The 122nd Christmas Bird Count in New England

For the second winter in a row the historic Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was plagued by the lingering specter of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, many CBC counters were sufficiently accustomed to either birding with masks on or counting birds by themselves at a sufficient distance from other observers to minimize the risk of ending up in quarantine for a portion of the remainder of the winter season. Additionally, the typical camaraderie that normally follows the end of a day counting birds near Christmastime had to be relegated to either online digital Zoom list tallies, or to other similarly impersonal platforms where traditional holiday cheer and tasty treats were sadly missed.  Indeed, for some birders, traditional CBC tallies are often one of the few times a year when birding comrades get to see one another in person. But all was not gloom and doom! As always there were some sparkling regional highlights and ever-changing trends upon which to reflect and speculate.

Lest readers become depressed, let me shine a light on a few statistics that will illuminate the sustained enthusiasm that New England birders have for the annual CBC tradition. A total of 133 CBCs was conducted in New England during the 122nd CBC season.  The “work force” participating in this effort included 4071 counters (not including feeder watchers) who logged approximately 9459.27 party-hours and 33,305.5 party-miles in their efforts to tally 213 species, plus several count-week species during the CBC period, including a Steller’s Sea-Eagle at Brunswick-Freeport, but more on that in lines to follow! These figures do not include uncountable forms such as hybrids or subspecies such as “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow.

Among the most outstanding species tallied during the count period were   Trumpeter Swan and Magnificent Frigatebird at Nantucket, Green Heron at Lakeville-Sharon (count-week), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Stratford-Milford, Yellow Rail at Nantucket, Rufous Hummingbird at Sturbridge, Bell’s Vireo at Cape Cod, Eurasian Tree Sparrow at Old Lyme, Golden-crowned Sparrow and two Painted Buntings at Mid-Cape Cod and a single at Southern Berkshire (count-week), and Western Meadowlark at Northampton. Each of these species has a regional story to tell, so a few brief remarks are in order. Trumpeter Swan is a species that is responding well to repatriation efforts in a number of areas in the Great Lakes region and beyond, so increasing out of range occurrences from these populations are likely responsible for sightings in New England. Though not without precedent on a New England CBC, this season’s appearance of a Magnificent Frigatebird perched on a phone wire is tough to beat!  Green Heron is simply a migratory species that is rare in New England in the winter. As Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are nesting and appearing with increasing frequency in southern New England, this is a species that may reasonably be expected to appear with increasing frequency on CBCs as well.  Yellow Rail is always an elusive and super-inconspicuous migrant wherever it occurs, yet dedicated searching in favored marshes continues to turn them up with what seems like increasing early winter regularity. Rufous Hummingbird, of all the western hummingbirds, is a species that is seemingly expanding its winter distribution to include New England, so regional early winter occurrences are practically becoming routine.  Bell’s Vireo is a species with 13 Massachusetts occurrences since 2006 and is not the first CBC record for the region.  The Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Connecticut is arguably the most enigmatic of the rarities in the list above.  Thoughtful evaluation and research by the Connecticut Avian Records Committee of recent vagrancy occurrences away from the long-standing originally introduced population in the St. Louis area in the 1870s convinced the committee of the bird’s optimistic legitimate provenance. Golden-crowned Sparrow is a species with at least seven previous Massachusetts occurrences but is nonetheless a rarity in any season.  As noted in my summary last year, Painted Bunting appearances have almost become routine in recent winters, even allowing for the possibility of some returning individuals in successive winters. Western Meadowlark is a species that was seemingly more regular in the East in the 1950s-1960s, but then winked out on the heels of agricultural and habitat changes taking place in the Midwest. Curiously however, there have been at least three solid Massachusetts reports since 2014.  Are observers simply better at identifying non-singing members of this cryptic species these days, or is Western Meadowlark making a subtle comeback?

Count day weather and conditions preceding the count period inevitably have an effect on the CBC results for any given year.  Apart from stresses due to Covid, in general, the 122nd count in New England was blessed with more or less good to excellent conditions, highlighted by reasonably mild early winter temperatures, open water in many sectors (especially on coastal ponds), snow-free ground on most all southern counts, only light precipitation (mostly rain) on a few counts, and generally calm or wind-free conditions.  The overall impact of these rather favorable conditions resulted in a number of higher than usual species totals, with several CBCs either approaching or breaking previous overall count record totals.  Readers are encouraged to look carefully at specific count results.  Heartfelt thanks go to all the compilers who take the time and effort to provide so many thoughtful comments and written summaries to share with their CBC constituents. I know that those efforts are appreciated by all who are privileged to read them.

Perhaps one of the most interesting results noted during this year’s New England CBC season was the notable departure from what amounted to a significantly higher frequency than usual of several relatively common and widespread species last year.  Included in this category were 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.  Last year I guardedly speculated that possibly differences in birding style induced by Covid last winter might have contributed to the higher numbers of many common woodland species and species often associated with bird feeders. Both of these habitats likely received more birding attention last year due to increased birding done on foot, often in frequently under-birded areas, and with less time spent covering more areas in cars with other birders than might usually have been the case.  Given that many Christmas bird counters try to cover as many bird-rich areas as possible during their time in the field, less productive areas typically receive less attention, despite the fact that many such areas often feature the greatest numbers of some of the species mentioned above.  Admittedly this is a difficult correlation to prove, but it nonetheless offers food for thought.

More solid evidence of several continuing species trends this winter includes the continued uptick in the numbers of Wild Turkey, Great Egret, Black Vulture, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Common Murre, and Carolina Wren, each in the areas where appropriate habitat exists.  Seemingly continuing on the downside of this ledger are Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, American Tree Sparrow, and Purple Finch.  While it is difficult to generalize about the trends shown by many of the species mentioned above, they continue to be grist for the CBC mill to highlight and document.

To conclude this year’s rambling New England summary, I will highlight a few more of the other notable species occurrences that emerged during the count.  Among the waterfowl Pink-footed Goose stands out with an amazing four individuals tallied at Hartford and a single count-week individual at New Bedford.  It should be recalled that a Pink-footed Goose feeding on a golf course in Dennis, MA in 1999 was virtually the first such individual to ever appear in the Northeast.  Though not in the league with Pink-footed Goose, it is not insignificant that Greater White-fronted Geese were recorded at Concord (2), Greenwich-Stamford, Hartford, Litchfield Hills, and count-week at Central Berkshire.  It is possible however that some of these may have represented the same individual.  Before leaving the geese, it is further notable that no fewer than eight Cackling Geese appeared in Massachusetts and Connecticut this season, either on CBCs or during the count-week period.  As with other unusual goose species that regularly consort with Canada Geese, the fact that Canadas move around so much it is difficult to say with certainty how many individuals of these unusual species may have been involved.  Two Tundra Swans at Nantucket were the only individuals in the region this winter, and a “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal at Truro was likely the same individual recorded at this locality last year. The total of 83 Redheads at Nantucket was certainly one of the more robust in quite a few years and was no doubt considerably less challenging to count than a tally of 10,000 scaup at Burlington that was probably referable to Greater Scaup, although with this cryptic species pair it’s often challenging to determine with certainty which species is involved.

Shorebirds failed to distinguish themselves this winter other than a lingering Willet at Mid-Cape Cod and a Lesser Yellowlegs at Newburyport.  The only larids of any note were two tardy Laughing Gulls at New London and a single at Greenwich-Stamford.  Similarly, six Pomarine Jaegers at Cape Cod and a single at Stellwagen Bank were of interest, as were the seven unidentified jaegers also at Cape Cod.  At least as interesting as the jaegers was the variety of alcids recorded at Stellwagen Bank that included 17 Dovekies, 104 Common Murres, one Thick-billed Murre, nine Razorbills, and four Atlantic Puffins.

Among the raptors this winter a total of 18 Bald Eagles at Litchfield Hills was locally impressive, and Golden Eagles distinguished themselves with appearances at Keene, and Westport (count-week). Unequivocally however, heading the list of outstanding CBC species recorded in New England this winter, if not in the lower 48 United States, was the highly publicized peripatetic adult Steller’s Sea-Eagle that graced the annals of the Brunswick-Freeport count during count-week and was ultimately observed and photographed by many hundreds of observers during its grand tour of North America!  For all the fortunate birders, photographers, and curiosity-seekers who had a chance to see this spectacular Siberian eagle I salute you, because this will be a tough bird to ever top on a New England CBC!  I’ll let Senior CBC Editor, Geoff LeBaron, share with readers all the details of this bird’s extraordinary saga before making its CBC appearance in Maine.

Owls generally failed to distinguish themselves this winter, although superb owling conditions during the hours after midnight on the night of the count made it possible for 1-2 observers to tally 43 Eastern Screech-Owls and 39 Northern Saw-whet Owls at Truro. 

For the first time in several New England CBCs, the solo regional appearance of a hummingbird was a Rufous Hummingbird at Sturbridge that no doubt provided lots of holiday cheer to counters at this inland location.  In the passerine department Blue-headed Vireos made a statement this season with three at Nantucket, and singles at Martha’s Vineyard, New Bedford, Old Lyme, and Keene.  The only mentionable flycatchers this season were solo Western Kingbirds at Old Lyme and Nantucket (count-week). Two Sedge Wrens at Nantucket was certainly a bonus for the island counters there, as were a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Plymouth and a single Bohemian Waxwing at Truro.

Ever-popular out of season warblers distinguished themselves with appearances of three Nashville Warblers at Lakeville-Sharon, a Northern Parula at Greater Boston, a Prairie Warbler at Quincy, an American Redstart at Nantucket, a Northern Waterthrush at Truro, a Wilson’s Warbler at Greater Boston (count-week), and six Yellow-breasted Chats at New London.

Closing in on the end of the checklist, remaining notable occurrences include five Vesper Sparrows at Hartford, Lincoln’s Sparrows at Groton-Oxbow NWR, Hartford, and Old Lyme, a Golden-crowned Sparrow at Mid-Cape Cod, Western Tanagers at Marshfield and Old Lyme, and two Painted Buntings at Mid-Cape Cod and a remarkable inland record at Southern Berkshire (count-week).

In conclusion, thank you to all the dedicated compilers and counters who once again braved weather, disease, and various degrees of isolation to participate in this annual rite of the Holiday Season.  And finally, special thanks to Bob Dewire who is stepping down from compiling the New London CBC after 58 years of dedicated service, and also a memorial tribute to Gil Kleiner – respected friend, and a loss to all Connecticut birders and beyond who were privileged to know him.