Near & Dear to Our Hearts

While I am clicking away at the last 100grams of top secret project yarn, I thought I would share something today completely unrelated to knitting & spinning & fiber. It is a subject near & dear to my family’s heart: birdwatching. Much like knitting, when I  tell someone I am into birdwatching they tend to look me up & down and I can see their mind trying to work out how someone like me is really into birdwatching, or ‘birding’ as we call it. It’s true though — and not a recent development indicating that I’m getting older either.  For as long as I can remember, my parents have always had feeders on their property and I always admired the birds. At the same time, I was never great with the identification and I really never thought much about learning more beyond that they are pretty and sound nice.

Fast forward into my early 20s when I met my husband. He had grown up actively birdwatching. My husband’s parents tell stories of birdwatching on their first dates and eventually they passed this love of birds on to their children. When I met my husband his interest had actually developed into a career as he was working as the director of operations for an optics company that specialized in birding binoculars and spotting scopes. History repeated itself as we started dating — it was the heart of spring migration, so our first dates involved trekking through local preserves for a glimpse of birds that were arriving from the South. Around the time we married, we purchased a Martin house for my in-law’s yard. Since my husband’s name is Martin, they now refer to to the occupants of this house as Martins and Sarahs. Every year they tell us when the Martins and Sarahs return for the summer. In this way, birds continue to be something that bonds us — something in common we all enjoy. Near & dear to our hearts, indeed!

Beyond the personal connection birding grants me with special people in my life, what I discovered from birding with my husband is that it isn’t just about identifying birds. If you understand the birds around you, you automatically learn a ton about the natural world. Different birds require different habitat, food, & environmental conditions. Since seeing birds is generally at the top of the to-do list of someone out birding, you get pretty good at recognizing where which birds will be, when they’ll be there, and why. For example,  I quickly learned that if you go out looking for warblers (small, colorful migrants that pass through our area in spring & fall — not the club from the Dalton Academy on Glee), the earlier you go in the morning, the higher up in the trees you have to look. The sun warms the tree tops first which gets the insects moving. Warblers eat insects. You can literally watch the day wake the forest while watching warblers, they slowly descend lower & lower through the trees as the sun rises higher & higher in the sky. I learned to seek out chickadees because they are loud, easy to identify and where there are chickadees, there are almost always other birds. There are million little nuances that you may never have considered that suddenly make complete sense when viewed through the lens of bird watching.

Obviously, birding is something we wanted to pass on to our children. From an early age, our kids have always had binoculars and we have talked about the birds we are looking at. This year, my son being 7 and daughter 5, we decided to take a stab and getting them to successfully identify birds on their own. My husband brought up our joining The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch as a way to get the kids involved. In the words of its website:

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

For a $15 sign-up fee, you get a Research Kit which includes instructions, a subscription to their newsletter, tally sheets, a resource guide for birdfeeding — basically everything you need to participate. All you have to provide is one feeder and a bit of time to observe the birds attending your feeder — you can do so as little or much as you like — it’s totally up to you (see the FAQs for more info, they do a great job of explaining!)! We are lucky enough to have landscaped our yard here & there to attract birds and we stock multiple feeders, but you can start with a single feeder in a courtyard or outside your window. What’s great is that you can make it as big or little as you want. You can also observe for a long time or just short intervals. Like I said, it is what you make it — just fair warning that it is kind of addictive!

For us, this year has been very rewarding. We went from basically having lots of English House Sparrows to drawing in a large variety of birds — some days we see up to 10 – 12 different species. It is especially exciting considering we live in town and have a pretty small outdoor space to watch — just by consistently filling the feeders and offering the proper types of food for the time of year we have been able to expand the variety of birds we can see from our front window. It is just very, very cool — I never know what might birds I might see in my yard!

Most rewarding has been the impact this experiment has had on the kids, though. My son has just blossomed as a birdwatcher through our participation in Project FeederWatch. Using the identification poster provided & the close proximity and ease of viewing the feeders provide, I have been able to help my son easily learn what birds he sees. He is most proud that he can tell the difference between the male & female Downy Woodpecker (both visit our suet feeders daily) as well as the little arctic ground feeders, Dark-Eyed Juncos.He likes that they have counter-shading that help camouflage them, just like a Great White Shark.

One day, my son ran up to me in the kitchen exclaiming there was a big bird with a curved beak in the bush just outside our window. I slowly walked up to the window and not 2feet from me was a Cooper’s Hawk, a bird that preys on other birds. Clearly he got the memo that our feeders were growing as a hot spot! Commonly referred to by us as ‘Sheldon’ (named for ‘Sheldon Cooper‘ — we’ve been enjoying watching The Big Bang Theory lately), it seems this hawk has a lady friend in the neighborhood, too. We call her Sue (for the Invisible Woman, Sue Storm…. we thought Sheldon would appreciate that). We see at least one of them daily, usually peering into our yard from one of the larger trees across the street. In fact, I can see Sheldon right now as I type!

I thought I would write about this today because while reading my newsletter this morning I noticed a special offer. Anyone joining between now & March 1 will be enrolled for the remainder of the season — ending April 5 — as well as the entire 2013-14 season for the single $15 sign-up fee — click here for a link to the sign-up page. As I said before, your commitment can be large or small-scale — it is totally up to you. By sending in your bird counts, you will learn about the environment around you as well as provide important information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology regarding bird habits and population. I even believe that repeat participants can even view past records of their space to compare to their current records.

If you aren’t interested in participating in the project, still hop over and check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. They have a wealth of information over there — it is really incredible!

Teachers, check out this link for information on an educational program for elementary grades. According to what I read, is was developed as a program to help educators “teach science concepts through lessons and activities about wild birds.” The site has links to downloadable free activities as well as free (or very inexpensive) bird feeders, lesson plans, and information for teachers.project feederwatchHappy Birding!