This year 42 field birders and 19 observers at feeders located and identified 15,659 birds of 72 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 16th.  This is exactly the same number of species we found in both of the last two years; however, the individual species were different.

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.  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).  

We had a series of cold and calm nights in the month before the count.  Consequently, although temperatures on the day of the count were comfortable (24°– 37° F) most still water within our count circle had completely frozen over.  Access to water allows ducks, geese, eagles, herons, kingfishers, and other water-related birds to continue to find food in the Lake Champlain Basin. Despite the freeze, field teams found 12 of the 44 water-related species that we have located over the previous 29 years of the count.  The most unusual of these were the 28 Double-crested Cormorants that were identified by the field team of Erin Talmage, Birch Andrews and Kris Andrews.  The cormorants were in a single flock flying south over the frozen lake. These birds moved north into the Lake Champlain Basin on their own during the 80’s and have become very numerous here in the summer but we don’t usually find them lingering into the winter.  

Participants also located six of the northern song birds that occasionally visit the Lake Champlain Basin in the winter.  Two of these species were found in large flocks (373 Common Redpolls, 112 Bohemian Waxwings) but most were hard to find at all (6 Pine Grosbeaks, 1 Hoary Redpoll, 1 Pine Siskin, and 1 Evening Grosbeak).  We had expected to see more of the Evening Grosbeaks, since for the first time in decades flocks of these beautiful birds had been returning to eastern US bird feeders; however, they were not at all easy to find on our count day.  Speaking of hard to find, this was the first year in the history of this count that none of our teams located any Horned Larks.  One factor that made the larks more difficult to find was the lack of snow cover.  When we have snow, the Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and some sparrows are forced to feed along the plowed edges of our roads.   

Our rugged owling teams located a variety of visiting northern owls such as the four Saw-whet owls, a single Long-eared owl, and three Short-eared owls.  They also located 13 Great Horned Owls, 6 Screech Owls, and some of the 24 Barred Owls.  These last three species are common year-round residents. This year many of the Barred Owls were located during the day by the field teams.  The 24 Barred Owls is very close to our record number of 25 back in 2012. No Snowy Owls were located.

Two species were found for the first time in the history of our count.  Paul Wieczoreck located our count’s first Ruby-crowned Kinglet at McKuen Slang in Addison.  Golden-crowned Kinglets are often found in winter here in the basin, but Ruby-crowned Kinglets are usually long gone.  Another first was a species found during count week but not on count day. Count week is the week beginning three days before our count and ending three days after the count.  A beautiful Yellow-throated Warbler was located and photographed by Ron Payne in Frog Hollow two days after our count day. This bird is not to be confused with our Common Yellowthroat.  It is a bird that is very rare in Vermont even during the summer and it should be in Florida at this time of year. Another count-week rarity was a young Harris’s Sparrow that had been visiting the feeder of Nancy and Greg Macdonald in Bridport.  This is a mid-western species that would be more commonly found in Oklahoma at this time of year.  It is travelling and feeding with a small group of White-throated Sparrows. This is only the second time a Harris’s Sparrow has been found during out count.

Two species set new record-high numbers.  The 76 Red-bellied Woodpeckers broke the previous record of 52.  This species was not even found in the basin prior to the 80’s and it has now been found in greater numbers than Hairy Woodpeckers for the last three counts.  The number of tiny Saw-whet owls was a less dramatic record at a total of four.  The two Common Grackles found by the team of Barbara Brosnan, John Chamberlain, and Cathy Christensen tied our previous record of two found back in 1993.  Craig Zondag and Carol Ramsayer also tied the previous record when they identified a single Fish Crow by its nasal call.  This is only the second time we have identified Fish Crows during our count, but we expect to see more of them in the future as they move north from coastal areas.

The single Hoary Redpoll was found and photographed by Tyler Pockette.  It has been almost twenty years since this species has been identified during out count.  It is a northern visitor that is sometimes found with flocks of Common Redpolls. It is expected to be lumped together with Common Redpolls in the future.  If so, it will lose its species status.

The total number of birds found this year (15,659) is down about 300 from last year’s total and only slightly below the 30-year average of 16,543.  However, to put this in perspective, compare the single Snow Bunting found this year to the 1,980 found in 2008 or the 360 American Tree Sparrows reported this year to their record-high number of 1,274 in 2003.

Our total of 72 species 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.

A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort between field teams and feeder watchers.  This year we had an excellent number of field birders (42) 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.

– Jim Andrews

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