Happy Holidays to the birds and bird lovers of Peaks Island. This blog is a special one for the holidays – a gift from Dan Nickerson and volunteers for the Christmas Bird Count who search for birds on the shores and land of Peaks Island. Their goal is to provide data that will assist in determining bird conservation measures. Below I discuss what this bird count is all about and share with you what birds these avid bird lovers find.
“In 1900, Audubon member Frank M. Chapman launched the first Christmas Bird Count – Audubon’s all-volunteer holiday census of early-winter bird populations – as an alternative to the traditional Christmas “Side Hunt,” in which hunters competed to kill as many birds (and mammals) as possible. The Christmas Bird Count has evolved to become a hugely important pool of data for researchers studying the ongoing status and ranges of bird populations across the Americas. (1)”
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a program of the National Audubon Society with a 115-year history of including citizen scientists, tens of thousands of them. This early-winter bird census is for one 24-hour period on one calendar day. The Official Count Period is from December 14 to January 5. This period is strictly adhered to because it maintains consistency in bird population databases. These data can then be used in conservation science studies. (2, 3) To date over 200 peer-reviewed articles have resulted from analysis done with CBC data. This data has been used by U.S. federal agencies as an important basis for making decisions about birds. (4)
The survey area of the CBC is divided into regions (Canada, United States, Central and South America, Guam and Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Island, and the West Indies and Bermuda) and each one is divided into Count Circles. Each circle has a 15-mile wide diameter where specified routes are followed. A Compiler organizes volunteers for each established Count Circle.
Devoted volunteers gather together in their established Count Circle and spend one enriching day identifying and counting bird species – regardless of whatever weather conditions are thrown at them. Most counts start at daybreak. Every species is identified and every bird that is seen or heard is counted. The Compiler submits numbers to a central database. This database is made available to scientists and the public after all counts are entered and verified. (2, 3)
Anyone, of all ages, can join in the thrill and excitement of this holiday tradition – a great way to learn how to identify birds or perhaps, just sharpen your skills. Each group has at least one experienced birdwatcher to teach and verify bird identifications.
Now that we know the bare-bone basics of a Christmas Bird Count (CBC), let’s accompany one of them – right here on Peaks Island. On this 116th year of the CBC, our ‘energetic and avid birder in the bush and on the shore’ – Michael Lacombe – inquires into becoming a volunteer with the Greater Portland Circle. The group is thrilled to include an islander in their Peaks Island count.
Dan who has been doing this Christmas Bird Count for 35 years leads his group of mainlander volunteers. In the early morning light Dan searches the ferry terminal for any new members of his team. Tell tale clues such as binoculars, paper-bag lunches, or spotting scopes thrust over shoulders are give-a-ways of a birder. Since new volunteers usually do not know what to expect, they may appear as if outfitted for an expedition. Once all are introduced, they join together in excited anticipation – as a gaggle of geese gathering for flight. They board the ferry. “In the interest of preserving treasured long-term committed relationships it is permissible for significant others to ride below in the heated cabins.” The hard-core birders proceed to the frigid deck. They cannot wait to get started, and take advantage of the ferry ride as a birding opportunity; every species and individual counts. Even though tears flow from their eyes and their hands begin to freeze, they hold up their binoculars and scan the waters and sky for birds. They search Fort Gorges for the elusive Snowy Owl that appears there once in every 20 years. (5)
On the ferry dock at Peaks Island, Michael, too searches the horizon – for this throng of birders aboard the ferry, who he has not yet met (Dan, Beth, Bryce, Kara, and David). As a friendly introduction to these mainlanders, all equipped for a long and cold hike, Michael offers his truck. Their introductions go well, and they are off, in search of the island’s unsuspecting birds. What combination of our year round or winter residents, “lingering migrants, or vagrants (5)” will they see?
Weather predictions are for northwesterly, blustery winds with relatively high temperatures in the 30s. Backshore observations, sheltered from the winds, allow for some great sightings of ocean/shore birds that we do not routinely see: three Razorbills (related to puffins and guillemots), two Black-legged Kittiwakes (type of gull), 14 (!) Great Cormorants, and 13 (!) Purple Sandpipers. One of their most notable sightings is the Red-necked Grebe – 85 of them “in an extraordinary line of them out along the Backshore in sea current from Plum and Long Islands (6)”. These grebes migrate across the continent from their breeding grounds west of the Great Lakes, and as far away as Alaska, to the Atlantic shoreline for their winter supply of tasty fish.
Our demure year round residents, the Black Guillemots are offshore, eight of them, along with a larger number of the Common Eiders as compared with the low numbers in November. Winter residents are returning, including the two scoters – Surf and White-winged, but no Black Scoters as were seen last year. Perhaps with the warmer weather, their movements from the North are delayed?
The Long-tailed Ducks, Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Loons, and the Common Goldeneyes are seen feeding and resting along the shores. The Barrow’s Goldeneye is not seen this year, yet, although it was here last December.
Even though not many of the rare Iceland Gulls have been seen around the region, anticipation is still great – finding this nearly all white gull (except for its grey back) that breeds along the shores of Baffin Island and Greenland - is always a treat. These eager volunteers scan for it among the 400 Herring Gulls (a larger bird with dark flight feathers), but none are spotted around the island. Michael continues his search, even after the mainlanders depart Peaks Island, with no success. But not all is in vain – an Iceland Gull is spotted off Commercial Street between two piers behind Portland Flatbread. This individual is described as “a sub-adult [with] a uniformly light brown-stippled bird on white back ground (5)”.
Glaucous Gulls may be seen along the Portland Waterfront – another almost all white gull with a grey back, but larger than the Iceland Gull.
Pulling away from the shore the group is raring to go, in search of the Carolina Wren and a Wilson’s Warbler in the marshes and bushes around Battery Steele where Michael had seen them recently. Hopes are high as December’s balmy days have created conditions that favor slow movements of migrants (e.g. the warbler), and Battery Steele lands are sheltered with good sun exposures and warmth (5). The volunteers, too, appreciate the protected warmth of Battery Steele marshes. They see a Carolina Wren (heard last year), but no Wilson’s Warbler.
Other highlights for this year’s CBC include the Rough-legged Hawk and the Red-tailed Hawk (the latter seen flying over Long Island). The Black Ducks are in abundance – 70 individuals, along with nine Mallards. The raven pair is not seen. But, in all, 43 species are identified during this breathtaking day. So many sensational birds are spotted on and around Peaks Island (Michael’s and Dan’s species and count list is below in the Appendix.) At the end of their day, Michael and Maggie welcome these “obsessed birders (5)” into their warm home, for snacks and happy conversations about BIRDS.
Thank you Dan, Beth, Bryce, Kara, David, and Michael for your devotion to the birds. And let’s not forget Maggie who hosted these intrepid birders. Thank you Maggie.
Even though the Peaks Island counts (within the Greater Portland Circle) were done on December 19, perhaps you might like to register for next year? A head organizer within each circle should be contacted in advance. To insure space contact William Hancock as the organizer at email@example.com. Or there are many other Circles in Maine that may still have available spots for a new and interested volunteer: