-horned Owls that came to the edge of the marsh at dusk to hunt.

Another layering tip: pay serious attention to layering down as well as up, so you don’t become too warm.  For example, take a bunch of stuff off if you are going into a restaurant or for an extended drive between birding spots.  Unzip or remove layers if you exert yourself, BEFORE you sweat. Moisture-wicking base layers are great, but have limits, and if you bead up with sweat, you will wind up with damp inner garments.  When that happens, nothing can keep you warm.

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Don Freiday
I'm a freelance birder/naturalist/photographer living in Cape May, NJ. My professional experience includes 30+ years in the wildlife field, mostly involving education and interpretation, with several government agencies and NGO's. My hobbies include everything natural, especially birding; photography; training and hunting my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Daniel Boone; fishing; canoeing and kayaking; camping; backpacking; and a little cooking. I blog about birds and nature at .
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