NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 29, 2012

Cool birds and cool water, for the Christmas Bird Count

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Last Sunday was the Newburyport Christmas Bird Count. Teams of birders scoured the woods, fields, backyards, thickets, marshes, rivers and ocean from Ipswich to Salisbury counting every bird that they encountered. The weather was rather pleasant with sunny skies and temperatures ranging from the high 20s to the low 40s.

The early morning was calm, making for good owling conditions, but the wind picked up during the day, gusting as high as 25 mph. Ponds and salt pans were partially frozen, but the rivers were wide open.

The good weather helped contribute to finding 119 species, just two below the all-time highest number found. Nine of those species reached a record high count of individuals. Gadwall was the only duck to see its highest number in the history of the count. Sanderlings were particularly numerous with over 500 counted, dwarfing the previous high count of 147 in 2009. Red-bellied woodpeckers continue to increase in the area and a record number of white-winged crossbills was not a surprise in such a good finch winter as we are having.

Four evening grosbeaks were found in Willowdale State Forest — a nice find, though a far cry from the large numbers of these birds that we would see in winters past. A record number of 815 of these grosbeaks was counted back in 1969!

Other noteworthy birds include the two western grebes that have been present for at least a month off the coast of Plum Island. Only single western grebes have been observed twice before in the history of the Count. A hoary redpoll was found among a flock of eight common redpolls at Lot 7 on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. A couple of ravens and a towhee were also seen during the Count.

Despite the good owling conditions, low numbers of screech, great-horned and barred owls were reported. The long-eared owl at Salisbury that I talked about last week was not found on Sunday; however, Tom Wetmore did see one near Stage Island Pool on Plum Island early in the morning. No snowy or short-eared owls were discovered.

A small number of bald eagles were found along the river, up to about 10, as I recall. Ring-necked pheasants are now scarce on the count, but up to three were visiting a customer’s backyard on Seven Star Road in Groveland the day before, and the day after the count. They could at least be included in the Count Week tally.

Another customer on Merrimac Street in Newburyport e-mailed me a photo of a black-crowned night heron that visited her yard that morning. Great blue herons are often seen on the count, but this is only the ninth time a black-crowned night heron has been reported.

I was able to join the Count in the field in the morning before work. Margo and I have been covering the “new pines” area on the Refuge, across from the North Field. This area is now closed to public access, but 40 years ago we used to be able to park along the road in winter and go into these pines to look for crossbills, saw-whet owls and long-eared owls.

As optimistic as I always am, these pines are not what they used to be decades ago when we would have crossbills feeding at arm’s length. Discovering a roosting saw-whet owl or long-eared owl was always a treat, and it happened frequently back then. But our walks through there in recent years have been little more than long walks. The pines are much older now and not so “new” anymore. But then, neither am I.

Still, in this good finch winter, when we have had hundreds of crossbills at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation, I thought that this would be a special year. But it wasn’t. Unless counting 67 red-breasted nuthatches would be considered special — they were everywhere we looked. We did have 31 flyover crossbills, but those and some chickadees, robins and downy woodpecker were all we could conjure up this year.

Though one can participate in the Christmas Bird Count tallying feeder birds from the comfort of their home, those who go afield can experience some discomfort on a winter day in New England. Though, as I said, weather conditions were generally pleasant this year, there was one story of human discomfort that I heard from one of the sector leaders: Linda Pivacek of Nahant leads a team around Rowley and one of her areas is Nelson’s Island at the end of Stackyard Road. Linda and teammates usually don Wellies, rubber boots, to walk out the marsh road to Nelson’s Island in search of snowy and short-eared owls. The marsh road floods at high tide and wading is a must. One participant, a Plum Island resident, had boots that had only rubber bottoms. He chose to remove his boots and wade in 40-degree water out and back! Not a choice that I would have made.

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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.