Held Sunday December 15th, 2019 in Middlebury, VT

This year 41 field birders and 17 observers at feeders located and identified 28,839 birds of 62 species during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 15th.  This is ten fewer species then we found in each of the last three years and 4.6 species lower than our average of 66.6 over the last 31 years; however, the total number of individual birds is almost 12,000 above average.

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 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 that can be accessed at (https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count).  

 We had some very cold temperatures early this fall that appear to have driven many half-hardy birds further south.  In addition, our still-water froze and drove many water birds either north to the wider portions of Lake Champlain or south to the ocean coast.  However, to our surprise, large portions of Lake Champlain reopened during the days before our count and some waterfowl and gulls moved back into our count circle.  Field teams located 13 of the total of 44 water-related species that have been found during our count over its history. This is higher than our average of 11.8 water-related species.  In addition, Bald Eagles moved back in and contributed to an all-time-high total of 27 Bald Eagles in our count circle.  Bald Eagles often hunt for fish and waterfowl along the boundaries of the ice in our larger lakes and rivers.  Our previous count record was 15 Bald Eagles back in 2016 and our average over the last 31 years is only 3.3. Of course, much of this increase is due to a successful recovery of this species in Vermont over the last few decades. 

The most unusual of the water-related birds located during our count was a single Lesser Black-backed Gull spotted by Paul Wieczoreck.  This is only the second time during the history of our count that this species has been found within our circle.  This species is common in Europe and its numbers have been increasing dramatically in eastern North American over the past few decades. 

Many feeder watchers reported very few birds at their feeders this fall before and during our count.  This may seem hard to believe given that our total of 28,839 individual birds was the highest number of individual birds seen in the 31 years of our count and 12,000 over our average of 16,940.  However, it is easily reconciled given that the total of European Starlings this year was 17,463Eleven thousand more than the average number of starlings seen in our count.  In addition, numbers of individual Common Crows, American Robins, and Canada Geese were all well above our average,  Subtract the additional 11,000 starlings, 1,800 crows, 1,200 robins, and 900 geese and the total numbers of individuals of birds would drop to around 14,000 birds.  

Keep in mind that our starlings are not native.  They were introduced from Europe into Central Park in New York City by fans that wanted all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays to be found in New York.  It is estimated that they released a combined total of 100 birds in 1890 and 1891. Those relatively few birds are the ancestors of the 17,463 starlings we counted.  Why are all those starlings here? It may be they are here for the same reason as all the robins, namely the abundance of small fruit this year on junipers, crab apples, dogwoods, sumac, and other trees and shrubs.

One reason feeder watchers reported fewer birds at feeders this fall, could be that those birds are finding plenty of natural food on their own.  Another possible reason is that almost none of the northern seed-eating birds have come down from the north this year. We had no grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls, or siskins found during our count.  In addition, many of those species commonly found at feeders such as Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, House Finches, Song Sparrows, and Mourning Doves were here, but were found in numbers well below average.  Some of our low numbers during our count may well be that birds were seeking cover as a result of increasingly strong winds during the afternoon of our count, but despite that handicap, numbers of many bird species seemed low this year. 

Despite the challenges, our rugged field teams still found some unusual species for our count.  Spencer Hardy located a Chipping Sparrow at an active set of feeders and Warren King, Barry King, and Dave Hof located a Swamp Sparrow along Otter Creek.  These two species are usually well south of Vermont by December.  Also the team of Kathy and Gary Starr and Marcia and Jeremiah Parker located a single Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Shoreham (see photo).  Sapsuckers have become more common as wintering birds in the north as our climate warms.

 Wind noise makes it harder for owls to be heard by our rugged owling teams and perhaps harder for the owls to hear our recordings.  Still, for the second year in a row they located record-tying four Saw-whet owls, as well as three Eastern Screech Owls, three Great Horned Owls, and a single Short-eared owl.  No Snowy Owls were located this year, as was the case last year, but that is not all that unusual.  Snowy Owls are only sporadic visitors to our area. What was far more unusual was that no Barred Owls were heard or seen this year.  Last year we located 24 Barred Owls and our average is 5.3 per year.  

Our field teams found only a single Ruffed Grouse.  In the late 90’s we found twenty or more of these birds on our counts.  This is almost certainly the result of the loss of their habitat within our count circle.  Only 13 Wild Turkeys were found, but I believe they were mostly roosting and not easy to find.  

Other than the thousands of starlings, we set a couple other new record highs.  Mixed in with all the berry-eating American Robins were twenty four Northern Flickers.  This surpassed our previous high of 19 flickers found back in 2007.  The 60 Common Ravens found, beat our previous high of 57 and was well above our average of 21.6 birds.  This is another species showing a long-term recovery here in Vermont.

Our 17 Horned Larks was well below our average of 320.1 and our 72 Snow Buntings is disappointing compared to our average of 345.8.  They are harder to find when we have no snow cover. The snow forces these two species to the plowed edges of roads to find food and they are regularly flushed by passing cars.

Our total of 62 species is lower than our average of 66.6 and our lowest total in a decade but these numbers fluctuate annually based on weather events before and during the count, food availability here and north of us, and the availability of open water in our count circle, so I don’t believe they are indicative of long-term trends for most species. 

A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort between field teams and feeder watchers.  This year we had an excellent number of field birders (41) 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