Every spring, Cornell University Lab of Ornithology sponsors something called the Great Backyard Bird Count. It is very easy to participate and loads of fun. I have been a bird watcher since I could see out of my eyes. >=< When I was a wee bairn, our family was traveling down a country road. I pointed up at a big bird circling above a field and shouted, "Look, a CORK, A CORK!" Someone corrected me, and said it was a Hawk, not a cork. Then I remember feeling very silly, but also a little mad that noone had corrected me sooner. Maybe folks around me had not been using proper diction or not listen to me...Harumph!!! I was then determined to get to know the proper names of birds and I have been paying close attention ever since.
But back to the Bird Count. Here is the link to the site that will give you all the information.
When you go there, you can register and type in your zip-code. It will print out a list of the birds you will most likely see in your area. For most unfamiliar birds, you will find that the names are highlighted. This indicates that they are links to detailed information about the bird, its song, nesting and mating habits, food preferences, etc.
The count only requires that twice during the day you take 15 minutes and count birds in a particular location. Count all the birds of each variety (careful not to count the same bird twice). I found that doing my bird counts while walking my dog, a perfect solution. I know where all the birds hang out on my regular dog walking loop. Last year the "GBBC" happened to fall on the weekend when the Robins returned to North Carolina. I have never seen so many Robins. First I saw a small group hunting for worms, and so started counting. I just kept counting and counting as I went, peeking behind me to be sure they had not jumped ahead. Indeed, they had not. I think on my15 minute walk I spotted over 55 Robins, plus several varieties of Woodpeckers, Mockingbirds, Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Brown-capped Nut-hatches, Black-capped Nut-hatches, several Eastern Bluebirds and a flock of American Goldfinches (still greenish-brown from winter's chill). On my second walk of the day I saw a Carolina Wren, Song Sparrows, Cardinals, House Finches, Canadian Geese and many more.
Over the course of the year I have spotted some new birds and also others just traveling through on migration; an Egret, a small Kingfisher, a Cormorant, Swans and a Pelican. Which reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Edward Lear. "A curious bird is a Pelican. His beak can hold more than his Belly can."
As regular friends we have a family of glorious Red-tailed Hawks that nest and hunt in the area, as well as several families of Killdeer. When I first met the Killdeer I felt like I was in an episode of National Geographic. If they are nesting, one parent will stay with the eggs while the other parent will fly in front of the intruder pretending to be injured. The bird will flop on the ground and look as if it's wing is broken, struggling to escape. Thus the enemy (me) is lured farther and farther away from the nest. When the bird feels you are sufficiently lost and distracted, suddenly they will recover and fly away. It is brilliant. Not an acting lesson in their lives, and yet they know how to put on a marvelous show.
I keep a list of bird sightings in the front cover of my bird identification book. If it is a particularly unusual bird I list specific times, places and dates and often the sex of the bird in question. As a habit I do not used binoculars to do my bird watching, just my wonderful eyes. But I will admit that the few times I have taken a pair of binoculars with me I have gotten some spectacular views. It is totally a personal thing. They really come in handy when I hear a call or song and cannot identify the bird (and for the life of me, I cannot see where it is coming from). This has driven me mad with curiosity and I'm sure several passers-by also wonder what the heck has me staring intently into the woods. By this method, I discovered the Flicker, a large and striking Woodpecker
and the teeny. illusive Yellow-rumped Warbler (I know, a very silly name).
I keep a simple feeding station in my back yard to attract as big a variety of birds as possible. I have one feeder with just a mix of cheap birdseed (which is mostly millet), with a scoop of "Not so cheap" birdseed, plus a scoop of plain black sunflower seed. This feeder is hooked onto a great product called a "Twirl a Squirrel". When big birds try to hog the feeder, or squirrels hang off of it, it begins to spin. Then it spins faster and faster. It is quite hilarious. Mostly the squirrels leave me alone now. If they start coming back, I know it's time to change the batteries.
Besides this feeder, I keep a special feeder just for finches and other very small birds, filled with black thistle seed (or niger seed).
I also have one suet feeder. Here is the trick to using a suet feeder. NEVER hang it on the flimsy little chain they sell it with. The squirrels will have it down in an hour and carry it off into the woods (as I have discovered!). Get a heavy gauge wire, or even better a metal hanger from an old bird feeder. I also do NOT use suet. It is way too expensive. I get cheap bread (or use old bread from around my house). Get a big jar of generic crunchy peanut butter and spread it on both pieces. Now make a birdseed sandwich. Yum Yum. I also spread peanut butter on the outside and lay it on a paper plate of seed and press it down. So now it is totally covered inside and out with peanut butter and seeds. The woodpeckers of all varieties love this concoction. So do all the birds. Plus it is super cheap, costing mere cents rather that dollars for each suet cake. And don't forget you can also stick other things in the suet feeder. If we have left over apples and oranges that will go uneaten, I cut them in half and put them in the suet feeder. Many birds are especially attracted to fruit.
So please join me for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Hope to see you out in your backyard (or backwoods) this weekend counting birds and generally enjoying yourself. (those of you who can get out your back doors, that is- I do realize that a good deal of the US has been snowed in!)