(Native) Plants of the Month – March 2017

istock_000045324030_large_monarchby Ann Farnham, LLA

Why do we emphasize using native plants? What are native plants? Are they better than introduced, exotic, non-natives? Why does the Ewing Township Code, Landscaping, require at least 45% native plants in all non-private property planting plans?

A native plant is one which, over countless years, developed with our environment’s soil types, precipitation, temperatures, elevations and exposures. A good definition of a native plant is one that existed, in any specific region, before the European settlement in this country. Our region is the Mid Atlantic Region.

Since that European settlement, hundreds of plant species have been introduced from many parts of the world. They are often very beautiful, sometimes seem to fit a specific need, might grow easily, and show off an owner’s sophistication and botanical interests. Many, however, have turned out to be invasive and some are toxic to people and wildlife.

Native plants, then, are adapted to their particular regions, in our case, the Mid-Atlantic. They are compatible with the physical geography and factors mentioned above. As a result, they require, after establishment, much less maintenance, less water, and do not require chemical applications of fertilizers, pesticides, and soil amendments. Birds, butterflies, beneficial insects, reptiles and mammals rely on their fruit, nuts, nectar, and seeds. Many birds depend upon native plant insects, such as caterpillars. Many alien plants are toxic to these native insects.

Imported exotics interrupt the food web by frequently out-competing the natives for space, exposure and nutrients. They usually do not support the insects upon which our bird population depends. For example, one brood of Chickadees requires 6000 caterpillars as food by the time it attains maturity (birds require the protein and fats from insects in order to mature or to lay eggs; in non-breeding times seeds and fruit do the job). A native oak, for example, can support more than 500 species of caterpillar, whereas a non-native Gingko only supports 5 species. Bird populations are in steep decline, certainly not only the result of habitat loss.

Our penchant for beautiful, green lawns has destroyed functional ecosystems by the use ofchemicals. In the process our waterways, air and health become polluted as well. The lawn mower itself compacts the soil and emits pollution where there used to be meadows, fields and woodlands, now lost to urbanization. We need to develop yards and gardens with friendlier habitats by using native trees, shrubs and flowers, and reducing lawn areas.

Many of our native plants have died or been seriously compromised with introduced pests such as the Emerald Ash Borer (ash trees), the Wooly Adelgid (hemlocks), the Japanese Beetle (almost everything), and fungal diseases brought in by the nursery trade. The attached Native Tree List has several trees, such as the Ash, Eastern Hemlock, American Sycamore and Flowering Dogwood, which now should not be used at all. Some selected, resistant varieties of Flowering Dogwood, however, are available such as the Rutgers-developed Cherokee series.

We want to recommend three books for your further understanding in alleviating the problems above.

  1. Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy;
  2. Native Plants of the Northeast by Donald Leopold;
  3. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants.

In addition, be sure to visit the web sites www.npsnj.org/plant-lists-native/trees_ for_ landscaping and plants.usda.gov.

See also, the Native Plant Society of NJ’s excellent list in Native Trees for Residential Gardeners.


The  Ewing Environmental Commission welcomes suggestions for the Plant of the Month from all Ewing residents.

To calculate the value that trees add to your property, go to tree benefits.com/calculator/

Project FeederWatch Update for Weekend of Feb 11/12

feederwatchBy Lee Farnham

Other tasks kept us (my cat and me) from getting to Feeder Watch until around 2PM on Saturday, but we made up for it by watching for at least 90 minutes.  Surprisingly, we saw only nine species during that time with the most prominent absentee being a Red-Bellied Woodpecker.  They’re normally all over the suet and sunflower hearts at least four or five times a day.

However, late in the day we were treated to a Cardinal invasion when eight were seen around our sunflower feeder and under the safflower feeder.  The difference between the two feeders is that the sunflower has a ring around the bottom of the seed tube that allows birds to perch while they feed (you can adjust the weight to allow heavier birds or not… ours is set to 1.4 ounces, which is plenty for multiple birds, but doesn’t let squirrels get to the seed).  The safflower seed tube is in a cage, so only smaller birds (Titmouse, House Finch, Carolina Chickadee and Carolina Wren) can get into the feeding ports….but we spread loose seed on the ground for each feeder too, so ground feeders (including squirrels) have access.

northern_cardinal_pair

By Ken Thomas – KenThomas.us(personal website of photographer), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2589165

The interesting thing about Cardinals is that they normally travel in pairs, so if you see the red male, look closely for his mate, or vice-versa.  And the ones we had on Saturday afternoon were equally divided between the sunflower and safflower. On the safflower side they were sharing the ground with House Finches and a Carolina Wren while Titmice and Carolina Chickadees ate above them (and scattered seed to them).  On the sunflower side there would be a Cardinal on the feeder ring, and another one or two on the ground, sharing seed with Juncos, White-Throated Sparrows and the ubiquitous squirrels.

The missing Red-Bellied Woodpecker turned up late on Sunday, along with a White-Breasted Nuthatch and two infrequent visitors: a Robin and a European Starling, both were interested in the suet…the Robin picking pieces off the ground, but the Starling holding onto the cage which he took his whacks.

The final total for the weekend was 16 species and 122  total birds.  See Observation Tallies to date.

Note:  Lee Farnham is an avid birder and a long-time participant in Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology Feeder Watch program in which more than 16,000 citizen scientists from all states and Provinces of Canada report weekly feeder activity from early November to early April.

Project Feeder Watch Update

feederwatchby Lee Farnham

The nicer weather we enjoyed for the last weekend in January, especially Sunday PM, probably cut down on attendance at our feeders, but we logged the normal number of species, 15, and when you add up the highest number of each species seen at one time, and reported, that came to 80…a far cry from some previous weekends, but it’s always fun to watch the birds interact as they eat:

  • Consider the Thistle seed (nyjer) we have in two feeders, and put along our deck rail and also on our deck.  Having so much seed available attracts lots of birds, which is why we reported 34 American Goldfinches and 16 Northern Juncos.  What it doesn’t tell you is that the lovely Juncos are early risers (they know the saying:  “the early bird gets the worm”), and the 16 were counted before 0700 on Saturday.
    By the same token, just after I’ve replenished the feeders each morning is a good time for the Goldfinches, and all but four or five of the 34 seen this weekend, were bunched together along the deck rail, with probably 12 on the two feeders within two feet.
  • Our suet offering consists of two cakes of suet in a metal cage, suspended from a cable midway between our deck and a Dogwood Tree.  The cage has what looks like a witch’s hat over it to keep the squirrels at bay, which it does.  While we see squirrels attempt the perilous approach on the cable, they usually turn back because they get to the witch’s hat and give up trying to score suet.
    We had added a cake of Peanut Butter suet (from Bucks County Audubon Society at $2 each) to the regular C&S suet, so it made an added attraction on Saturday a.m., and soon a Pileated Woodpecker was on the trunk of the Dogwood eyeing the suet while he waited for an opening.  It came, and this magnificent bird,  with a 28” wingspan, quickly left the tree and fastened himself to the suet cage.  It’s really fun watching a Pileated bang away on suet, and to see the chunks of it go in all directions.  A couple of Juncos, and a Carolina Wren, were waiting on the ground to get random chunks, and were quickly rewarded!  After satisfying his immediate hunger, the Pileated took wing, but it was wonderful seeing him, and knowing that there are two of them who visit us regularly.
    Later in the day a White-Breasted Nuthatch, not often seen on the suet, was suddenly there and nibbling on the suet at one end of the suet cage.  While watching him there was suddenly a second bird on the other end of the same suet cake, a Carolina Wren!!  What a treat it was to see them both filling up, almost side-by-side,  a White-Breasted Nuthatch on one end and the Carolina Wren on the other.  It didn’t last, but it was a real treat to watch both of them dig in.

So far this Feeder Watch season we’ve seen 27 different species at our feeders, and there are still two and a half months left to the reporting season.  Results Summary

Lee Farnham is an avid birder and a long-time participant in Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology Feeder Watch program in which more than 16,000 citizen scientists from all states and Provinces of Canada report weekly feeder activity from early November to early April.

Eastern Red Cedar – February 2017 Plant of the Month

By Quadell at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1685290

By Quadell at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1685290

by Ann Farnham, LLA

We miss the foliage of our beautiful deciduous trees at this time of the year and look at our evergreens with more respect: the pines, hollies, firs, spruces, cedars and junipers stand out.

Perhaps one of the least appreciated of the needled evergreens is our native (to 37 states) Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana. It is very hardy, withstanding all sorts of conditions, (rocky or clay soil, drought, wet areas, deer, erosion, air pollution) and spreads readily by birds and mammals disseminating the easy-germinating, tasty seeds everywhere.

This tree has many present day uses. The fragrant wood repels moths so is used to line closets and chests; the heartwood is rot resistant and is popular for shingles, furniture and fencing; wind breaks; hedges; foundation plants; perfumes; a flavoring for gin; and medicinal applications. Prior to the 1940s it was the wood used in pencils. Years ago it was a favorite for building log cabins and coffins. It is used now, especially in the South, as a Christmas tree.

Van Cotter, one of the Ewing Environmental Commission’s early members, said, “My wife and I would tie ropes to both ends of a red cedar tree and pull it up and down the chimney of our Virginia home, with me on the roof and her by the fireplace. It did a good job of cleaning the chimney.”

Our native Americans used Red Cedar as an antiseptic, for rheumatism relief, childbirth recovery, coughs, intestinal worms, canker sores and to help cure mumps. We know now that it can be toxic in inappropriate doses.

Wildlife also loves Red Cedar. It provides year- round dense shelter and the blue-grey, succulent berries seem irresistible. Cedar Waxwings were named for this favorite food ( juniper is not a true cedar, however) and French traders named the city of Baton Rouge after it: in French, Baton Rouge means “Red Stick”, of which there were many. The bark of the tree is grey to reddish-brown.

This tree can reach 30’ to 60’ in height with a spread of 8’ to 25’, depending on the variety. It is usually broadly conical to columnar with dense, horizontal branching.  Easy to transplant, it prefers a dry to medium, well-drained moist soil, and full sun. The trees are dioecious, meaning that they are either male or female, usually not both. The berries, of course, are borne on the female trees. Foliage is flat, scale-like and prickly.

Eastern Red Cedar

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The biggest Red Cedar problem seems to be Cedar Apple Rust and Bag Worms. The Red Cedar is an alternate host to a serious fungus that affects apple trees; do not plant them near apple or crabapple trees as the fungus is hard to control. Bag worms “bags” can be removed easily from small and few trees, but this should be done as soon as they appear. Bag Worm homes can easily be mistaken for cones; although birds do a good job eating the larvae, and if hand picking does not work, call your Cooperative Extension Service for advice on insecticides and timing.

Most Red Cedars become brown-to rust colored in the winter, losing their normal green color. However, there are many cultivated varieties (cvs) today which retain the green color all winter, such as ‘Corcorcor’, ‘Canaertii’,  ‘Emerald Sentinel’, and ‘Hillspire’, among many others. A wide variety of green tones (grey-green to blue-green) are also available. There are also shrub and groundcover cultivars of Juniperus virginiana  in many garden centers and nurseries.

The Ewing Environmental Commission welcomes suggestions for the Plant of the Month from all Ewing residents.

To calculate the value that trees add to your property, go to treebenefits.com/calculator/.

River Birch – Jan 2017 Plant of the Month

river_birch

By John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

by Ann Farnham, LLA

The January  Plant of the Month is an unusually beautiful and useful tree that affords all season interest.

Betula nigra, River Birch, is a fast-growing, medium sized tree which has become popular as a specimen tree or in groups for large residential properties, parks, golf courses, and other situations. Growing to 40’-70’ or more with a slightly smaller spread, this tree is hardy to USDA Zones 4-7, ranging from New Hampshire to southern Minnesota to northern Florida and west to Texas. Ewing is in USDA Zone 6b.

The tree’s habit, when young, is pyramidal, and it can be multi- or single trunked. At maturity the tree becomes rounded.

river_birch_exfoliating_bark

Close up of the beautiful exfoliating bark By Googoo85 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

River Birch has many great assets. It has an exfoliating ( “peely”) bark, which ranges from peach to reddish-orange-brown to salmon-pink and reveals a creamy inner bark where it peels. This makes the tree unusually attractive, especially in the winter after its leaves have dropped.

This tree is low-maintenance, and is the most disease resistant of the Birch family. Unlike other birches which are suited to more northern habitats, River Birch is very tolerant of heat, standing water (it is also drought resistant), and most important, it resists the Bronze Birch Borer, which kills most other birch species in our area and warmer zones. It hosts few diseases or pests. Deer don’t favor it, which is another plus here.

The water tolerance of River Birch makes it very useful for planting along ponds, streams, flood plains and other low areas. It is used frequently to naturalize detention basins as it will tolerate standing water as well as dryness. It is a good tree for bioswales or rain gardens.

The leaves are leathery, lustrous, dark green, 1.5” to 3.5” long and up to 2.4” broad, and diamond shaped. They flutter in the wind, revealing a silvery colored underside. The leaf margins are doubly toothed; in the fall the yellow leaves drop quickly.

The blooms, which appear in April or May, are drooping, brown 3” catkins for the male flowers, and smaller, green, upright catkins for the female. The flowers are wind-pollinated and produce small nutlet-like fruit in the late spring.

River Birch requires a moist, fertile, acid soil with a pH of less than 6.5 and sun, although it will tolerate light shade. They are somewhat sensitive to fall planting and transplanting. Avoid pruning River Birch in the spring when its sap is running; save the chore for late summer and fall.

Native Americans used the boiled sap as a sweetener similar to maple syrup. The wood is too knotty and contorted to be useful commercially.

Three favorite cultivated varieties of River Birch are ‘Cully’ (Heritage ®), ‘Dura Heat’, and ‘Little King’ (Fox Valley ™), a relatively dwarf ( to 15’) variety.

The Ewing Environmental Commission (eec@ewingnj.org) welcomes suggestions for the Plant of the Month from all Ewing residents.

New Year’s Project FeederWatch Update

feederwatchby Lee Farnham

The weather was pretty nice for a mid-winter weekend, with temperature in the 40s and sunshine, and there were birds at all the feeders, but not in the numbers of the last two weeks.  My conclusion is that, like many of us, they had reservations for New Year festivities elsewhere.  Also, we were only watching for about 90 minutes on Saturday a.m., and Sunday p.m.  The time one watches definitely affects the report, partly in species seen, but also in the maximum number of each species seen at any one time.

This weekend was different in that several species that had been turning up, didn’t.  The English (House) Sparrow, the European Starling, Crow and Robins were all among the missing.  The Robins spent time during the week gobbling down any remaining Holly Berries, and are now waiting for the 2017 crop.

purplefinch

By Cephas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, we’ve noticed that a number of birds not often seen around the Niger Seed (Thistle) seem to be taking a like to it in addition to the Juncos and Goldfinches.  We’ve seen Mourning Doves, Carolina Wrens, Titmice and House Finches also sampling the Niger.  We were looking at the House Finches on the deck rail on Saturday a.m. when I realized that there was a Purple Finch among them!  They are very irregular, and we haven’t seen one here for three or four years, but this was unmistakable.  What made it so easy to pick out is that it was right next to a male House Finch, and the difference in their coloring, at a distance of no more than ten feet was exceptional!  One of my very experienced birding friends described a Purple Finch this way:  “Imagine you’re looking at a House Finch, but all of a sudden you realize that it looks like it’s been dipped in raspberry juice…that’s what a Purple Finch looks like.”  He was absolutely right, and it was a thrilling sight.  He didn’t just make a solo appearance either, but we continued to see him at the Niger Seed, at the heated bird bath for a drink, and later at the Sunflower Heart feeder.

A perfect coda to the weekend came when the biggest woodpecker there is, the Pileated Woodpecker, made a brief appearance within the perimeter.  When a bird is more than 16″ long, has a 28″ wingspan, a bright red cockade and a voice like a Stentorian, it demands your respect, and it certainly got ours!

Seasons Results To Date

Project FeederWatch Update

feederwatchby Lee Farnham

As the Feeder Watch season progresses, the total number of birds seen at our location is rising, but it’s limited to a few species, not all.  We make a concerted effort to attract American Goldfinches by dedicating two tube feeders to them, as well as spreading Niger Seed on our deck rail, and also on the deck below it.  They also like Sunflower Hearts, so when they’re counted we also include that feeder, which is further away from the house.  (At times over the years we’ve seen Pine Siskins intermingle with Goldfinches if their food supplies further north are sparse…but none has been seen year).

By the same token, since we spread Safflower seed on the ground, there is a particular species, Mourning Dove, which is a ground feeder and they overwhelm the 10’ square enclosure we have If they’re all there at once.  At first, when they’re going to feed, there are a few scouts who drop down from surrounding trees.  If they don’t attract a crusading Cooper’s Hawk, then the rest soon join and the area under the Safflower feeder looks like a moving mass of Mourning Dove backs.

There’s no space for Cardinals, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees or Juncos…they just wait their turn….which can come quickly because Doves spook easily, and if one or two leave, there’s a burst of activity and then they’re all gone.

The deck area, where we’ve spread Niger Seed (Black Thistle) is attracting more than just Goldfinches.  Northern Juncos appear to like eating off the deck, and sometimes the deck rail. This past week they were joined by House Finches, a Starling (!), Robins, White-Throated Sparrows,  a Mourning Dove, and a jaunty Carolina Wren.  Word is spreading.

Early one midweek morning (not part of the Feeder Watch report), I went down to replenish the Sunflower Heart and Safflower feeders, and scatter seed underneath both.  As soon as I returned to the house and looked at the feeders I was shocked to see that 51 Common Grackles had arrived for an early breakfast, and were all over the ground under both feeders….and then they flew off and haven’t been seen since!   There hadn’t been a one in sight when I’d filled the feeders a few minutes before.

So far this winter we’ve seen 22 different species, but our beloved Brown Creeper still has not shown up.  If you see one, please tell it we’re open for business, and that it should come on over!

Project FeederWatch Results 12/10-11/2016

feederwatchDec 13, 2016

Environmental Commissioner Lee Farnham, aided by his “kat” Reina, reports in with a weekly update on their bird watching activities for Project Feederwatch.


Reina and I were watching the feeders, mostly on Saturday a.m., but also later that day and on Sunday p.m. To prepare for a bigger crowd (always hoped for), I had again put more seed in the feeders themselves, but also strewn some on the ground beneath the sunflower feeder, safflower feeder and the thistle feeders.  A new cake of suet was added too, as we always want to have two cakes in the suet feeder for the woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees and nuthatch (but it’s 90% woodpeckers).

Several things stood out this past weekend:

  1. We’d spread Niger seed (thistle) on our deck, and the deck rail, and also in two feeders and it was pandemonium at times, and not just goldfinches.   There were nine juncos on the deck, and we saw House Finches, a Dove, and a Carolina Wren too.  Maybe the area was preferred because it’s right by the 24/7 water which never freezes (the bird bath heater is wonderful).
  2. For the first time this season we saw a Hairy Woodpecker, but it was at 0730 on Saturday a.m., and we never saw another. Still, Hairy Woodpeckers have been a mainstay for us through the years. Never many, but we did see two at a time, reliably, until this year.  To date, since the Hairy has now been seen, only the Brown Creeper is missing….and it is not often seen. Last year only 3-5% of NJ stations reporting saw Brown Creepers consistently, and we were among them. This year, nothing.  Memory tells us the Brown Creeper is most often seen between noon and 1PM, so that will be the next step, to watch around noontime. Stay tuned.
  3. For years we have had sprightly Chickadees at our feeders and water. They like Safflower Seed and Sunflower Hearts, and take a bite of suet on occasion.  We’ve always seen Carolina Chickadees (smaller, a little more gray at the end of the cheek), rather than Black-Capped Chickadees, but this past weekend we had a chance to see two Chickadees side-by-side when at the bird bath, and it was obvious that one was a Carolina Chickadee, and the other was a Black-Capped Chickadee. Don’t feel badly if it’s hard to distinguish them….just understand that we’re on the borderline between their ranges, so we’re bound to see both from time to time.
  4. Five swaggering American Crows were poking around under the Sunflower Hearts Saturday morning. Compared to the usual birds at that feeder they looked like Goliaths, and the Goldfinches, House Finches, Titmice, Chickadees, White-Breasted Nuthatches, White-Throated Sparrows and Juncos gave them a wide berth. After they left, the Robins (only three) arrived to see if there were any winterberry hollies left to devour.

That’s it for this week.  Check out the season summary to date in the PDF attached.  Look for more as the FeederWatch season progresses.

Christmas Trees – December 2016 Tree of the Month

christmastreeby Ann Farnham, LLA

Among the pleasures we enjoy in December is choosing a Christmas tree. The choices are many: the firs (Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir), pines (Scotch, Eastern White), red cedars, and spruce (Colorado Blue, Norway, Concolor). Throughout the United States there are more than 35 different evergreen species grown for the holidays. They are available either cut, in containers, or balled and burlapped.

If you choose to purchase a cut tree, try to prevent the trunk from being exposed to the air for more than three to six hours; it should be put into a container with water as soon as possible. Next, trim off the lowest branches which might interfere with the tree’s staying upright in a stand, and then remove ragged branch tips or unattractive branches. Saw off an inch of the trunk so the tree can absorb water freely, and fasten it to its stand, which should contain plenty of water. The water, especially at first, should be replenished often.

Artificial Christmas trees are often made of PVC, a dangerous chemical; they are not biodegradable, and do not have the wonderful fragrance of a real tree. However, they may be used for many years and are maintenance free.

A live tree, while somewhat more labor intensive to care for, may also be planted in your yard after its holiday use, and enjoyed for years to come. You must do some planning before you take the tree home but it is well worth while.

  1. Determine what spot on your property affords the correct exposure (full sun) and room. Check a good source or the internet to determine how much space your particular species of tree will require when mature.
  2. Dig the hole NOW before the ground freezes. Digging a frozen hole is no fun. Make the hole approximately 2 times the width of what you expect the container or root ball will be. This is important; and do not dig the hole any deeper than the height of the container or root ball. Fill the hole with leaves or mulch as insulation, and cover the hole and the pile of soil with a tarp and more leaves or mulch to avoid freezing. Throw away whatever sod was dug up as you do not want it included in the backfill.

Your live tree should be indoors as briefly as possible; place it at first (in a waterproof tub or container) in a garage or porch to allow it to acclimate to warmer temperatures. You can water it lightly and frequently, or place ice cubes over the root ball to keep the moisture levels up. Spraying the tree with an antidessicant such as Wiltproof will help control moisture loss through the needles.

When the tree is ready for planting, roll it into the hole and orient it so that its best side faces your house or the street. If the hole is too deep, add soil into the bottom and compact it until it is the right depth. Remove as much of the burlap around the root ball as possible; if it is in a container, remove the container. If it is in a wire basket, cut off as much of the basket as you can. Then, begin to backfill with the soil you set aside. Amendments such as peat moss do not need to be added to the soil, and do not fertilize. Water it thoroughly and slowly as you fill the hole; this will push out air pockets and saturate the sides of the hole as well as the back fill.

It is not necessary to stake or guy the tree. Cover the area – to the drip-line- with 2-3” of double-shredded, hardwood bark mulch, keeping the mulch 2” away from the trunk. Water your Christmas tree every day for a week, twice the second week, and then once a week until the ground freezes and your hose becomes useless.

BEST WISHES FOR THE HOLIDAYS FROM YOUR EWING ENVIRONMENTAL COMMISSION!

 

2016-2017 Project FeederWatch Begins

feederwatchby Lee Farnham, Past Chair, Ewing Environmental Commission

Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology started its annual Feeder Watch survey this weekend, and I spent between 1-4 hours watching my feeders and noting what species were there, and the most I saw of each species at any one time.   This was the first year I had not filled my feeders year ’round, so I got the seeds and suet (sunflower hearts, safflower, Niger [thistle] seed) at the beginning of November and filled the feeders so the birds would know that food was available, and would get to used to multiple daily visits.

We have the Safflower and Sunflower tube feeders at the bottom of our backyard, in an enclosure of about 70 sq. ft., protected by a wire fence that’s six feet high;  the seed is in feeders, and spread on the ground.  A large Holly bush separates the feeders, and provides cover.  A nearby brush pile provides further cover, as do MANY deciduous trees in this small woodlot.

There are two Niger (thistle) tube feeders mostly used by the New Jersey state bird, the American Goldfinch.  Those feeders are on the deck right next to a bird bath with a heater, which gives birds a reliable place to find water during the winter… it’s a BIG draw, as water is critical in the winter.

In preparing for the Feeder Watch season an initial supply of seeds and suet was laid in.  Sunflower hearts (no messy shells to worry about) in a 40# bag and Niger (thistle) seed (20# bag) came from Shady Brook Gardens in Yardley/Newtown, PA, also the source for suet (bought by the dozen).  Our Safflower seed comes from the Bucks County Audubon Society (BCAS) near Lahaska, PA because it’s available in 5# sealed bags, is from a PA manufacturer, is less expensive than anywhere else, and it’s support for BCAS… no tax is charged since BCAS is a non-profit.

Feeder Watch requires participants to watch for two consecutive days a week, so it’s a weekend project (usually accompanied by the family cat, Reina).  The observation post is in our family room, overlooking the backyard, with the safflower and sunflower feeders about 50 feet away, at the bottom of the yard.  The double suet cage (beneath a plastic witch’s hat to deter squirrels) is suspended on a cable between their deck and a dogwood tree, and is 20 feet away.  The thistle feeders, being on the deck, can’t be seen without getting up and walking about five feet.

The established routine is to watch in the early morning for 45-60 minutes, and then to do it again in the late afternoon, for the same time.  Ideally, it’s done both days, but the total time watched over the weekend is normally one to four hours.

Since this was the first weekend, it took a while to get back in the rhythm, but the birds cooperated, especially on Sunday late afternoon.  Here’s a summary of the first weekend:

  1. 15 total species seen, 47 birds in all.  The most were 15  Mourning Doves at 0630 on Sunday.
  2. The usual suspects at our feeders were all there except for the Hairy Woodpecker, an unusual absence as we’ve seen them all the time over the years.  However, there were three Downy Woodpeckers, a periodic Red Bellied Woodpecker, a wonderful Northern Flicker at one point, and a Pileated Woodpecker (the biggest there is!) cruised by late on Sunday.
  3. American Goldfinch has always been common and four were spotted (we usually have two tube feeders, and spread thistle on our deck rail and on our deck to attract many [but not quite yet]).  Three House Finches were seen alternating between Sunflower and Safflower’, and the Tufted Titmice shuttled between the water and the Safflower seed; four were seen at one time.
  4. Carolina Chickadees were very active on Sunday afternoon, when five were seen together.  Likewise, two White Breasted Nuthatches appeared near dusk on Sunday, as well as two Carolina Wrens.  Two Northern Cardinals (male and female), notorious late day arrivals, were tallied just before two White-Throated Sparrows, a Song Sparrow and a Junco ended this first weekend.

One idea that worked out really well was adding Sunflower and Safflower seeds to the feeders and on the ground around 3 PM on Sunday.  Later on there were swarms of birds, undoubtedly having learned that there was seed galore.  Maybe we’ll see the Hairy Woodpecker next weekend, and the elusive Brown Creeper (aka Creepie), seen only by about 3% of NJ Feeder Watch participants on a regular basis.

I’ve been doing this citizen scientist project for the Lab of Ornithology for 12 years; it’s my version of catnip for adults.

To learn more about the Feeder Watch program and participate as a citizen scientist go to their How to Participate page.  The site provides all types of information for those concerned about declining bird populations.  Examples include: The impacts of supplemental feeding on bird populations, Bird Friendly Winter Gardens, the Importance of Local Action to Create Better Habitat for All Species and many more such articles.