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Christmas Bird Count and Climate Watch Surveys

Have any of you long-timers on Peaks Island been noticing changes in the avian visitors to your yards and bird feeders this winter?

Apparently, warmer winters are encouraging some birds that used to head further south for the winter to establish their winter bases further north. And there are also some cases of birds that usually spend the winter further north heading south when their food supplies run low.

The Audubon Society has been trying to track such changes through a variety of citizen science efforts, including two recently conducted on Peaks Island -- the Christmas Bird Count and the Climate Watch Survey.

Christmas Bird Count (CBC) 2022

The Christmas Bird Count began on a national level over 100 years ago. From December 14 through January 5 each year tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas brave snow, wind, or rain, and take part in the effort. The objective for each team is to identify and count as many birds as possible on a single day and submit a report of the species and numbers observed. The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the bird populations have changed in time and space. The Peaks Island team has been participating in the CBC at least 43 years as part of a Portland Area Team with Bill Hancock as the organizer.

In recent years part of the Portland team came to Peaks Island and conducted the bird counts with ‘Ravenwatcher’ as the leader. This year we were on our own. Michael was under-the-weather and instead of sulking at home alone, he watched birds from his kitchen window – seeing 31 species in four hours.

What does he put in those bird feeders to attract so many birds? He’s not telling.

The Kelly/Wainright team identified 45 species at 10 locations in 8 hours. Between the two teams we identified a total of 56 species. The number of species observed was the highest we have recorded on a CBC. We attribute it to combining two approaches: traveling around the island in search of birds, and remaining stationary to observe birds coming to a feeding station. Michael's feeder approach added 11 species to the list. Over half of the added species are members of the finch family (Fringillidae), including the Pine Grosbeak, the House Finch, the Purple Finch, the Common Redpole, the Pine Siskin, and the American Goldfinch.

The day was cold and damp so we deviated a little from the norm by making some observations of seabirds, indoors during a mid-morning coffee break. Whimps? No just cold.

In previous years ‘Ravenwatcher’ surveyed the waters between Portland and Peaks Island. He typically saw the rare Iceland Gull on Portland’s waterfront.

This year Sam rode the ferry to Portland in search of this rare gull. He did not see it, but he did identify 3 Red-throated Loons, 11 Surf Scoters (with clownish beaks similar to puffins), 17 Common Loons, and 17 Long-tailed Ducks (low number compared to other surveys by Sam). He did not see Black Scoters (with the orange knob on the upper bill) but they were observed elsewhere offshore of the island. Other seabirds he did not see while on the ferry but we noted off Peaks Island were 5 White-winged Scoters, 84 Common Eiders, 43 Buffleheads, 23 Red-breasted Mergansers, 4 Common Goldeneyes, 7 Red-necked Grebes, 5 Black Guillemots, and an additional 53 Common Loons. Gull numbers were lower as compared to typical counts during the summer breeding season – we saw 2 Ring-billed Gulls, 79 Herring Gulls and only 4 Great Blacked-back Gulls.

The most abundant land birds included the 36 Black-capped Chickadees, 28 American Crows [only one Common Raven seen flying over Michael’s feeders], 38 House Finches, 99 American Goldfinches, 21 Song Sparrows, 27 Northern Cardinals, and the two introduced species – 78 European Starlings and 68 House Sparrows.

The Northern Mockingbird is normally seen at several sites on the island – mostly in rose bushes. However, we saw only two at our City Point Road site and one at Michael’s feeder.

We revisited that site during the Climate Watch Survey (see below) and found one very lively (bottom’s up) mockingbird eating rose hip berries.

The famous Hootie, Peaks Island’s Screech Owl was a sensation last year, bringing a group of birders from the mainland to hear him. He is secretive, and it is dark when he can be heard. This year, though he had been sighted and heard, he decided not to be counted. We did not add any owls to our list this year.

On our last stop at dusk we counted 29 Great Cormorants

perched on the northeastern cliffs of Cushing Island. Recently we have seen up to 35 roosting on the cliffs. How do they hold onto their chosen spot in the gusting snowy NE winds – Velcro? Even during mild weather conditions their landing strategies are not always successful. Upon approaching the cliffs they descend over the water and then swoop up the face of the cliff – and either land on a ledge or slide off it, regaining their flight pattern in yet another attempt at landing. They are determined to bed for the night on the cliff, and not on the sea.

An interloper.

We invite interested volunteers to join us in the December 2023 CBC. Please contact Sam:

Climate Watch Survey (CWS) 2023

In 2014, Audubon published its first Climate Change Report -- a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Audubon's climate change models suggest that 314 of the 588 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080. After the publication of Audubon's first CWS, Audubon invited volunteer citizens to help with a series of Climate Watch Studies. The studies aim to document species’ responses to climate change and test Audubon’s climate models by having volunteers in the field look for birds where they are predicted to be in the 2020s. Although Peaks Island is not located in one of the Climate Watch's priority blocks, two Peaks Island birders noticed that three of the priority species -- Eastern Bluebirds, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and White-breasted Nuthatches -- were visiting Peaks Island frequently during the winter. After a few hours of reviewing the Climate Watch website, maps, and manuals they signed up to follow the Climate Watch protocol for counting these birds on Peaks Island. The protocol calls for identifying in advance 12 observation points scattered around the island where the "target bird" is most likely to be encountered; each of the 12 points must be at least 200 meters from other points. On the survey day, observers spend 5 minutes standing stationary at each observation point and counting the number of target birds seen and/or heard within a 100-meter circle around the observation point. Other birds seen or heard during the 5-minute period can also be reported. Data are then recorded using an eBird app and shared with the Climate Watch team.

Our Peaks Island team, led by Valerie,

devoted one day of observation to tracking down the island’s Eastern Bluebirds, which tend to hang out near open fields and bird feeders. A second day was devoted to the Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches which like to congregate in spruce and other evergreen trees, often in the company of Black-capped Chickadees.

Eastern Bluebirds on Peaks Island

On the CBC five Eastern Bluebirds were seen in the early morning hours at Battery Steele. No evidence of pair bonding was observed as compared to last year where one was exploring a woodpecker hole while the partner idly watched from a distance.

Other reports of bluebirds on the island have been noted. Eleanor recently saw a pair investigating her nest box. Perhaps some mealworms will bring them back? Others have observed them at their feeders (Bob and Thaea, Nancy and Scott, and Nancy). Our first encounter was late fall along Hussey Road as they dashed among low-lying trees. A group of 4-5 appears to be busy investigating various feeding and nesting opportunities on the island.

So we decided to add Eastern Bluebirds to the CWS and to choose open area sites, and where they were previously noted.

The hunt was ‘on’ starting at Battery Steele. No bluebirds. Midway through our search we were discouraged, as we approached Trott Cemetery. The cemetery was active with little birds - Tufted Titmice, American Goldfinches, House Finches, a White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinals, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and finally - YES – 3 male bluebirds. Success.

Because there were only 3 males, we knew the females were nearby so we headed straight to nearby bird feeder sites. Nothing. Although not bluebirds, we were delighted to see 16 Cedar Waxwings (and other non-bird life) feeding on rosehips at another stop – The Farm.

And while en route we see turkeys – multiple males displaying their amazing tail feathers, paying no attention to us. Just strutting-by.

Red-breasted Nuthatches and White-breasted Nuthatches on Peaks Island

These two species of nuthatches were also observed during the CBC – 12 Red-breasted and 13 White-breasted – so they seemed like good candidates for the CWS. Since they prefer similar habitats (evergreen woodlands), both species can be surveyed the same day. So we did.

The Red-breasted Nuthatches are the winners with a total of 21 seen at eight different locations:

The highest counts were at Ashmore Benches (overlooking Brackett Pond) and Prince Ave. As previously observed, we expected a plethora of both nuthatch species at the Kelly’s feeder and yard (Lafiabougou). We saw only 2 of the red-breasted variety. Zero white-breasted.

In all, even a lack of sightings of these priority species is important information for Audubon and future mapping of how different species may or may not be changing their choice of habitat range.

Written by: Valerie Kelly, Michael LaCombe, Patty and Sam Wainright

Photos by: Patty Wainright Red-breasted Nuthatch photo

Maggie LaCombe: Michael's photo

Reviewers: Michelle Brown and Marty

References: Audubon's Climate Watch Survey Manual and CBC website


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The Backshore Bird Blog


The objective of The Backshore Bird Blog is to share the wonder and diversity of bird species seen along the Peaks Island shore.

If you like birds...

take a look at our list of the 100 varieties of birds that have been spotted around the Island here. How many can you spot?

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