The 2019 Bird Count

Thu, 01/09/2020 - 5:00pm
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The 2019 Bird Count

By Kim Gaffett

A letter to Miss Elizabeth Dickens on the 2019 Community Bird Census:

Dear Miss Dickens,

You were missed on our annual Community Bird Count, which of course was on Dec. 26. It felt like a drab day of low numbers with no sun, and although there was no precipitation, it was raw with a light but damp northeast wind. However, as is often the case, there were glowing moments of wonder for each of us. I think you may be interested in hearing about a few vignettes from our day afield.

We started at Sachem Pond and surveyed ducks and other waterfowl. It was a study in contrasts to see the glaringly white mute swans tipped tails-up, stretching long necks into the water, while American coots darted among them — like charcoal-black bubbles — making quick dives to retrieve bits of vegetation loosened by the swans. We were delighted to note that two of the swans, which at first glance might have been a melding of swan and coot — one, sooty with a grey neck, and both with black bills as if they had accidentally raised their head to the water’s surface under a coot which momentarily balanced on the swan’s bill — were in fact, tundra swans. Also at Sachem Pond there was a nice assortment of dapper ducks, including American widgeon (baldpate), buffleheads, ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers and a lone female lesser scaup. Altogether, we counted 16 species at the pond, but were daft and forgot to scan the ocean.

We moved on to West Beach, and there we picked up the usual assemblage of sea ducks: Common loon, red-breasted mergansers, white-winged and black scoters, common eider, herring and great black-backed gulls, and a small raft of common goldeneye appearing and disappearing in the roll of waves about 200 feet off shore — another captivating vision. Our brief visit to West Beach was punctuated when we arrived, while we donned hats and buttoned coats, by the swift pass, and re-pass, of peregrine falcon.

Next, the four of us stood in the chill — unprotected from the wind — on a hill overlooking Georgian Swamp, forlornly sweeping the pond for a sight of anything. Slightly disappointed, we noted a few mallards. And then, out of a barely visible cove, a redhead floated into view, and did slow gliding circles so we could see all aspects of its rufous-red head and gray, black-breasted being. Long after it drifted into the reeds, barely visible, we stood with cold hands and faces in reverent silence. A great long look at a beautiful duck, which is rarely seen, and from an unusually close vantage point: one of our group commented “it looks just like the picture in the book. That never happens.” I’m not sure which was greater: the wonder of seeing the bird, or the wonder of the bird itself.

Our little group next stopped at Dunn’s Bridge, Trim’s Pond and the Hog Pen and scouted up more of the same species that we had been seeing — gulls, buffleheads, loons, etc. The Fort Island area produced the only American goldfinch of the day, and a great pair of fish crows vocalizing their clear nasal “ca.”

At noontime, the morning group disbanded and we went our separate ways, joining a loose cadre of other birders taking note of avian life in their daily activities, and walks in their favorite haunts.

At 4 p.m. we regrouped at the Harbor Church kitchen table and started to assemble the list of the day’s sightings.

Jon Peterson, with the help of his family, reported ring-necked ducks, and the only house finch and red-winged blackbirds of the day from his west side area, which included Fresh Pond, Seneca Swamp, Cooneymus Road and swamp to the ocean.

Scott and Clair Comings, along with Susan and Margaret Stover, covered the southern part of the island and Hodge Preserve and added to the overall numbers, and the only myrtle warblers — only three! (And that is another story.)

Heather Hatfield and her son Blaize also contributed to the totals of several species, and documented the only barn owl seen that day. Heather also assisted with the survey at Andy’s Way where sanderling, dunlin, and the only black-bellied plovers were added to the list.

Liz Scranton covered parts of Seaweed and Amy Dodge Lanes, and Pebbly Beach, and added most of the slate colored juncos of the day.

Mary Lutz spent time around her Corn Neck Road yard and noted a large flock of Canada geese.

Susan Matheke combined her avian and equestrian activities and reported birds from her home barnyard, as well as the pastures around Martha Ball’s and on Mansion Beach. Many of the robins and cormorants were spied by Susan.

Pam Gasner, while roaming around the island contributed to the overall numbers, including four northern harriers and most of the black scoters seen.

Barbara Hall and Gloria Daubert contributed to the list many mallards and land birds, and most of the house sparrows from their dooryard perched above Mill Tail Swamp Pond.

Nancy Greenaway added to the growing list of mourning doves, song sparrows, and ring-necked pheasant.

Chris Blane confirmed the redhead in his pond, and added Wilson snipe also from Georgian Swamp, and meadowlarks from the Black Rock area.

Vicki Butlevska, while walking the Turnip Farm area and her own back yard on the west side, added to the overall count and the only northern mockingbird.

And, finally, I took the “wee ones” from the Library/The Nature Conservancy Healthy Kids program to count birds (their first ever such experience) on the west shore of the Old Harbor and in front of the Surf Hotel. Pearl (age six), Luna (four), Susanna and PJ (both five) did well to help me keep track of gulls, loons, eiders and mallards; a loud fish crow on the Surf roof; mourning doves and house sparrows at the Library; and a cormorant on the breakwater. But, it was the shore birds that those “wee ones” had affinity for: they, too, moved like scampering sanderlings. We practiced counting, and re-counting, until we confirmed 25 sanderling (not an easy task), one dunlin, and three purple sandpipers. Some day, the wee ones may be as delighted as I am that they added the only purple sandpipers to this year’s list; and those were the first of that species to be recorded in the 19 years of Community Bird Count.

I am wondering, Miss Dickens: did you go afield to observe birds in your own home corner of the universe this year? Yes, I know, very unlikely.

I found myself wondering what you, and your team of watchers, would have seen on past year’s counts, so I went looking in your journals and found that in 1959 — 60 years ago — you recorded 59 species, and had 14 local participants. As soon as I finish this letter I’m going to spend some more time comparing the results of the 1959 and 2019 bird lists. It will be interesting to see how they differ, especially since the number of species seen, and the number of participants in the two years, are similar. At a quick glance, I notice some differences: some of the species names have changed, and how is it that you and your friends did not see any mallards, and I’ve never seen a vesper sparrow…?

Well, Miss Dickens, I hope you have enjoyed my recounting of this year’s Community Bird Census. You have certainly inspired a wonderful tradition for how to spend the day after Christmas.

With admiration, I wish you peace in the new year.

Your friend, Kim Gaffett

1959 Christmas Count with Elizabeth Dickens and others, as recorded in E.D. journals.

Dec. 26, 1959

“Christmas Census. Fine Days [Temp. 37]. Loon 9, Hol. Grebe 12; Horned Grebe, 38; Pied-billed grebe, 1; G.B. Heron, 8; Swans, 86; C. Goose, 1; Snow Goose, 1; Blue Goose, 1; B. Duck, 91; Greater Scaup, 2; Redhead, 4; Amer. Goldeneye, 94; Bufflehead, 38; Baldpate, 7; Amer. Merganser, 18; R.B Merg, 435; Marsh Hawk, 3; Pigeon Hawk, 1; Pheasant, 8; Killdeer, 4; Woodcock, 2; Wilson Snipe, 1; B.B. Gull, 176; H. Gull, 1167; Dovekie, 8; M. Dove, 3; Kingfisher, 2; Flicker, 38; Downy Wood, 1; Horned Lark, 17; B. Jay, 17; Crow, 45; R.B. Nuthatch, 1; Winter Wren, 3; Mockingbird, 2; Catbird, 3; B. Thrasher, 2; Robin, 7; Hermit Thrush, 1; Northern Shrike, 2; Starling, 1815; Myrtle Warb., 77; English Sparrow, 55; Meadowlark, 56; Red-Wing, 2; Orchard Oriole, 1; Grackle, 3; Cardinal, 5; Evening Grosbeak, 2; Junco, 32; Tree Sparrow, 15; White Crown, 9; White Throat, 551; Fox, 20; Field, 10: Swamp, 1; Vesper, 1; Song, 23.

Total: 58 Species; 4,537 Individuals.

Enumerated by Merrill Slate, Arthur F. Rose, William Millikin, Edward Northrup, Marshall Rose, Marcia Phelan, Cynthia Vann, Elizabeth Lawry, Ellen Ernst, Patricia Slate, Rosemary Howarth, and Maisie Rose, Compiled by E. D., Reported by Ellen B[all].

2019 Community Bird Census.

Canada goose – 280-plus

Mute swan – 13

Tundra swan – 2

American wigeon – 11

American black duck – 32

Mallard – 89

Domestic mallard/Peking – about 20

Redhead – 1

Ring-necked duck – 7

Lesser scaup - 1

Common eider – 21

White-wing scoter – 13

Black scoter – 21

Scoter sp. – 6

Bufflehead – 76

Common goldeneye - 41

Hooded merganser – 29

Red-breasted merganser – 86

Merganser sp. – 4

Ruddy duck – 23

Ring-necked pheasant – 9

Common loon – 13

Great cormorant – 4

Northern harrier – 8

American coot – 9

Black-bellied plover - 13

Sanderling - 52

Dunlin - 3

Purple Sandpiper – 3

Wilson snipe - 1

Herring gull – 197-plus

Gr. BB gull – 104

Rock dove – 5

Mourning dove – 83

Barn owl – 1

Red-bellied woodpecker – 1

Downy woodpecker – 2

Norther flicker – 3

American kestrel – 1

Peregrine falcon – 1

Blue jay – 7

American crow – 96-plus

Fish crow – 12

B-c chickadee – 23

White-breasted nuthatch – 1

Carolina wren – 15

American robin – 17

Northern mockingbird – 1

Starling – 220-plus

Yellow-rumped warbler – 3

Song sparrow – 19

White-throated sparrow – 8

S.C. junco – 15

Cardinal – 21

Red-winged blackbird - 14

Eastern meadowlark – 5

House finch – 4

American goldfinch – 1

House sparrow – 40-plus

Total Species: 57  

Individuals: 1,801

Weather: 40 to 43 F cloudy and overcast all day (the sun never peeked out), and 10+/- mph wind from northeast. Cold and raw feeling.

Participants active and casual/accidental: 21. Jon, Jane and Sarah Petersen, Andy Petersen and Cathy Clark, Liz Scranton, Scott & Clair Comings, Susan and Margaret Stover, Heather and Blaize Hatfield, Susan Matheke, Barbara Hall and Gloria Daubert, Nancy Greenaway, Pam Gasner, Mary Lutz, Vicki Butlevska, Chris Blane, and Kim Gaffett.

“Healthy Kids Inside & Out” and their minders: Pearl and Luna Puckett with Laura Puckett (grandmother); Suzanna and P.J. Fillin-Yeh with mothers Kate Fillin-Yeh and Elissa Jacobs, and Sylvia Jacobs (grandmother). Dec. 27, 50 degrees F, mostly cloudy with some sun, light southwest wind.