Project FeederWatch starts each year at the beginning of November, while a few leaves still linger on trees and temperatures have yet to merit the adjective "extreme". It's Goldilocks time - not too hot, not too cold. Natural foods are still in supply and have yet to be sealed off by a winter coat of snow or ice. And we're still enjoying nearly 9-1/2 hours of daylight for the birds to forage.
Starting a bird count now lets you ease into the bird counting process for the season. The number of birds that appear during my first counts are never high, once as low as only 32 individual birds and on average, only 48 individuals. That's quite a bit lower than the 70 birds seen on average during the length of a season.
These early counts sometimes include a migrant or two, like Fox Sparrows or Red-winged Blackbirds. But this year, my blackbirds and native sparrows are long gone, well on their way to their winter homes. I did have a couple Purple Finches pass through to be counted. Purplies nest in my area, but the resident birds left long ago. These two were sure to have been migrating birds, heading perhaps just a little bit further south and to a lower elevation.
My hopes for the day were to have a Red-bellied Woodpecker show up to be counted. One returned to the yard earlier in the month; now she just needed to show up on a count day. And late on day one, she did and she also returned the second count day as well. This is the first time a red-bellied has shown up this early in the fall. Years ago, I didn't see them at all, and now they seem to be establishing themselves as a fall and winter visitor.
My count ended up being a little better than typical, with 13 species and 62 individual birds seen, not counting the 2 overhead Common Ravens.
Have I found that the first count foretells what the whole season will bring? No, I don't think so. The big unknown is the unpredictability of the winter finches. Word has it that huge flocks of Common Redpolls are on the move in Quebec along the St. Lawrence River, about 500 miles northeast of me. If they show up, all bets are off and bird numbers and counts can soar.
It also seems to me that we had a very good chickadee/nuthatch/tuftie breeding year and that our winter flocks should be large and busy this season. My most desired bird for the count? A return of some Evening Grosbeaks. It's been a couple years since they visited and I'd sure love to have them stop through. I'll let you know if they do.
If you participate in Project FeederWatch, I'd love to hear what you experienced during your first count. If you don't participate, I hope you'll consider joining and help add to the data about some of our most common birds. Find out more at feederwatch.org