"Happier of happy though I be, like them
I cannot take possession of the sky,
Mount with a thoughtless impulse and wheel there
One of a mighty multitude, who his way
And motion is a harmony and dance
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Purple Finch and House Finch.
Birdwatching lifts the spirit during winter doldrums, a seemingly innocuous antidote. What could be more mellifluous to the ear than the symphony of birds singing? Volunteering at New Jersey Audubon's Plainsboro Preserve on weekends this past winter was both satisfying and gratifyingly. Surprisingly, it yielded dual rewards. Not only was meaningful data provided about birds for scientific study, but the venue erupted into a social hotspot.
Project FeederWatch is a citizen science project sponsored by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. The project monitors birds visiting backyard feeders for bird research, which began in the 1970’s. Observations help both scientists and bird enthusiasts learn more about birds. Birds vary from place to place and year to year. FeederWatch is valuable to researchers studying the distribution and abundance of feeder birds. The data helps to assess impacts of competition, disease, climate and habitat change on wild birds.
Unquestionably a simple process, merely check off on a pre-printed form the number of birds observed at the feeder. Reported standardized counts of birds in backyards then establish the FeederWatch database from mid-November to early April. Rain, shine, snow, wind, cold – regardless of the weather conditions – birds refueled at the feeder station. Counting birds delivered real-time entertainment, a display of peculiar habits unique to each species often occurred. Identifying new species challenged even expert birders; ergo, the bird field guide remained within reach.
Acquaintances developed over the course of the winter at the Preserve, including Pat, a Sunday volunteer, cultivating like-minded interests. Special Olympics New Jersey unveiled the common bond between us. Briefly interrupted, a frenzy of emotions arose when an enormous flock of Cedar Waxwings descended out of the sky and alighted in the trees right in front of us.
A steady stream of visitors to the Center eagerly shared bird stories, their favorite birding locations in Central New Jersey and wildlife photos with us. A bulletin board displayed our observations for visitors to see, provoking stimulating conversation about the project. Awed by the excitement, anticipation built as observers, sitting on the edge of their seats with binoculars in hand, peered out the floor-to-ceiling windows along the entire wall of the Center facing the birdfeeders. Immediately engaged in the drama, some exclaimed when a new bird converged on the scene, “Who is that at the feeder?”, while others enthusiastically shouted out the bird species they saw. A large crowd of onlookers oohed and aahed one day as a pair of Bald Eagles soared in tandem across our field of vision, an exhilarating rare sight.
Unwelcome, uninvited guests, including squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks and raccoons, at times interrupted our count as they foraged for food. Capitalizing on the opportunity for a quick meal, both a Cooper's Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk swooped in on occasion, attracted by the large number of birds at the feeder.
Chickadee. White-breasted Nuthatch.
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker.
Breeding migrant birds generally depart our area for warmer southern climate by late Fall, leaving the year-round resident birds behind, including Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay and Mourning Dove. Resident birds quickly shared their territory, mingling with migrant birds from the north descending on New Jersey for milder winter weather, leaving their summer breeding grounds; i.e., Dark-eyed Junco, White-throated Sparrow, to name a few.
The Gray Catbird typically headed south with the others in the Fall, but for unknown reasons chose to hang around the Preserve. The mild winter favored him and he survived some harsh winter days. In past years, Gray Catbirds have nested at the Preserve, so hopefully, our winter guest established priority domain to attract a mate and nest on the Preserve as well.
As winter drew to a close, early migrants like the lone Fox Sparrow, headed back to northern breeding grounds after the last snow.
Dark-eyed Juncos, usually in large droves at the feeder during frigid winter days, responded to their internal clock joining other northbound flocks. Their timely departure always indicates that Spring has arrived, clearly welcomed by New Jerseyans after a cold, snowy winter.
The warmer weather falsely triggered everything in motion - early Spring blooms peeked out of the ground; resident birds rehearsed their best song as they staked out their territory calling for a mate; and male American Goldfinch molted into their bright yellow summer plumage.
Male Red-winged Blackbird.
A little ahead of schedule, an early Spring migrant made an unexpected appearance - the Eastern Phoebe - traveling up from its southern winter territory, stopping in New Jersey almost certain to locate a mate, breed, and raise a family before returning south in the Fall. Red-winged Blackbirds blew in on a thermal air current in abundance, sometimes too many to count. The unseasonably cold weather impacted spring bird migration this year to a large extent, not knowing which species to expect and when. The unpredictability made it all the more exciting - Surprise! Surprise!
Female House Sparrow.
The Project FeederWatch season ended in early April with impressive results. Approximately 60 bird species were observed at the Plainsboro Preserve feeder station by a host of volunteers during the five winter months. Check lists submitted totaled 28 to complete the 2015/2016 season project.
Volunteers can proudly sing their praises for their contribution to Project FeederWatch in the name of science. The 2016/2017 season awaits starting in the Fall, evolving with Bird Behavior as a new feature of the project, unraveling the wonderment of nature.
Male Downey Woodpecker.
"Hear! Hear" screamed the Jay from a neighboring tree, where I had heard a tittering for some time, "winter has a concentrated and nutty kernel, if you know where to look for it." - Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).