The 115th CBC in New England

A total of 124 CBCs was conducted in New England this season that was punctuated by such notable sightings and record-breaking totals as 62 Great Shearwaters, 27 Great Egrets, seven Ospreys, a Stilt Sandpiper, 16 Pomarine Jaegers, 72 Common Murres, 16 Atlantic Puffins, four Northern Rough-winged Swallows, a Spotted Towhee, a Le Conte’s Sparrow, and an Indigo Bunting.  All together a total of 226 species was recorded in the Region, plus count-week Forster’s Tern and MacGillivray’s Warbler.

Considering some of these robust numbers and remarkable species at least one of the ways to account for them is to acknowledge the 3711 field observers who contributed 10,072.31 party-hours in locating, counting, and documenting them. Additionally it’s worth pointing out that these same observers traveled 54,831.92 party-miles in their quest to find as many species as possible in New England on their respective count days.  Most of the count period was blessed with precipitation-free conditions, little to no snow cover in many count areas, and plenty of open water.

These overall mellow weather conditions undoubtedly contributed to the early season survival of typically non-hardy wintering species as Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  Similarly, the superb sea conditions present during the Stellwagen Bank CBC almost certainly contributed to the record-breaking counts of several pelagic species.  Regardless of the factors responsible, the diversity of species and the count numbers of certain other species make it possible to close the book on the 115th CBC with a sense of accomplishment.

Trying to select CBC seasonal favorites (i.e., highlights) is a lot like asking a gathering of sports fans who their favorite players are in whatever sport happens to be their favorite sport.  Inevitably the answers will vary (sometimes widely), but generally there tends to be a degree of consensus.  Applying this maxim to the CBC, I think most New England birders would agree that the following list of species should be considered for New England’s 115th CBC’s Regional Hall of Fame. Yellow Rail at Nantucket simply because it is such an elusive species that to find one at any season is an accomplishment, let alone in early winter in New England. Seeing a Stilt Sandpiper at Blue Hill in Maine where the species is never common, is particularly notable in late December and is likely a first such seasonal record for New England.  Rufous Hummingbird at Stratford-Milford, despite the species’ increasing frequency (even regularity) in early winter in New England, it is nonetheless a hummingbird and is accordingly noteworthy in December. White-eyed Vireos at Mid-Cape Cod and Taunton-Middleboro, though the species winters in the southeastern United States, is still a vireo and its presence in Massachusetts is clearly anomalous.  Four Northern Rough-winged Swallows at Hartford, despite the fact that Tree Swallows and, more recently, even a few Cave Swallows occasionally show up on New England CBCs, this editor cannot forget the days not so long ago when seeing a Northern Rough-winged Swallow even as late as September was a rare event! A Northern Parula at Uxbridge, though a warbler that is occasionally seen quite late in the fall, seeing one at Christmastime in Massachusetts seems wonderfully wrong. McGillivray’s Warbler at Taunton-Middleboro, and the mere fact that it is a western vagrant that is supposed to be in Mexico and Central America in December, easily makes it a Hall of Famer in my book. Spotted Towhee at Martha’s Vineyard, by being on the wrong side of the continental United States, makes it a species of more than passing interest in New England.   Le Conte’s Sparrow at Cape Cod, not unlike Yellow Rail, is such an elusive little creature that finding one at all is often challenging, so seeing one as well as the bird on Cape Cod was seen earns it a solid place in this season’s Hall.  Harris’s Sparrow at Middlebury – a state where the species is a bona fide rarity at any time of year, justifiably entitles it to sit at the Table of Champions.  And Indigo Bunting at Greater Boston, like any species whose population largely evacuates this country in winter, is sufficiently rare in New England in December that it deserves to join the roster of luminaries.

This rollcall is not imply that many readers will not have their own, but different, favorites either because they discovered a particular species, or it is unusual in their particular CBC circle, or it is a species they particularly like, or the species was represented by a significant count of individuals, etc.  Whatever the reason, if it’s their favorite, that’s really all that matters.  So as you peruse the various 115th CBC reports, think about your own CBC highlight species, and also why they are your favorites.  This is part of the après enjoyment of the CBC each year.

A quick take of irruptive species activity Region-wide suggested that most species pretty much stayed at home this winter.  Snowy Owls offered something of a modest flight with their total of 86 individuals, but a total of 17 Short-eared Owls could barely be described as modest.  Northern Shrikes represented themselves with a Regional total of 47 which was slightly lower than in recent past seasons.  Bohemian Waxwings barely showed up for the party with a measly total of only 113 individuals in New England.  This species seems to show some of the most dramatic swings of any of the irruptive species regularly frequenting the Region.  Finches appeared in stunningly low numbers compared to last season as indicated by Regional totals of 252 Pine Grosbeaks, 25 White-winged Crossbills, and 1318 Common Redpolls.  Only the total of 3229 Pine Siskins gave any indication of mentionable movement in 2014-2015.

Beginning with waterfowl, a checklist rundown of species particularly worthy of mention includes the following birds.  The increasingly regular Regional appearance of Greater White-fronted Geese, this year at Newburyport, Hartford, Greenwich-Stamford, and Quinnipiac Valley, and Cackling Geese at Greater Boston (2), Newburyport, Northampton, Greenwich-Stamford, Hartford, New Haven (2), Old Lyme-Saybrook, Newport County-Westport, and South Kingstown are in keeping with what these species are doing in other parts of their wintering ranges.  Noteworthy ducks included two Blue-winged Teal and a Tufted Duck at Nantucket and a Eurasian Green-winged Teal at Martha’s Vineyard.  Mysteriously and equally sad was the embarrassingly paltry total of 1670 Long-tailed Ducks at Nantucket where the bulk of this species’ winter population typically resides. The perturbations in the magnitude of this traditionally staggering wintering aggregation is a matter of both scientific interest and conservation concern.  The only Pacific Loons reported were singles at York County and Napatree.

Tubenoses made a big splash in Massachusetts with two Northern Fulmars and 62 Great Shearwaters (no doubt a new national high) at Stellwagen Bank. Long-legged waders were highlighted by a total of 27 Great Egrets between Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut which was only one below last year’s stunning total of 28 Region-wide.  More unusual were a Snowy Egret at Stratford-Milford, a Little Blue Heron at Old Lyme-Saybrook, and a Cattle Egret at Block Island.

Ospreys at Groton-Oxbow N.W.R. (2), Millis, Andover, Newport County-Westport, and Oxford was likely an all-time Regional high total, at the same time that Bald Eagles continued their steady increase with a total this season of 786 individuals Region-wide.  Cooper’s Hawks maintained their upward trend with a total of 610 Region-wide in comparison to only 271 Sharp-shinned Hawks.  The dramatic increase in Cooper’s Hawks in the eastern United States has to be one of the more impressive avian population changes in the past half century and begs the question whether Sharp-shinned Hawks may be slowly declining at the same time.  Unlike Accipiters, the cumulative total of 39 American Kestrels remained close to their previous all-time low total. Golden Eagles were represented by a single bird at Lakeville-Sharon.

A Yellow Rail at Nantucket was very impressive, and two Soras at Cape Cod, while not without precedent, were unexpected.  The shorebird roster was enhanced by the presence of Semipalmated Plover at Greater Boston, Spotted Sandpiper at Greater Portland, 10 unidentified “peep” sandpipers at Newburyport, and Stilt Sandpiper at Blue Hill.

This winter’s larid hit parade featured two Little Gulls at Nantucket, a Laughing Gull at Old Lyme-Saybrook, and a Mew Gull at Nantucket.  Remarkably, indications were that the Mew Gull was the Siberian race Larus canus kamchatkensis – a form that some authorities consider a distinct species.  Though recorded as a count week-only species, a Forster’s Tern at Truro was no less notable.  Arguably one of the most remarkable New England counts of the 115th CBC season was the Stellwagen Bank CBC where species tallied included 16 Pomarine Jaegers, six unidentified jaegers, 72 Common Murres, and 16 Atlantic Puffins in addition to the previously mentioned tubenoses.

The only hummingbird of the period this year was the previously mentioned Rufous Hummingbird at Stratford-Milford.  Although no Red Letter flycatchers were discovered this season, White-eyed Vireos at Taunton-Middleboro and Mid-Cape Cod were certainly worthy.  In addition to a robust total of 16 Tree Swallows between Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, four Northern Rough-winged Swallows at Hartford were extraordinary. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Mid-Cape Cod, while not quite as remarkable, was no less interesting. 

Continuing the trend of seemingly more and more warblers lingering into early winter in New England, this year’s highlights included Northern Parula at Uxbridge, Yellow-throated Warbler at Cape Cod, Black-and-white Warbler at Oxford, and American Redstart at Biddeford-Kennebunkport and Nantucket, Ovenbird at Greater Boston, Northern Waterthrush at Nantucket, and the previously mentioned McGillivray’s Warbler at Taunton-Middleboro.

CBC luminaries reported from the end of the checklist were Western Tanager at Biddeford-Kennebunkport, Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Sweden, Spotted Towhee at Martha’s Vineyard, Lark Sparrow at Greater Portland and Quincy, Le Conte’s Sparrow at Cape Cod, Grasshopper Sparrow at Cape Cod, Lincoln’s Sparrows at Concord (MA), New Haven, and Coastal New Hampshire, Harris’s Sparrow at Middlebury, Greater Boston, and Hoary Redpoll at Littleton.