Birdwatching in December? You Bet. Christmas Bird Counts Are Coming

Dec 26, 2018

Credit Mark Faherty

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – Christmas Bird Count season! Birders are digging out their warmest winter garb, polishing their optics, and marking their calendars to prepare for the all-out birding blitz that is the Christmas Bird Count season. It runs from December 14 to January 5, and I can guarantee there’s a count near you.

The Christmas Bird Count began in 1900 as an alternative to the competitive Christmas Day hunts of the 19th century known as “side hunts”. In these hunts, men would choose teams and then head off into the woods and fields to blast anything that moved. They had already fallen out of favor by 1900, but Ornithologist Frank Chapman of the National Audubon Society made reference to these side hunts when he proposed a new Christmas tradition that he called the Christmas bird-census. On that first count day, 27 people counted birds in 26 location from Toronto to California, tallying 90 species. Now these 116 years later, there are more than 2500 counts conducted from Barrow, Alaska to Panama by almost 80,000 observers.

 

So what’s the attraction, anyway? It’s cold in winter, and don’t all the birds fly south? Au contraire. Here on the Cape, these counts often tally over 130 species in one day. While our resident birds like chickadees and cardinals and Song Sparrows are certainly here, winter is also when crowd pleasers like Bald Eagles and Snowy Owls show up. The ocean and bays are covered in sea ducks, loons, grebes, and other birds we don’t see during the summer.  And because the Cape and Islands are relatively mild and snow-free compared with the mainland, we tend to harbor a variety of late lingering birds like warblers and orioles that didn’t fly south for some reason, not to mention the ducks that come here to flee the iced over ponds to our north.

There are other benefits to winter birding. For example, nobody is stopping you at a beach entrance to ask for money or ticketing your car. You can actually pull onto Rt. 6 without having a near-death experience, in most cases.

Since you technically have a full 24 hours to complete the count, hardcore Christmas Bird Counters like me tend to get up in the cold, dark wee hours to get some owling in before daylight. Eastern Screech Owls are quite easy to find just about anywhere with trees by imitating their call, and Great Horned Owls can usually be heard in the right places, especially just before dawn. But other species like Northern Saw Whet and the truly rare Long-eared Owl require more work and more luck.

By daylight, you want to be watching the ocean or birding a marsh, thicket, or weedy field. Forests tend to be boring in winter and can be skipped for the most part.  At the end of the day, birders come together to compile results, tell stories, and eat some hot food.  And if they’re lucky, to drop some rare bird bomb on their envious fellow counters.

We have six counts on the Cape and Islands starting with the Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod counts coming up this Saturday and Sunday, and ending with the Nantucket and Truro counts held on January 1st and 2nd, respectively. The Cape Cod Bird Club website has more info on these and other local counts, in case you want to join us, the legions of the cold, clipboard-clutching counters of Christmas.

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This piece first aired in December, 2017.