Friday, February 4, 2011


            In his poem “Alec,” John Ciardi remembers learning about birds from his Uncle Alec (né Alessio). “’God,’ he would say// ‘sends birds, not calendars.’”

            Anybody with a backyard birdfeeder knows Uncle Alec is right.

Kathy's workspace
            Because my actual desk is buried under piles of papers and the printer and partially completed projects and the books I need close at hand when I’m writing, the kitchen table is where I work. (Tim says I tend to take over every flat surface in the house, except his studio, where my stuff only consumes about 30% of the available space. Maybe 40%, if you count the closet. It’s why we moved my desk to the kitchen in the first place—painters need room.) Anyway, when not consumed by throes of creativity at the kitchen table, I look out the faux French doors across the screened porch to the back garden. The formal dwarf yaupon and the out-of-control eleagnus hedges, the Confederate-jasmine-covered arbor and parts of a Leyland cypress, a southern crabapple (Malus angustifolius, in case you were wondering) and the ‘Muskogee’ crape myrtle dominate the view. Those plants, and the birds.

The view from Kathy's workspace
            Families of northern cardinals, northern mockingbirds, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, brown thrashers, mourning doves and blue jays give our yard—and the blessedly undeveloped lots next door—as their permanent addresses. It’s not unusual to spot downy, hairy, red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers. Sometimes a pileated drops in to sample the suet as well. In the winter, they are joined by transient dark-eyed juncos, red-breasted nuthatches, and the occasional flash of goldfinch and cedar waxwing. Our neighborhood is too built up for eastern bluebirds’ taste, but where the land is open, they’re there. On the beach, seagulls, sandpipers, willets, pelicans and cormorants take in stride the annual winter invasion of royal terns at Blue Water Point. In the salt marshes, several species of herons and egrets poke about for frogs, fish and fiddler crabs. Grackles hover in mobs in McDonald’s parking lot, begging for scraps, and killdeer cheat death by nesting in graveled driveways and roads.
Red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and the occasional bald eagle and osprey survey the scene from atop utility poles or glide in lazy circles through Carolina blue skies. I know screech, great horned and barred owls live here too, although I’ve only seen barred ones. (Those sightings were traumatic for all concerned. In two separate mid-afternoon highway incidents during one horrible week in the fall of 2007, our truck was dive-bombed by barred owls: the truck emerged victorious both times.) Homely but useful turkey buzzards clean up carcasses left by cats and cars.

Tufted titmouse in the
'Muskogee' crape mrytle
Twice a day—once as we leave the island and again on our way back home—Tim and I look for “our” kingfisher on the electrical, phone and cable wires strung across the Intracoastal Waterway parallel to the Oak Island Bridge. He and the wife arrive when temperatures start to cool in the fall. We know it’s January when the white ibises show up to peck away on local golf courses, hard on the heels of visiting northward-bound robins. In early February, the red-wing blackbirds arrive in flocks of thousands, filling swampy places with chittering gossip about which backyards have the fullest feeders. In late February, the Carolina wrens and house finches come back from wherever they disappeared to in November. By mid-April, the kingfishers have flown north, leaving the summertime wires bereft.

Northern mockingbird
defending his berries
in the weeping yaupon holly

I catalogued all our local avian friends for you because North America’s Great Backyard Bird Count is being held this year from Friday, February 18 through Monday, February 21. The purpose is to provide a continent-wide snapshot of just which birds are where and in what numbers. Participation requirements are fluid: the minimum is a single 15-minute stint of feeder-watching over the four-day period. Conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the family-friendly Count welcomes data from everyone—no birding chops necessary.

If you’ve got a birdfeeder in your yard, keep it filled that weekend and record who shows up to eat. I figure I might as well join in: I already spend a lot of time staring out at the backyard.

For more information about rules, data submission and bird-identification help, go to GBBC’s website at 
                                            * * *
            When I mentioned to Tim I planned to write about phenology projects, he looked puzzled. “Isn’t that the study of head bumps?” he asked.

            No, phenology is the study of plant and animal life-cycle events—first leaf, first flower, seed set, and so on. Scientists use phenologic observations to track global climate-change trends; to monitor drought and wildfire risks and the health of ecosystems; and to identify and keep tabs on invasive species, infectious diseases and pests. The task is enormous, and they need our help.

            In 2010, I signed up to participate in two citizen-scientist endeavors. One worked out, the other didn’t. Thumbnail sketches of these public-supported phenology projects reveal how you can add to databases vital to understanding climatological changes so that we may learn to adapt to them… before it’s too late.

National Phenology Network
Nature's Notebook
data collection sheet
      The USA National Phenology Network. A collaboration between federal agencies, environmental networks, universities and the public, NPN monitors the impact of climate change on plants and animals in the U.S. through compilation of widespread phenophase observations. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to choose one or more plants or animals for which you record and submit phenologic data. I chose the native maypop, Passiflora incarnata, because I had three large specimens close to hand (regular participation is enhanced if you make things convenient for yourself). The NPN’s Nature’s Notebook datasheet makes recording and submitting observations easy. The official website at tells you all you need to know to get started.

The Great Sunflower Project
data collection sheet
      The Great Sunflower Project. Here’s a chance to pay attention to the pollinators flitting around your yard. The mission of the Project is to create a map of which bees live where in rural, urban and suburban areas of the U.S. With the future of European honeybees in North America in some doubt, native pollinators like bumblebees and carpenter bees have suddenly come into the limelight. Participants grow bee-magnet ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflowers from seeds. Why only ‘Lemon Queen’? To ensure standardized results, of course. (“Bee” sure to order the annual species, please, not the perennial. Although marketed as easy to grow, mine never quite took off. I shall try again this year.) Take your morning coffee, datasheet, pencil and camera out to the sunflower patch, and settle in to observe any apians who visit your flowers during 15 consecutive minutes. Repeat two to four times a week. (Hint: plant the sunflowers where you’ll be reminded they’re there. Some of us aren’t at the top of our games at morning-coffee time.) The website helps you identify some of the more common native pollinators, and offers a great deal of information about phenology in general. Learn more at

If these activities whet your appetite for involvement in backyard citizen-scientist projects, there are scads of others. Consider this partial list: eBird; Firefly Watch; Foliage Network; Frog Watch; Grunion Greeters; Hummingbird Monitoring Network; Jelly Watch (jellyfish, not jelly jars); Monarch Larva Monitoring Project; Project Budburst; Project Feeder Watch. It’s heart-warming and good for the old self-esteem to add to the sum of human knowledge about the natural world. And best of all, you needn’t even leave your property to take part.

Oh, yeah—the study of head bumps is phrenology. With an “r.”
Thanks for dropping by. See you next time.