Now that we’ve shucked our CBC boots here is a retrospective look at Concord’s 57th, which was held midnight to midnight on January 2 under partly cloudy skies and in calm weather. Paths were glazed with ice and the walking was treacherous. The Concord circle encloses the whole or parts of 18 towns with 14 town sector coordinators and many more assistants—we are a huge count, measured by participation rate, and usually in the top five or six of 2,500 count circles now established in the Western hemisphere and Pacific Islands. Field participation is around 190 and another 100 volunteers count birds in their yards and at feeders. Many field counters reported fewer songbirds than usual and observed depleted fruit supplies and bare pruned field edges. Seed-eating birds may have drifted to feeders. The mid December cold snap surely sent some populations to milder parts of New England or coastal regions. However, our tally is only 675 birds fewer than last year’s total of 35,860.
The same early December chill froze over ponds and lakes and most ducks had migrated. Flint’s Pond had reopened in one broad spot, but nary a duck or goose was in it. A few stretches and elbows of flowing water in the rivers were a refuge for the scant 13 common mergansers we had but Hager Pond as usual was still open for business with an assortment of NORTHERN PINTAILS (13), GADWALL (3), and a lone NORTHERN SHOVELER among the usual mallards, mute swans, Canada geese, and gulls. Wood duck took a year off with a CW.
No dramatic results to report for raptors this year except one NORTHERN GOSHAWK, always a terrific find, spotted by our Marlborough man. Count day saw one second year bald eagle along the Concord River, quite a slip from last year’s record 10.
Several CBCers rose in the early hours well before dawn for the love of owls and we had more nocturnal birders out than in any previous count. Our results for NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL (45) and GREAT HORNED OWL (68), double last year’s tally, are stunning and it is unclear at this writing whether our results evince an increase in abundance, or that the owls were speaking up, or a higher effort on our part than in previous years. Many of the owls responded to broadcast audio recordings, but this writer found one or two great horneds already hooting at every large agricultural field upon his arrival. One volunteer (ahem!) silently explored for owls in a realm beyond human auditory and visual perception— extrasensory observational experiments are ongoing. Barred Owl did very well, too, with 31 and may set a record depending on effort calculations. Compared to previous count tallies, saw-whets were a big news story and our Northern saw-whet whisperer in Marlborough found eleven of these diminutive fellows in one spot; he may well discover, though, that their year to year annual migration numbers are far more difficult to calculate than the orbital periods of asteroids that were once his expertise. Our final owl counts in no way show proportional abundance as the Northern saw-whet may be the most common wintering owl, with the local and stationary Eastern screech-owl pairs a close second and great horned, which occupy fairly large breeding territories, far, far behind in number.
The biggest surprise was spotted by the keen-eyed faculty of the Concord College of Field Ornithology who surveyed the Kaveski Farm agricultural fields and marshes. One class member proved again to be the fastest draw in the East with his camera and snapped a photo of a high flying LONG-EARED OWL, a very uncommon and typically nocturnal species that is quiet in migration and difficult to find on its winter roosts. Many thanks to a staff expert at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology for nailing this difficult I.D. We certainly missed it!
Both RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER (418) and PILEATED WOODPECKER (65) achieved new count highs. Red-bellieds continue their upward ascent, having taken off in the late nineteen eighties. A single exotic visitor showed up in 1968; previous to that antediluvian year they were unknown to the count. With the maturing of forest trees, and being remarkably adaptive to fragmented suburban forestlands, pileated woodpeckers, too, are showing a less dramatic, but steady population increase over time since their extirpation by hunters and collectors and loss of habitat to the felling of the great forests to agriculture in the 18th and early 19th Centuries.
You’ve heard this before, but gulls, again, showed historically weak numbers, with RING-BILLED GULL at 81, a new low for for that one. Piggeries are shuttered, open dumps are capped, and the free lunch counters that once brought thousands have sent these birds, primarily the herring gulls, elsewhere, most likely for good.
Tufted Titmouse and Northern Cardinal, whose numbers are holding steady, were Count Week birds in 1960, at the inception of the Concord CBC.
Our sole warbler was a single wintering PINE WARBLER, living the good life dining on suet cake at a Lincoln feeder. We haven’t seen a yellow-rump in five years!
Our largest record tally this year was achieved by one of our winter visitors, HORNED LARK (555), the majority of that number at Acton’s School Street Fields. The spectacle of huge flocks of tundra breeders showing there, and enjoyed by many birders, also included about 100 SNOW BUNTINGS and 2 LAPLAND LONGSPURS, birds we do not see every year.
Record low count species were the typically abundant COMMON MERGANSER (13), which may be accounted for by an early freeze over of the big lakes, and WHITE-THROATED SPARROW at 178, the lowest ever for reasons that are not conclusively known at this time. Purple finch (2) barely made an appearance this year, but was once a common count day bird in the early years, with tallies well into double digits. Purples have swapped places with house finch, which made its debut in 1964 with a solitary individual. In 1993 we tallied 1,390 house finches before eye disease pruned their numbers back to 585 in 1998 and we’ve seen a modest recovery since.
Finally, at the tail end of every checklist, is house sparrow (3,326), which showed another uptick this year. However, 1960, the first year of our count, still holds the record for these, adjusted for participation level when just seven small parties found 840.
Most of us do not find rarities, but tallying the common birds is what this project is really about and considerable respect is due the heroic effort put in by our chickadee-counting foot soldiers afield and our volunteers watching their yards and feeders. For the second year, we wish to acknowledge the contributions of our talented young birders, the next generation, many of them members of the Massachusetts Young Birders Club, who made a long day and a night of it in Lincoln and Concord.
And, finally, a brief eulogy for one of our most reliable Concord count volunteers we may not see again. He wasn’t with us long—only five years—but for those five years he made an astonishing round trip journey of 4,000 to 5,000 miles every season to join us on count day, which may not show a love for us or our count or any knowledge of its purposes, but was surely a dramatic and moving expression of perseverance, adaptation, and evolutionary destiny. If, as an old joke goes, eighty percent of life is just showing up, our humble “Oregon” junco had in no small measure exceeded that expectation and, possibly, any common everyday human achievement.
Many thanks to all our town coordinators, their assistants, and our feeder watchers and field team volunteers for making our 57th another success, and as always we extend our gratitude to the local sponsor of our count, SUDBURY VALLEY TRUSTEES, and most especially SVT executive director Lisa Vernegaard who hosted our potluck supper and compilation in the cozy Wolbach farmhouse. Thanks, again, Lisa!
Please join us on Saturday December 30, 2017 for another winter birding adventure!