Project Feederwatch

Being home with the children has given me an opportunity to do something I did not realize was such an enjoyment: bird watching. It started with us putting up a small feeder in our front yard. Our daughter and I would enjoy watching the birds eat in the early afternoons. We soon put a second feeder in our backyard, conveniently located behind our dining room window so we easily watch our bird visitors throughout the day. Just recently, I started to read about Project Feederwatch, a Citizen Science program through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I had previously requested their Urban Birds data collection packet, but this was during the time of our relocation and getting ready for the baby and so unfortunately we did not find an opportunity this summer to do this. But I decided that since we get so much enjoyment from watching the birds who visit our yard, we could participate in Project Feederwatch this season, as this would be a great Nature Study to incorporate into our homeschool lessons.

The project is simple: people have their location that they feed and watch the birds on their property. The data collection season goes from November 12th through the end of April 2012. Participants should observe two sequential days every week or two, and have the option to report on the website (the preferred method) or sending in paper reports at the end of the season. Species at the count site are observed and counted over the two day period, and the highest number observed at one time is the number recorded for that species for that particular count period. Participation helps scientists observe bird winter migration patterns across the country and in Canada.

There is a small fee to participate ($15), and this provides a calendar, and some birding tips, bird identification posters, and information on feeding birds. We are novices at this, so the material has been quite helpful. The only species I could identify before we started was the plainly obvious Northern Cardinal, of which we see a couple of males and females. We also have a slew of small brown birds that I realized were house sparrows, which apparently are the bane of bird people nationwide because they are so prolific, and crowd out native species, like blue birds. They tend to crowd my feeder so I am exploring some ways to feed them away from the main feeder to keep the other species I get happy. We also get three (at least) Tufted Titmice and I have seen a single Goldfinch, a single Eastern Towhee (or at least that’s what I think it is) and a few White crowned Sparrows. We get a fair amount of Mourning Doves and the Grackles here are RIDICULOUS! And so noisy! I typically just grouped all the black birds I saw into one group until I really started watching them this past week. This is when I realized that while most of the black birds that we see are the Grackles, there are a couple of smaller black birds too – and they are not a solid black but rather a black body with a brownish-greenish head and chest. The best I can figure, these would be Brown-headed Cowbirds – so that’s what they are getting listed as. I will continue to tweak our feeder setup, hopefully draw away the House Sparrows to keep my other birds happy, and see if I can get some more unusual visitors. We plan on counting each week if possible, so I will have a counter on my main page throughout the months of November through April 2012.

Please check out Project Feederwatch and the other wonderful resources available from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Our backyard setup. Hopper feeder with Songbird food mix – mostly black sunflower seeds with some other feed mixed it. A tube feeder with thistle – so far I’ve only seen one Goldfinch visitor. I also have two small dishes near the ground that I fill with water daily for the birds. With our drought they are most appreciative! This is a great location because it is under two Live Oaks, and next to my fence and my neighbor’s smaller trees. Also, the ground under the feeders has tall grass for shelter so they feel secure. We also have a small brushpile near my composter that the birds enjoy. In the drier weather they enjoy using the dirt in my planter boxes for their dust baths.

One of the mourning doves perching in my tree. We get several of these – both larger ones seen here, and smaller ones that are similar in size to the Cardinals.

A Northern Cardinal and House Sparrow in the smaller tree against my fence. There are four or five of these trees against my fence, and this is the main congregating area for the birds. They spend most of their time in my Live Oaks or these smaller trees.

Our property backs up to a Greenbelt so there can be no development behind us. All there is to see is Texas scrubland. We usually get cows grazing a couple days a week, and deer on occasion. We were lucky to see this deer mama and youngster feeding just behind our fence. While I was photographing, one of our resident Cardinals was on the fence for a photo op!

The Great Outdoors

Since natural living is something we strive for here, one thing that I had hoped to become part of our homeschooling core was extended outdoor time. While at Keeber’s age (almost 5) and with a baby in tow, I wasn’t expecting to do hardcore nature hikes, I did want us spending time outside playing, exploring, just “being”. I’ve been kind of upset with myself because of how little time we have spent outside over the summer. There were no daily morning walks around the neighborhood or gardening in the front or back yard. These might have occurred once a week or once every two weeks. We did strive to do Park Day every week but that was just playing on a playground, which is great but not quite what I had in mind. In the past several weeks though, I’ve felt a lot better about things and have come to some realizations. Okay perhaps not realizations as these things were quite obvious, but mommy guilt tends to make us dismiss the obvious and go straight for self-blame. Or maybe that’s just me… In any case, we have been in a severe drought this summer, and its been HOT! We have had weeklong stretches of triple digit temperatures, and many mornings it was uncomfortable before 10 AM. We would often get outside to water our plants first thing in the morning, but had little time for anything else before it got too hot for us.

In the last several weeks, however, we have had much cooler weather around here, and I am finding that we spend A LOT more time outdoors. We will spend most of a Saturday in our backyard doing yard work and other projects. Keeber and I spend much of our mornings watching the birds from our back window – we have set up a bird area with feeders, shallow water baths, and an as yet unoccupied birdhouse that she painted. Often when we are home, she will head out back with the dogs to just explore the yard, dig in the garden beds, make mud and collect acorns or rocks. She loves playing in the dirt! The extended outdoor time we have had recently has really put my mind at ease over whether we were getting the outdoor experience I had desired. I came to realize that with the heat here in south Texas, I might have to accept that summer is not our season for lots of outdoor activities. We can get some things done in the morning, but (especially) with a baby, our window for outdoor pursuits is quite limited in the hottest part of the summer.

I think that I will take advantage of our extended seasons here – it warms up here earlier so our spring really gets a head start, and stays warmer (but not too warm!) longer. Even now in early November the weather is just amazing. Sixties and seventies during the day but still crisp fall weather at night. Today we sat on our front porch and enjoyed some much-needed rain. She drew with chalk on the front porch and picked some of our flowers (!). This is more like what I had envisioned for us. She is my rough and tumble, dirt-loving princess and it’s WONDERFUL!

A girl, her dogs, and her shovel. She LOVES to just go outside and dig! We got her child-sized gardening tools (rather than plastic toy versions) and she loves them!

Keeber and one of our dogs harrassing a beetle. Actually I think it was the dog who was doing the harrassing, she was just enthralled because it was a giant black and white beetle that she had never seen before. She is currently facinated with dung beetles…

Our resident squirrel. We are getting to know our “usual” visitors and this little guy has been around since we first moved here in the spring. He LOVES to taunt our dog from the power lines! We have been watching him over the last week or so kick his food foraging into high gear.

Part of our bird area set up outside our back window. We have a simple feeder with Songbird feed that the birds love. Not pictured are the tube feeder with thistle, which the birds really haven’t taken an interest in yet, and my daughter’s birdhouse. We are feeding A LOT of birds! This area is under our live oaks, and next to our fence, which is right next to our neighbors small trees. This makes this little nook we set up PERFECT for the birds because they congregate in the neighbor’s small trees, the branches of the live oaks (pictured) and on the fence. We usually have twenty or so House Sparrows, ten or more mourning doves, two tufted titmice, and four cardinals at our feeders. We also get a gang of grackles in our yard. We are getting to know our birds! They now love to explore the entire yard. We also have an identical feeder in our frontyard. We will be taking part in Project Feederwatch this year (more about this in another post…).

Keeber doing leaf prints at Growing Up Wild. I attended a workshop on a wonderful curriculum called Growing Up Wild when I first moved here, and several of the moms in our homeschool group did as well. We are getting together monthly and working through the activities in the (very extensive) curriculum guide. This month we did LEAVES! I’ll be doing an in-depth post about Growing Up Wild soon, as we have really had a great time with it!