This year 43 field birders and 11 observers at feeders located and identified 23,021 birds of 74 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 20th.  

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.  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 an unusually-small number of feeder-watchers came in over the next few days and were added to the total count.  Final results of our count were then compiled and entered online and made available for casual browsing or scientific study at the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) website.  

As a result of the unseasonably warm fall, the southern end of Lake Champlain as well as rivers and smaller ponds in our territory were all open water.  Access to water allows ducks, geese, eagles, herons, kingfishers, and other water-related birds to continue to find food in the Lake Champlain basin.  Consequently, we found 22 of the 43 water-related species that we have located over the 27 years of the count.  A total of 1,880 Snow geese flew over us heading south as we surveyed.  Other indicators of the warm fall and open water were the five Great blue herons, two Belted kingfishers, and three Wood ducks that we managed to locate.  Five Bald eagles remained in our circle as well.  Not only do eagles feed on fish, but they also will feed on the ducks, geese, and gulls that remained.  

The most water-related species that we have ever tallied in one count was 23 back in 2001.  That year we had a total of 80 species located.  This year, despite a total of 22 water-related species, our combined total of species was only 74.   The reason for this, is that most northern songbirds and northern birds of prey had not come down from further north by our count day.  Of the northern songbirds, only a single Snow bunting was found in the valley during the count.  This is only one species out of a total of nine possible northern songbirds that occasionally visit.  In addition, we had only two of seven northern raptor species coming into the valley from the north.  For example, no Snowy owls were found, compared to the eight found two winters ago.  So, in summary, although the warm weather allowed water-related species to remain, most northern songbirds and northern raptors had not come south into our count circle.

Two of most unusual birds found within our count circle this year were a Tufted duck and two Pacific loons that were located on Lake Champlain in Bridport by the field team of Ian Worley, Ethan Fenn, and Richard Harlow.  Tufted ducks are a Eurasian species that have been showing up in the US more frequently in recent years.  As their name implies, Pacific loons generally migrate down the west coast of the US after breeding in northwest Canada and Alaska.  However, they have been seen on Lake Champlain in recent years and earlier this winter.

Richard Harlow, a member of the same field team, was alert and experienced enough to recognize the nasal call of a Fish crow.  Like the two species listed above, this is a first for our count.  However, this bird did not need to travel as far as the two rarities previously mentioned.  Fish crows have recently moved into the state from the south and may well become more widespread in the future.  They have established a breeding population in Burlington.

Another first for the count was the Blue-winged teal found by the team of Jenn Megyesi and Katie and Gerry Reilley.  Sadly, this bird was probably injured.  Blue-winged teal are a local breeder that are usually well south of Vermont by December.

Our total numbers of birds (23,021) is a record for us.  These numbers are pretty easily accounted for by record numbers of two species: American crows and Ring-billed gulls.  Most of the 3,988 crows were seen in a single flock headed to roost and patiently counted by Barry and Warren King.  The 1,189 Ring-billed gulls were counted by a few teams as the gulls circled over Lake Champlain.

Although, not a record, the 76 Purple finches is the most we have seen of that species in 20 years.  Ron Payne suggests that the abundant ash seeds are the reason so many Purple finches are now in our valley.  The Red-bellied woodpecker (51 seen) first moved north into our count in 1989 and first broke into double digits in 2005.  Like last year, they now are seen almost as frequently as the long-time resident Hairy woodpeckers (53 seen).  

Ruffed grouse continue to be hard to find within our count circle.  This year the only grouse seen was a single bird found by the new field team of Peg Goldman and Steve and Natalie Riegle as they surveyed part of the Trail Around Middlebury.

Our total of 74 species is eight above our average of 66 for our count and eleven above last year’s total of 63 species.  Totals for the last two open-water years (2011 & 2012) were 77 species.

A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort between field teams and feeder watchers.  This year we had a record number of field birders (43) but our reports from feeder watchers dropped significantly from last year.  Perhaps as a result of the warm weather and continued bear activity, people were not yet filling their feeders.  In any case, 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 in reporting your feeder birds or participating on a field team next year, contact Jim or Kris Andrews at 352-4734.

Thanks again to all the volunteers and landowners.

Full count summary (pdf).

– Jim Andrews

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