Here’s one more shot of the red-tailed hawk that we saw during the Christmas Bird Count on Sunday in Norwalk, Connecticut. We were looking for warblers among the pine trees and this bird flew in out of nowhere to entertain us for a bit.
It was a gray day that turned into a snowy day that turned into a misty, gray day. The weather never fails to be part of the story of a Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in New England. Yesterday (Sunday) was the annual CBC in my area and, as usual, I covered the Norwalk (Conn.) coastline and parts inland with Frank Mantlik, one of Connecticut”s top birders. We tallied 61 species, which will be combined with the other birds spotted by the Count’s other teams. Highlights included northern shoveler, northern pintail, prairie warbler, pine warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, northern harrier, merlin and horned lark. Full story coming in my For the Birds column. In the meantime, here’s what the Christmas Bird Count is all about.
The birding had been slow — not dreadfully slow, but slower than usual, for sure — when we rolled up beside some evergreens in a front yard. We noted a flurry of activity (finally) and stopped for a closer inspection.
A half-dozen juncos flitted close to the ground, flashing their white-edged tails. Suddenly, a yellow bird flew from one tree to another. Any yellow bird that is not a goldfinch is cause for “ID at all costs” during a Christmas Bird Count. Not that goldfinches aren’t welcomed species, but they are rather expected to be seen in New England in December. Other yellow birds, not so much.
It landed just long enough for us to get a decent look and for Frank to get a few good-enough photographs. It was a warbler, for sure. We immediately thought orange-crowned warbler as they are the warblers most often seen during a New England Christmas Bird Count. Frank inspected the photos on his camera — something that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or 25 years ago — and determined it was a Nashville warbler instead. In the flurry, we also noted a ruby-crowned kinglet scurry from one bush to another. All the while, a Carolina wren belted out a song from a telephone wire across the street. As a birdwatcher, you love those flurries. You really love them during a Christmas Bird Count.
Frank and I cover a coastal area of Connecticut and have done so for going on 20 years. For that area, we finished the Count with 52 species and close to 2,000 birds. Not bad, not great. We’ve had better years, to be honest.
The Christmas Bird Count is an annual citizen science project that has grown from 27 participants in the inaugural Count in 1900 to now more than 75,000 participants each year. Keene was one of the original 25 Count areas. The data is used by ornithologists and other scientists to track long-term trends of bird populations.
Yes, it’s scientific and for a great cause. But, really, most people do it because it’s great fun. It’s an excuse to take a December day and watch birds from sunrise to sunset (even longer for the owlers.) It does, however, become a responsibility for participants. You don’t want to miss a day and let down the birds or your fellow birders.
Weather plays a big role in the amount of fun you have. Here in New England, a mid-December day can be 50 degrees or zero degrees. It can be sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy, or any combination thereof. I’ve done Counts in blizzards and I’ve done Counts when it feels like early September.
This year’s Count was cloudy, cold and breezy. I’ll take it. It could have been a lot worse. The breeziness may have kept some birds hunkered down, but I don’t think the lack of birds we saw was due to the weather, except for the freshwater ponds. We visited a few ponds that had been frozen a few days prior to the Count so most ducks flew off for open water. We did see a lot of gadwall, a few ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers, and, of course, tons of mallards.
We had other successes, too, such as the Nashville warbler and kinglet. Other highlights included several hundred brant, a gray catbird, a peregrine falcon and seven common loons on Long Island Sound.
Frank and I discussed the demise of the monk parakeet. We used to count dozens of the bright green birds along the coast and this year we had only one fly over our heads. Its squawking alerted us to it. Monk parakeets, of course, are not native to New England, but an escaped shipment from JFK Airport decades ago led to an established colony along the Connecticut coastline. They used to thrive here; now, they are all but gone. They build huge, heavy nests made of sticks on utility poles, so we concluded that the utility companies must have had something to do with their disappearance. That’s just a guess, however.
Want to get involved with a Count in your area? Most local Counts have been done already this year, but start planning now for next year. Do an Internet search for “How do I join the Christmas Bird Count” and the first result will be a link to the National Audubon Society’s CBC page. You can also check out historic local results from your area.
If you do sign up, be prepared to have fun. Just be ready to bundle up.
My latest For the Birds column releases my personal top 10 birding moments for 2018. Recapping the previous year is my favorite column to write each late December or early January. This year, instead of blasting out the top 10 all at once I’m going to spread it out and reveal two each day, starting today (Jan. 1, 2019.) This post will include Nos. 6 and 5.
Feel free to comment or send me an email with some of your 2018 birding or nature highlights.
6. Winter birds at feeder. They were really late fall sightings, but happened after the leaves had dropped so it felt more like winter. It started with a female purple finch, continued with several fox sparrows, and ended with a ton of pine siskins. There is still plenty of time left in winter to add to that list. Anybody want to send me their evening grosbeaks?
5. Christmas Bird Count. It’s going on 20 years now that I’ve participated in the annual bird census. As usual, I did a count in southwestern New England that features varied habitat — from wooded areas to freshwater ponds to Long Island Sound. A few highlight species include: great egret; common loon; merlin; and red-breasted nuthatch.
Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.
Buffleheads were everywhere. Not in great numbers, particularly, but they were everywhere we looked.
Norwalk Harbor, Norwalk River, Long Island Sound off Calf Pasture and Cedar Point Yacht Club, the small pond at Taylor Farm … it seemed the bufflehead was the duck of the day for the most recent Christmas Bird Count. As I have for the past 16 years or so, I participated in the Westport Circle count and covered East Norwalk with Frank Mantlik.
The Christmas Bird Count is the world’s largest citizen science program, with data going back to 1900. The data helps scientists track bird populations and is valuable in determining what steps, if any, need to be taken to help certain species.
Frank and I found a total of 53 species, which is about typical for us. The weather was wet and gray, so that may account for the slightly lower total. I can’t complain, though; Continue reading
Here are some photos of the annual Christmas Bird Count held locally (Westport, Connecticut, Circle) on Sunday. I did the Count with old friends Frank Mantlik and Larry Flynn. Highlight species included: American Woodcock; Orange-crowned Warbler; Nashville Warbler; Northern Shoveler; Gray Catbird; and Wood Duck (about 12 of them).
The above bird is indeed a New England bird. Well, at least it is now. A group of Monk Parakeets bound for the pet stores were believed to have escaped from JFK airport and established wild populations throughout the coastal regions of Long Island Sound. Some people don’t like them because they are non-native and very noisy. They do make good photo subject on occasion, though.
Here are some more photos from Sunday:
The weather was actually quite nice (cold, but calm) and the birds were plentiful. A story about the Christmas Bird Count (Westport Circle) is posted on http://www.theour.com.
I personally had a good day, too, in terms of finding birds. Below are more photos from the interesting birds I found during the count. Yes, I realize the photos aren’t of great quality, but it was very overcast and the photos were taken mostly to prove what was seen. Some of the photos aren’t too bad, though. Anyway …
The highlight was the three warblers I saw at Oystershell Park in Norwalk. Even one warbler species is pretty rare for a New England Christmas Bird Count, but I had three at one location. The warblers were an Orange-crowned Warbler, Continue reading
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season is upon us. The local one that I participate in — the Westport Circle — takes place on Sunday. Many of the counts take place this weekend, but the range to do the count started on Dec. 14 and runs through Jan. 5. Participants spend all day “in the field” counting birds (individual species and total number) and send the data to the circle’s compiler, who turns it all into the National Audubon Society.
The Christmas Bird Count is the world’s largest citizen science program with data going back to 1900. The data helps scientists track bird populations and is valuable in determining what steps, if any, need to be taken to help certain species.
The data, of course, is valuable and is indeed the most important part of the CBC. But it’s also a fun day to look for birds all day. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate — let me rephrase that, the weather hardly ever cooperates — but that only adds Continue reading
I was filling out my Christmas Bird Count Captain’s Statistic Sheet (finally) and I had to question for a second my own numbers. Did I really see more than 1,000 Brant that day?
Then I recalled the massive flocks we had seen at Calf Pasture Beach that brisk morning. Count compilers Townsend and Mardi Dickinson were with me during that part of the day. They saw them, too. There were so many Brant it was hard to get a good count. (Watch the accompanying video to the end to see what we were up against. Not the best video of all times, but you will see what I’m talking about.)
Brant are geese that breed in the Arctic and head to somewhat warmer waters during the winter. From a distance, or to the untrained eye, they can easily be mistaken for Canada Geese. Brant, however, are much smaller and lack the white “chin strap” that is so obvious on Canada Geese.
Norwalk has been a hot spot for Brant for many years. Huge flocks can be seen from Calf Pasture Beach throughout winter. Sometimes they are on the water. Sometimes they are near the water. Sometimes the flock is divided with some on the water and some near the water. The flocks often number hundreds and hundreds of birds.
It’s a treat to hear their low honking (maybe more of an of uttering), much different and more pleasing than the Canada Goose’s honk. When hundreds of them get going at once, it’s an even bigger treat. (Again, check out the video to listen for yourself.)
Most of the Brant will have migrated north by April, but some individuals or small flocks will remain into June or even later. They are likely young birds that aren’t going to breed anyway and therefore do not feel the sense of urgency to fly to the Arctic breeding grounds.
One of the many reasons I like Brant is because they are a reliable winter sighting here in New England. Birdwatching makes the winters here bearable — dare I say enjoyable — and it’s species like Brant that make winter birding fun.
Here’s the video:
Click below to read the latest For the Birds column, which appears every Thursday in The Hour (Norwalk, CT) and Monday in The Keene Sentinel (Keene, NH). I talk about my experiences during the Dec. 15 Christmas Bird Count. Those are some lucky larks!
Oh, and Merry Christmas, everybody.