Otter Creek Audubon Society

Highlights of the 29th Annual Middlebury Christmas Bird Count

Snowy Owl

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This year 39 field birders and 19 observers at feeders located and identified 15,963 birds of 72 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 17th.

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 started the day in the predawn blackness.  Field birders met them 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 a slowly growing 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 (http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count).

Late fall temperatures had been unseasonably warm with even amphibians still active on the night of December 6th, but temperatures dropped to seasonable levels after that, to the point where water bodies within our count circle froze during the week before our count.  Access to water allows ducks, geese, eagles, herons, kingfishers, and other water-related birds to continue to find food in the Lake Champlain basin.  As a result of the freeze, field teams found only six of the 44 water-related species that we have located over the previous 28 years of the count.  This was offset slightly by a good variety of visiting northern predators such as Snowy owls (3), Long-eared owl (1), Short-eared owls (3), Saw whet owls (3), and Northern shrikes (2).

Many feeder watchers had mentioned that very few birds were coming to their feeders this fall and wondered if bird numbers were down.  Many of us thought that rather than fewer feeder species being in our count circle, this was probably the result of abundant natural food crops with maple seeds, cones, and fruits so plentiful that birds did not need to come to feeders.  The total number of birds found this year (15,963) is slightly below the 29-year average of 16,574.  However, to put this in perspective the number of American robins reported this year (1,146) was down roughly 4,500 from their record numbers last year.  Canada geese (493) dropped about 1,300 and American crows (1,006) dropped about 1,700.  These three species alone account for a drop of roughly 7,500 birds from last year’s record high numbers (24,073) and none of them are feeder birds.  The slightly below average number of birds this year was not the result of fewer feeder birds in our area.

Four species were found for the first time in the history of our count.  Apparently, the abundant food and unseasonably mild fall weather kept a variety of birds in the area that ordinarily would have left by the date of our count to find warmth and food further south.  The most surprising of these was a Common yellowthroat found in Weybridge by the field team of Ron Payne, and Chris and Preston Turner.  Two other firsts were a Brown thrasher that Dick Harlow spotted (and Ethan Fenn and Ian Worley confirmed) in Bridport and a Chipping sparrow found by Tyler Pockette and Mike Winslow.  These three species are all common summer residents in this area, but they should have left Vermont weeks ago.  The two Black vultures found by Kyle Jones, Tii McLane, and Katie and Gerry Reilley at the Middlebury College compost piles were also firsts for the count.  This species is not common in Vermont at any time of the year.  However, Black vultures have been moving north over the last decade and may well become a regular year-round species in our count circle.

Although, not firsts for our count, other lingering species included a single Field sparrow found by Sue Staats, Diane Burbank, and Wendy McIntosh; a Rusty blackbird found by the Payne-Turner team; a Hermit thrush found by Jenn Megyesi and Kate Kelly; and 4 White-crowned sparrows found by the Worley, Fenn, and Barlow team.  Also lingering were an astounding total of 168 White-throated sparrows.  This is 129 over our previous record of 39 for this species.  An impressive total of 23 Savannah sparrows smashed the previous record of 13 for that species.  Lastly, a record 6 Yellow-bellied sapsuckers remained within our circle.  This bird was first reported in our count in 2007, but it is now becoming a regularly lingering species.

Dark-eyed juncos were present in record numbers for the second year in a row, with 833 seen compared with a 29-year average of 278.   Another record were the 435 Blue jays.  This compares with a 29-year average of 285 Blue jays.

Although we found some visiting Snow buntings (284), Horned larks (242), a few Lapland longspurs (9) and a single Red crossbill; Common redpolls, Pine siskins, grosbeaks, Bohemian waxwings, and even Red-breasted nuthatches were not found within our count circle.  This is only the second count in our count history with no Red-breasted nuthatches seen.  This was also our second count in 29 years with no Ruffed grouse reported.  This has been a long-term trend as a result of habitat changes over time.  Although, we did find 36 Wild turkeys this was well below our average of 117.

Despite the lack of open water; the visiting northern predators and lots of lingering locally-breeding birds, resulted in an impressive total of 72 species of birds.  This is five above our average of 67 for our count and well above what would be expected for a count with very limited open water.  Our birders tied last year’s record for the number of species found in our circle during a frozen-water year.

A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort between field teams and feeder watchers.  This year we had an excellent number of field birders (39) but our reports from feeder watchers still need to be increased.  Consequently, we are looking for additional people who live within the count circle, can identify the birds they are seeing, and who 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.

– James S. Andrews

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