The 121st Christmas Bird Count in New England

The 121st Christmas Bird Count will long be remembered as the year of the global pandemic that for more than a year practically crippled the world.  Despite the constraints imposed by Covid however, dedicated CBC participants throughout New England dutifully and successfully braved both the elements and the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, which in the end accounted for a striking number of species tallied and more than a modest number of individuals counted Regionwide.

In a departure from the usual format for New England CBC summaries that I have been privileged to pull together annually for the past 37 years, this season I opted to exploit some of the thoughtful and sometimes extensive comments and remarks that accompanied many of the compiler’s summaries this season.  Often such comments are brief or lacking entirely, but for some reason this year many of them were notably more extensive than usual.  I suspect the pandemic may have motivated some compilers to include more details about their counts than usual, but regardless of the explanation, enough interesting commentary was provided this season to help create an informative New England count summary.

As is generally the case, weather was a factor in influencing the CBCs this season.  November was generally mild, and in the Boston area it was also the third wettest month of the year.  Especially heavy rain with damaging winds were recorded on the last day of the month, with one gust recorded at 80 mph atop Great Blue Hill in Canton, MA.  December was a tease, with 10-19 inches of snow deposited in some southern New England communities on December 16-17 (right in the beginning of the CBC period), only to be followed by a surge of warm weather that reached 60 degrees on Christmas Day in Boston, tying the record for the third warmest day-ever on Christmas Day in Bean Town.

An indication of how the variability of the weather during the count period can affect a count is captured by a few compiler comments, such as: Block Island – “This was a miserable day, with cool overcast conditions in the morning and then rain, steady at times, after about 10:30 AM.”, Cape Ann – “This year we were faced with a foot of snow on the ground, something we have not had to contend with for at least the past 10 years.”, Bristol – “Weather conditions…hampered early morning observations as overnight freezing rain, continuing as light rain in the early morning produced a glistening coat of ice to trees in most of the area.”, Grafton-Bristol – “Our CBC was conducted the day after we had 3 inches of rain on top of a 30 inch snow pack that melted in a 24-hour period that caused severe flooding in the area.  Rivers and streams flooded over their banks and disrupted sectors to the point we could not get to certain areas.”, Rutland – “The day opened with snow/sleet, making a delayed start for some participants.  Many delayed starting until mid-morning, and fog became an issue as the day went on.”

More positive impressions included: Plymouth – “Temperatures ranged from 28-43 degrees F with mostly clear skies, no precipitation, calm at dawn and only light W winds during the day. Snow on the ground had almost melted at the coast but was still 3 inches deep inland with fog on the cranberry bogs at dawn.  Owling was excellent, and we could hear every chip all day.”, New Haven – “We dealt with a foot of freshly fallen snow and subfreezing temperatures.  Despite all of these challenges, we had a successful count. We also welcomed a great number of new birders to our ranks.  So, it wasn’t all bad, but we hope for fewer challenges next year!”, Westport – “The count day weather was a factor that limited turnout.  However, George Zepko, who didn’t join a field party this year, covered his area from the road by car for the 63rd year in a row. The thought of missing a count was motivation enough to get him out even under rather unpleasant conditions.” George, we salute you!  Littleton – “The weather and snow conditions were favorable for birding.  The overcast sky, lack of wind, and low snow depth made for a pleasant day of birding on area trails and along roads.  A total of 34 species was counted, one species higher than the previous 49-year average of 33 species.”, Mt. Desert Island – “Weather was spectacular with clearing skies, late afternoon sun and warm temperatures of 16-19 degrees F with sunshine later in the morning adding warmth to a chilled start.”

Regardless of the variability of the count period weather, as always there were a number of notable discoveries during the period.  Among some of the standouts were Eared Grebe at Greater Boston, Great Shearwater at Truro, a count week Sooty Shearwater at Nantucket, Broad-winged Hawk at Schoodic Point, Yellow Rail at Nantucket, Rock Wren at York County, Varied Thrush at Concord, Sage Thrasher at Northampton and Brattleboro, Tennessee Warbler at Athol and Mid-Cape Cod, Cape May Warbler at Mid-Cape Cod, Black-throated Blue Warbler at New Haven and Coastal New Hampshire, Townsend’s Warbler at New Bedford, Spotted Towhee at Cape Ann, Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Sturbridge, Painted Bunting at Napatree and Cape Cod, and Indigo Bunting at Truro.  This is by no means the complete list of Regional luminaries, but most of the others will appear in the comments to follow.  I’m also pleased to thank all the compilers who graciously provided supporting details for most of the unusual species recorded this season.  Could this possibly have been a silver lining to all the home-bound compilers who had a little extra time on their hands to chase down observation details this season?

Before leaving the subject of other possible CBC impacts created by Covid this season, a couple things come to mind.  First, several compilers commented: Cape Ann – “We had substantially more participants this year compared to 2019, and the remote compilation was a big success despite not being able to share our observations with our fellow birders over pizza and bowls of chili.”, Mid-Cape Cod – “Effort to cover the circle in a safe manner meant that teams became smaller teams that covered smaller areas more intensely in the usual territories.  I believe this change resulted in higher counts for some common species, as well as an impressive number of total species.”, Truro – “About 30 folks braved global pestilence and morning cold to produce 119 species, an all-time high for this count, which dates back to the mid-1990s.  Previous high was 110, so this shatters the record.”, Hartland – “Covid-19 necessitated coverage using more (household member) teams or individuals.  This meant the usual territories had to be divided up differently and in some cases between two or more teams.  Due to the pandemic, participation was very high as people were more available.”, Mt. Desert Island – “Regardless of the weather or other hardships, through it all everyone who participates has an avian learning experience, a unique journey and quiet isolated moments all their own which become data and something useful to local and global ornithology.”

Despite vagaries of the weather, the inconvenience of wearing masks due to Covid concerns, maintaining safe social distances, and not being able to carpool or gather together at the end of the day to share birding results and holiday cheer, a number of interesting trends nonetheless revealed themselves during the 121st count period.  Perhaps among the more curious of these were some of the species that in many widely separated areas reflected notably higher numbers than usual.  Standouts in this category included Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Common Raven, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Carolina Wren, and Northern Cardinal.  One thing that several of these species have in common is that several are among a group of more southern species that have gradually colonized New England from the south since the late 1950s-1960s.  Regardless, in several cases this winter seems to have shown exponential growth in their numbers.   Why?  Could it be that the pandemic’s impact of keeping more birders on foot in the woods and thickets and less driving around in cars looking for birds meant that more of the small woodland birds were tallied than usual, or was it simply that the increase of birders anxious to get outdoors this winter was able to count more of some of these common species? I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s interesting to contemplate.  And notice I didn’t even mention Wild Turkey or Black Vulture that arguably also belong in this increasing category.  So many interesting questions to think about!  But as I noted last year, let’s keep an eye on the species that may also be slipping away in some areas, such as Horned Grebe, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, Herring Gull, American Tree Sparrow, possibly Fox Sparrow, and Purple Finch.  All of these species offer challenges and questions that anyone carrying binoculars at Christmastime can thoughtfully contemplate.  As suggested above, a number of outstanding avian discoveries were documented this season, and even if they didn’t make my Avian Hit Parade, they undoubtedly brightened the day for many New England CBC counters.

By their size and often conspicuousness, the list of unusual waterbirds is frequently peppered with standouts, and this season was no different. Outstanding examples included a count week Pink-footed Goose at Cape Cod, Greater White-fronted Geese at Napatree and Martha’s Vineyard, and Tufted Ducks at Nantucket and Stratford-Milford. Also, mentionable and not easily overlooked(!), was an estimated 75,000 Snow Geese at Champlain Islands for the second-highest all-time tally on this venerable count, as well as Cackling Geese at New Haven and Woodbury-Roxbury, a count week “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal at Truro, and a King Eider shot by a hunter for both a disappointing first-ever (and last?) record at Ferrisburg.   

An outlier web-footer from the list above was a count week Laughing Gull at Greenwich-Stamford.  Equally significant was the comment from the usually gull-rich Cape Ann compiler that “Gulls continued their slow decline.  Our count for Herring Gulls was the lowest since 1946 and for Great Black-backed Gulls, the lowest since 1963. Their declines have been attributed to closing of landfills and reductions in the amount of fish waste being dumped overboard.”

Highlights among the raptors this season were 137 Black Vultures at Hartford and an Osprey at New London (both species appearing with increasing frequency on Regional CBCs), the previously mentioned Broad-winged Hawk at Schoodic Point, and Golden Eagles at North Conway and Middlebury.  Other CBC totals to watch carefully are those for Cooper’s Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk as these species continue to show steady increases practically throughout the Region.

While owls generally failed to make a big splash this early winter, Regionwide various compilers commented on greater than usual numbers of Great Horned Owls, and at Truro a total of 20+ Northern Saw-whet Owls was the second-ever highest count, and at Ferrisburgh, 12 Short-eared Owls eclipsed the previous high total set in 1981.

The now annual CBC presence of Regional hummingbirds featured Rufous Hummingbirds at Cape Cod and Quinnipiac Valley, and an Ash-throated Flycatcher at Cape Cod and a Western Kingbird at Block Island were welcome but unexpected flycatcher appearances.  Similarly, a count week Boreal Chickadee at Sturbridge was equally unexpected.  A very large winter crow roost in Lawrence, MA, located in the Andover CBC circle generated controversy this winter over how many crows were actually using the roost.  Cogent discussion surrounding the techniques used to estimate the number of American Crows and Fish Crows using this large urban roost were brought to the table after the count, and after much debate a final number was decided upon (i.e., 15,200 American Crows), however all parties involved agreed that a more systematic and dedicated counting protocol was in order for next year.  The discussion did however yield some interesting thoughts on how to count roosting crows, including the use of sophisticated computer software in conjunction with nocturnal photography equipment, so the roost numbers in 2021 could prove most interesting.

Because warblers in a New England winter always generate CBC excitement, this season did not disappoint.  Among the less frequent winter regulars were Ovenbird at New Haven, a count week Northern Waterthrush at Nantucket, Black-and-white Warbler at Martha’s Vineyard, Tennessee Warblers at Athol and Mid-Cape Cod, Cape May Warbler at Mid-Cape Cod, Northern Parula at New Haven and  count week at Nantucket, Black-throated Blue Warblers at Coastal New Hampshire and count week at New London, a count week “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler at Nantucket, Prairie Warbler at York County, and Townsend’s Warbler at New Bedford.  One can’t help but wonder what the longevity of these early winter parulids may be?

As we near the end of the seasonal hit parade, the following species continue to stand out: Western Tanagers at York County and Cape Cod, two Grasshopper Sparrows at Martha’s Vineyard, the ever more frequent Lincoln’s Sparrow at Coastal New Hampshire and New Haven, plus count week individuals at Martha’s Vineyard and Northampton, a Bullock’s Oriole at Quincy, Painted Buntings at Napatree and Cape Cod, and Hoary Redpolls at Hanover-Norwich, Sandwich, Plymouth, and Truro.  The Hoary Redpolls were part of a generally significant boreal irruption this winter that primarily included Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red Crossbill, and Evening Grosbeak in addition to Common Redpoll.

In conclusion, thank you again to all who persevered this season against the pestilence, the inconvenience of fogged up binoculars from wearing masks while birding in the cold, not being able to ride in an automobile with regular birding friends, and not getting together at the end of a long cold day to swap stories, hot(?) drinks, and yummy food to celebrate at the end of yet another traditional CBC.