Cold and Rainy for Birds and Bird Counters

Dec 27, 2017

With three of the Cape Cod area Christmas Bird Counts in the books, it’s time to check in on the results. Based on what people were seeing in the weeks leading up to the count period, I was expecting a lot of late lingering southern birds and hopefully some high species totals. But an early deep freeze, some high winds, and then a day of steady rain conspired against the counts, putting a damper on the species totals, if not the spirits of the counters.

The first weekend of the count period always brings the Buzzard’s Bay and Cape Cod Counts, two of the region’s oldest. The normally rarity-rich Buzzard’s Bay count, which includes parts of both the off-Cape and on-Cape sides of the bay, was uncharacteristically short on highlights on the 16th, but did produce a stunning male Painted Bunting that was nice enough to show up at a private feeder a few days before the count.

The venerable Cape Cod Count dates back 86 years to when influential early ornithologist Ludlow Griscom was at the helm. Griscom was among the first to emphasize field identification of birds using, well, field marks, in an era when many were still shooting birds to identify them in the hand. Over the years, previous count compilers took some serious liberties with the concept of a “circle,” producing a count that is jokingly referred to as an “ellipse in all directions” because several of the traditionally covered areas, like Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, are literally several miles outside the official count circle. In science, sometimes consistency is more important than accuracy, so we continue to count the illegal areas to this day.

On the 17th, the Cape Count was blessed with calm weather, but not an overwhelming species total, coming in at a respectable 125 species. Highlights included two firsts for the count, an improbable Wood Thrush in Chatham, which may be a first for any Christmas Count in Massachusetts history, and an incredible two White-eyed Vireos in Orleans. Wood Thrushes winter in Central and South America and have almost no history of lingering into winter, and White-eyed Vireos should be in the Caribbean or Mexico right now.

The water-bound Stellwagen count was held on Tuesday the 19th, when about a dozen hearty souls steamed out of Scituate aboard the aptly-named research vessel the Auk. While this count circle used to catch a little bit of Provincetown and had one land-based crew, it now only includes open ocean over Stellwagen Bank, which is covered in a systematic series of transects. A winter’s day on the water is always tough, and though temperatures were relatively mild, a stiff wind picked up and chilled the counters later in the day. The birders were rewarded for their suffering, for while the rest of us are trudging around counting chickadees on our land-based counts, they were fairly swatting away Dovekies and puffins, which were two of the most numerous birds on the count. The final tally included 6 Northern Fulmars, an amazing 19 puffins, and 138 Dovekies, all species nearly impossible to see on other counts.

The recent deep freeze was almost universally unwelcome, but did have one benefit – it brought some nice ducks into the region and concentrated them in the remaining areas of open water, making them easier to find and count. Both the Cape and Mid-Cape counts benefitted from the ingress of ducks, producing sought after species like Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, and Barrow’s Goldeneye.

I’ll get to the Mid-Cape results next week, at which point we’ll also know the results of both of the island counts, whose birders will be battling uncharacteristic cold over the next few days.

I’ll be helping the Plymouth count just over the bridge on Wednesday morning.  So if you see some sketchy characters with binoculars as you drive around Manomet, give us a shout. And maybe also some hot chocolate.