From merlins to warblers: 30,000 birds spotted in annual count

The Vineyard's contribution to a wide-ranging bird count benefited this year from higher visibility.


The Vineyard’s 64th annual Christmas Bird Count, held this weekend, identified more than 30,000 individual birds, up from around 19,000 in 2022. 

With results still coming in, volunteers have noted 126 different species, up from 124 last year.

According to wildlife biologist Luanne Johnson, director of the Island nonprofit BiodiversityWorks and coordinator of the Vineyard’s count, this year’s totals are due to higher visibility on the day of the count, combined with uncharacteristically warm preceding months. The warmer fall may have kept some birds from flying south.

The Vineyard’s bird count is part of a hemisphere-wide Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society, in which participating areas track local birds at a selected time from Dec. 12 to Jan. 5. The society’s count is in its 124th year, and each year over 72,000 volunteers in 2,400 locations provide the data that the society compiles for a yearly bird count report.

For the Vineyard’s tally — this year held on Dec. 31 — the Island is split into 13 territories, each with an experienced birding captain. Most teams leave before the sun comes up to spot owls, and teams are out birding until sunset. Individuals with their own bird feeders also participate by recording and reporting their sightings.

Johnson says that this year’s numbers are yet to be fully compiled, as counting is permitted for three days before and after the main counting date. However, Johnson notes several exciting and unexpected finds so far.

This year brought multiple notable warblers. In Aquinnah, a Tennessee warbler was found; and in West Tisbury, a black-throated blue warbler was spotted at a suet feeder. Though exact wintering locations vary per warbler species, the birds are typically found far away during this time of year. 

“Warblers spend winters usually in Central America,” Johnson said. “[It has been] a warm fall and December, so there is plenty of insect food around. That means some birds are sticking around.”

Birders also identified an all-time high of overwintering, black-crowned night herons. Forty-seven of those birds, which nest on the Vineyard in the summer, were found at Lagoon Pond.

Small numbers of raptors — birds of prey — were also identified. An American kestrel was found at the FARM Institute in Edgartown, and a merlin was spotted around the Seven Gates area. A northern saw-whet owl was identified as well, in the State Forest.

In Aquinnah, a short-eared owl was found, a reminder of a previously healthy Vineyard population. “That’s an owl that used to be quite abundant here in the winters,” Johnson says.

For those interested in making wintertime easier for Vineyard birds, Johnson notes the importance of birds having access to open water. She additionally recommends keeping a heated bird bath as birds prepare to make their way south after being surprised by cold weather. “Keep your dogs leashed,” Johnson adds.

One program run by BiodiversityWorks is Natural Neighbors, which works with individuals and neighborhood associations to identify opportunities to add to area biodiversity. For those interested in supporting wildlife on their land, a first-step survey is available on the nonprofit’s Natural Neighbors webpage.

“It’s really an opportunity for citizen science,” says Johnson of the Island’s bird count. “We’re grateful to all the birders who went out and birded that day.”