The 117th CBC in New England

A total of 131 New England CBCs was conducted during the 117th CBC count year.  As always, and despite less than ideal weather on several count days this season, there were a number of unusual or out of season regional discoveries. Among the more notable species recorded either on count day or count week were Pink-footed Goose (Thomaston-Rockland, Newburyport, Greenwich-Stamford), Ross’s Goose (Newburyport, Greenwich-Stamford), Tufted Duck (Nantucket), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Stratford-Milford), Eared Grebe (New London), Yellow Rail (Nantucket), Semipalmated Plover (Newport County-Westport),
White-winged Dove (Greater Boston), Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Greater Portland), Rufous Hummingbird (Buzzards Bay),  Ash-throated Flycatcher (Mid-Cape Cod), Sedge Wren (Cape Cod), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Newport County-Westport), Townsend’s Solitaire (Saxton’s River, Cape Ann), Harris’s Sparrow (Central Berkshire), and Western Tanager (South Kingstown).  It should be noted that a number of unusual reports not specifically highlighted in the summary that follows may have been notable on the count where they were recorded even if they were not particularly notable Region-wide.  For example, a Purple Sandpiper on an interior Maine CBC would clearly be very unusual by virtue of its location, even though the species is routinely recorded on coastal Maine CBCs.  Readers are left to discover those gems on your own.

Including several count period reports the cumulative total of 222 species tallied in New England this season fails to match some of the “Glory Years” of past CBC periods.  However as suggested above, inclement weather during several count period days was one factor that likely contributed to the dip noted in total species numbers. As an example, New Haven compiler Chris Loscalzo noted that on December 17“Hours of steady snowfall resulted in the accumulation of four to five inches of snow on the ground.  Several hours of rain turned that snow into slush and ice. And that was just the weather before noon!” Easy to see why some counts took a hit! Regardless of the totals, the 3685 “citizen scientists” who covered 37,336.33 miles and contributed 7965.12 party-hours to locating, counting, and documenting the species total cited above deserve heart-felt kudos for their willingness to volunteer their time, energy, and field skills to count birds during the Holiday Season – a practice that generations of birders have been doing every year (regardless of the weather!) since 1900 when the first CBC was conducted!  Nice work everyone!

Pink-footed Geese during the 117th Christmas Bird Count.

Although the season’s list of outliers failed to match last year’s star-studded cast of extralimital species, the roster was not without highlights.  For instance the trend of out-of-range (?) geese continuing to appear on New England CBCs manifested itself in spades this season.  Pink-footed Goose – a species virtually unknown in the United States as recently as 20 years ago – appeared in three different states during the CBC period, and Greater White-fronted Goose and Ross’s Goose (though less rare than Pink-footed Goose) both showed up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Stratford-Milford represented one of less than half a dozen CBC records ever for New England.  At the same time, an enigmatic Yellow Rail that appeared in a marsh at Nantucket that has previously hosted this species with remarkable frequency in recent years, suggested at least the possibility that a returning individual may have been involved.

Additionally, the continued appearance of early winter Selasphorus and other hummingbird species in recent years continues to hint at the possibility that several hummingbird species may be either gradually preparing for anticipated changes in climate, or for more obscure reasons shifting their migration patterns.  And finally, if Ash-throated Flycatchers and Townsend’s Solitaires continue to make such regular early winter appearances in New England, they will soon no longer make the Regional Hit Parade!

In the wins and losses column for this season, what follows is a sample of some of the more obvious seasonal winners and losers from the front end of the checklist, along with a few species that have clearly shown a longer-term increase or decrease in recent years. Some clear winners include Wood Duck, Mallard, Black Scoter, Hooded Merganser, Black Vulture, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Merlin, and Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Some species that are regionally declining on the other side of the ledger are Great Cormorant, American Black Duck, Greater Scaup, American Kestrel, Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Meadowlark, and Purple Finch. The reasons for these fluctuations are beyond the scope of this summary, but suffice to say that each species has its own story and thoughtful readers are encouraged to seek the possible explanations on their own.

Of the always intriguing winter irruptive species, some species failed to make much of a statement during the 117th CBC.  For example, 116 Rough-legged Hawks and 60 Northern Shrikes could hardly be called major irruptions, however a total of 2843 Bohemian Waxwings in northern New England represented significantly more than a ripple.  Winter finches also moved the needle on northern counts with totals of 1143 Pine Grosbeaks and 1811 Evening Grosbeaks. 

A brisk taxonomic overview of the 117th CBC season produced the following rundown of highlights. Cackling Geese clearly seem to be on the increase with at least one in Massachusetts, 11 in Connecticut, and three in Rhode Island.  Whether these numbers represent a genuine increase in local abundance, or the product of a heightened search image on the part of New England birders is a question for debate. Less equivocal was a total of 10 Tundra Swans at Block Island for what has to be one of the highest-ever CBC counts in New England.  Other notable waterfowl were Blue-winged Teal at South Kingstown, Greenwich-Stamford (2), and Stratford-Milford, and a count week Tufted Duck at Nantucket, where 33,054 Long-tailed Ducks were also tallied. The sea duck that really spiked this winter however was Black Scoter, with a stunning total of 17,629 at Truro and a record-high state CBC total of 2472 in Connecticut. With 13 Northern Bobwhites recorded on the Truro CBC as probably the only bona fide quail in New England, one has to wonder if the bobwhite’s days in the Region are close to an end.

Pacific Loons made appearances at Nantucket, Truro, and New London, and an Eared Grebe at New London was a real bonus for Connecticut. Great Egrets at Block Island, South Kingstown (2), and New London, and a Snowy Egret at Napatree were all noteworthy at those locations. Evidence of the continued northward expansion of Black Vultures was reflected by counts of 15 individuals at Southern Berkshire, four at Uxbridge, and one at Saxton’s River.  The Region’s only Ospreys were a single at Truro and a count week bird at New Haven.  Always prized Golden Eagles were located at Quabbin and Litchfield Hills.  A Northern Goshawk at Nantucket was most unusual, as was the presence of carefully identified and photographed hybrid Red-shouldered x Red-tailed Hawks at Saxton’s River and Worcester.

Among the notables in the seabird department were three Pomarine Jaegers, 48 Common Murres, and five Atlantic Puffins at Stellwagen Bank. Common Murres definitely seem to be on the increase, and three at New London may have represented only the third occurrences for Connecticut.

Black Vulture numbers continued to soar, with a Regional total of 207 individuals tallied, and 15 at Southern Berkshire alone for a new high Massachusetts CBC total.  Other raptor highlights were regional totals of 324 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 404 Cooper’s Hawks.  The sum total of 14 Northern Goshawks suggested that these northern forest predators largely stayed home this winter, and single Golden Eagles at Athol and Worcester were the only reports of this species. As testament to the increase of Sandhill Cranes in New England, CBC occurrences included three in Maine, four in Massachusetts, one in Rhode Island, and a count week bird in Connecticut.

Five Laughing Gulls at New Haven was a notable single count early winter total, and a Massachusetts total of 266 Lesser Black-backed Gulls tallied between six CBCs is a reminder of how common this species has become in southern New England these days.

Among the more interesting passerine occurrences were a remarkable tally of 47 Tree Swallows at Martha’s Vineyard; single Blue-headed Vireos at New London and Newport County-Westport; a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Newport County-Westport; three Nashville Warblers at New Haven, one at Westport, one at Newport County-Westport, and a count week bird at Greater Portland; Ovenbirds at Greater Boston and Mid-Cape Cod; Northern Waterthrushes at South Kingstown and Greater Boston; Black-throated Blue Warbler at Greater Portland; Black-throated Green Warbler at Newburyport; a count week Wilson’s Warbler at Woodbury-Roxbury; and a Lark Sparrow at Cape Cod.

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