The final Christmas Bird Counts for the Cape and Islands were held over the last week – the Truro count on the 2nd and the Vineyard count on the 5th. The closer it gets to the end of the count period, the risker the weather gets, with higher chances of a deep freeze or storm in early January wrecking your count. I had rescheduled my Truro count from the 28th to the 2nd to avoid a day of wind-driven rain, and the gambit worked. The Vineyard count wasn’t so lucky.
The 23rd annual Truro count, which saw 25 hardy birders scouring the thickets, beaches, swamps, and suburban neighborhoods of Wellfleet and Truro, enjoyed cold but increasingly calm conditions on the 2nd. High winds are the last thing you want when trying to count birds, especially when they pelt you with precipitation, so I was feeling good about rescheduling. Owling conditions were fair, and we turned up several Northern Saw-Whet Owls, a few Great Horned and Eastern Screech-Owls, and even a very rare Long-eared Owl or two.
During the day, a combination of some lingering thicket birds like House Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Fox Sparrow, and Yellow-breasted Chat, plus roving flocks of winter songbirds from the north, made for a nice day of birding. In my areas it finally seemed like the winter finch year that was prognosticated back in the fall by Ron Pittaway, the Nostradamus of winter songbirds. Up to a few dozen each of Red Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks made appearances in my section, and a lone Bohemian Waxwing kindly allowed itself to be counted up at High Head. All of these species have been scarce or absent on most counts I’ve done this year.
One of my highlights on count day was not a rare species, but rather a rare individual of a common species. A male Northern Cardinal at one of our stops caught our eye – was that a flash of white? When it “tee’d up”, as we say, allowing longer study, we could see it was what we used to call partial albino, which most authorities now call “leucistic”. The usual red carotenoid pigments were not deposited in some of the feathers, making this normally all-red male mostly white on one side, with smooth gray back and scattered white splotches elsewhere. Check the website to see my photo of this striking, oddball cardinal.
The 59th annual Vineyard count was held on January 5th, the last day of National Audubon’s official count period, which meant they couldn’t reschedule to avoid the predicted rain. But no matter – this count attracts a veritable all-star team of birders who did their duty over the course of an ever-dampening day, tallying all things common and turning up nice birds like the count’s first ever Common Raven and Barred Owl, plus Bald Eagle, Snowy and Long-eared Owls, and even a couple of Baltimore Orioles at feeders. And besides, bad weather just makes the warm food and war stories waiting for you at the end-of-the-day gathering that much sweeter.
With the change of calendar, the slate is now clean for a new year of birding. How did you do with your 2018 bird list? I cheated with a couple of trips to Peru, so I won’t share my species count for the year. Ok, it was 569. But with bird lists, it’s really quality that counts, not quantity. I actually enjoy seeing the flock of Pine Warblers and bluebirds that visit my yard almost as much as seeing exotic birds around the globe. Almost.