Snow bunting
Snow buntings are amazingly hardy little birds that nest further north than any other landbird. They spend the winter on our outer beaches - the tropics for them - and there are currently small flocks on most south- and east- facing Island dune systems. Photos by E. Vernon Laux

Christmas bird counts begin

By E. Vernon Laux - December 14, 2006

The frenetic pace of the holidays and of the Christmas Bird Counts is full speed ahead, right now. As this is going to press, this writer is north of the border, some 770 driving miles from the Vineyard, conducting the East Point Christmas Bird Count. The East Point mentioned is at the extreme eastern tip of Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest and most densely populated province. Admittedly, going north to count birds during the shortest days of the year is not for everyone, but it is always an adventure.

The scenery, the people, and the birds are rewarding. Getting there and back at this season is usually a large part of the challenging conditions often generating unwelcome excitement. This is the seventh year for this count and it has enhanced knowledge and interest in birds and birding in this remote and terrifically "birdy" part of the planet. Each year the thrill of what we might turn up in this under-birded and far northern locale provides plenty of excitement. Just being there is enough of a reward: the birds are an extra bonus.

Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury and Edie Ray of Nantucket
Lanny McDowell of West Tisbury and Edie Ray of Nantucket (front) enjoy a balmy day on the beach at East Point, Prince Edward Island on the annual Christmas Bird Count last year.

At any rate the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season is officially underway today, Thursday, Dec. 14, and continues until Friday, Jan. 5, 2007, the last day of the count period, and which this year is the date for the Vineyard's Christmas Bird Count. This writer knows and feels he is very fortunate indeed, in that he gets to go birding on the first and last day of this season's count period on two of the nicest islands on the globe. These two widely disparate counts are fine bookends to the holiday season.

Sandwiched in between these counts are many others. On our neighboring island, Nantucket, the Christmas Count will be conducted on Saturday, Dec. 28. This coming weekend, two nearby counts are scheduled to be conducted. They are the Buzzard's Bay CBC on Saturday, Dec. 16, and the Outer Cape CBC on Sunday, Dec. 17. These are always well-run, good coverage CBCs with many participants. They offer a good picture, a benchmark of what other CBCs in the region may encounter over upcoming weeks. The Mid-Cape CBC is next and will be run on Saturday, Dec. 23.

After the dust settles from the holidays and the CBCs it will be time to settle in and enjoy (or endure) the winter that has arrived. For those with even a casual interest in birds, it is a rewarding time as avian visitors allow unobstructed and close views. A field guide and a pair of binoculars are all one needs to get started, to learn the birds around one's environs.

Over-wintering species are especially easy to see in periods of bad weather - snow cover being the best for birders, the worst for birds. They stand out like multicolored outdoor ornaments against a fresh snowfall. It is bad for the birds because the snow covers their natural food, taking it out of reach, making them dependent on a sometimes-unreliable food source, bird feeders.

Unfortunately, birds are even more vulnerable to domestic cats and winged predators while visiting man-made feeders. With little or no snow, the birds are able to stay in dense sheltering thickets and find food, relatively safe from predators. Birds throng to feeders and berry trees in yards in these conditions and regardless of weather will take advantage of available berry sources.

That said, feeders provide much-needed, often unobtainable food for a slew of land birds. Despite all the above named shortcomings, the food proffered in feeders allows much greater numbers of birds to winter further north than would otherwise be possible. The pros certainly outweigh the cons. Because of man's increased bird-feeding habits, bird populations are benefiting. There is a net gain for the birds, despite the problems. The problems of predation and starvation occur naturally, but are not so easily spotted away from the eyes of curious observers around feeding stations.

The success of many species at slowly expanding their respective ranges northward can be directly tied to the increase in bird feeding. Northern cardinals were scarce to unknown a few short decades ago and now they are becoming almost commonplace as far north as the Maritime Provinces. The expanded range of sparrows, woodpeckers, and other species can be shown to have been aided and abetted by the increase in feeding stations.

Away from home and inland locations, at places like Farm Pond or the Head of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs, anywhere along the Beach Road in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown or crossing the drawbridge between "The Bluffs" and Vineyard Haven, a myriad of colorful and boldly patterned waterfowl congregate. At the aforementioned accessible locations, the close proximity to the water is perfect for viewing. Eye-popping views of buffleheads, hooded mergansers, and a wide variety of other ducks and an occasional loon or grebe are routine.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail