Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

An Old Tradition Continues: The Christmas Bird Counts

When I say Christmas Bird Count to most people, I often wonder if they think I’m referring to the avian enumeration in that old song, you know, “four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves”, etc. Come to think of it, fully half of the gifts from that person’s true love are birds. I feel like I could have been a real Casanova in the 18th century. But I digress. What I really want to talk about is the actual Christmas Bird Counts, those all-out, all-day birding blowouts held each year from mid-December to early January. The first counts for the Cape and Islands are already in the book, and it’s time for the post-game analysis.



For obvious reasons, the counts are not quite the same this year. No carpooling with casual acquaintances, no post-birding compilation parties where 30 people crowd into a small, overheated suburban home to eat chili and tally up the day’s sightings. Fewer people travelling from way off Cape to stay in a hotel or a friend’s house, more people birding alone or in smaller groups. But the counts must go on, and good birders are still doing their best to record all the birds in the 15-mile diameter defined for each individual count, all while hopefully finding some rarities no one else sees.


The grand, old Cape Cod Count has a confusing, anachronistic name. When it began almost 90 years ago, it was the only count in the region, so it made sense. Now it’s one of four just on the Cape, where it may be better called the Lower Cape Count, whatever that means. It spans from Harwich to Eastham, and was held on Sunday under near-perfect conditions - not too cold, not too windy. The top highlight was the super rare Ash-throated Flycatcher found on private property in Orleans. These small, vaguely yellow flycatchers hail from the desert southwest, wintering on the dry Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America, so are not typically expected in a suburban Massachusetts yard in December. Three of the other rarest birds from the count should also be wintering in Mexico or Central America right now – Painted Bunting, Western Tanager, and Rufous Hummingbird. Probably all victims of the current travel restrictions, I suppose.


Despite our best efforts, we don’t always get all the birds we want for Christmas. A well-known rare goose demonstrated just how how uncooperative birds can be. Seemingly one of the easiest rare birds to see, the Pink-footed Goose of Orleans is prone to standing in the open each morning on a baseball field next to a busy road, sometimes retreating to a small pond nearby. Scores of birders have seen the goose with almost no effort. Then came count day, when some of the top birders in the region were unable to find it despite multiple checks of its haunts. Nothing about the weather explained its disappearance, but this bird we considered a “gimme” did not make it on the list for the official count. The following day, I of course saw the Pink-footed Goose three times in the course of doing errands, each time without getting out of my car. It’s clear that this obstinate fowl, perhaps wary of becoming a statistic, deliberately avoided being counted on Sunday.


Several more counts are coming up, including the Mid-Cape and Nantucket, both on the 27th. These counts often vie for highest species total in the region if not the state, often reaching into the 130s, so stay tuned for those results. And if someone tries to report “seven swans a swimming”, we’ll know a non-birder somehow infiltrated the count, and you’ll hear about it here first.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.