Held December 14th in Middlebury, VT

This year 39 field birders and 28 observers at feeders located and identified 20,344 birds of 63 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 14th. As a result of the recent snow and ice storm, some of our observers had been without power for days and others had been trapped in their homes until the day before the count, but still they rallied to survey their assigned portion of our count circle.

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 12:30 AM. They were joined by the remaining field birders at 6 AM for breakfast and an organizational meeting at Rosie’s Restaurant. This year we shared Rosie’s with over 200 line and tree workers. 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 dinner and a preliminary tally of the species seen. Reports from the near record number of feeder-watchers came in over the next few days and were added to the total count. Final results of our 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.

Similar to last year, almost all of our still water (including most of 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 nine of the 40 water-related species that we have located over the 26 years of the count. None-the-less, field teams still located a record number (2,650) of Canada geese. Most of them were seen flying south presumably out of our territory for the winter. Five Bald eagles remained in our circle as well, despite the lack of open water where they usually feed. Apparently our Northern harriers had moved south looking for open terrain without snow. This was our first count ever with no Northern harriers seen. Our average over the 26 years of the count has been 13 harriers per count with a high of 49 in 2006. American kestrels (Sparrow hawks) had also moved out of our territory. This was only our third count without any American kestrels seen. However, rugged northern raptors such as Red-tailed and Rough-legged hawks were found in near record numbers (126 & 48 respectively).

The most unusual bird found within our count circle this year was a Harris’s Sparrow that had been first found in Bridport weeks before the count. Fortunately for us, the field team of Ian Worley, Ethan Fenn, and Richard Harlow were able to find the bird on our count day. Two other sparrows were found in record high numbers. Our total of 67 Song sparrows was over five times our average (12) and our record number of 787 Dark-eyed juncos was over three times our average of 235.

Woodpeckers in general were found in impressive numbers. The Red-bellied woodpecker first moved north into our count in 1989 and first broke into double digits in 2005. This year they set a new record high with 52 reported. Their numbers are rapidly approaching those of our long-time-resident Hairy woodpeckers (69). Both Downy and Pileated woodpeckers were seen in record numbers with 156 and 30 seen respectively.

Among the other species setting record highs were the 1,235 Mourning doves. This compares with our average of 678 of this species and a previous record high of 1,159 set back in 1995. Northern cardinals were also found in record numbers (447). Our count average for cardinals is 150. Blue jays were not to be outdone with 421 found compared to an average of 285 and a previous record of 414 found back in 1994. White-breasted nuthatches (215) and Carolina wrens (12) also set record highs. The Carolina wren is another species that has moved up from the south and is most commonly found near homes and feeders.

We were pleased to see that two Snowy owls were visiting Bridport from the arctic. Last winter multiple Snowy owls could be seen in an hour’s drive west of Route 22A in Bridport. This year the team of Kris & Birch Andrews and Erin Talmage; and the team of Ian Worley, Ethan Fenn, and Richard Harlow each found one of these magnificent birds within their territories this year. I suspect more will be seen as the winter progresses. Although not the attention getter that a Snowy owl is, our Eastern screech owls were found in record numbers. Our four owling teams located a total of 13 screech owls. This compares to our average of four and previous highs of seven on multiple years.

On the other hand, Ruffed grouse continue to be hard to find within our count circle. This year we only located two of these birds, compared with our average of 10 and a high of 31 back in 1997. We missed Purple finch entirely for only the fourth year, though their close relatives the House finches were easily found (208).

A lack of winter fruit in the form of juniper berries and crabapples appears to have kept numbers of Cedar waxwings (89) well below our average of 346 and Bohemian waxwings were entirely absent. American robins also eat fruit in the winter. We located only 157 of them compared to our average of 312. The 78 Eastern bluebirds however, totaled almost twice their average of 40.

Some years, large numbers of northern finches come into our valley to feed. So far, this has not been one of those years. We did not locate any Pine siskins or crossbills and we found only nine Common redpolls, and a single Pine grosbeak.

Despite their names, we only locate Winter wrens within our count circle on about 1/3 of our surveys. This year the team of Doug & Spencer Hardy and Katie & Jerry Reilley located a single bird in our circle for the first time since 2006. Three other unusual X-mas count species found immediately before or after the count, but not on count day were Gray catbird, Hermit thrush, and Northern Pintail.

A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort and we were thrilled that many new feeder watchers joined our count this year for the first time. Feeder reports often add 3 or 4 species not found by the field teams. This year, Peter Wimmer’s feeder in Shoreham was the only location reporting Red-winged blackbirds and the single Pine grosbeak of the count was seen near Gary Rodes’ feeder in Weybridge. Feeder reports totaled 37 species. 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 63 species is three below the average of 66 for our count and normal 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 66 in 2013 and 62 species in 2010.

Thanks again to all the volunteers and landowners.

– Jim Andrews