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End-of-year Bird Counts Bring Unexpected Finds

Liam Waters
Merlin eating Western Kingbird

It’s finally over – after a whirlwind three weeks of intense birding, of wind and rain, calm and cold, the 2019 Christmas Bird Count season came to a close this past Saturday with the Martha’s Vineyard count. My back of the envelope calculations put the total species seen on the Cape and Islands counts at somewhere north of 170 species – pretty good bird diversity for this windswept winter landscape.

Every year a suite of elite birders boards the ferry bound for Nantucket, and spends several days scouring the island for birds before, during, and after the count. As a result, a flood of rare bird reports pours forth annually from Nantucket between late December and early January, and this year was no different. The highlights from the 128 species seen on count day include a Sedge Wren, a tiny, nomadic, and enigmatic bird of ever-dwindling grasslands, as well as late lingering songbird migrants like Black-throated Blue Warbler and White-eyed Vireo, plus rare ducks like a King Eider and a well-coiffed Old World visitor known as the Tufted Duck.

One of the best parts of these counts is coming together at the end of the day to share war stories. The most tragic story, at least if you favor rare birds over hungry falcons, involves the rediscovery of a rare bird first seen during the annual Vern Laux memorial birding weekend back in October. Christmas counters were ecstatic to see a Western Kingbird the day before the count, only to have a nearby Merlin catch and eat the bird while horrified birders watched. As I always say, hawks have to eat too, and they don’t eat birdseed. But eating a rare bird violates the unwritten code between falcon and birder, and eating it the day before the Christmas Count is a violation of the highest order.

The humble Truro count was held on the 2nd, and what it lacks in land area and habitat diversity it makes up for in heart and effort. And this year that effort turned up a doozy of a bird, maybe the rarest on any count, in the form of an American White Pelican. Late morning, Maili Waters was covering North Truro when she noticed a huge white and black bird overheard, sporting that unmistakable giant yellow schnoz, prompting her to direct her teammates to look up. The pelican, a shocking site against the wintry outer Cape dunes and moors, wheeled over Pilgrim Lake before heading south, where, the Wellfleet Harbor team found and photographed it again.

The watery Stellwagen Count was held on the third, when the MV Easterly headed out of Plymouth with a crew of six birders plus NOAA captain Amy Meloski and mate. With no land at all within the count circle, the Stellwagen team is pretty limited in what it can find, but what it finds is some of the more sought after seabirds in the country. This year the crew was fairly inundated with Common Murres and Dovekies, both very scarce from land, as well as a late Sooty Shearwater.

The Vineyard Count and its coterie of islanders and carpet bagging bird seekers managed a reported 115 species, including such wacky finds as a Lark Sparrow hanging out with an unseasonable flock of over 20 Chipping Sparrows, a late Northern Waterthrush, and, of course, Barn Owls, a specialty of the islands here in Massachusetts.

The counts may be over, but the birding, and counting, need not stop. I’d like everyone to continue to scour those under birded, out of the way corners of good looking habitat, and as always, report your findings in eBird. The New Year offers a clean slate – how about a resolution to see how many birds you can see in 2020? It’s cheaper than that gym membership you won’t use, and way more fun.