Held Sunday December 20th, 2020, this year 41 field birders and 34 observers at feeders located and identified 17,289 birds of 68 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.  

Due to the pandemic, the National Audubon Society issued safety guidelines that needed to be met before any count could be held. All in-person compilation gatherings needed to be cancelled. Social distancing and/or  masking were required at all times in the field. Carpooling could only occur within existing familiar or social “pod” groups and activities had to comply with all current state and municipal COVID-19 guidelines. Many counts  added their own additional safety restrictions. For our Middlebury count, we sent many of our volunteers out on solo birding routes on foot or divided up territories so that birders in cars could bird alone or with a family member.  We had solo birders covering almost all of the Trail Around Middlebury and bushwhacking on their own private  land or public land within our count circle. Since so many people were at home due to the pandemic, we had  record numbers of volunteers watching their own bird feeders and reporting the birds they had seen. 

All arrangements for territory coverage and team make up needed to be take place via e-mail prior to the  count, since we had to skip our usual 6 AM organizational breakfast at Rosie’s Restaurant. Owlers started the day in the predawn blackness and field birders headed out at dawn or shortly thereafter. 

We also had to skip our usual compilation dinner after the count. Instead we met via Zoom to share stories  and our preliminary data. Report forms from feeder-watchers and field teams came in over the next few days.  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. Those results can be accessed at Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  

The weekend before our count, the southern end of Lake Champlain and other bodies of still-water in our  count circle were still open, raising hopes of finding waterfowl and other water-related birds during our survey.  However, as is often the case, cold night-time temperatures a few days prior to our count froze our still water and  drove many water birds either north to open water in the wider portions of Lake Champlain or south to the ocean  coast. We located only seven of the 44 water-related species found during our count over its history. This  compares to our average of 11.7 water-related species located over the 32 years of our count. This was one of only  three years during our count’s history that no one reported finding any Mallards within our count circle and only a  single Ring-billed Gull was seen. Both are certainly in the Lake Champlain Valley this winter, but most have left  our circle in search of open water (and food) elsewhere. 

With almost twice the number of residents watching and reporting birds at feeders, one might assume that  the record numbers of Tufted Titmice (188), and Carolina Wrens (25) reported were the result of the number of  observers, but keep in mind that both of these species are relatively new arrivals here in Vermont. Tufted Titmice  were first seen in numbers over 100 (111) in 2004 and Carolina Wrens were not found in the double-digit numbers  until 2014 (12). Another recent arrival and 2020-record-setter is the Red-bellied Woodpecker (91). They were  first seen on our count in 1989. They were first reported in double digit numbers in 2005 (12), and now for the last  two years they have been reported more often than Hairy Woodpeckers (60). That said, they are also a noisy bird  and easier to locate than Hairy Woodpeckers.  

Although a common summer breeder in Vermont, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers (2) a few have recently  become year-round residents. This species was first found during our count in 2007 but has now been reported during six of our last ten counts. This year, two-different teams reported wintering sapsuckers. Jim Andrews and  Kate Kelly spotted a Brown Thrasher in Bridport. This species is also a summer breeder here but was first  reported during our count in 2017. Perhaps this species will also be seen more regularly in the winter as our  climate warms. 

Chris and Preston Turner located an immature Golden Eagle along Otter Creek in Weybridge. This is only  the second time in our count history that we have found this species in our circle. In contrast, the recently  recovered Bald Eagle has been reported every year but one in the last twenty years and even this year without open  water, we found nine. Both Kris Andrews and Craig Zondag reported Rusty Blackbirds (2). This species is  declining in Vermont, but still can be seen with some regularity when more northern birds migrate through 

Vermont in the fall. This is only the third time during our count that this species has been found within our circle.  Brendan Collins spent much of the day scouring the east side of Snake Mountain for birds. He contributed the only  report of a Red Crossbill (1). This conifer-seed-eating bird has only been located twice before during our count. 

The Red Crossbill was not the only northern passerine species to migrate into the Lake Champlain Basin  this winter. Common Redpolls (639), Pine Grosbeaks (46), Bohemian Waxwings (15), Snow Buntings (57),  Horned Larks (335), Pine Siskins (15), Tree Sparrows (424), and one Lapland Longspur (1) were reported as  well. 

Common Ravens (67) and Eastern Bluebirds (178) were reported in record numbers. Both of these  species are recovering from declines suffered many decades ago. The 151 Red-tailed Hawks reported, easily broke the previous record of 113 red-tails seen back in 2013. Our six Northern Saw-whet owls broke last year’s  record of four and ten Short-eared Owls easily surpassed our previous high of three. Chris and Laura Slesar  flushed seven Short-eared Owls from a single tree near Nortontown Road in Addison. Both of these owls are  pretty unique. The Northern Saw Whet Owl is so tiny that most observers would not think it could be an owl. In  length, they are a bit shorter than a Northern Cardinal, but they have much longer wings. Short-eared Owls are a  respectable owl size but fly like a bat in a cheap vampire movie.  

On the other hand, not a single Ruffed Grouse was found. These birds were found every year for the first  23 years of the count with 26 reported in 1994 but they have only been found five of the last eight years. This  appears to be the result of a loss of the dense, shrubby, habitat that this species prefers. 

Our total of 68 species is barely higher than our average of 66.7 and the total number of birds seen (17,289)  is about average (16,951) but both are impressive given the lack of open water in our count circle. 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) and double our usual number of feeder watchers. However, we are always 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.

A full data summary of the birds counted can be seen here.\

– James Andrews