If you’re new to the concept of Christmas Bird Counts, you may think that today is the day that birders are fanning out across the landscape armed with clipboards and expensive optics, ready to tally every last chickadee and Mallard. While that was true back when ornithologist Frank Chapman organized the first count exactly 120 years ago today, the modern counts take place between December 14 and January 5. With around 2500 count circles across North America, we probably couldn’t muster the personnel to get those done all in one day, let alone Christmas day. So far this year we have four Cape and Islands counts plus Plymouth in the books, so let’s check in on the results.
Back on the 14th, the Buzzard’s Bay count was cursed with all day rain and wind, and with the Cape Cod count scheduled for the next day, no wiggle room to reschedule. Despite this, several soggy but dedicated teams mustered 105 species, including highlight birds like Barred Owls, a Short-eared Owl, Yellow-breasted Chats, an Orange-crowned Warbler, Eastern Meadowlarks, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and an impressive 7 Common Ravens. That number would have been unimaginable 10 years ago, but ravens continue their meteoric rise through the ranks of resident birds here in Eastern Mass.
Covering several towns either side of the elbow of the Cape, the venerable old Cape Cod Count put up a respectable 130 species on the 15th – not bad for an 88 year old. Despite the type of windy conditions that tend to keep birds hunkered down, birders beat the bushes and beaches, wetlands and woods to tally many highlights. Perhaps most impressive was a wholly unexpected flight of seabirds on the bay, with up to two Atlantic Puffins, plus a very late Great Shearwater on the ocean side, now officially in the wrong hemisphere for this time of year. Other notables included a Snow Goose in Orleans, a Painted Bunting in Brewster, a lingering Marbled Godwit in Harwich, and three Short-eared Owls between Fort Hill in Eastham and North Beach in Chatham.
At the edge of our listening area, the Plymouth count was held on the 19th, and produced a couple of high-end rarities of its own. First, a Painted Bunting was discovered sitting on a lawn in a development in West Plymouth known more for its plastic flamingoes than actual birds. Second, a very lost Western Tanager was found in the Eel River Preserve. This bird of the mountainous west turns up in the northeast somewhat regularly for some reason, though they are supposed to winter on the Pacific side of Central America.
Speaking of Western Tanagers and Painted Buntings, those two species also topped the highlight list for the Mid-Cape Count held this past Sunday. Spanning from Sandwich to East Dennis, this potent count drew ace birders from California, New York, and Maine, and racked up at least 140 species. Other highlights included an out of season Ovenbird, and a Long-eared Owl.
If you’re more impressed by sheer numbers of birds than long lists and flashy species, then tiny Tuckernuck Island has the count for you. This relatively obscure, boutique count stewarded mainly by some Nantucket birders reported a six figure total of Common Eiders, as many as 200,000 birds, making up the bulk of their bird biomass.
Still to come, we have the boat based Stellwagen Bank count coming up this week, followed by Nantucket on the 29th, Truro on the 2nd, and the Vineyard on the 4th. I suspect none of these will catch the Mid-Cape in the species sweepstakes, but if they do, you’ll hear about it here first. Until next week, Merry Christmas Count to all, and to all a good night (of owling).