57 species collected, one by one

Ocean Views: 2018 Bird Census

Fri, 01/04/2019 - 6:30am

On Wednesday, Dec. 26, a hearty band of bird watchers — Jon Peterson, Heather Hatfield, Anne Connelli, Judy Gray, Jules Craynock, Sarah Grey, Laura Rosenzwieg, Cathy Payne, her granddaughter Bailey Payne, and cousin Aidan — met at Sachem Pond to kick off a day of looking for birds to be tallied for the Community Bird Census. On Sachem we scoped out 25 mute swans, a wide variety of ducks including American coot, American widgeon, and hooded mergansers. Although the weather was fair, the birding was slow, and Sachem Pond turned out to be the hot-spot for birds that day.

After scanning the pond the group dispersed to various parts of the island to collect observations alongside their daily activities. A small group stayed together to walk and bird along Snake Hole Rd. That little jaunt provided our first look at common eiders, and the realization that birds were laying low and out of sight.

After leaving the southern edge of the island, Jon and Heather joined me to check out the Hog Pen. The number and variety of species in this protected marine environment was limited, and did not contain the expected bounty. However, we stood in awe atop Fort Island and watched a belted kingfisher zip and hover high over the water, not unlike a hummingbird, waiting to plunge-dive for a fish. The energy that it exhibited to hover, repeatedly, for such long moments was nothing short of amazing.

About noon, we — the remainder of the morning gatherers – went our separate ways, to cover more of the island in the afternoon. We all had varying degrees of success. But, the theme of the day proved to be surprises of small numbers interspersed with moments of wonderment. The first of these moments came when I suddenly braked and pulled over on Corn Neck Road near Mitchell Farm to check out a bird that flew to a wire overhead. I feared it was one of the island’s many mourning doves that I had just motioned Jon to stop for, but my instinct was right: American kestrel. There, with sun hitting its coppery back, blue-gray wings, and side-burned face, was a stunning male kestrel patiently sitting as if waiting for its portrait to be taken, and for our admiration.

The day of low bird presence (which included not a single shorebird) ultimately provided a community list of 57 species, a little above the 18-year average of 52 species: this was no easy feat, it was done one bird at a time through the efforts of many. Chris Blane called in with a mid-afternoon sighting of an immature red-tailed hawk sitting on a pole on Beach Avenue. Susan Matheke reported one American robin and one northern cardinal. Heather Hatfield observed one each: white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, pine siskin, red-bellied woodpecker, and common merganser. Pam Gasner reported the only northern gannets seen that day, one northern flicker, and a Bonaparte’s gull. Anne Connelli spied the only northern mockingbird, and Jon Peterson and Scott Comings each had one coopers hawk.

Remarkably, there were three new species added to the 18-year list: one redhead, one red-necked grebe, and two razorbills. These three species were identified by this year’s “ringer,” Chris Scranton. Chris and Pam have been on the island visiting from Oregon for the past eight weeks, and they are experienced birders. From their vantage point overlooking Pebbly Beach, Chris added an array of sea ducks that are not often observed. And, on an inland afternoon walk, Chris and Pam added the only cormorant (double-crested). One cormorant, a surprise of scarceness!

Like the happenstance sighting of the kestrel at the beginning of the day, the day ended with a chance sighting of delight. As the four o’clock hour approached — the time that we were to meet at the Harbor Church to combine our lists and share stories of the day – I headed to the east dock at the Old Harbor, hoping desperately to find cormorants, gulls, and possibly a shorebird. Unbelievably, not a gull or cormorant was in sight. The light of the day was dwindling, and the east breakwater seemed to be all granite, adorned with a washed up buoy. But something about that buoy seemed peculiar: I retrieved the spotting scope from the truck and took it as far down the dock as possible and focused in on a seemingly all white, snowy owl. The owl sat there, as if waiting to have its portrait taken, or simply to be admired, which it was, by the small assembled group of the day’s participants in the 2018 Community Bird Census.

2018 Community Bird Census

Canada goose – 115+

Mute swan – 25

Gadwall – 4

American wigeon – 5

American black duck – 17

Mallard – 77

Domestic mallard/Peking – 6

Redhead – 1

Ring-necked duck – 31

Common eider – 73

White-wing scoter – 21

Black scoter – 71

Bufflehead – 49

Hooded merganser – 24+

Common merganser – 1

Red-breasted merganser – 109

Ruddy duck – 58

Ring-necked pheasant – 16

Red-throated loon - 1

Common loon – 15

Red-necked grebe – 1

Northern gannet – 5

Double crested cormorant – 1

Northern harrier – 9

Cooper’s hawk – 2

Red-tailed hawk – 1

American coot – 26

Razorbill – 2

Herring gull – 137+

Great black-beaked gull – 34+

Bonaparte’s gull – 3

Rock dove – 25

Mourning dove – 60

Snowy owl – 2

Belted kingfisher – 3

Red-bellied woodpecker – 1

Downy woodpecker – 4

Northern flicker – 2

American kestrel – 2

Blue jay – 16

American crow – 304+

Fish crow – 3

Black-capped chickadee – 44

White breasted nuthatch – 2

Carolina wren – 10

American robin – 5

Northern mockingbird – 1

Starling – 176+

Song sparrow – 20

White-throated sparrow – 1

White-crowned sparrow – 1

S.C. Junco – 9

Cardinal – 22

Eastern meadowlark – 5

House finch – 3

Pine siskin – 1

House sparrow – 13

Total Species: 57  

Individuals: 1,675

Weather: 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit mostly sunny morning and afternoon, and 10- to 15-mph (gusts to 18) wind from northwest.

Additional bird sightings

Although the winter may seem like a bare time to watch for birds, our island environment is positioned in such a way that you never know what might appear. Consider these recent, but non-December 26 sightings:

On Dec. 22, Charlie Gale saw a magnificent frigatebird near Southeast Light — this bird had been seen earlier that day in Pt. Judith and the next day on Long Island; Chris Blane, while afield on Christmas Day, saw an American bittern, American woodcock, and Wilson’s snipe; Pam and Chris Scranton saw 30 common murres on Dec. 25 and 19 common goldeneye on Dec. 27; Laura Rosenzwieg and family saw a barn owl the evening of Dec. 27; and Sam Spier encountered an immature northern goshawk harassing his chickens on Dec. 30.