If there’s one thing you can count on each December, it’s counting. It’s when we hold the counts during which we count all the birds we can count. I’m talking about last weekend’s annual Cape Cod Waterfowl count as well as the various Christmas Bird Counts that begin this weekend. At last count, there were at least nine such counts in the CAI listening area, ten if you count the boat-based Stellwagen Bank count. So you know there’s a count near you.
Cape Cod Bird Club’s annual waterfowl count always kicks off this season of counting. Since 1984, the club has conducted this survey on the first weekend of December, a time when a lot of the winter waterfowl will have arrived. Volunteers are assigned either whole towns or groups of ponds to visit over the course of two days, counting all the ducks and other waterfowl on a respectable chunk of the almost 1000 freshwater ponds estimated to be here on the Cape. This year more than 40 counters fanned out across the landscape to survey 365 different ponds, some of which require driving to a few different vantage points to get eyes on all the hidden coves and backsides of islands and peninsulas. They tallied over 10,000 individuals of 21 duck species, plus another 12 species of other waterfowl, like loons, grebes, and gulls.
A warm, super windy rain-out of a Nor’easter on Saturday pushed most of the counting to much colder, still windy Sunday, with some interesting results. With that storm raging on the seas, more than a few seabirds were taking refuge on quieter fresh water ponds. Several Dovekies, possibly unprecedented finds on the waterfowl survey, were seen on an amazing seven different ponds from Sandwich to Provincetown, and a Razorbill was found on a pond in Eastham. Numbers of ducks normally exclusive to salt water, like scoters and eiders, were way up thanks to the storm. Scoters were up 400% over the 37-year average, in fact.
The most commonly counted ducks may surprise you - though you’d be hard pressed to find them on most ponds, Greater and Lesser Scaup, combined, are often the most abundant ducks on the survey thanks to a few ponds that host big rafts of these difficult-to-distinguish divers. But this year Buffleheads topped the list with over 2200 counted. This is actually a serious undercount, since these ubiquitous and diminutive ducks are on just about any body of water you can think of, from tiny backyard pond to salt marsh cove, harbor to bay.
Ever-handsome Hooded Mergansers made a good showing this year with over 1000 tallied, 45% above the average. These small but visually potent diving ducks are as good looking as any bluebird but remain underappreciated, likely because they huddle along shady shorelines or raft together in the middle of ponds, beyond the range of appreciation for those without binoculars. If you didn’t know we had over 20 species of freshwater ducks every winter, consider this your kick in the pants to get some binoculars and start enjoying the embarrassment of avian riches we have here on this archipelago.
This year’s waterfowl count has come and gone, but the first Cape Christmas Bird Counts are coming up this weekend with the Buzzard’s Bay count on Saturday and the old “lower” Cape Cod count on Sunday. See about participating as either a field birder or a feeder watcher. Since they typically last just a day, we have to make sure these counts count. And for that, of course, we’re counting on you.