Wild Side: Christmas Bird Count

Genial chats with kinglets furnished the day’s high points.

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Congenial golden-crowned kinglets were a bright spot on a dull day during this winter's Christmas Bird Count. —Dick Daniels/Wikimedia Commons

Last Saturday, Jan. 5, I participated in the annual Vineyard Christmas Bird Count, part of a vast national survey coordinated by National Audubon. Dozens of Islanders, plus a few reinforcements from the mainland, spread out across a dozen territories, seeking to find, identify, and tally as many birds as possible. As usual, I took on a territory that includes West Chop, Vineyard Haven center, and outlying neighborhoods of Tisbury.

Poor weather was a factor for this year’s entire count. My day in the field began around 4 am at West Chop Woods, where I hoped to conjure up a few owls. Light rain was falling, which did not inspire optimism — the apparent bulk of an owl is largely feathers, and the rain muffled the noise made by flight. I also expect an owl, once soggy, takes a long time to dry out. So they are reticent to move or even respond in wet weather.

I walked most of the trail system at the preserve, stopping every 50 yards or so to whistle like a screech owl or like a northern saw-whet owl — an easy call to mimic, just a rhythmic tooting on a pitch around B-flat. The theory is that hearing the call of its species, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it, an owl will call back, or even fly in to examine the source of the call.

I did manage to draw a response from two screech owls, but they were not enthusiastic. No saw-whets responded, though I felt pretty sure the species was present. I should have stayed in bed.

After a short visit home to dry out, eat, and recaffeinate, I continued my usual Christmas Bird Count route with a stop on the apron on the Tisbury side of the drawbridge. I was looking for waterfowl, and on a hunch — lousy weather sometimes brings seabirds in closer to land than usual — I altered my routine with a quick stop at West Chop. I saw a fly-by razorbill, the only member of its species I’d find that day. From there, it was a blur of thickets, shorelines, feeding stations, and fields.

The weather varied during the day, but never approached what you’d call decent for birding. A couple of hours in the morning were raw, with little precipitation, and I devoted that time to working a few inland sites that are usually my most productive. Otherwise, the day featured a mix of mist, drizzle, and light rain, with a northeast wind gradually gaining strength.

Wet weather presents both challenges and opportunities for birders. On the down side, the lenses of your binoculars invariably end up fogged or spotted with water, the light is dim, and the steady patter of rain makes it hard to detect bird vocalizations — all factors that make it harder to find and identify birds. And in general, birds are reluctant to move in the rain.

On the bright side, though, there is much less human activity in the rain, meaning birds get disturbed less frequently. This can translate into birds that are relaxed and approachable. And when birds do find an opportunity to forage on a rainy day — either a break in the precipitation or the discovery of a rich food source in a sheltered site — their feeding activity may be energetic to the point of being incautious. Birds in the rain, that is to say, are hard to find, but can be cooperative once you do track them down.

These alterations in behavior were well illustrated by the golden-crowned kinglets I encountered. These are tiny, plump birds, grayish-green in color and sporting bold yellow patches on their crowns. Northern birds, breeding largely in conifer woodland at high elevation or high latitude, they are regulars on the Vineyard in winter. They are flexible in their foraging habits, but typically turn up in woodland canopies, often high off the ground. And they often show no interest in humans, frequently ignoring the “pishing” sounds birders make to attract songbirds.

But on Saturday, the four groups of kinglets I encountered were all foraging within a few feet of the ground, or even on the ground in a couple of instances. And they seemed utterly fascinated by my presence, flitting in to perch on twigs just a couple of feet from my face. I couldn’t escape the sense that the kinglets’ interest in me went beyond curiosity to something more like companionship. It was as if we were sharing a moment of unity, contending with lousy weather, but staying cheerful in spite of it. On a day that produced no rarities, my genial chats with kinglets furnished the day’s high points.

By day’s end, I had managed a total of 50 species, down from the 60 or more I’d expect in good weather, but not bad given the conditions. Numbers of most species were low — especially sea ducks, which apparently moved away from my territory’s north-facing shorelines because of the northeast winds and waves. I missed a few birds that would normally be easy to find. Based on preliminary results, other participants experienced the same depressed numbers. But there’s always next year.