The Christmas Bird Count: Citizen Science at Its Best | CAI

The Christmas Bird Count: Citizen Science at Its Best

Dec 19, 2018


Credit Silverleapers / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) /

This past weekend marked the start of the 119th Christmas Bird Count season, which means that on certain count days, bird-hungry teams of tallyers are combing local hotspots and seldom-visited backwaters alike.

The goal is to record as complete a sample as possible of the wintering birds in a 15 mile circle. This is “citizen science” at its best – harnessing the collective birding energy of thousands of skilled hobbyists to keep track of wintering bird populations over time.


The Cape and Islands has six of these counts - Truro, Cape Cod, Mid-Cape Cod, Buzzard’s Bay, and both islands. There’s a bit of friendly competition around which count can record the most species, with the Mid-Cape or one of the Islands usually taking the title. In good years, a local count may tally over 130 species in one day. As a result, our counts tend to attract a lot of mainlanders – one-day wash-ashores if you will – attracted by the diversity of ducks, seabirds, and interesting thicket birds our geography and milder maritime climate provide.

Saturday’s Buzzard’s Bay count, which straddles the bay, includes the towns of Falmouth, Mashpee, Bourne, Sandwich, Wareham, Mattapoisett, and Marion. The count includes many miles of jagged coastline, the productive thickets of Woods Hole, and the important grasslands of Crane Wildlife Management Area and Joint Base Cape Cod. 

Highlights on Saturday included a Short-eared Owl and Northern Shrike at Crane, two rare predators providing testament to the productive grassland restoration work the state is doing there, and a King Eider in Falmouth Harbor, striking with its powder blue head and beaming orange bill.

The oldest local count at 87 years young, the Cape Cod Count was held on Sunday amid uncomfortably strong east winds and occasional bouts of steady rain. With hardy, mostly uncomplaining birders covering towns between Harwich and Eastham, the highlights included some birds that would normally be in Central and South American right now, like the Northern Waterthrush hiding out in an Orleans thicket, and the count’s first ever Spotted Sandpiper, an unlikely lingerer at Saquetucket Harbor in Harwich.

The counts first Common Ravens were also tallied, representing a long-overdue record for this rapidly increasing species. The all-time high count of 163 Wild Turkeys will probably be unsurprising to local suburban homeowners now used to seeing big flocks of these big birds clogging local roads.

I’ll get to more count highlights next time, but in the breaking news department, I’ve learned that Tuesday morning’s gale-force winds were stranding tiny seabirds called Dovekies at inland locations, with at least 5 coming into Wild Care in Eastham as of mid-day yesterday. These compact, miniature penguin lookalikes are prone to getting blown off course during strong northerly winds, with a history of very large so-called “wrecks” of hundreds of stranded individuals occurring on occasion.

Be on the lookout for Dovekies and other seabirds stuck in strange locations, like roads, driveways, and parking lots, including well away from beaches, and get them to Wild Care or Cape Wildlife in Barnstable, depending on where you are. Stay tuned to next week for highlights from the Mid-Cape Christmas Count, and hopefully an update on how these wayward little Dovekies are faring.