Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Year Bird Lists Can Be Exciting
January 08, 2011

By Steve Grinley

     Ah, the start of a new birding year! Every January 1st, birders who keep year lists can wipe the slate clean and start all over again. Even pigeons, starlings and house sparrows become sought after birds that first day. The next day, of course, they become “trash” birds once again. The excitement of starting fresh and seeing birds again “for the first time” has one looking forward to the new year.

     Of course, finishing up the old year at the end of December was the previous task at hand. Filling in species missed at years end is the endeavor of the avid birders. For Margo and me, we were not really trying hard on last year’s list. We did keep lists, but we seldom “chased” a reported bird, especially if it were not a life bird or a new bird for our Massachusetts state list. We spent a lot of time on the Breeding Bird Atlas, birding locally most of May, June and July. We were very casual about our year lists for 2010.

     Still, when we tallied our Massachusetts year lists in December, we were surprising close to the coveted “300” number. I was just over 290 and Margo was at 289. There was no way in the last week of the year that we could find ten or eleven more species to make that magic number. Too many of our misses were spring and summer birds that were long gone to Central and South America. But we thought it would be nice if Margo could also reach 290, so we tried to find her one more bird.

     We had to travel to New York to visit relatives, so on the way out we made a side trip to Royalston, in the north-central part of Massachusetts, to try to find an evening grosbeak. Several of these grosbeaks had been reported there the past week, and they tend to show up in the Royalston area every winter. So we spent almost three hours watching the feeders in town where they traditionally feed. We were treated to redpolls and pine siskins, and an adult goshawk made a brief appearance, all of which were already on our lists. But we couldn’t see or hear an evening grosbeak and we had promises to keep, and we had to move along.

     On the way back from our New York visit the next day, we decided to take another side trip to Sheffield, Massachusetts in the southwestern-most part of the state. This area is one of the more reliable places to find black vulture, especially in spring through fall. We had stopped in downtown Canaan, Connecticut for lunch and found four black vultures in trees behind a diner there. We were a long mile from the Massachusetts border, and we could only hope that there were more over the line.

     When we did cross over the state border to Sheffield, we searched the whole area for a couple of hours and we were coming up empty – not even a turkey vulture. We did see an adult bald eagle and a northern shrike, but no vultures. We decided that it was getting late and we didn’t want to hit too much traffic going back to Boston, so we decided to take one more pass along Route 7 before we headed home. As we did, a large, dark bird flew just over the car. We stopped and got out and eventually saw four black vultures flying back and forth, circling overhead. Were these the same four that we saw in Connecticut? Perhaps, perhaps not, but they were in Massachusetts and were species number 290 for Margo – a satisfying end to 2010.

     Doug Chickering of Groveland also tells of an exciting end to his year:

     “I spent this last day of 2010 at the place I have spent most of my days in 2010, Plum Island. Windless and warm for the depths of winter, it was a beautiful dawn. I started my morning just as the sun was pushing up from a low bank of clouds on the eastern horizon at the sea platform at Parking Lot#1. Behind me, from the Plum Island River, I could hear the groans and cracks of the ice futilely resisting the rising tide. The ocean was calm and with the exception of a few loons and grebe’s was quiescent. Through the scope the calm surface revealed more bird life. There was an active cluster of gulls following a movable feast of fish at the surface a half mile out.

     “At one point I focused my scope on a Scoter fairly close, and as I identified it as White-winged, bird flew through my field of vision. It was one of those surprise birding moments: the automatic alarms primed by years of experience went off — alcid! alcid!. I picked it up in my scope just as it was going from the glare of the rising sun into good light. It skittered over the water with a frantic determination; heading north and my default id was Razorbill. But immediately I could see that somehow Razorbill wasn’t right. This bird seemed too bulky; the shape of a football and as I watched it turned so that I could see the head clearly. The bill was shortish and definitely pointed, but not Common Murre needle pointed. I had struck a bit of luck and was watching a Thick-billed Murre, heading north! Thick-billed Murre is occasional at places like Andrews Point and by the reports i read fairly regular on the outer cape, but I would hate to be hanging by my thumbs since the last time I had seen one on Plum Island.

     “The rest of the day was interesting, if not so spectacular. I had a flock of about 20 redpolls fly over my head at the south end of the Town marker field; a resilient catbird in the S Curves; a pair of Swamp Sparrows in the North Pool and a real good look at the melanistic chickadee; which is an extraordinarily beautiful bird. The head is a deep velvet black and the body catbird gray with no other markings or adornments. I also watched a Chickadee feeding on the Sumac that was sporting a silvery band on its right leg. Presumably it was banded at the local station. I haven’t had such a spectacular ending to the year since that last day when a Great Horned Owl flew up into a tree in the back yard just as it was getting dark.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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