For various reasons, this year’s Nantucket, Stellwagen Bank, and Mid-Cape Christmas Bird Counts all ended up scheduled on the same day, Sunday the 27th. This is unprecedented as far as I know - these counts share some of the same personnel, so normally the organizers coordinate on dates. But as we well know, nothing is normal in 2020. Luckily, thanks in part to a bumper crop of good, young birders coming on the scene in recent years, all the counts were well-staffed, and the birds, which do not count themselves, were counted early and often.
The Stellwagen Bank count is a rare bird itself, being one of the few entirely boat-based Christmas Bird Counts. Those in charge must take the marine forecast into account just as much as the schedules of the counters, and this year the seas looked most promising on Sunday the 27th. The research vessel appropriately named The Auk steamed out of Scituate on Sunday morning into 3 to 5-foot seas. A reduced crew of masked birders produced a typical list – short on species but long on good birds. They tallied dozens of denizens of offshore waters difficult to see on a landlubber count: six Pomarine Jaegers, 67 Common Murres, three Dovekies, and the bird of the day – a puffin photographed as it tried to fly by unnoticed. Don’t be too jealous - the puffins in Massachusetts tend not to look anything like the iconic breeding-plumaged birds with the huge, bright bills – they are often young birds with smaller, grayish bills and faces.
The illustrious Nantucket count made do with fewer birders under the circumstances – the usual assortment of off-island carpetbaggers that come for a full weekend birding was hampered by travel restrictions and other pandemic issues. As usual, the count was full of good birds, often in numbers that would boggle our minds here on this side of the Sound. They got their usual assortment of ducks hard to find anywhere else, like dozens of Redheads and well over 100 Canvasbacks. A single individual of either would bring birders running here on the Cape. Likewise, a Tufted Duck, a ho-hum annual visitor over there, would cause alarm here on Cape. Other highlights included a morning flight of more than 1000 Red-throated Loons at ‘Sconset.
The Mid-Cape count, spanning Sandwich to Dennis, is a perennial heavyweight thanks to the diversity of waterbodies and habitats, including some of the most potent suburban winter birding anywhere. Most of the best birds turn up in some overgrown neighborhood thicket, like the Tennessee Warbler leading this year’s highlights. This represents apparently the latest ever record for New England and Eastern Canada for this species that normally winters in the tropics, as far away as northern Ecuador. A Cape May Warbler visiting a feeder in Yarmouthport was a close second – they normally winter in the Caribbean. Obviously, these birds are insane – no one else would pass up a chance to safely head to the tropics right now.
The only remaining counts in the region are the Vineyard count on Saturday and my Truro count, which is underway as we speak. At this morning’s airing several of us will have been out for five hours already, starting pre-dawn to call for owls. Say hi or, better yet give a friendly beep, especially if you see one of us staggering in front of your car with a faraway look. The caffeine has likely worn off and we may need the jolt.