Birds : Christmas season in high gear
It is a special day - Christmas Eve - Merry Christmas and happy holidays to one and all.
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season began on December 14 and continues through January 5. This is the official annual count period, the sanctioned time during which counts must be conducted.
Thousands of such counts occur all over North America and, increasingly, in warmer places in Latin America as well. The reports of CBCs from the new world tropics in places like Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize, where some 350 to 400 species may be recorded, are hard to equate to the bone-chilling adventures familiar to New England birders where far fewer species are observed. That said, the number and location of CBCs that are conducted just in New England make for great diversity as well.
The Vineyard CBC this year will be conducted on Sunday, Jan. 3. If you notice a group of people on this day wearing binoculars standing around staring into a thicket, you can guess what they are up to. All participants involved are hoping for great (sunny with little wind) weather as once the date is set and the wheels are in motion this event is held no matter what Mother Nature has in store. Rain, snow, cold, and wind are not the desired conditions for looking at small birds in thickets.
The first CBC to take place this year on the Cape was Buzzard's Bay, which was conducted on Saturday, Dec. 19. Traditionally, this well-organized and well-attended CBC is a contender for top count in the state, as well as all of New England. It is a benchmark of what other CBCs might expect in terms of both common and unusual species that are around as well as an indicator of possible species totals.
The total number of species observed this year was 114, a very respectable total given the conditions. There was no sign of the sun and conditions worsened as the wind increased throughout the day as the Nor'easter approached. There were some major highlights including an ovenbird, two Nashville warblers, four orange-crowned warblers traveling together in a flock, two clay-colored sparrows, and an indigo bunting.
The ovenbird and indigo bunting are extremely rare at this season. The ovenbird is a small warbler that feeds on insects and apparently berries in the cold, and nests in the forests of eastern North America and winters in Central America and South America. This lingering individual will not be enjoying the inclement winter weather with snow cover and cold temperatures.
Other highlights included five species of owls -including great horned, screech, saw-whet, long-eared, and barred. The barred owl was a species that had always been accidental, the rarest of rare, on Cape Cod and the Islands until about four years ago. Now the species has been discovered breeding in Mashpee and is slowly increasing, as evidenced by them being heard more frequently and getting recorded on CBCs.
This year the Outer Cape CBC ran into a bullet by hitting a forecast Nor'easter. Blair Nikula, the compiler, wisely canceled as all computer models and forecasts predicted mayhem for the December 20 count. It has been rescheduled for December 30.
The window of opportunity to conduct a CBC, with the small army (in some cases) of observers, many traveling from elsewhere in New England to participate, is small, and the counts are planned well in advance. They are held in all kinds of weather, unless it is too dangerous, as last Sunday clearly would have been.
Which brings up a brief discussion about the difference in conducting a CBC in the early part of the count period as opposed to the end of it. The count period is long enough and generally cold enough so that the difference in ice cover on freshwater ponds and coastal estuaries and general snow cover is markedly different at the end of the period than at the beginning. Bird mortality is a reality and a big part of winter in this region.
The longer and colder it gets, the harder it is for over- wintering birds, particularly land birds, to survive. Hence, counts run in the first week of the period in New England have an advantage over counts runs later in the period in terms of what lingering birds might be found. The longest running counts generally have the choice of the first weekends and this is surely an advantage in terms of total number of species seen.
The CBC season is one of helpful and friendly competition. For example, the compilers of neighboring counts always come to help on the Vineyard CBC. Peter Trimble as well as his son Jeremiah, the Buzzard's Bay and Mid-Cape CBC compilers, as well as Blair Nikula, the Outer Cape CBC compiler, will be doing areas on the Vineyard on January 3. It is a team effort and friendly cooperation is the rule, not the exception, amongst area birders.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Until next year - keep your eyes to the sky.