Middlebury Christmas Bird Count shows highest numbers ever

ADDISON COUNTY — This year 42 field birders and 13 observers at feeders located and identified 24,073 birds of 72 species in during our Middlebury Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, Dec. 18.
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 Mountain 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 had steady rains and icy roads to deal with this year in the predawn blackness. Some of them waited to survey on Sunday night when conditions had improved. Field birders met them at 6 a.m. 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. Along with some of them, were helpers who may not have been as familiar with birds or the 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 a slowly growing number of 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 (http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count).
Water bodies within our count circle had remained open through the Thursday before the count when temperatures dropped and most still water froze over. Access to water allows ducks, geese, eagles, herons, kingfishers and other water-related birds to continue to find food in the Lake Champlain basin. Despite the freeze, field teams found 13 of the 44 water-related species that we have located over the 28 years of the count. Ducks and geese were identified while sitting in fields, flying overhead and occasionally sitting on the ice.
In addition, two Great Blue Herons were found near small patches of remaining open water. The team of Ian Worley, Ethan Fenn and Richard Harlow identified a flock of 16 black scoters flying south over the icy lake. This is the first time this species has been identified during our count, though it is irregularly seen during Christmas counts held further north of us in the open waters of Lake Champlain. A new record of 15 bald eagles were counted in our circle as well. Some of these may have been our own local eagles that are now returning to nest in Addison County for the first time in decades.
Steady rain continued for most of the morning but afternoon conditions gave our birding teams a break. Undeterred by the rain, an overwhelming number of American robins (5,677) were spread over almost the entire circle. This was not only a new record but more than three times the previous high-count of 1,783 robins back in 2011. Most of these birds were likely birds from Canada that had been lingering and feeding here in the Lake Champlain Basin. Dark-eyed juncos were also found in record-high numbers (798), though they were not nearly as ubiquitous as the robins. American crows (2,716) were easily counted as they returned to their roosting areas near Middlebury village at dusk. This kept their totals high but not at record levels.
Although we found plenty of visiting snow buntings (1,016), horned larks (712), and a few lapland longspurs (5); common redpolls, pine siskins, crossbills, and grosbeaks stayed in Canada. No snowy owls were found in our count circle and the icy roads, rain and some minor injuries prior to the count limited our owling effort and results.
The most unusual bird found within our count circle this year was a marsh wren at Richville Dam located by our Middlebury College student team of Spencer Hardy and Pete Kerby-Miller. Marsh wrens are common in local cattail marshes in the spring and summer, but we have never found a lingering bird during our count.
The red-bellied woodpecker (50 seen) first moved north into our count in 1989 and first broke into double digits in 2005. This year we found almost twice as many Red-bellieds as hairy woodpeckers (26 seen).
Although we found 76 purple finches last year, this year only a single purple finch was found. Red-breasted nuthatches were seen at feeders earlier this fall, but again only a single bird was found during our count. These low numbers don’t reflect long-term population declines but rather annual changes in the amount and location of the food sources that they prefer.
Ruffed grouse continue to be hard to find within our count circle. This year the only grouse seen was a single bird found in the yard of Joan Lynch in Cornwall. This has been a long-term trend as a result of habitat changes over time.
Tyler Pockette located a small group of black vultures in Middlebury village a week after the count. Although we can’t include these birds in our count tally, it is interesting that this southern vulture has been moving north into our valley over the past few years. This is a slightly smaller vulture than the more common turkey vulture. It also has a shorter tail and black head. It is surprising that they are here this late in the year, but they appear to be feeding at Vermont Natural AG Products composting station on Lower Foote Street.
Despite the roads, rain, lack of open water, limited northern songbirds and very few avian predators from the north, our crew of field teams and feeder watchers still tallied an impressive total of 72 species of birds. And our total numbers of birds (24,073) is a record for us. The record total of individuals is easily accounted for by the numbers of American robins.
Our total of 72 species is six above our average of 66 for our count and two below last year’s total of 74 species. Totals for the last two frozen-water years (2013 and 2014) were 66 and 63 species respectively. Our birders set a record for the number of species found in our circle during a frozen-water year.
A Christmas Bird Count is a team effort between field teams and feeder watchers. This year we had an excellent number of field birders (42) but our reports from feeder watchers still need to be increased. Consequently, we are looking for additional people who live within the count circle and 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.

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