Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Area Christmas Bird Counts Are Happening 
December 16, 2017
by Steve Grinley

     If you look out at your bird feeders on the Saturday morning before Christmas, you may see some warmly dressed folks out in the street also staring at your feeders with binoculars. No, it’s not the feeder police. It is likely a team of birders on the annual Christmas Bird Count. 

     This is the 118th year of the Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The Newburyport Count takes place on December 23, encompassing an area within a 15-mile radius of the city. Teams of counters, each assigned their own section of the circle, will be tallying all the species of birds seen, and counting the number of individuals of each species. This is the time when every starling, chickadee and mallard is counted.

     Groups of birders and individuals count birds throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. The results of the Christmas Bird Count is the longest running database in ornithology, representing over a century of data, and reveals trends of winter bird populations. More than 50,000 observers participate in this all day census. The first count was held on Christmas Day back in 1900 and was conducted in 27 different communities, including three in Massachusetts. Today, thirty-four Count circles participate in Massachusetts alone.

     At the end of the Count day, all of the teams covering all of the surrounding towns gather to add up their numbers. Those totals are then entered into a grand data base which includes all of the previous years’ totals. In this way, trends in bird populations can be identified. 

     Tomorrow, Sunday, is the Cape Ann Christmas Bird Count. I usually help out in the Hamilton and Wenham sector. Those who have the coastal sectors have a chance to see king eiders, harlequin ducks, puffins or a rare gull. We, however, will spend time counting chickadees, tufted titmice and downy woodpeckers in our land-locked sector. In past years, we have seen pileated woodpeckers, pine grosbeaks, and a late yellow-bellied sapsucker; and we usually see some bluebirds as well. So there is no telling what we might encounter. It is fun just to be out, and the weather is supposed to cooperate this weekend!

     Though the wintering population of bald eagles has yet to arrive, our established resident eagles should make the count. We did see eagles migrating over Salisbury last Sunday including one late golden eagle.

     Snowy owls have already appeared all over Essex County including Salisbury, Crane Beach in Ipswich, Thatcher’s Island off Cape Ann and several on Plum Island. Short-eared owls have been seen on Plum Island, Salisbury Beach and at Nelson’s island in Rowley. We haven’t seen “our” barred owl in the backyard lately, but we can expect some owls to make an appearance for the counts!

     This should prove to be an interesting count year. Up until a week or two ago, the milder than normal weather had kept many fresh water lakes and ponds open, and duck numbers could be strong. The recent snow and cold has driven more birds back to the feeders. We had a Carolina wren at our heated bird bath and on our suet this week. We keep watch for something more rare, hoping something will show up for count week that includes three days before and three days after count day. 

     There has been a rare yellow-throated warbler at the Seabrook Waste water Treatment Plant on the Salisbury town line for the past couple of weeks. One showed up at a suet feeder in Amesbury a couple of years back, so this one could end up at somebody’s feeder soon. If you see something rare at your feeders, please contact the store and we will see that it is included in the count.

     There is also much natural seed available with good cone crops, but only scattered reports of red crossbills and pine siskins so far this winter. There are also good crops of winterberry, privet, cedar berries, bittersweet and other wintering fruit so higher counts of fruit-eating birds could be expected for the counts. These include robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds, hermit thrushes and cedar waxwings, with the hope for Townsend’s solitaire, pine grosbeak, or Bohemian waxwing.

     So please don’t be surprised to see people with binoculars walking around your neighborhood on Count day, gawking at your fruit trees or bird feeders. They are just trying to count every chickadee, goldfinch, cardinal and house sparrow in the neighborhood, while hoping to discover something more rare!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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