The 123rd Christmas Bird Count in New England

Gradually there was a return to normalcy during the CBC season this season as more and more bird-counters increasingly felt comfortable participating in the CBC without wearing masks or feeling uncomfortable riding in a car with familiar colleagues.  Only time will tell whether the cursed Covid pandemic is behind us, but the reprieve this count season was certainly a welcome departure from the past several CBC years.

Not including count-week species and uncountable forms such as “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow or hybrids such as Mallard x American Black Duck, an aggregate total of 224 species was recorded on 125 New England CBCs this season by 3906 counters (not including feeder-watchers) who spent 10,160.89 daylight party hours looking for birds in the field and traveled approximately 41,285 party miles in their quest. As is always the case, these are powerful numbers if one also factors the total number of volunteer hours that are ultimately required to annually pull together the international effort that represents the CBC every year. Hats off and thanks to all the birders, compilers, regional editors, computer gurus, and statisticians who are involved in this gigantic event!

Although it is the ever-changing numbers of even our most common bird species every year that ultimately is of greatest value and concern to bird conservationists, there is little question that regardless of where a CBC takes place, it is equally true that the hope of discovering an unexpected, out of season, or out of region species that motivates many counters to brave the rigors of a winter day in a region like New England. Come fair weather or foul, a CBC often brings out the competitive best in beginning birders and seasoned experts alike, and the discovery of an unusual species on a CBC is often the highlight of the day for everyone involved. With these thoughts in mind, let me offer a few of the highlights that undoubtedly were particularly satisfying to CBC counters in New England this season.

To provide some additional context, let it be noted that both Maine and Massachusetts hosted 32 CBCs, Vermont 21, New Hampshire and Connecticut 18, and Rhode Island four. Unlike some other competitive events however, the CBC is not an activity where large size necessarily holds all the cards. For example, the tiny Ocean State’s Newport County-Westport count recorded 135 species this year, second only to the regional high count of 148 tallied by Mid-Cape Cod. Similarly, Rhode Island also hosted what may have been the Region’s first CBC record for a Western Cattle Egret. But lest we believe that geographical location is the secret to hosting distinguished rarities, what does that say about a Painted Bunting on the Eastport, ME, count – the easternmost city in the continental United States?  While it’s certainly true that both size and geographical location are sometimes important in determining the distribution and number of species likely to occur in a region during the winter, the CBC somehow always manages to challenge this logic. As examples what are the odds of a count-week Pink-footed Goose and a Barn Swallow both showing up at Lee-Durham, a Western Grebe on a freshwater lake at Buzzards Bay, a Barnacle Goose and a Loggerhead Shrike at Greater Boston, a Rufous Hummingbird at Springfield, and a Smith’s Longspur at Northampton.

Since weather is always one of the great equalizers in assessing a CBC season, suffice to say that this early winter offered a variety of conditions, probably most notable in the three northern states where snow and hazardous driving was a factor for a few counts, yet in some southern New England states the weather was described as delightful in some cases.  Hey, it’s New England – what do you want!  Because of the wintery conditions in Pittsburg, I’ll digress to mention that due to the snow cover observers enjoyed seeing: red fox, white-tailed deer, river otter, ermine, red squirrel, and the tracks of pine marten, northern flying squirrel, a shrew sp., coyote, mink, and moose. That’s a pretty sweet mammal list when you throw in some boreal birds.

At this point it seems I’d like to summarize a few highlights taxonomically rather than randomly.  Before doing so however, let me reflect on a few of the trends that have been most obvious to me in recent years.  It is abundantly clear that some species are increasing throughout the year, and some are certainly appearing with greater frequency in early winter.  Among the standouts are Hooded Merganser, Wild Turkey, Great Egret, Black Vulture, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, possibly Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Fish Crow, Common Raven, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Northern Cardinal. Species that clearly seem to be diminishing in some areas are American Black Duck, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Ruffed Grouse, Horned Grebe, Purple Sandpiper, Great Cormorant, American Kestrel, Northern Mockingbird, Purple Finch, and American Tree Sparrow. There probably are other species that some readers would add or remove from one or the other of these lists. I urge all of you to keep an eye on these species in the year ahead to see whether you agree with me or not, or what I may be overlooking. 

Some of the most obvious trends in waterfowl seem to be among the geese. While the peak of the eastern Snow Goose migration has often departed New England by late December, a tally of 8032 at Champlain Islands was a gentle reminder of the magnitude of this flight in many years. Small numbers of Greater White-fronted Geese and Cackling Geese are now being annually recorded on scattered counts throughout the Region, and whether the Cackling Geese are all truly Cackling Geese is sometimes questionable due to identification difficulties, but it certainly seems obvious from documented reports including photographs that their numbers are increasing. This year a Barnacle Goose was at Greater Boston and a Pink-footed Goose at Lee-Durham, but unlike the North American geese these Palearctic species are still rare enough to carefully document, and to also consider the possibility of returning individuals in successive winters. Two Tundra Swans at Block Island were the only members of this marginal New England visitor this season.  Lingering Blue-winged Teal were recorded in better numbers than in many years and appeared at Coastal New Hampshire (2), Greater Portland (2), Cape Cod (3), Mid-Cape Cod, and Stratford-Milford.  Nantucket hosted 372 Canvasbacks and 179 Redheads this year, and with these totals comes a reminder of past glory days when these two species were once significantly more common in southern New England. The Region’s only Tufted Duck was at Nantucket. Maine’s state total of 217 Harlequin Ducks maintained its regional stronghold for this elegant species.  Unfortunately, the once great winter concentrations of Long-tailed Ducks off Nantucket continue to be greatly diminished, and the Nantucket total this year was reduced to a paltry 2856. Black Scoter numbers however made a strong Bay State showing with 21,084 tallied statewide. Similarly, Hooded Merganser statewide numbers in Connecticut (2599) and Rhode Island (1200) offered solid evidence of the continued increase of this species in New England.  A Western Grebe on a freshwater lake at Buzzards Bay was the only grebe to distinguish itself in New England this year.

Shorebirds making the hit parade this season included four American Oystercatchers (2 at Tuckernuck, 1 at Martha’s Vineyard, 1 at Napatree), a remarkable two Northern Lapwings that fortuitously arrived before the CBC period (1 at Newburyport and another at Biddeford-Kennebunkport), a Semipalmated Plover at Mid-Cape Cod, single Short-billed Dowitchers at Nantucket and Tuckernuck, and six Long-billed Dowitchers at Mid-Cape Cod. Any winter dowitcher in New England is of interest, but Short-billed Dowitchers in December are especially unusual.  Four Willets at Cape Cod were also notably late.

In the seabird and gull category, species of particular interest included an unidentified jaeger at Cape Cod, a total of 53 Dovekies on several Bay State coastal counts, significant totals of Razorbills at Tuckernuck (2137), Cape Cod (1617), and Truro (910) and a grand total of 7062 Razorbills statewide. Other alcids featured a total of five Common Murres between Martha’s Vineyard, Mid-Cape Cod, and Plymouth, and an Atlantic Puffin at the Isles of Shoals.  Laughing Gulls willing to try spending Christmas in New England included two at Nantucket, two at New London, and a single at Greenwich-Stamford.  A total of 306 Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Nantucket was reflective of the continuing burgeoning trend in this species throughout the region. Block Island hosted the only Pacific Loon in the region this year.

In the long-legged wader group, Great Egret seems to be the species most closely shadowing its increasing trend in breeding numbers. These handsome beauties were recorded at Nantucket (4), South Kingstown (3), Greenwich-Stamford (3), Stratford-Milford, New London, Napatree, Marshfield, Mid-Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Buzzards Bay, and New Bedford. It would be interesting to know how many of these individuals will survive the winter.

Black Vultures continued their explosive colonization of New England with a regional total of 660 individuals collectively counted in every state except Maine. This is truly a meteoric range expansion, and one that is challenging to explain unless climate change alone is the engine driving this remarkable increase. Golden Eagles spread their wings over Woodstock and Napatree, and the cumulative total for Bald Eagles wintering in New England this year was 1284. With this number in mind, I smile to myself when I recall compiling CBC information for National Audubon in the 1980s and how assiduously I encouraged CBC participants and compilers to carefully track the numbers of Bald Eagles (and Cooper’s Hawk numbers) that they reported each winter. Every year it was almost like watching the mercury rise in a thermometer on a hot day in the summer, but more exciting as the numbers of those species increased from one winter to the next!  This is an example of the joys one can get from tracking CBC numbers as they change over time. 

A different pattern typically emerges when we track irruptive species over many years. This winter the regional total of the highly irruptive Rough-legged Hawk was 21, and at Ferrisburg which usually has the highest Rough-leg total in New England, the total was two birds and the lowest since 1973!  In this case however, these low numbers are not due to a crash in the population of Rough-legs – their numbers are driven by the number of voles and other small mammals available for the hawks to eat on their Arctic breeding grounds.  Unlike the increases noted in Bald Eagles and Cooper’s Hawks which are due to increases at the population level, the fluctuations in numbers of Rough-legged Hawks are a function of changing food supplies on their breeding grounds.  Species such as Rough-legged Hawks, like Snowy Owls and various winter finches such as Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, and Red and White-winged crossbills are all food specialists, so in years when there is plenty of food in the boreal forests or Arctic areas where they nest, they stay home in winter, and we seldom see very many on the CBCs in New England.  There are quite a few boreal forest and Arctic species that are responsible for the variations in the numbers we see in New England winters from year to year, and in most cases these variations are due to changes in the availability or abundance of their food supply on their breeding grounds.

On the heels of Rough-legged Hawks and likely for similar reasons, two more irruptive predatory species also barely made a New England CBC appearance this winter – Snowy Owl and Northern Shrike.  Three was the total of Snowy Owls regionwide, and for Northern Shike it was 20.  In the case of Snowy Owls, the driving force is the variable abundance of brown lemmings in the Arctic regions where the owls breed, and for Northern Shrikes it’s more likely the relative prevalence of small songbirds as well as voles.  In other words, the shortfall of both Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Shrikes in New England this season could well be linked to the same causative agent.

Well-photographed or banded hummingbirds once again made their presence known in New England this winter with lingering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at Newport County-Westport and Salmon River, a Black-chinned Hummingbird at Hartford, and a Rufous Hummingbird at Springfield. I continue to encourage birders tracking out of season hummers at their feeders to have them banded if at all possible, not only to establish their positive identity, but also to possibly track returning out of range vagrant species since several species are beginning to show indications of extending their range eastward.

A total of 307 Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the Pine Tree State is a colorful and noisy reminder of the fact that this species is another southerner that didn’t begin to establish a nesting beachhead in southern New England until the late 1960s and early 1970s and is now breeding with increasing frequency throughout New England. Unlike the resident Red-bellied Woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a migratory northern species that seems to be increasingly lingering in the region in winter.  A cumulative total of 455 on Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island CBCs would have been practically unheard of 25 years ago.

Merlin numbers are now significantly outstripping American Kestrels on New England CBCs in all six states.  Although the plight of the dapper little kestrel is the subject of considerable targeted investigation, its numbers continue to remain significantly diminished from what many long-time birders undoubtedly remember within their lifetime.

Because of their considerable diversity, Passerines always seem frustratingly difficult to summarize, so kindly bear with me as I wind down this lengthy diatribe. The most notable flycatcher this season was a Western Kingbird at Greater Portland, and arguably one of the most outstanding birds in New England this season was a Loggerhead Shrike at Greater Boston that lingered long enough for many observers to see and photograph it.  Increasingly, few are the number of observers who can remember when this species was an annual uncommon fall and a rare spring migrant in southern New England.  The ever-elusive Sedge Wren made the roster this season when two appeared at Nantucket and another showed up at Cape Cod.  Always a CBC standout, a Townsend’s Solitaire at Old Lyme-Saybrook was unique in the region this year.

Unlike some other irruptive species this year, Bohemian Waxwings maintained a generous profile with totals of 1936 in Maine, 912 in Vermont, 328 in New Hampshire, and 11 in Massachusetts. The Pine Tree State consistently has strong numbers for this species because of the extensive fruit-bearing trees on the University of Maine campus at Orono, but this year the other northern states pulled their weight and consequently the overall regional total. In contrast to my earlier comments about irruptive species, Bohemian Waxwings are frugivores that march to the drum of variations in the seasonal abundance of fruit and berries rather than variations in the seasonal abundance of conifer cones, catkins, or rodents.

An obvious outlier in this section of the checklist was a Smith’s Longspur at Northampton that arguably deserves the Best of Count Bird Award for 2023, although there was lots of stiff competition this year! Present for several weeks and enjoyed by a great many people, it could not have been a more cooperative bird.

Always favorites, warblers made a decent showing this season.  The list of unusual species included Ovenbird at Greenwich-Stamford, two Black-and-white Warblers at Westport, single Tennessee Warblers at Westport and Quincy, and a count-week bird at New London, a MacGillivray’s Warbler at Greater Boston, single Nashville Warblers at Greenwich-Stamford and New Haven, a Yellow Warbler at Napatree, a Northern Parula at Stratford-Milford, a Yellow-throated Warbler at New Bedford, single Prairie Warblers at Eastport and Nantucket, and six Yellow-breasted Chats at New London, three at South Kingstown, and singles at Napatree and Newport County-Westport. Also recorded were varying numbers of Orange-crowned Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Palm Warblers, Pine Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Among the various sparrow highlights this season were Grasshopper Sparrow at Cape Cod, LeConte’s Sparrow at Cape Ann, Lark Sparrow at Concord, MA, and single Lincoln’s Sparrows at Matinicus, Stratford-Milford, Groton-Oxbow N.W.R., Buzzards Bay, and Cape Cod.  In the same category belong Western Tanagers at Mid-Cape Cod, Coastal New Hampshire, and Blue Hill. Similarly Painted Buntings at Cape Cod, Mid-Cape Cod, Eastport, and a count-week bird at Napatree all deserve a seat at this table.  Finally, of all the winter irruptive finches this season, Pine Grosbeak exhibited the most notable numbers in northern New England, with state totals of 609 in Vermont, 544 in Maine, and 161 in New Hampshire.  Not surprisingly, not a single individual Pine Grosbeak appeared in southern New England.

May everyone enjoy the holidays ahead, and all the best and good birding in 2024!