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.

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