Monday, November 2, 2009

Citizen science plug: Project FeederWatch

In a few weeks you'll likely be seeing more bird photos on my blog. Why? Because November 14th marks the start of the 2009-2010 season of Cornell University's Project FeederWatch, and it's pretty rare for me to do my counts without my camera sitting nearby, ready to capture odd, interesting or just plain cute bird moments.

White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoying tasty treats during past FeederWatch seasons.

This will be my fifth year of participating in Project FeederWatch (PFW, for short), and I feel an obligation to my fellow birders to tell them about this cool citizen science program. Here's a description of FeederWatch from Cornell's site:

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Folks talk about their "spark bird," which is something I can't say I really have, but I do consider PFW my "spark" activity. Counting birds for PFW is what really got me into birds, and I haven't looked back since my first count 5 years ago when I could barely tell a Downy Woodpecker from a Hairy Woodpecker.

How did I figure out how to keep Downy and Hairy straight in my mind? "D"owny is "d"ainty and "H"airy is "h"uge!

There are lots of great reasons to participate in Project FeederWatch. For one thing, it gives you an "excuse" to spend lots of time watching your feathered backyard friends. If anyone in your household accuses you of spending too much time looking at the backyard birds, tell them, "It's for science!"

It's also a very good way to learn and get a better understanding of bird behavior and "mannerisms." Some birds are more aggresive than others, some may be more tolerant of you during feeder filling, etc.

Tempers can subside as quickly as they flare.

Don't know for sure which birds are ground feeders or who prefers which feeder? You'll learn this very quickly by participating in PFW.

Male Dark-eyed Junco (slate-colored race), a predominantly ground-feeding species.

Another benefit of participating over time is watching trends develop. Every year the folks at Cornell put together summaries of the data they received from all over the country, but you can also observe the trends right in your own yard. Once you have entered data for a count session, you will be able to look at it whenever you like. The Lab keeps all of your count data available online from every year that you participate, and you can sort by species, by average group size, or by group size on a specific date.

After 4 seasons of counting I can now make observations about the population trends of the birds that visit our feeders.

For example, last year was a terribly light year for Carolina Wrens at our feeders. I only counted 1 Carolina Wren for the entire 21 weeks of the season. I have high hopes for a rebound in their numbers this year. I have noticed a much stronger presence of them so far this fall, and I have seen them around regularly for quite a few weeks now. We shall see.

Also, we are about due for a visit from the Red-breasted Nuthatches. They have been present every other year, and they weren't here last year, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the pattern will continue and that they will show up this year. Haven't seen any yet, but there's still time!

Also worth mentioning: the American Goldfinch was the most populous bird at our feeders the first year I counted, with an average group size of 15.2. Those numbers have fluctuated and dropped since then, though. Average group size in season 2 was 9.0 (ranked 1st); in season 3 it was 10.1 (ranked 2nd after Mourning Dove); in season 4 it dropped to 8.3 (ranked 3rd behind Mourning Dove and Pine Siskin). What will this season bring for our American Goldfinches? (In case anyone is wondering, I've only ever observed one goldfinch with House Finch eye disease (conjunctivitis), so I don't think there is necessarily any disease that has decreased their numbers.)

Mourning Dove with icy tail feathers. MODO's have ranked in the top 3 for average group size at our feeders every count year so far.

If you need any more convincing to get involved with this project, let me tell you that it's a great cure for the winter blahs. Having something specific to focus on, and knowing that this is pretty much a "winter-only" thing, really gives me something to look forward to on the weekends during those cold, dreary months. One of my favorite things to do in winter, actually, is to get bundled up and go hang out on the deck after dinner and count the birds as I "listen in" on their own dinner conversations.

I also encourage anyone who does participate in PFW to submit any cool or interesting photos you might take during the season to the Cornell Lab. They do a pretty good job of showcasing these photos, and they use them on a lot of the promotional materials concerning the program.

So, are you on board? For more information, go to Project FeederWatch (link will open in new window). You can also click on the PFW badge over in the sidebar. You can sign up now if you haven't already, or you can sign up any time during the season, up until the very end of February. I would love to include a list of fellow FeederWatchers over in my sidebar, so if you're interested in having your blog included in that list, just let me know in the comments, or drop me an email, and I'll add you!

Happy birding!


Monika said...

You may just have convinced me to participate this year! I've heard of the Project before but never really knew the details, but it sounds like something I'd love to be involved in. I always love keeping track of trends and numbers and such, too. I'm moving south for the winter in a couple weeks, but I'll make sure to sign up then.

By the way, I especially love that mourning dove shot!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like fun doing this all winter. Definitely better than watching the dull skies. I'll ponder getting involved. Carol

Kelly said...

...I love Project Feeder Watch! Great post with lots of info...and fun photo of the little birdy tempers! We had our first Red-breasted Nuthatch ever (in ten years of watching) at our house last week, so that has to be a good sign. the first time ever in our yard, I saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet in the tree outside my kitchen window!! Wowsers...maybe this will be the year we finally get a siskin.

Meg said...

Great post, Heather. I love Citizen Science. I am quite hesitant to put up a feeder, though, because of LeRoy the cat. 'Nuff said.
On a better note, though, I saw black capped chickadees in our fields two nigths ago. They were feeding on the goldenrod seedheads, I think. I was so happy, since I know their numbers have declined due to disease...
The photo of the birdy tempers reminded me of my horses! They do the exact same thing! Fuss and bluster, then all's well and everyone is sharing.

Heather said...

Monika - That's great to hear! Another cool aspect of FeederWatch is that you can create multiple count sights. So, if you move back north before the count season ends, you can create a new count sight for your northern location. How far south are you moving? California-south?

Carol - Sounds good Carol. I think you would enjoy it!

Kelly - Ah, you finally got a GC Kinglet, too? That's so awesome! Sounds like it's a busy winter for them already!

Meg - I understand your hesitation due to LeRoy - sounds like the right decision. We don't encounter too many problems with the dog near our feeders, but sometimes window strikes turn into fatalities that might not have been fatalities otherwise. =sigh= Birdy temper tantrums at the feeders are so fun to capture with the camera, and depending on who the tantrum thrower is, they can go on for quite a while!

RuthieJ said...

Thanks Heather. I'm all ready to go for Project FeederWatch again this year too.