Ash-throated Flycatcher, Long-eared Owl, Among the Prize Sightings of the Christmas Bird Counts

Jan 11, 2017

With last Monday’s Truro count, the 117th Christmas Bird Count season for the Cape and Islands came to a close. Weather wise, the season came in like a lion and went out like a slightly less vicious lion. The windy, rainy weather for the earliest counts gave way to drier, sometimes calmer conditions for the Vineyard, Nantucket, and Truro counts.

All told, birders spotted around 170 species across the 7 local counts this year – not bad for winter birding in New England.

The winner of the species derby this year was the Mid-Cape count with an impressive 135. This count, whose 15 mile circle spans from East Sandwich to East Dennis, was held on a windy December 27. What is the secret to this count’s success? Mostly, it’s that it includes the great marsh and huge barrier beaches of Sandy Neck, but also as several other sizeable salt marshes, many Nantucket Sound beaches, many, many productive thickets and duck-rich ponds, and the massive robin roost in West Barnstable. More than 20,000 robins were estimated entering the roost this year.
Some of the more interesting birds seen included an Ash-throated Flycatcher, a vagrant from the desert southwest that was found hanging out in a neighborhood in Osterville, as well as an exceptionally late Ovenbird, a locally breeding warbler rarely seen after September. An equally late Tree Swallow battling the gale at Sandy Neck rounded out the seasonal rarities.
The Nantucket count was held on New Year’s Day. True to form, it produced multiple fancy birds, like Painted Bunting, Yellow Rail, and Long-eared Owl. Nantucket’s recipe for success is, first, being an island in the middle of the ocean, and second, attracting some of the best birders in New England each year, birders who spend a lot of time scouting the day before the count. Scouting only gets you so far, though, because the birds have little incentive to cooperate on count day. Case in point was the ultra-rare Tufted Duck found the day before and the day after the count that disappeared on the actual count day. A real Scrooge McDuck, that guy.
I organize the Truro Count, which was the last of the season on January 2. We were blessed with a rare perfectly windless and clear night. It was cold, but absolutely perfect for one of my favorite birding activities – owling. Between two sets of birders we had a record 21 Northern Saw-whet Owls in the swampy Herring River wetlands of Wellfleet. Screech Owls and Great Horned Owls were also abundant and vocal, and one team had an uber-rare Long-eared owl elsewhere in Wellfleet. During the day, the most eyebrow-raising birds included an extraordinarily late Osprey fishing the big herring run ponds of Wellfleet, a couple of Common Ravens, and a Northern Waterthrush, a first record for this count. This bird is apparently attempting to overwinter in a red maple swamp in Wellfleet, and is one of maybe three individuals on the entire east coast north of Georgia right now.
While I’m always a little sad to see the count season end, I take solace in the fact that many of these fun birds we discovered as we scoured the underbirded corners of the Cape are still out there. Lots of birders take advantage of this to get out in January and pad their year lists. Winter birding is still rewarding, and is a great way to prevent cabin fever as we head into the bleakest, darkest recesses of late winter. If you’ve been meaning to try birding, strap on your boots and get on a Cape Cod Bird Club walk, or check out the birding programs at your friendly neighborhood nature sanctuary. A treasure trove of hardy feathered friends awaits!