Don’t call the Police, We’re just counting Birds!

Quick! How many turkeys do you see?

Quick! How many turkeys do you see? (answer below)

We are part of Project Feederwatch which is operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Sounds fancy, but basically from November to April we just count all of the birds that visit our backyard feeders. We spend two days counting every week leaving five days when we don’t count in between. Got that?  We don’t spend 48 hours staring at the feeders, its a spot check thing and we count how many of each kind of bird we see at one time. We have 15 feeding stations so it sometimes takes both of us calling from different sides of the house. “I’ve got four juncos and 10 pine siskins over here”, while Curt is calling out 2 juncos and 15 pine siskins on his side. So 6 juncos and 25 siskins get put on the list. We were doing that this past Saturday and Sunday.

To make this weekend even crazier, Sunday was our CBC day, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. We are assigned approximately 4 square miles to cover over a 24 hour period. That includes our household feeders but it also means we have to hit the road with our binoculars and see what we can see or in the case of owls, hear what we can hear. And hitting the road means creeping along the road, periodically pulling on to the shoulder while frustrated pickup drivers blast past us. Or stopping in front of houses and peering, with our binoculars, at feeders in yards while the residents look at us out of their windows probably contemplating a call to the authorities. We do have “Christmas Bird Count Volunteer” signs in our car windows but that probably doesn’t mean anything to people.

The day started out foggy, drizzly and in the 40’s. Curt tried to call down some owls just before dawn but had no luck. Even action at our feeders was slow, the birds were hunkered down waiting for the rain and fog to lift. Around 10am we headed out on our first search.

Dreary start to the day

Dreary start to the day

We found about 3 dozen bedraggled pigeons (rock dove), a couple of crows, a bunch of mourning doves and house sparrows. Best sighting of that trip was five red-tail hawks but we figured once the fog lifted it would get busy. All those hunkered down birds would be hungry. That first trip took about 90 minutes. Time for lunch.

Our next trip began at 1pm and it was much better. We saw turkeys (see the photo at top of the post). There are 17 in that picture but we saw 24 total. You have the luxury of looking at a still picture, in the field these guys are about 200 yards away and they are moving. The extra 7 were to the left and heading behind some tree snags as I took this shot. Around the next bend we found the starling mother-lode.


Those are not leaves on those trees, those are starlings. Way at the top of the picture you can see a line of birds on the wire, this extends out of the picture and continues to the other side of the road, behind us. Obviously we estimate in this case, it’s tough to count every one. But on this wire alone I can count 45. Our total estimate: 1000 birds (some, nervous about us stopping, had taken wing by the time we could take the picture).birds on wireOn the remainder of this trip we saw a bald eagle, cardinals, juncos, kestrels and a variety of woodpeckers. Our last trip into the field was around 3:30pm and it was already getting dark. We figured we wouldn’t be seeing anymore birds when, as the light was failing, two big strings of Canada geese, coming in for the night, flew over our car. Nice finish to a day that started out so dreary.


How many geese do you see? We estimated 75. Jeanne actually counted the dots in the photo – 82 – pretty close for poor lighting and the birds moving away from us!

Finally, I did go out in the evening with the iPad and played owl calls hoping to get a great-horned owl to respond….all I got was barking dogs. Better luck next time.


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