Once Christmas was over, though, that was it. I had some new toys to play with, but winter would drag on without much new to look at, and those toy catalogs were gone from my mind by December 26th.
Now, as a grown-up kid, I have a hobby that takes the place of poring over those pages and pages of toys. And it lasts way beyond the holiday season - in fact, it lasts almost until spring! I'm talking about Project FeederWatch, the Cornell Lab or Ornithology citizen science project that got me hooked on birding. This winter marks my 6th season of watching and counting birds and reporting my findings to the Lab. It's so much fun, and it really gives me something to look forward to in the winter. I'm quite prone to the winter "blahs," so having this incentive to look out the window and interact with the natural world is really a wonderful thing.
FeederWatching can be addictive, and may cause you to spend hours watching your feeders. If you're not careful, you might burn a dinner or two because you're otherwise occupied watching the fighting going on between the Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches on the thistle feeder. (Not that I would know anything about birds distracting me from cooking!)
A rare moment when Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches are eating quietly side by side. How many of each bird can you find in this picture?
FeederWatching is easy. Just pick 2 consecutive days out of the week that are convenient for you, and count for as long as you are able. Wait at least 5 days, and then count again for 2 more consecutive days. Lather, rinse and repeat from now until April 8, 2011, reporting your observations to Cornell along the way. My counting schedule is always a 1-2 punch of Saturday and Sunday, simply because those are the 2 days per week when I can spend the greatest number of daylight hours watching my feeders.
This winter I expect to see old friends for sure, and hopefully a few new ones, too. All of our 3 common woodpecker species (Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied) were accounted for this past weekend, and the two common "flocking" species at our feeders (Mourning Dove and American Goldfinch) came out with relatively strong numbers.
The Winter Finch Forecast by Ron Pittaway (hosted on eBird) has given me some idea of specific finch species to look for. One species I could expect to see this winter that I haven't seen before is the Common Redpoll. This would not only be a new feeder bird, but a life bird, as well. According to Pittaway's article, Common Redpolls could "irrupt" (defined as: to increase rapidly and irregularly in number) into the northern U.S. this year for 2 reasons: their food source in northern Canada is scarce this year, and it was an exceptionally good breeding year for the species, with double- and triple-broods reported in parts of Canada, so competition for food will be even greater than usual. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for this species! BULLETIN: I was just alerted to a map on RareBird.org that is tracking the movements of certain species, such as the Common Redpoll, into Ohio for the 2010-2011 winter season, and they have already been spotted in some of the northern-most counties. (Thanks for the tip, Jim!)
Another finch species of interest is the Purple Finch, which is also expected to be plentiful in the northern U.S. this winter, again because their major food source up north is not in great supply. I don't usually see them until late December or January, if they show up at my feeders at all, but I spotted a male Purple Finch dining on sunflower seeds at my feeder a little over a week ago, which is super early for me. I hope he comes back soon so I can count him for FeederWatch.
I am now confident that I will be seeing Pine Siskins at the feeders this winter. My first encounter with this species was during the 2008-2009 FeederWatch season, but they were not present during last season's count. Even though Pittaway's article doesn't predict them coming down into the northern U.S. (food sources up north are excellent), I have heard "chatter" suggesting that they are already working their way into Ohio for the season. The above-mentioned map on RareBird.org shows that they are already farther south by this point in November than they were for the entire season in 2009-2010. Apparently they have been spotted in Athens county already. So riddle me this: If their food source is abundant up in Canada, what could possibly make them want to come down this way for the winter? Hmmmmm...
"Hey, Heather says she's got plenty of thistle and black-oil sunflower seeds at her place! Maybe we should go see her!"
"What's that, you say? Party at Heather's? Well, I'll get my sassy little self right on over there!"
So if you are looking for something cool and fun to do this winter, something that will engage you with life right outside your door, consider counting birds and contributing valuable data as a citizen scientist.
This Tufted Titmouse says, "We will stand and be counted!"