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In This Place

It’s Christmas Bird Count season. Here are the highlights

Fyn Kynd
Barred Owl

The Steller’s Sea Eagle, the one that made national news when it visited the South Coast last week, has seemingly flown the coop, having only been known to birdwatchers for a single day. I did not get to see it as a result. But the good news is that it’s Christmas Bird Count season, and we have a lot of local highlights to talk about already.

The count season always kicks off around here with the Buzzard’s Bay Count on the first Saturday of the count period, followed by the venerable Cape Cod Count on Sunday — they fell on the 18th and 19th this year. Because no one is holding compilations, the results are coming in a bit slower, and we don’t have species totals. Buzzard’s Bay produced some nice birds, as always, including a rare Vesper Sparrow, some overwintering Eastern Phoebes and American Woodcocks, and more evidence of the burgeoning Barred Owl population on Cape Cod, with 5 in one area. This species was absent altogether decades ago but now is firmly established on the Upper Cape.

The biggest highlight from the 90th year of Ye Olde Cape Cod Count included the incredible find of a Yellow Rail, one of the rarest and most mysterious birds in North America, in an undisclosed marsh somewhere. These tiny birds of wet fields have a well-deserved reputation as one of the hardest birds to see anywhere. As such, it’s hard to publicize their locations — past experience tells us there’s no way for lots of people to see them without trampling the marsh, and possibly the poor bird, to death, so people need to find their own.

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Dominic Sherony
Yellow Rail

Other highlights on the Cape Count included three Snowy Owls (less than I was expecting in this flight year), a late Great Egret, and 2 lingering Marbled Godwits, a beautiful, tall sandpiper with a giant bill, in Chatham. A nice assortment of late songbirds, unexpected in winter, included a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Prairie Warbler, both of which should be long gone south to somewhere between Florida and the Caribbean Islands. This count always produces an astounding total for a weird bird called a Yellow-breasted Chat, a bright yellow thicket skulker that doesn’t breed here and shouldn’t winter here — most are in Central American right now. This year there were at least 10, mostly in Orleans and Chatham. Any wet thicket choked with multiflora rose, privet, and bittersweet might host one if you know how to look.

On Monday I participated in the Mid-Cape Count, which is one of my favorites. It’s too soon to know the overall results, and I haven’t even fully tabulated my sector data, but we did have one highlight I can share stemming from a happenstance conversation. As any bird counter knows, people stop their cars all day long to ask “what’re you looking at," to which we sigh a bit then give the stock response about it being a Christmas Bird Count, we count all the birds, etc. One such encounter on Monday proved unusually fruitful for us, as the woman responded by telling me to go to her yard, where she has five Baltimore Orioles that overwinter each year. Sure enough, we went and saw five orioles taking turns at her jelly feeder on this cold, late December day. A yellow rose bush was still in bloom in her front yard and nearby someone was mowing their lawn. Was this June or nearly January? It seems harder to tell every year.

My Truro count is coming up tomorrow, but the island counts are not until next year, which is to say on Sunday. Stay tuned for those results as well as more on the Mid-Cape tally. In the meantime, when you see binoculared birders on the side of the road blasting screech owl recordings into a multiflora rose thicket, you won’t need to ask what we’re doing. You can say “oh yeah, they’re doing that thing the weird radio guy told us about” and go on your way! But if the Steller’s Sea Eagle has taken up residence in your yard, please do stop and chat.