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Counting birds at Christmastime

Virginia Rail
Mark Faherty
Virginia Rail

It’s that “most wonderful” time of year when a birder’s fancy turns to Christmas – Bird Counts, that is. This past weekend began the 124th year of National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, and the 93rd year of counts here on Cape Cod. Birders were out on both sides of Buzzard’s Bay on Saturday and from Harwich to South Wellfleet on Sunday, and they turned up some real doozies in the course of counting every bird they saw.

Christmas Bird Counts were invented by ornithologist Frank Chapman in 1900, devised as an alternative to the competitive Christmas Day bird hunts traditional then. “Let’s count them instead of shoot them all”, he thought, like some rabid, tree-hugging iconoclast. Thus was spawned an annual tradition giving us bird people a seemingly legitimate outlet for our obsessive bird-seeking behaviors, albeit at a time of year with a lot of pesky and inconvenient obligations to gather with friends and family.

The Buzzard’s Bay count mainly covers Bourne and Falmouth, but touches parts of Mashpee, Sandwich, Marion, and Wareham as well. Birders noted some rare and out of season birds while scouring seldom-birded back roads, ponds, marshes, and shores, along with well-known hotspots like Crane Wildlife Management Area. A lost Western Tanager showed briefly in Bourne, while elsewhere there was a Clay-colored and a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and dozens of Fish Crows. The crows, rare elsewhere in winter, are a specialty in this area thanks to the Bourne landfill, where they dine, and Martha’s Vineyard, where they sleep, safe from the Great Horned Owls that would hunt them in a mainland roost.

I realized today that I never even mention two Christmas Counts in our listening area, both of which were also held on Saturday – the New Bedford count and the state line-straddling Newport-Westport count which, as you more astute listeners might have guessed, goes from Westport, MA over to Newport, RI. This latter count is famous for high species totals thanks to relatively warmer winter temperatures plus lots of birdy farmland, rich forest, duck rich coastal ponds, and plenty of beaches. Next year I’ll work on getting informants to feed me the results of these south coast counts I’ve neglected for so long.

The eldest count around, the Cape Cod Count, was held on Sunday, with a long list of highlights topped by several unexpected warblers. A Townsend’s Warbler was flitting about in a private neighborhood in Orleans, while a MacGillivray’s Warbler showed briefly and furtively in a thicket bordering Nauset Marsh in Eastham. Both breed exclusively in the northwestern quadrant of the continent and winter somewhere between the US west coast and Mexico. The count also produced what may be a record count of Orange-crowned Warblers, pus late records of a Wilson’s Warbler and a Prairie Warbler. These warblers are all mainly insect eaters, illustrating how many bugs have been able to hang on well into December after yet another warm fall.


So what’s the point of all this, beyond gratifying us rare bird seekers? You should note that we count every bird on these counts, no matter how common – every starling, every House Sparrow, every Mallard is tallied. To date, more than 300 peer-reviewed studies have been published using the data from the Christmas Bird Count, shedding light on long-term trends in bird populations and their possible causes. Federal agencies also use the data in their decision-making.


So what’s next? The Mid-Cape, Nantucket, Vineyard, and Truro counts come later, and I won’t be able to discuss the results until early next year – I just hope you can last that long without knowing what rare birds were seen on what count. Until then, Merry Christmas Bird Count and a Happy New Year list!

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.