Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Final Count -- Truro 12/29

We did our fifth and final Christmas Bird Count of the season this past Monday, and it was an exquisite end to the CBC season. I almost felt like the Truro count and the Cape Ann count were bookends -- each taking place at the ocean, with good birds, weather and friends. Of course the 3 counts in between had their own unique highs and lows. But the Truro count is always fun. Part of it has to do with our territory. We have a relatively small area from Pilgrim Lake down the Cape to the Truro elementary school. And we further subdivide the territory with Simon Hennin taking the bay side and we do the ocean side...Rt. 6 is the dividing line. We usually have to go down to the Cape the night before if we hope to get any owling in, so a group of us meet at the Fairway Restaurant in Eastham for dinner the night before the count. Here's a photo of some of the gang from Central Mass who do the count. This year one of our major CBCers, Kathy Mills, wasn't able to join us, but she did call us at the restaurant to wish us well! Now you might be wondering why I would put a blank photo on the blog...but it isn't. We were out owling at Pilgrim Heights and noticed that there were Robins everywhere on the road in the dark. If you click on the photo to enlarge it (and view it with the room lights off) you will notice the "blue dots" are really the Robins' eyes reflecting the carlights. It was dark, yet these birds were everywhere....portending what was to be the most numerous bird of the day.
As dawn broke over the tip of the Cape, we were looking (in vain) for Short-eared Owl up on High Head.
We got a great look down into the marsh and found a Pied-billed Grebe sticking very close to the reeds. We also heard both Virginia and Sora rails in this marsh.
We decided to get to Head of the Meadow beach so we wouldn't miss any possible alcid show taking place at dawn. A few years back we were treated with 15,000+ Razorbills on the count, and I think we've become jaded since then -- always hoping for the big numbers.
Most of the birds were quite a ways out and the closer fly-bys were mostly Red-breasted Mergansers, with a few White-winged Scoters passing fairly close as well.
We were treated to great looks at Gannet and Kittiwake, though, feeding just off the drop-off. We spent almost 2 hours checking everything that was flying by. Mark spotted a shearwater way out (he think's it was a Cory's but wasn't 100% certain so it went down as "shearwater sp.")
There were numbers of Razorbills, a few Dovekies, Murres and even a Puffin...but as many as we were able to identify, there were at least that many more that went down as LUA's (large unidentified alcids). However, there was a great show of Red-throated Loons passing fairly close to shore.
As the sun came up we had huge numbers of Robins flying over. Our count for the day was somewhere between 7,000-8,000 birds. You really have to wonder where they all go once they hit Provincetown. Do they just turn around and head back....or fly out over to the mainland? We were torn between the seawatching and knowing that there were probably large flocks of passerines along the Bike Path....
So we headed back up to the beginning of the bike path at High Head.
We weren't disappointed...there were hundreds of Robins everywhere. I decided to hike a bit down the bike path itself and Mark planned to stay close to the car and count birds as they flew over. (Secretly I knew he was looking for that one Varied Thrush amongst the thousands of Robins.)
Like I said, there were Robins everywhere....

....coming and going....
Even a Harrier couldn't flush all the birds that were along the bike path. Notice how well this bird blends into the surrounding dune grasses.
A trip to the small housing community on the top of High Head produced wonderful views (in addition to the Robins)
And there were also very good numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers.
While we hoped to find a possible Palm or Pine....no luck. Just lots of Yellow-rumps.
We were excited to find a Northern Shrike up there, perched way out in a tree....and hoped that he wasn't feasting on the Yellow-rumps.
Before we headed off to meet Simon for sandwiches and to get his numbers from the bay side, we drove along this little dirt road through a magical little forest with lots of pines. We had heard both White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins at dawn and hoped we would come across them in the pines.
We didn't. Sometimes this forest tract is dead, so I was grumbling about "wasting time" driving through. But we did come across a small group of chickadees, titmice and Red-breated Nuthatches.
Since we don't always have this species on the count in big numbers, finding any justified the side trip!
After lunch we birded the area around Highland Light and the old radar station. Not many birds on the golf course...mainly because there were a smattering of golfers out enjoying the mid-40 degree day.
We did manage to coax a pair of Carolina Wren out of the bushes, along with our only Mockingbird of the day.
We drove to the small overlook at the end of the road and put in some more time seawatching.
RB Mergs were still evident.
Along with Northern Gannets -- although the numbers had dropped off significantly from the early morning.
We did have a nice flock of Sanderling come wheeling by....
and when they landed down the beach we counted more than 80 birds in the flock!
And the Red-throated Loons continued to sail by very close to shore.
The beach was almost deserted (except for this adorable little dog and his owner) so we stayed at the overlook and started to tally our numbers. In our little sector we had 68 species, including 5 species of alcids. When I think of this count the things I'll remember most were the constant flocks of Robins flying over, incredibily close Red-throated Loons, close Dovekies and the early morning Gannet and Kittiwake show!

So ends the saga of the 2008 Christmas Bird Count season. Definitely a mixed bag. But one thing that can be said about Christmas Bird counts (no matter what the weather or the ultimate species total) it's better to be out birding and enjoying nature than not. And this is a good way to make sure you don't hole up and become a couch potato for the winter.....Now onto 2009!

Happy New Year, friends

Saturday, December 27, 2008

CBC No. 4 -- Quabbin

I imagine many people think "wow, getting a key and driving in Quabbin for a Christmas Count, that must be great". Well....it can be....but not this year. The snow of a week ago made it impossible to get to the two best places for birds in our sector (Gate 40) -- Grave's Landing and opposite Mt. Zion. In fact the road was only plowed to Dana Commons, about 2 miles in from the gate. We did try to do some owling, but most of the owls were in the section outside of Quabbin. We did have a total of 2 Barred, 2 Sawwhet and 1 Great Horned Owls -- all calling, no visuals.
We met the rest of the "inside" crew at the gate at 7 for the morning's birding....we had no idea just what a short morning it would be. Bill Cormier and Ian Lynch were going to walk the road to Dana Commons, while Kevin Bourinot & Rebecca Cibrowski-soon-to-be-Bourinot (in a jeep) tried to get a bit past the plowed area at the Commons. Mark, Simon Hennin and I would follow them if the road seem okay.
Since my Escape just doesn't have the weight or torque of a jeep, we had trouble climbing a small incline on a curve, so after several attempts we gave up and returned to the safe ground around Dana Commons and proceeded to poke into the fields and some of the unplowed roads heading out of the Commons. Mark stayed put listeneing for fly-overs.
It seems that Dana C. had been the staging area for disbursing and consolidating the port-0-lets used during the deer-hunting season inside Quabbin. You know it's a slow birding day when I start photographing portable johnnies!
And it was....after Kevin & Rebecca returned (they had gotten to the end of our territory opposite Mt. Zion) we were shocked to find out they had A LIST!
After a mere 2-1/2 hours inside Gate 40 we compiled our huge list of 19 species and decided to call it quits. The "showers" forecast for the morning were keeping whatever birds (and I don't think there were many) that were inside Quabbin down. In fact, Mark & I thought of going back home and just calling in the results to the compilation. But first we contacted Kathy Mills who was heading up the two teams doing our sector "outside" of Quabbin. Cellphone coverage is always spotty in this section of the state so we had to move to higher ground in Hardwick before we reached her. We asked her to call us in mid-afternoon when they were finished so we could consolidate all the numbers and phone it into Scott Surner (one of the Quabbin CBC co-leaders).
After dispersing the inside team and making arrangements with the outside team, I convinced Mark to make one more run to Dana Commons since it looked like the rain might be lifting. Desparate for photos, I took this fungi conglomeration on a broken tree branch. We sat in the pouring rain for 90 minutes at Dana Common waiting for something to put in, since I was bound and determined not to leave the Quabbin CBC without a picture of a bird!
Finally, as we were on our 3rd round-trip to the Commons, we spotted a small flock of chickadees working some bushes along the road and I was able to get a shot!
And then more success....a junco at Dana Commons (actually there were 5). I wondered if our luck had changed along with the downpours turning to drizzle.
Mark suggested we check the nesting box for signs of wintering white-footed mice....
It was clear than someone was living inside the box.....
So when these 2 little guys popped out to see who had disturbed their warm snooze, I was ready and waiting with my camera.
We had 1...then 2 mice leap out of the box and run away. One almost jumped straight at Mark. But the third decided to sit on the post and pose before she took off.
Finally as the third one scampered down the post and jumped into a nearby bush at the base of a stone wall, we heard at least 2-3 more moving around inside the box, so we quickly closed the door and left them alone. Once we left we knew it wouldn't take long for their box-mates to return....so we gave them a big piece of multi-grain sandwich roll. A feast to make up for the disturbance we had caused.

Frankly, that was the highlight of our day!
After spending 6-1/2 hours driving back and forth a 2-mile stretch of road we, too, decided to call it quits. (We had added only 1 species (White-breasted Nuthatch) to the inside-Quabbin list.)
As the rain let off and the temperature rose, the surrounding farmland snows started to give way to fog! This Red-tailed Hawk in Kathy's territory definitely seemed to have had enough of the wet weather as well.

We got back to Worcester around 3, compiled the results that Kathy forwarded for the outside part of our sector and emailed in a grand total of 40 species for this count. Kathy's team did have a late Eastern Phoebe, but all-in-all not what I would call a stellar CBC.

Now it's on to the 5th and final Christmas Bird Count for this year -- Truro. Always one of my favorites......so let's hope we end of a high note!
More to come....Sheila

Monday, December 22, 2008

CBC No. 3 -- Worcester

This past weekend was Worcester's Christmas Bird Count (no.3 for Mark & me) and, by far, this was the hardest. I keep wondering what Quabbin will be like, since they seem to get harder with each one that we do! I wish we could do them in the spring and call them Easter Bird Counts. We started Saturday's count as usual in the pre-dawn hours. Only this time we had to do some snowblowing instead of owling.
In fact the only owling we were able to do was to spot this one on the back porch of the Boylston Municipal Light building. This much be his territory, because we always see him in almost exactly the same spot....
At dawn we decided to hit South Bay at Wachusett Reservoir and see if any ducks were hiding out from the storm there. The viewing conditions were less than desirable.
Although we did manage to find a flock of Common Goldeneye. We searched for a Barrow's, but couldn't make any of them into one. Later we learned there was a female Barrow's on Lake Quinsig (interestingly this was a new species for this CBC.)
We also spotted a little Hooded Merg staying close to shore and keeping out of the snow as best he could.
We continued moving around the west side of the reservoir and poking into what streets were passable looking for feeders and, hopefully, flocks of feeder birds. This snowy Robin was a pleasant surprise.
But even the domestic animals were trying to keep protected from the snow and cold.

While we grumbled about the poor weather conditions, lack of birds, slippery roads, etc. I was taken by this rather picturesque scene on the Boylston Town Commons. The only thing missing were the lights and carolers!
We really had to work hard to pull out even the most common of birds...it's like they decided "an ice storm and a foot of snow....maybe we should head south". This White-breasted Nuthatch was 1 of only 4 we had for the day. A paltry number....
Woodpeckers were scare as well. We only had 3 each of Downy and Hairy for the day, and this Hairy wasn't making a sound when we found him. However, we did have a Flicker near Cyprian Keyes constantly calling due to the Red-tailed Hawk perched nearby.
We checked back at Wachsett several times to see if viewing conditions were improving and more birds were visible.....Not. Although at one point we did have a Common Loon tucked in one of the coves along the west side of the res.
Driving through some farm fields near the Boylston/Northboro line we came across this very cold-looking Mockingbird tucked in low on a bush. There were a few sparrows rustling nearby, but no one wanted to come out in the weather.
We did keep coming across small pockets of Robins, especially where there was a good berry crop and running water (both of which seemed plentiful.) In fact, Robin ended up being the most numerous species we had in our sector -- 147 individual birds!
Although not as numerous, Cardinals seemed to be everywhere. Besides the 30+ we had in our sector, we had at least half that amount just in our backyard under the feeder when we went home for lunch and checked. We also had a Carolina Wren and Red-bellied Woodpecker at the feeder....At one point we were thinking that maybe we should have just stayed at home and watched the feeder!
But we didn't. So we ended our section of the Worcester CBC with a grand total of 37 species, with Savannah and Swamp Sparrow being the more unusual species for us.

We didn't have a compilation due to the weather, but John Liller (the leader for this CBC) reported a total of 62 species for this year's count...not bad considering it snowed from dawn til dusk!

So now it's on to CBC No.4 -- Quabbin; but that's after Christmas which is probably good since I've just finished writing out Christmas cards. Next I think I'll do some shopping and maybe even put a tree!