The 120th CBC in New England

A total of 127 CBCs was conducted in New England during the 120th CBC season.  The “work force” participating in this effort included 3791 counters (not including feeder watchers) who logged approximately 11,904 party-hours and 36,749 party-miles in their efforts to tally 217 species, plus three count-week species, during the CBC period. These figures do not include   uncountable forms such as hybrids or subspecies such as “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow.

Some of the more unusual species tallied on count day or during count week this season were Pink-footed Goose (Newport County-Westport), Tufted Duck (Nantucket, Westport), Sooty Shearwater (Stellwagen Bank), American White Pelican (Truro), Marbled Godwit (Cape Cod, Plymouth c-w), Rufous Hummingbird (Newport County-Westport), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Cape Cod), (Townsend’s Solitaire (Cape Ann c-w), single Cape May Warblers at Coastal NH and New London, three Grasshopper Sparrows (Cape Cod, Mid-Cape Cod, Napatree), and a virtual plethora of Painted Buntings in the Bay State (2 at Cape Cod, Mid-Cape Cod, Plymouth). This enigmatic little bunting is practically becoming annual in New England in recent early winters.  In this editor’s opinion, heading the list of luminaries this year were a count-week Swainson’s Thrush, closely followed by a Wood Thrush, both at Newburyport! Almost as remarkable was a Wood Thrush recorded last year at Cape Cod.  As in past count summaries, a number of reports not specifically highlighted in this overview were notable on the counts where they were recorded, even if they failed to make the Region-wide hit parade.  Readers are encouraged to discover these omitted nuggets for themselves.

New England count conditions for the second year in a row were overall reasonably favorable, with lots of open water and relatively little or no snow cover in southern New England, and only usual amounts in the northern portions of the northern states. Temperatures were similarly gentler than in many years, and in Massachusetts, December actually averaged five degrees above normal.  Despite some light precipitation during a few counts, the milder temperatures mostly resulted in rain, or light fog in a few cases.

The continuing trend of increasing numbers for several species were reflected by the cumulative totals of 4650 Hooded Mergansers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, 573 Black Vultures Region-wide, 792 Common Ravens in southern New England, and nearly 300 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Region-wide. There are undoubtedly other species on the increase, but these are some standout examples.  Subtler, but possibly in the same category are Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, White-breasted Nuthatch, and the bounce-back of Carolina Wrens following their crash in the aftermath of the severe and snowy winter of 2015.  In typical yin and yang fashion, for every positive trend noted in New England bird populations, there are inevitably offsetting events that bring us back to the reality of more negative population swings.  In this category belong the continuing depressed numbers of Long-tailed Ducks at Nantucket, the excessively low numbers of Ruffed Grouse in many areas of southern New England, and the overall diminishment of Northern Bobwhite, American Kestrel, American Tree Sparrow, Purple Finch, and Eastern Meadowlark. Although the causes for some of these declines have been increasingly identified, the fact remains that their once numerous Regional abundances have been significantly reduced.

Following these broad-brush comments, what follows are selected examples of other notable species occurrences, accompanied by comments to underscore each one’s significance.  Beyond these, readers are left to discover for themselves other notable occurrences or local trends that more discerning eyes than mine may detect.  I would also add at this point how much I appreciate the care and diligence that all the New England CBC compilers apply to their trade, and at the same time thank the many field observers who annually brave the rigors of early New England winters to amass the data that makes this annual analysis possible.  I salute you all!

What follows is a rollcall of Regional species highlights.  The Nutmeg State had a lock on Greater White-fronted Geese this season with singles recorded at Westport, New Haven, Quinnipiac Valley, and Hartford, and count-week individuals at Greenwich-Stamford and Stratford-Milford.  This is clearly a species whose range and occurrence in New England is now approaching annual in small numbers.  Impressive was a lingering total of 7022 Snow Geese at Champlain Islands, while a Barnacle Goose at Stratford-Milford (c-w) was the only Regional report this year of this once accidental visitor from Greenland and Iceland.  Always scarce and often absent in New England, two Tundra Swans at Block Island were unique this winter, as were two Blue-winged Teal at Mid-Cape Cod. As previously suggested, the total of 5655 Long-tailed Ducks at Nantucket, while well up from a mere 696 last season, was a far cry from the once vast numbers that annually frequented the Nantucket Shoals in winter. Whether this decline is a possible signal of the changing climate, or due to some other phenomenon, continues to be a question for future investigation. Totals of 148,658 and 200,000 Common Eiders (Nantucket and Tuckernuck Island) hardly suggest there is a shortage of mollusks in the shoal waters around these islands. A single Pacific Loon (South Kingstown) was the only report this CBC season.

While southern hemisphere tubenoses are barely expected in New England waters in early winter, this season was punctuated by Great Shearwater (Cape Cod) and Sooty Shearwater (Stellwagen Bank) in Bay State waters, in addition to three Pomarine Jaegers (Cape Cod) and a single at Stellwagen Bank.

A Regional raptor roundup was headed by lingering Ospreys at Groton-Oxbow and Storrs (c-w) and a stunning collective total of 1192 Bald Eagles, following last year’s total of 992, which suggests that this could be the highest New England tally in CBC history.  Golden Eagles were represented by singles at Napatree Point, Litchfield Hills, and Plainfield, along with count-week individuals at Concord and Brattleboro. Cooper’s Hawk continued to maintain its unequivocal first place status in the annual New England Accipiter Derby with a Regional total of 572 individuals, followed by Sharp-shinned Hawk with a measly total of 223. However, these totals failed to challenge last year’s respective totals of 753 and 328. Despite being considerably lower than last season, it is likely that the notably fewer count participants, and their fewer total party-hours, were at least partly responsible for this disparity. Of the irruptive diurnal predators, the cumulative Regional totals of eight Northern Goshawks, 51 Rough-legged Hawks, and 42 Northern Shrikes were painfully unimpressive, even though Maine’s total alone of 22 shrikes effectively eclipsed last year’s Regional total of 13.

A total of nine Great Egrets on Connecticut CBCs hardly raises eyebrows these days, even though a single individual at Ferrisburgh in northern Vermont was more notable.

The only mentionable shorebirds were Semipalmated Plover (Coastal New Hampshire), American Oystercatcher (New Haven), Long-billed Dowitcher (Stratford-Milford - 3) and Nantucket - 2), dowitcher sp. (Cape Cod), and count-week Willet (Cape Cod), and Marbled Godwit (Cape Cod, Plymouth). Other than a generous total of 47 Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Nantucket, Larids were singularly lackluster this season.  Common Murres however made notable statements with counts of 177 at Stellwagen Bank and 119 at Cape Ann. The increasing numbers of this species recorded on Regional CBCs in recent years seems to be echoing the general increase noted in inshore New England waters since the mid-1990s.  Similarly, from the Bay State total of 3504 Razorbills, single count tallies of 1504 (Mid-Cape Cod), 829 (Cape Cod), and 357 (Cape Ann) were most notable.  And while least, but by no means last, sea-watchers at Cape Ann had to have been delighted by the 4682 Dovekies noted passing Andrews Point in Rockport on count day.

Unlike last year’s robust New England total of 103 Snowy Owls, this season CBC counters were only able to locate a paltry 11 during this year’s CBC effort.  Twenty Short-eared Owls was up from 13 last season however, and a Regional score of 80 Northern Saw-whet Owls suggested that these little owls enjoyed at least a modest irruption. A Rufous Hummingbird at Newport County-Westport and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Stratford-Milford were the only members of these tiny misplaced visitors recorded on New England CBCs this season.

The always elusive Red-headed Woodpecker was Regionally represented by two at Lee-Durham and a single at Groton-Oxbow.  An uncooperative Western Kingbird found the day before the official count day was fortunately able to be added as a count-week species at Nantucket.  A White-eyed Vireo at Nantucket was barely eclipsed by Blue-headed Vireos at Ellsworth-Hog Bay and New Haven.  A remarkable total of 202 Tree Swallows at Greater Portland was further increased by 11 at Coastal New Hampshire, three at Martha’s Vineyard, five at South Kingstown, and five at Block Island.  A House Wren at Saxton’s River was well north of where it belonged in late December, and the only Sedge Wren in the Region was a single at Nantucket. A total of 264 Bohemian Waxwings between Maine and Vermont hardly suggested that a major irruption was in progress for this elegant boreal traveler.

Mentionable warblers during the CBC period included Orange-crowned Warbler at Mt. Abraham, Nashville Warblers at Newport County-Westport (2) and Westport, Cape May Warblers at Coastal New Hampshire and New London, Black-throated Blue Warbler and Prairie Warbler at Truro, Ovenbirds at Greater Boston, Mid-Cape Cod, and South Kingstown, and Northern Waterthrush at Martha’s Vineyard and Tuckernuck Island.

Winding up the 119th New England CBC rollcall brings us to single Clay-colored Sparrows at Cape Cod, Greater Boston, Quincy, and two at Napatree Point; Grasshopper Sparrows at Cape Cod, Mid-Cape Cod, and Napatree Point; Lark Sparrows at Greater Portland, Martha’s Vineyard, and count-week at New Bedford; Lincoln’s Sparrows at Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Newburyport; and Western Tanagers at Coastal New Hampshire, Mid-Cape Cod and Plymouth. In conclusion, with a Regional total of 742 – the largest total in quite a number of years – Purple Finch was the only winter finch that hinted at any significant irruptive movement.