It takes a community...

Sun, 01/09/2022 - 7:15am
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The 2021 Community Bird Count held on December 26 was astounding in many ways. First, the weather was not ideal; it seemed a bit too cloudy and breezy to encourage bird activity. At first glance the day seemed unremarkable: the sky was blue-gray and mostly cloudy, the
wind was northwest –at times brisk, and the temperature range was consistently 39 to 41 degrees. However, the day’s weather was surprisingly fickle. At 41F, sunny, and with a light wind the weather was pleasant. But it was edgy and chilly at 39F when cloudy and when
we were faced with the breeze.
A goal was set to match the 1921 E. Dickens observations. No one reported hearing loons calling or long-tailed ducks singing – but they were seen. Of the nine species reported by Elizabeth Dickens on December 26, 1921 we observed seven: common loon, Canada goose, long-tailed duck, American black duck, European starling, meadowlarks and song sparrow. (Not surprisingly, horned lark and shrike went undetected.) The goal was a tease, a red herring, a way of setting us off into the day in one direction, strongly suspecting that the highlights would be discovered elsewhere.
The surprises started right away. The annual starting point is at Sachem Pond – a place to gather and scope the waters for ducks, which are easy to see, colorful and beautifully patterned, and fairly still, thus allowing for easy viewing by experienced and novice birders. I was delighted with the unusual turnout of friends and neighbors. In turn, we were awed not by the ducks (which were relatively few for this time of year), but by the lineup along the pond’s shore of seven, evenly spaced, great blue herons – seven!
As is the custom of the Community Bird Census, we chose another location for a group bird walk – Middle Pond and environs. Here the group enjoyed a stunning walk, added a nice assortment of ducks to the building list, and witnessed the floating flight of a marsh hawk, and a piecing flyby of a late-season great egret.

The rest of the day was spent as individuals, pairs and small groups taking walks and observing birds in our own favorite haunts and neighborhoods. In addition to the fourteen people who gathered at Sachem Pond, bird observations were collected by an additional 13 folks from around the island. Among others, these observers included Maureen Quackenbush and her granddaughters Aria and Avery as well as
Jon Peterson who has participated in every Community Bird Census (except for the asterixed Covid-year of 2020) since 2001.

As this was the 21st year of the modern iteration of the Elizabeth Dickens Christmas census, and given the inconducive weather, I expected that the overall number of species would be mediocre, and it would be unlikely that we would add a new species to the 21-year list. So, when the final compilation was done (see list below) I was amazed that as a community we observed 68 species – the highest of the past 21 years,
and that we did in fact add a new species. A black-crowned night heron was witnessed by Chris Blane in the Georgian Swamp.

Without a doubt the most unexpected sightings were of the wading birds: great egret (3), black-crowned night heron (1) and the great blue heron (13). The immediate question that comes to mind is why are there so many this year, and will they stay all winter? Of course the answer is: it’s hard to know. All three of these wading bird species do regularly linger along the southern New England shores in small numbers through early winter. However, the colder the winter gets, the less likely that a remaining wading bird – with little down and dependent on open water for fishing – will survive.
The answer to why are these waders here in late December is less obvious, and likely multifaceted. What we do know about this group of species is that their numbers are considered stable by the National Audubon Society. This is remarkable given that these beautifully plumed birds suffered severe declines throughout the first three-quarters of the 1900s due to the use of their feathers for hats, and the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides. In the upcoming half century, climate changes may threaten their current ranges to the south and may increase them to the north. In addition, habitat loss due to human expansion and destruction by severe weather patterns, such as flooding and fires, will be a real threat to these species. And, the development of spring heat waves will – and already does – negatively impact nestlings and young birds. (The Audubon.org/bird-guide website is a comprehensive guide to birds, current status, and potential/expected effects of climate change.)
What we also know about bird species is that in any given year there can be dramatic increases or declines in abundance due to any number of factors from weather to food abundance, which affect nesting success, migration success, and winter survival. If you observe birds in a location over long periods of time these fluctuations and dramatic shifts can be detected. A case in point is the great migration of great blue herons noted by Elizabeth Dickens in 1910. The following quote is found in E. F. Forbush’s Birds of Massachusetts and illustrates beautifully the importance of sharing bird observations with others.
“The great November flight (which in New England occurs mainly along shores) takes with it about all the remaining herons except occasional stragglers, a few of which may remain through the winter, though some such are starved and frozen before spring.

“Miss Elizabeth Dickens of Block Island was the first to report the great November flight. This was in 1910. She writes: ‘I’ll never forget that flight of herons in 1910. In an early morning I was attempting to feed a flock of 75 turkeys, when they suddenly all became sky-gazers. Of course I did likewise and beheld 12 Great Blues circling above the flock. Round and round and round they flew until I was almost dizzy trying to follow their motion with my eyes. At last they seemed to have had enough of this and flew away to the southeast. A little later another dozen came from the west and alighted in a row along the edge of the bluff. ... Then there came groups of threes and fives and nines,
and so it continued at intervals all day. In the afternoon came one great flock of just a hundred birds. ...I don’t know how many herons I saw that day, but there must have been several hundred.’” – E. F. Forbush, 1925
The short answer to why are there so many Great Blue Herons this year, is some version of: “it is unclear” or “I don’t know,” and “aren’t they beautiful!”
It takes a community to build a list of birds and observations over the course of a day ... or a century. No single one of us can tell the whole story of a place. To comprehend the abundance of the island’s birds, or the status of the environment, it takes the attention and responsibility of many to see the whole, and to share the wonder.

Species – December 26, 2021

Block Island, R.I. Community Bird Census

Bold underlined = new species this year.

Unidentified gull, hawk and cormorant species not included in total species tally.
Canada goose – 91+
Mute swan – 5
American wigeon – 20
American black duck – 12
Mallard – 47
Domestic/mallard hybrid – 60
Northern shoveler – 3
Teal species - 3
Ring-necked duck – 42
Common eider – 5
White-wg scoter – 10
Surf scoters – 3
Long-tailed duck – 22
Bufflehead – 93
Common goldeneye – 16
Hooded merganser – 15
Red-breasted merganser. – 367
Ruddy duck – 30
Ring-necked pheasant – 6
Red-throated loon – 1
Common loon – 17
Pied-billed grebe – 4
Horned grebe – 8
Cormorant species – 3
Great cormorant – 32
American bittern – 1
Great blue heron – 13
Great egret – 3
Black-cr. night heron – 1
Northern harrier – 10
Cooper’s hawk – 1
Red-tailed hawk – 1
Hawk species – 1

American coot – 4
Black-bellied plover – 4
Sanderling – 27
Dunlin – 7
Ring-billed gull – 3
Herring gull – 67
Gr. BB gull – 80
Gull species – 1
Rock dove – 12
Mourning dove – 119
Barn owl – 2
Snowy owl – 1
Belted kingfisher – 1
Red-bellied woodpecker – 6
Downy woodpecker – 5
Northern flicker – 14
American kestrel – 2
Merlin – 1
Peregrine falcon – 2
Blue jay – 20
American crow – 129
Fish crow – 4
B-c chickadee – 34
White-br. nuthatch – 1
Winter wren – 1
Carolina wren – 16
American robin – 57
Northern mockingbird – 1
E. starling – 426+
Fox sparrow – 1
Song sparrow – 20
White-throated spar. – 17
Slate-colored junco – 10
Northern cardinal – 20
Red-winged blackbird – 3
Eastern meadowlark – 6
House finch – 45+
House sparrow – 17
Total species: 68

Participants: 23 + 3 under 7 years old, plus Kim Gaffett – Heather Hatfield, Corrie Heinz, Judy Gray, Clair, Scott and Emma Comings, Susan, Keith and Margaret Stover, Dorrie Napoleone, Jim Fiorato, Kim Bubko, Sarah Gray, Susan Matheke, Will Feuer, Maureen, Aria and Avery Quackenbush, Barbara Hall, Gloria Hall Daubert, Heather Sniffen, Nancy Greenaway, Jon Peterson, Vicki Butlevska, Pam Gasner, Chris Blane.