The inevitable finally happened. Dr. James Riley’s ruby-throated hummingbird in Edgartown was last seen on Jan. 3, after about 48 hours of below freezing temperatures. The other two hummingbirds survived that cold snap but did not survive when winter came on with a vengeance last week, and we had several days where the temperatures stayed below 20 degrees. Joannie Ames’ West Tisbury ruby-throated hummingbird was last seen on Jan. 23, while the Allen’s hummingbird at Penny Uhlendorf’s and Scott Stephens’ in Vineyard Haven was last observed on Jan. 24. We all mourn their passing and thank the homeowners for their dedication to keep these nectar-eating dynamos alive into January. They were almost invincible little birds.
Christmas Bird Count Summary
Martha’s Vineyard’s 53rd annual Christmas Bird Count was held on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012. The weather was favorable in the morning, with temperatures around freezing but no wind. In the afternoon the weather deteriorated and it was raining quite hard by 2 p.m. We had 56 observers divided into field teams of 12 to 14, spending a total of 102.75 hours searching for birds. Another 16 observers spent their day recording how many birds were at their bird feeders. The final results are listed at the end of this column.
We recorded 120 species and one additional easily recognizable subspecies on count day. This was a typical total, as it is exactly the average number of species found since 1980. While we try to find all the species on the Island, we never succeed. This year nine additional species were observed during the count week, defined to be three days before or after the count (even more species have been seen in January).
We counted 21,433 birds. While this total is eerily similar to last year’s 21,787 birds, it is less than half the average of almost 46,000 birds from the previous 30 years. This is a downward trend in the abundance of birds; our counts have been well below the average since 2008. Much of this decline can be attributed to the lack of the multiple large flocks of thousands of eiders and scoters that used to frequent our waters.
The most unusual occurrence had to be the two species of hummingbirds: the Allen’s was seen on count day, while the ruby-throateds were observed only during the count period. They have been mentioned frequently in this column over the past two months as hummingbirds are not expected at this time of the year. This is the first time that either species has been recorded on our count. They are the 212th and 213th species to be seen on the count since 1960.
Another highlight has to be the winter finches: white-winged crossbill, red crossbill, pine siskin and common redpoll. They normally are found in the coniferous woodlands of Canada and northern New England, and they only venture this far south when food is scarce up there. This is the first count where all four species have been observed. The only year that three of the four were observed was 1965 (there were no red crossbills that year).
Two other species are unusual finds. The great egret was observed for only the third time, having been found previously in 1992 and 2007. This is also the third sighting for a Nashville warbler, which was observed previously in both 1998 and 1999.
A number of species set or tied records for how many individuals were found. Three great horned owls were heard calling before dawn. Three individuals were also found in 2007 and 2008, but in those years a pair was observed at the Phillips Preserve. This is the first year that those owls were not found there (one was found dead last fall), and the three owls we found were at three different locations. Ninety-seven tufted titmouse tied their previous high (97 were also observed in both 2008 and 2010 (an odd every other year pattern); 296 red-breasted nuthatches were observed (the previous high was 233 in 1997 — only two were observed on the 2011 count); 25 chipping sparrows were observed (the previous high was 17 in 1994); 548 dark-eyed juncos were observed, (the previous high was 434 in 2003); 105 red-winged blackbirds were observed (the previous high was 83 in 2008); and 50 white-winged crossbills were observed (the previous high was 30 in 1965).
On the downside, we missed some species that are relatively frequently found on the count, including snow goose, northern shoveler, northern pintail, canvasback, northern bobwhite (quite a few are around and can be heard calling in the summer), American kestrel, killdeer, American woodcock and common yellowthroat.
But overall the count was a success. We all had a lot of fun despite the less than favorable rainy weather of the afternoon. The data we generated will be sent to the National Audubon Society, which compiles the more than 2,000 counts conducted across the Americas. The Christmas Bird Count is the largest citizen science project in the world, and these data are used to evaluate regional and national population trends for each species.
We will catch up with your bird sightings next week.
There are lots of birds around, so please get out looking for them, and be sure to report your bird sightings to the Martha’s Vineyard bird hotline at 508-645-2913 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.