Project FeederWatch

We’ve had some gorgeous fall days, as even I, the winter-hater, have to agree. But one thing that makes winter more bearable is Project FeederWatch. This program is celebrating its 30th year as part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “citizen science” initiatives. I’ve been doing FeederWatch since the autumn of 1991, and only missed a year or two, so I currently have 23 years of data in their database.

It feels good to sit at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and binoculars at hand (and perhaps a cat in my lap) and watch activity at our small backyard bird banquet. We have only six feeders and a birdbath. Everythingdowny-woodpecker but one feeder is visible from my kitchen chair.  A large sunflower seed feeder stands in a barrel on the patio. Sunflower seed is gobbled up by most of the backyard birds. Beyond it, a tall pole holds three dangling tube feeders (one each for safflower seeds, peanuts, and nyger) and one mounted suet feeder. Woodpeckers and blue jays love the suet and the peanuts, chickadees and finches eat the safflower, while goldfinches and house finches eat the tiny black nyger (thistle) seeds. All scatter when a Cooper’s hawk flies in!

I have to cross the kitchen to see our saucer magnolia in the front yard with its hanging platform feeder. That one holds safflower seeds also. Though the tree is a playground for squirrels, they mostly disdain safflower. Doves and chickadees are its best customers.

Water can be hard for birds to find in winter. Our birdbath is popular with most species, who stop by for a drink or a quick splash. But it’s also a lure for birds that usually don’t come to feeders, like robins and mockingbirds. A heater keeps the water from freezing.

When I’m recording data for Project FeederWatch, I keep track of how many individuals of one species I can see at a time. On a typical winter day when the feeders are busy, there might be three chickadees taking turns flying to the sunflower feeder to carry away a seed. A titmouse stands at the same feeder, holding down a seed with one foot while it hammers away the shell. Ten doves stroll around beneath the feeder, looking for crumbs, while a song sparrow and two whiteOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA-throated sparrows scuffle through the nearby garden. A red-bellied woodpecker clings to the suet feeder, repelling other boarders, while a red-breasted nuthatch hangs upside-down on the peanut feeder. They all become part of avian history.

Volunteer feeder-watchers across the country provide far more data than Cornell’s ornithologists could collect on their own. There is a $18 annual participation fee for U.S. residents ($15 for Cornell Lab members). The participation fee covers materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and the year-end report (Winter Bird Highlights). The Lab notes changes in bird numbers, tracks invasions of irruptive species, and documents the way food choices, habitat, and weather can affect the numbers of birds at feeders.

Winter is still my least favorite season, but FeederWatch helps. This year’s FeederWatch season is from November 12 to early April. If you’d like to become one of the annual flock of FeederWatchers, check out the website at www.feederwatch.org for more information.

 

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Breeding Birds

If you have a House Wren or Gray Catbird singing in your yard, or hear a Wood Thrush caroling while you walk the Henson Trail, it’s a good bet there’s a nest nearby! First Fotos and Early Birds 042Avian migrants have passed through Montgomery County, so the birds who wake us up with their sunrise songs are species that breed here. This is the season of the Breeding Bird Survey. The BBS is a roadside bird count, an annual trek with stops every half-mile (totaling 50 stops) to listen, look, and note all birds seen and heard in exactly three minutes.

I participated in the survey as a volunteer counter for 20 years. Every spring, I spent a June morning recording birds at all my stops. My route, which crossed Montgomery County from east to west, was one of the original ones laid out in Maryland by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 1966. Scientists analyze the collected data to establish trends in bird status and develop conservation priorities.

Many changes were obvious over the years. The major one was development, of course. I grumbled, “I used to get Eastern Meadowlarks and Field Sparrows at this stop and now the fields hold town houses.” Traffic got worse, its noise masking birdsong. Lou, who was driving for me, now was tasked by the scientists to count all the vehicles that passed us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe good news, though, is that people are noticing. More of us participate in citizen science with bird, butterfly, and amphibian counts, or monitor water quality, and we set aside land to be protected habitat. Even small neighborhood parks are benefiting. Long may American Goldfinches harvest seeds in our back yard and Wood Thrushes sing beside the Henson Trail!