Hairy Woodpecker seen during the Middlebury Christmas Bird Count

Held December 18th in Middlebury, VT

This year 42 field birders and 14 observers at feeders located and identified 20,857 birds of 77 species on Sunday, December 18 within our 15-mile-diameter count circle. This circle is centered on the Lemon Fair in eastern Bridport and covers from the A & W Root Beer stand on the east to New York State on the west and from Snake Mt. on the north to Richville Dam on the south.

The Middlebury count is one of over 1,800 held throughout North and Central America. Field birders met at six AM at Rosie’s Restaurant for breakfast and an organizational meeting before heading out to their assigned territories. Most territories were covered by a group of two to four field birders and a few feeder watchers. Within each team of field birders were one or two experts who were familiar with birding and the assigned territory. Along with some of them were helpers who may not have been as familiar with either birds or the territory. At the end the day, the field teams met at the home of Jim and Kris Andrews for a preliminary tally of the species seen. Reports from the feeder-watchers came in over the next few days and were added to the total count. Final results of each count are then compiled and entered online and made available for casual browsing or scientific study at the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) website (http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count).

One of the biggest factors in the number of species seen on the Middlebury count day is the presence or absence of open water. Over the past 23 years of our count, we have tallied 39 species that are associated with open water. If Lake Champlain, Otter Creek, and small bodies of still water are open; we could potentially see a wide variety of ducks, geese, loons, grebes, gulls, shorebirds, herons, and kingfishers. If the fall has been mild, we may have as many as 80 species within our count circle. If the fall has turned cold and open water has frozen, water birds will no longer be able to find food and will have to move south to the ocean shore or further north to the open water on the main body of Lake Champlain. After a period of cold weather, we may have only 60 or fewer species remaining in our circle. Another factor with a major impact on our species total is the number of terrestrial northern species that have come down from arctic and sub-arctic areas to spend the winter with us here in the Lake Champlain Basin. These birds include some of our winter owls, hawks, finches, larks, sparrows, buntings, shrikes, and waxwings and can also change the total species count by as many as 16 species.

The highest number of water-related species ever tallied on one of our counts was 23 in 2001. Not surprisingly, that was the year of our highest total species count of 80. The lowest number of water related species found was five species in both 1989 and 1997. In 1989 our total species count was 62 but interestingly, in 1997 we totaled 68 species as a result of locating 12 of our 16 occasional northern terrestrial visitors.

This year the warm fall weather kept southern Lake Champlain and Otter Creek open with only small and shallow water bodies frozen; consequently, we found an impressive total of 22 water-related species. One of these, a Red-necked grebe found by the team of Sue Wetmore, Carol Ramsayer, and Kelly Hunt in Shoreham has occasionally been found on Lake Champlain north of the Crown Point Bridge but was a first for our count. Another more unusual first for our count was the Lesser Black-backed gull found by Paul Wieczoreck. Large groups of waterfowl such as Lesser scaups (1,140), Common goldeneyes (1,461), Common mergansers (516), and Canada geese (2,316) set new record-high numbers for all four species. Bald eagles were also found in record-high numbers (8) along the lake, reflecting their improved breeding success here in the interior northeast.

This year we located a total of 5 of the 16 northern terrestrial visitors that occasionally show up on our count. This is just below our 23-year average of 5.7 reflecting another quiet year for this group. In the northern-predator group we found only Short-eared owls (2), Saw whet owls (2), and Northern shrikes (2) although a Snowy owl showed up in our circle the following week. Northern finches such as redpolls, crossbills, and grosbeaks were absent. The team of Kris and Birch Andrews, Erin Talmage, and Sara Cairns located the only sizable flock of Snow buntings (45) in their territory along the Bridport-Shoreham border. For the first time ever in our count, there were no Red-breasted nuthatches found. Some Red-breasted nuthatches breed in this area but many come down from the north in the winter. More of these winter terrestrial visitors will probably show up later this winter as snow deepens and temperatures drop to more seasonable levels. The deep and sustained snows of last year; however, may be at least partially to blame for the lowest numbers of Wild turkeys seen in a decade (49).

This year we had more owling teams than ever before in our count history. Although all the field teams put in a full day of outdoor searching, the owling teams are in the field starting as early as 2 AM playing owl calls and listening for responses. This year Mike Winslow, Tyler Pockette, Kaitlyn Farrer, John Chamberlain, Barbara Brosnan, Ian Worley, Henry Trombley, Brendan Collins, Sue Staats, and Diane Burbank located a total of 35 owls of five species. The lack of wind during the early morning hours provided excellent conditions for owling and helped facilitate the finding of a record-high number of 19 Great horned owls.

Red-bellied woodpeckers continue to increase their populations in the Lake Champlain Basin. We located a record-high 28 of this new immigrant from the south that first broke into double digits back in 2005.

The combination of a warm fall and lots of grapes, juniper berries, and other fruit kept a record number of American robins (1783) in our count circle, along with seven Yellow-rumped warblers and even a Hermit thrush. In addition, a Gray catbird was located in Middlebury a few days after the count. However, Cedar waxwings (also a fruit eater) continued a five-year decline on our count. Two teams (Alan Pistorius and Harriet Szanto; and Mike Winslow, Tyler Pockette, and Kaitlyn Farrer, located lingering Yellow-bellied sapsuckers. This common summer resident is usually gone by the time of our count.

A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort. Feeder reports often add 3 or 4 species not found by the field teams. The day after our count, feeder watchers Peter Wimmer and Heidi Willis reported the only Common grackles found in our circle. This is another common breeding bird that is usually gone by mid-December. The grackle at Peter Wimmer’s feeder in Shoreham is traveling and feeding with a group of Mourning doves. Our numbers of feeder watchers are still down slightly and we need to find some additional folks who live within the count circle and are interested in reporting what they see at their feeders. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please encourage them to contact Jim or Kris Andrews at 352-4734.

All combined, our birders in the field and those at feeders managed to tally a total of 77 species as a result of the warm fall, the resulting open water, and the good birding weather. This ties with our second-highest total ever and compares with are 22-year-average of 65 species. Additional field participants with birding skills are welcome but should keep in mind that this is a full day of outdoor winter effort. Thanks again to all the volunteers and landowners.

Full species totals list (pdf).

– James S. Andrews

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