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Christmas Bird Counts are underway

Grasshopper Sparrow
Ryan Schain
Grasshopper Sparrow

This past weekend saw the start of the Christmas Bird Count season here on the Cape, in the traditional order, with the Buzzard’s Bay count on Saturday, followed on Sunday by the oldest local count, known simply and somewhat snobbishly as the “Cape Cod” count. On each of these, dozens of local and off-Cape birders spent an impressive chunk of that 24-hour period scouring a 15-mile circle. The goal is at least an attempted census – no chickadee, no mallard goes uncounted. Many give up the entire weekend before Christmas, every year, to do these two counts, which tells me they apparently finish their Christmas shopping way earlier than I do.

The Cape Cod count actually only covers from Harwich just barely into South Wellfleet, encompassing some of the best habitat the region has to offer, like Nauset and Coast Guard Beaches, Fort Hill, First Encounter Beach, a variety of duck-laden ponds, and the songbird-rich thickets of Chatham and East Orleans. This year somewhere around 130 species were tallied, under ideal counting conditions - cold, clear, and calm.

Highlights among those 130 species included a rare Grasshopper Sparrow at a grassy little cemetery in Eastham, a Painted Bunting at a feeder in Chatham, and an unusual count of an obscure little winter warbler partial to dense thickets, the Orange-crowned Warbler. One team had 9 in Orleans alone. Significant misses include no Snowy Owls – I’m not aware of any on Cape so far this winter - and no American Kestrels – this once common little falcon is all but gone as a breeding or wintering bird on Cape Cod.

The Buzzard’s Bay counters on Saturday were not so lucky, with rainy, raw, and windy conditions. Despite this, some birders discovered one of the rarest birds ever for this count, a Western Grebe on Mashpee Pond. This elegant and long-necked waterbird of the western US has only been recorded a few times in the region, and never on a Christmas Count.

Two Clark's Grebes being pursued by three Western Grebes.
Rich Miller
Two Clark's Grebes being pursued by three Western Grebes.

Western Grebes breed on lakes across the western US, and are famous for what may be the most impressive courtship display of any waterbird. These outlandish, aquatic mating displays, wherein both members of the pair rear up and engage in a synchronized sprint, a full-on footrace across the top of the water, are unforgettable. Another part of the courtship is called “weed dancing”, which sounds like the sort of rhythmless, noodley movements you might see at a Grateful Dead show, but actually involves the birds dancing at each other while holding aquatic plants. In other parts of courtship they pluck feathers off their own body, then give them to the mate, who then eats them – grebes are famous for eating, and later purging, feathers, for mysterious reasons likely relating to digestion and parasites.

As good as the birding is around here, one consistent bummer for me is how we never get to see the rich breeding plumages and often crazy courtship displays of most of the waterfowl that pass through here. I’ll never forget the Western Grebe courtship that I was able to see at, of all places, the Lawrence Welk homestead in Strasburg, North Dakota. This ranks as a significant historical site in North Dakota because, well, it’s North Dakota. If you’re younger than I am you’ll of course need to Google who Lawrence Welk is.

You can also Google the Christmas Bird Count dates, most easily seen around here on the Cape Cod Bird Club website. The Nantucket and Vineyard counts are both on New Year’s Day this year. These counts are pretty hard core and often not great for beginners, but some leaders welcome beginners who want to do part of a day, or you can participate as a feeder watcher. If you really want to help on a count, but the leader is resistant, try dancing up to them and presenting them with some weeds to show you’re serious. Note I said “weeds”.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.