This year 38 field birders and 20 observers at feeders located and identified 17,848 birds of 66 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count.  The count was originally scheduled for December 15, but a winter storm forced a postponement to Sunday, January 5th.  Although we avoided the storm, a layer of ice under the snow made walking tricky and many of us took tumbles. One hardy observer suffering a couple cracked ribs but continued birding anyhow.  Freezing rain accumulated during our compilation dinner in Salisbury after the count, but everyone made it home safely.

We survey a 15-mile-diameter count circle centered on the Lemon Fair in eastern Bridport and covering 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.  Owling teams hit the roads as early as 1 AM.  They were joined by the remaining field birders at 6 AM for breakfast and an organizational meeting at Rosie’s Restaurant.   After breakfast, field birders headed 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 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 (

Unlike the last two years, our still water (including the southern end of Lake Champlain) froze solid in early December.  A lack of open water in our count circle greatly reduces the number of bird species remaining.  Water birds either head south to the ocean or north to the open water on central Lake Champlain.  Consequently, we only found seven of the 40 water-related species that we have located in past years.  Even the most common of water-related species were hard to find, as illustrated by our totals of three Canada Geese, one Mallard, and no gulls of any kind.  The open water of Otter Creek in and near town provided a few ducks.  Alan Pistorius and Harriet Szanto managed to find a Wood Duck below the falls in Middlebury and Ron Payne, Janet Nelson, and Chris and Preston Turner located two Hooded mergansers and two Common mergansers further downstream.  A single Snow goose was found by the team of Kris and Birch Andrews, Sara Cairns, and Erin Talmage out in Bridport in a tiny farm pond.  This bird was very likely wounded or sick (photo attached).  Jerry Benoit spotted a Great blue heron on Morse Road on his way home from work and reported it to us.  This was our only heron.  None of the three Bald Eagles seen were anywhere near Lake Champlain.  They are most frequently seen along the edge of the ice on Lake Champlain where they feed on ducks and gulls.  One of the eagles seen this year was feeding on a dead deer in Cornwall.

The team of Mike Winslow and Tyler Pockette spotted the first Lincoln’s sparrow ever seen on our count.  Most Lincoln’s sparrows would be in the Carolina’s and further south by now.  The same team also found a late Swamp sparrow.  Swamp sparrows are fairly common here in the summer, but most are long gone by January.  Another unusual species that should have been further south, was a Red-shouldered hawk found by the team of Katie Reilley, and Doug and Spencer Hardy.  This is only the second time we have found this species in our count circle in the winter.  They are hard enough to find here even in the summer.  Sue Staats and Diane Burbank found a single late Hermit thrush in our circle.  They sometimes can be found feeding in junipers along with two other thrushes, the American Robins and Eastern bluebirds.  Our 114 Eastern Bluebirds set a new record high for our count.  Among the other species setting record highs were the 13 Cooper’s hawks, 34 Red-bellied woodpeckers, and 16 Yellow-rumped warblers.  However, the five Yellow-bellied sapsuckers were more unexpected.  Over the past 25 years of this count we saw our first single bird of this species in 2007, followed by two in 2011.

Of course, the birds that have been getting all the attention this year are the Snowy owls that have come into our valley from the arctic.  We found a total of eight Snowy owls (photo attached) within our count circle.  All the birds were found west of Route 30 from Town Line Road in Addison south to Shoreham.  Over the last 25 years of our count, we have only seen Snowy Owls in 1997, 2001 and 2008.  With only single birds seen each of those years.  When these visiting owls find a good food supply here in our valley, they often spend weeks or even months in the same area.  In addition, Snowy Owls are active both day and night.  Consequently, they can often be located and viewed during the day quite predictably.  They are worth a drive through the western Lake Champlain valley searching fields, trees, and rooftops for them.

Some years, large numbers of northern finches come into our valley to feed.  So far, this has not been not one of those years.  We did not locate any Pine siskins, Common redpolls, Bohemian waxwings, grosbeaks or crossbills, although we did locate 701 Snow buntings and 26 Lapland longspurs.

A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort.  Feeder reports often add 3 or 4 species not found by the field teams.  This year, although we had 125 White-breasted nuthatches reported, only a single Red-breasted Nuthatch was seen.  This one was seen by Karan Cutler at her feeder in Bridport.  We are always looking for additional people who live within the count circle and are interested in reporting what they see at their feeders.  If you are interested, contact Jim or Kris Andrews at 352-4734.

Our total of 66 species is average for our count and good for a year with very little open water.  Totals for the last two open-water years (2011 & 2012) were 77 species.  Totals for our last two years without open water were 62 in 2010 and 57 species in 2009.

Thanks again to all the volunteers and landowners.

– Jim Andrews