KEEPING WATCH
Wayne Benoit - Hanover, NH

The black-capped chickadee is a gregarious and inquisitive bird feeder presence.

The calendar may indicate we’ve just begun a new year, but the feeder-watching season is well underway. I’ve turned in eight weekly count reports to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s (COL)
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Project FeederWatch (PFW) with only twelve more opportunities remaining for the 2014-2015 season. It does go by quickly! Thus far, there is little out of the ordinary to report. I’ve tallied fourteen different species over the two-month period beginning November 12. Most of those have been what one might call “the usual suspects,” mourning doves, hairy and downy wood peckers, blue jays, American crows, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white and red-breasted nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos and American goldfinches. Keeping in mind the PFW rules – birds must be seen within the feeder area defined as the “count site.” actively involved in visiting, i.e., no fly-overs like Canada geese and observed within the count day period – the number of different species I can record will necessarily be limited. That means the common raven that regularly circles the woods up behind my house will not count unless it comes to the feeder. Similarly, a cooper’s hawk that appeared causing pandemonium and a fast, mass exit will not count either, because it did not do so during a count day. Just the same a few species of interest beyond the core visitors have been recorded. Those include a flock of will turkeys numbering eighteen individuals, two American tree sparrows (birds normally associated with this continent's northern reaches), and a red-tailed hawk that flew low through the count site creating havoc similar to the cooper hawk’s visit. It’s the species that are MIA season-to-date that are of keen interest to me. So far the finch variety has been disappointing based on possibility. To date no purple finches, no evening grosbeaks, no pine siskins and no common redpolls, all species that have been recorded in the count site within recent season. Also absent have been cedar waxwings and bohemian waxwings, although the latter’s presence has been limited to only two sightings within my ten-year count history on this site. It is possible some of these will yet appear during the count season. The recently concluded Christmas Bird Count and UV-Birders Listserv postings have recorded a few sighting of species on that “wish list” giving hope they yet may appear here. If the variety of species seen has been disappointing, the numbers of blue jays visiting has been nothing short of wondrous. I have had high counts in the past, once tallying 41 jays present at one time, but this year has been out of the ordinary. The average daily count has been consistently around twenty with a season high of 32 recorded on December 12. Then came yesterday. I happened to glance out the kitchen window and was astounded to see the feeder and its surrounding area teeming with blue jays. My first count came in with an improbable mid-50s! Could that be? Blue jays can be maddeningly difficult to count. They are very active, gliding in and darting out of the feeder area from all directions or perching in a tree one moment then dropping to the ground the next. I recounted with 55+/- resulting again. Grabbing my iPhone I tried to get some shots for documentation without spooking the flock, but at a distance of ten yards, the results were ambiguous. Was this a credible sighting? I sent news of the event with some pictures off to a few of my more experienced birding associates. Dr. Pamela Hunt of NH Audubon reported back that she had had a similar experience last weekend on the Laconia Christmas Bird Count recording more than 40 jays with a colleague and, remarkably, another count participant came up with 74! Pam said the birds were at a cluster of feeders placed along a forested border, conditions similar to mine. Might that combination of food and protective cover explain my high counts? Whatever the cause, it is quite a spectacle! Blue jays are beautiful birds, elegantly attired in plumage that combines muted blue-grays with bold, white striping. It has been a singular treat to observe so many interacting at such close range, but it comes at a cost. Blue jays are ravenous feeders, and I am going through sunflower seed and cracked corn at brisk rate. Oh, well. Some people spend hundreds of dollars on athletic events or the theater. I feed birds. To an avid birder such behavior is not “late breaking news.”              
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