It's the time of year when I switch from being unable to keep my eyes (and camera) off foliage, flowers, and insects to the time of year when I obsess over my bird feeders. Indeed, sometimes I think that I almost prefer wintertime, with its stark silhouettes of trees and bushes highlighted against sky or grasses, its long vistas, and the constant color and movement of the birds in and around our home, to the lusher, more overwhelming and stickier summertime.
Off and on for about 20 years, I have participated in Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch. This is a citizen science project that relies on folks who feed birds in their yards to watch those feeders for two consecutive days every two weeks, then report back about what birds they are seeing and in what numbers. The Project FeederWatch folks then track large scale bird population patterns from year to year.
It's not a rigid thing to participate in observing your feeders for Project FeederWatch - you can miss weeks, if necessary, while you are away on vacation. You report the approximate amount of time that you watched during each watch period, so that if you're quite busy one morning, you simply note that you weren't able to put in any time watching at that time. Since your data is being combined with observations from many, many other bird feeders in your area, the individual variations in observation time cancel each other out. Best of all, in my opinion, you can now enter your data directly online - my weakest link was always the juncture between writing down my observations and getting them into the mail and back to Cornell.
Along with online data entry, FeederWatch now allows you to enter data for weekly observations, so I've taken to watching my feeders every Monday and Tuesday...when I'm home and have the time. It continually amazes me how much more I observe when I have a set time and a reason to keep my eyes turned feeder-ward.
One year I saw red crossbills in my yard for a day or two. These are northern birds whose uniquely shaped bills are used to pry open pine cones to eat the seeds. By watching my feeders, I'm much more aware of irruption years in the northern bird populations, years where weather conditions have decreased food supplies up north and pushed the resident birds there farther south than normal to forage for food during the winter.
Along with spotting occasional visitors to my feeders, I'm also much more likely to see the resident Cooper's hawk or sharp-shinned hawk swooping through when I'm watching my feeders purposefully. Sometimes I even get to see one of them feeding!
Besides being more likely to observe more uncommon species of birds - or common birds that appear infrequently, unusual plumage or interesting behavior, I love the chorus of bird calls that I can hear faintly through the windows from all the birds attracted to my feeders. Even better is that same chorus heard loudly every time I step outdoors. Obviously the bird song isn't related to whether I participate in FeederWatch or not, but I do think it's more persistent and "multicultural" because of the feeders that I have up.
That said, I don't think that bird feeding really changes the species that winter around here. I do, however, think that it brings the birds closer to where I can observe them frequently and comfortably from inside, increasing their activity in and around the house itself.
All in all, participating in Project FeederWatch is a very satisfying wintertime activity for me. While I'm deepening my connection to my surroundings (and getting quite a bit of entertainment), I'm also getting the satisfaction of joining thousands of other bird feeders around the country to monitor certain bird populations around the country. It's a win-win-win situation for me!