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.

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.

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.

Ewing Project FeederWatch Report for Feb 20/21

By Joshlaymon (Own work)

By Joshlaymon (Own work)

by Lee Farnham

The numbers  of species seen, and the greatest number of  each while  I was watching this past weekend, were respectable for a mid-winter weekend.  Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Juncos, House Finches, Titmice, a Carolina Wren, Mourning  Doves, and White-Breasted Nuthatch were reliable  visitors,  but the highlights of the weekend were three.

  1. For the first time in a month, The Brown Creeper was back, scurrying up the Dogwood and the Sassafras looking for insects.  Have you ever noticed  how  the Brown Creeper only goes UP tree trunks, unlike  the White-Breasted Nuthatch, which goes up and down?
  2. We keep very close watch on Goldfinches because Pine Siskins sometimes are found amongst them, and we saw TWO on Valentine’s  Day (what better gift?)!  Since Pine Siskins can travel in large flocks (irruptions), we’ll need to watch closely over the next weekends to see if more show up.  (In 2007, when we  first saw them, there were a few, then a few more, then a bunch and then a swarm, and  we counted 55 at the high point….  and  then they were gone.)
  3. I took a break from my normal observation point and was in the back of the house when I looked out at the backyard and saw a Pileated Woodpecker (!!!) on our Sasssafras…  I scooted back to get my  glasses for a  closer look, but it was in vain as he had  left….still, it’s a hopeful sign because we had seen two of them on our Dogwood tree near the suet in March last year.

(For Lee’s project start to date results, check here.)

Cross Town Report

Feeder Watch has more than one observation post in Ewing, and we’re delighted to have made contact with a watcher in the Brae Burn neighborhood, who is also a member of the Washington Crossing Audubon Society.  When you compare what we’re seeing in Mountain View, to what’s seen in Brae Burn, there are some birds in common:  Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpecker, a Junco, Chickadee, a White-Throated Sparrow and House Finches. But they also reported 45 Common Grackles, 25 European Starlings and seven House Sparrows, most of which were seen on Saturday.  Those are birds that have been seen, but not with any consistency, in Mountain View.  While we may see Starlings and Grackles two or three times a season, House Sparrows have only been seen once or twice in eleven years.

(Note from the Editor – Lee continues to faithfully make his reports of bird activity in the northwestern section of Ewing for Project FeederWatch, a citizen scientist to ornithological research. He has been sharing the highlight of his results with readers weekly. For more information about Project FeederWatch go to feederwatch.org.)

Late January Snowmageddon Brings Birds Flocking to Local Feeders

Project FeederWatch Update for Jan 23 and 24

IMG_0804

 

by Lee Farnham

The forecast for last weekend was grim: snow starting late Friday night, and ending who knows when….  It started around 6PM Friday and didn’t end until late Saturday night. By the time it had stopped the accumulation at our house was really overwhelming, close to 18”.  The Township declared a state of emergency, so the plows didn’t come until close to 1PM on Sunday. How did this affect our weekly Feeder Watch?

Well, if you thought last week was a good number of birds, Saturday past, when it snowed all day long, turned into a real procession of Goldfinches, plus some unexpected visitors: six Common Grackles, and a solitary Crow!

Before counting on Saturday, we filled the two Thistle Feeders and spread thistle seed on the deck and deck rail. We also filled up the Squirrel Buster feeder with Sunflower hearts, and spread a lot of sunflower on the ground (Juncos, Titmice, White-throated  sparrows, Squirrels, Goldfinches and Mourning Doves were grateful for that).  The Safflower feeder was also filled (it’s about eight feet away from the Sunflower feeder, but separated by a large Blue Holly bush which offers great cover for birds. The next step was to change the suet in the suet feeder, so two new cakes were added while the leftovers were dumped on the ground for the squirrels and Juncos. The final step was to fill up the heated bird bath so water would be available…it’s really great to see Titmice, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Cardinals and other species all taking their turn at the bird bath.

Saturday’s Feeder Watch was unprecedented, it snowed all day, and we set a record for the number of one species (Goldfinch) seen at one time: 57!!  (It broke the Pine Siskin record of 55, from the winter of 2007-2008). We also saw 17 Juncos, 14 Mourning Doves and eleven House Finches, all records for 2015-2016 season.

Sunday was clear and a little warmer, and while there were still birds at the feeders, Saturday was when all the big numbers were seen….even though we’re still waiting for the Brown Creeper to come back

Project FeederWatch Update Jan 16 &17

Dark eyed Junco

Dark eyed Junco

by Lee Farnham

A hint of things to come was the theme of this weekend’s FeederWatch as some larger numbers of birds were seen within some species this weekend.

Since FeederWatch, run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, asks that watchers record not only the species seen, but also the greatest number of that species seen at any one time, we’d been wondering why the numbers were down from years previous…but no more.

Overall fourteen species were recorded, but the total number of birds seen at any one time of those species increased to 85 in all, up from 47 the weekend before!

The big jump was on Sunday, as a result of two changes:

  1. It was snowing, and about 32° F. Whenever it snows, demand really grows.
  2. We decided to spread Thistle seed (Niger) along our deck rail  and on the floor of the deck underneath the rail too (to supplement the two Thistle feeders with 12 positions each).

You wouldn’t think that a small change like that would have such a big result, but it did.  The highest number of Juncos seen at any one time jumped to 12, but the really big gain was in Goldfinches, which peaked at 37 on Sunday afternoon.

At the same time there were Robins all over the place; we saw 15 in the feeding area on Sunday, and the number of House Finches was big, ending at eight!

Mourning Doves were scarce, just one, and there’s still no sign of the Brown Creeper (aka Creepie) who was a regular visitor for the last ten years.  Please tell Creepie that we’d love to see him if he’s in your yard. We miss him.

An Irruption of Note

PineSiskin

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

By Lee Farnham
2009-2010 Project FeederWatch season

It was in early December last year, while doing my regular weekend bird feeder survey, that the advance scouts showed up.  Three of them were at our two thistle feeders, usually hogged by the Goldfinches.  When I looked at them I saw Goldfinch characteristics, but heavily streaked like a House Finch; I made a mental note to look up hybridization among the two species in Sibley’s Bird Life and Behavior, and went back to recording and counting the other birds.

Every winter for the past four years we’ve been members of a Cornell Ornithology Lab project called Feeder Watch (feederwatch.org).  A nationwide and Canada effort, it involves 15,000 members watching their bird feeders for two consecutive days each week, and reporting what they see.  You note not just species, but the maximum number of that species you see at any one time.  At our feeders, for example, we always have White-Throated Sparrows poking around under the sunflower feeder for what’s spilled, but the number you see depends on the time of day you’re watching.  There may be one or two most times, but if you’re watching at dusk, and have binoculars that gather lots of light (like my 7x50s), you could see six or seven.  That’s why I try to watch in the mornings, afternoons and at dusk on Saturday and Sunday, probably about two hours a weekend.

On a normal winter weekend we’ll report from 13 -15 species, more if the hawks (Coopers and Sharp-Shinned) are around, fewer if the temperature’s high, 20+ if there’s a snow storm and their other food sources are restricted.

The weekend I saw the scouts I forgot to check the Sibley, so I didn’t report them, but there were more next weekend!  Five was the most I saw at any one time, but they were there continuously, and very hungry.  The Goldfinches weren’t around so these birds had little competition at those feeders.

Over the years Ann has landscaped our backyards with trees and shrubs attractive to birds, and we’ve put feeders close to them.  A large Blue Holly shrub is between the safflower feeder (columnar in a squirrel-proof cage), and the sunflower hear feeder (two-sided, counter-weighted access bars, suspended from a cable, and beneath a Plexiglas witch’s hat… challenging for squirrels).  The Holly gives great cover when hawks are around, as do the Canadian Hemlocks, close by.  Winterberry Hollies offer food for seldom seen Bluebirds, among others.  Suet (berry and nut, two cakes at a time) are suspended from a cable with a large platter above them to discourage squirrels (it does), but in high winds, like now, the platter becomes a sail and the whole contraption ends up five or ten yards away; it’s exciting to see it fly off.   Finally, the two thistle feeders are on curved poles off the deck rail, one of them is a large pan of water, year-round.  It’s got a thermostat in it now to keep the water from freezing, and it always draws a crowd.

When I finally read the Sibley’s Bird Life and Behavior the next weekend, starting with Goldfinches, what leapt out at me was the phrase: “Goldfinches do not hybridize!”  Yikes, I thought, what does that mean,,, and then it dawned on me: this is a different species!  So I quickly pulled down Sibley’s Guide to Birds, and Peterson’s Field Guide, and discovered that these were Pine Siskins, a species I hadn’t seen since the early 50s in New Mexico! Wow!! Pine Siskins in New Jersey, with their sharp little bills, and touches of yellow among their brownish streaks; they looked just like they should.  I included them in my census for that weekend, modified my report for the previous week to include them too, and made a special comment to Feeder Watch asking if their appearance was at all unusual.

It was, they replied, for it turned out that we were in the beginning stages of an irruption (moving in irregular winter patterns) of Pine Siskins last winter, and they were heading east from western Pennsylvania.  (Feeder Watch website has a neat feature that lets you select a species, your region and the year, and it gives you an animated map of ow that species has moved through our region during that time.  Different sized circles and colors represent reporting stations and numbers.  Watching that display you could see the Pine Siskins’ invasion build from the west.

The few advance scouts of this nomadic species, which travels in flocks and is usually confined to the western states every other winter, turned into a veritable flood over the next three months.  Each successive weekend we reported higher and higher counts of them seen at any one time. with the peak at 55!  It was akin to O’Hare or LaGuardia on a Friday evening: the feeders could hold 30 or so birds, so the rest stacked up in the Dogwoods, Cherry and Oaks, waiting their turns.  New arrivals were first to the Oaks, then Cherry, then Dogwoods, and onto the feeders as other left. You could almost see their traffic controls assigning locations.  As the number grew, so did our reporting site on Feeder Watch‘s animated map, until it was a big green circle!

The Feeder Watch staff, in a preliminary report through mid-February, 2009, compared Pine Siskin sightings from winter 2007-2008 to winter 2008-2009 at reporting locations, and found that sightings, country-wide, had risen from 24.8% to 50%!  The average flock size increased from 11.7 to 15.  The change was even more dramatic in the east, where comparable reports went from 18.6% of feeders reporting them to 49.6%, and flock size increased from 7.2 to 15.5. this past winter.

What caused this?  The Feeder Watch account of the Pine Siskin irruption 2008-2009 goes on to say: “Pine Siskins typically irrupt in the West every other winter, but the pattern is much less reliable in the east.  The large numbers of Siskins in the east this winter are most likely due to a shortage of their typical winter food supplies in the forests of Canada.”

It’s too early to tell if they’ll be back this year because the Feeder Watch season has only just started, but the food supply in Canada will be key.  The species total is about the same, but numbers seen are a bit down, perhaps because of the wet year.  Regular visitors include Titmice, House Finches and Goldfinches, Juncos, a White-Breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wrens and White-Throated Sparrows.  The three Woodpecker species (Red-Bellied, Hairy and Downy) are covering the suet and an occasional Cooper’s Hawk cruises by looking for a fast lunch (and got a Mourning Dove the other day).  If the Pine Siskins do return, we’re ready for them, as we just got a new twenty pound sack of Thistle Seed, their favorite!