Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Frigid Temperatures Hamper Christmas Count Efforts
January 13, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     The Newburyport Christmas Bird Count was a sharp contrast from the Cape Ann Count that was held on December 17 under seasonable conditions. The Newburyport Count was originally scheduled for December 23 but was postponed due to the ice storm that we had that day. During that postponement, we had a snowstorm of Christmas Eve and Day, and the beginning of a long stretch of extremely low temperatures and below zero wind chills, which were the conditions on the day of the Count on December 31.

     This was the 80th Newburyport Christmas Bird Count, which began in 1938. Count Day temperatures ranged from just 3 to 12 degrees and the winds were 0- 22 mph, making for below zero wind chills most of the day. The temperature was the coldest high ever recorded on the Newburyport Count. (The lowest low temperature ever recorded was minus 5 degrees in 1989.) Snow depths ranged from 1-6 inches and most fresh water was frozen.

     Much of the count was birded by car this year and the numbers of birds were predictably low. Ducks and geese were no exception. Less than a thousand Canada geese were counted and no snow geese or brant were found. Mute swans were absent and only 326 black ducks were counted. Few dabbling ducks were present, though 447 mallards were tallied, one hundred of which we found being fed in one yard in downtown Rowley!

     Even sea ducks numbers were low as were loons and grebes. Visibility was responsible for some of that as “sea smoke” made for limited viewing of the ocean birds. This was the first year in eighty that horned grebes were not seen on Count Day! Only thirteen common loons and one cormorant were found on the entire Count!

     Eight bald eagles were seen, and below average numbers of other raptors. Just one peregrine falcon sitting on the Route 1/Merrimack River Bridge and a goshawk was seen chasing pigeons under the Route 95/Scotland Road Bridge. No kestrels were found this year.

     Very few shorebirds were noted with only two each of sanderlings and dunlin found and just three purple sandpipers. Usually small flocks of these birds are found on the Christmas Bird Count. Gull numbers were way down as well.

     You should be pleased to know that only 322 rock pigeons were found, their lowest number since 2009. Screech owls have been found every year since 1979, but only 3 this year. Three great horned owls were found and only 1 barred owl in Ipswich. The weather conditions prohibited any serious owling efforts this year. Eight snowy owls supported the prediction that there would be good numbers of them around this year.

     A record high four yellow-bellied sapsuckers were found. There was only one kingfisher this year after finding 12 last year. A record high five ravens were discovered, but only 504 chickadees whose numbers were not below 1,000 since 2011. Twenty-two Carolina wrens remains well below their past record of 87, and only 364 American robins pales their record high of 2,706 in 2014. Forty-four bluebirds, five catbirds, six hermit thrushes and one towhee were seen, despite the frigid temperatures.

     Sparrow numbers were low, though four fox sparrows were located – always a treat. Eleven red-winged blackbirds and four cowbirds remained in the cold, but winter finches were absent except for two purple finches. House finch and goldfinch numbers were also low at 230 and 243 respectively.

     The unofficial total number of species for the Count was 91, plus 7 Count Week species, which is historically low for the last 20 years. Still, it was a valiant effort for those who braved the harsh temperatures to complete another day of data collection for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 23 years of service to the birding community!
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