December 22, 2013

Herb Wilson: No counting out the birds that endure winter

Christmas Bird Counts under way.

The National Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season has begun. This column is the first of three in which I will describe some of the notable sightings during the counts conducted in Maine.

In the last column, I wrote about the phenomenon of irruptions of northerly birds into Maine. From the first CBC data, this winter does not appear to be an irruption year. Perhaps I may change my tune by the end of the CBC season on Jan. 5.

Saturday, Dec. 14, was a bitterly cold but clear day. Intrepid birders braved the weather, encountering a nice diversity of birds. We’ll look at the highlights of three counts conducted that day.

The Lewiston-Auburn CBC yielded 47 species. The cold weather over the previous week caused most open water to freeze, with only the Androscoggin River and the middle of Lake Auburn available to waterbirds. Despite reduced open water, three common loons were found. Five species of ducks were found, with the 479 mallards far outnumbering common mergansers, hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes.

Seven species of birds of prey were pretty impressive, headlined by a snowy owl and three peregrine falcons.

Lingering birds included two Carolina wrens, six eastern bluebirds, an eastern towhee and two field sparrows.

The only waxwings were four cedar waxwings. The only finches were 33 house finches and 81 American goldfinches.

A glance at the totals of any CBC reminds one of the impact that humans have on bird diversity and abundance. The two most common counts were of introduced birds: 875 European starlings and 825 rock pigeons. The 765 American crows were the most common native birds.

SPECIES TOTALS

The Augusta CBC produced a total of 46 species. Waterfowl were hard to come by, with 40 mallards and American black ducks the most common. A single common goldeneye, three common mergansers and 27 hooded mergansers rounded out the list.

Four species of finches were found, with a lone pine siskin and nine purple finches joining the more common American goldfinch and house finches.

Lingering birds, soon to depart, I am sure, with the arrival of snow and extended cold, included a belted kingfisher, a northern flicker, five eastern bluebirds (spectacular against the snow), two hermit thrushes and two northern mockingbirds.

The Greater Portland CBC usually takes pride of place with the most species of any Maine CBC. This year, 46 counters found 92 species. The seabird counts were a bit low, in part because of the sea smoke that limited visibility over the ocean.

Twenty-two species of waterfowl were found. Highlights included a pair of American wigeon, three northern pintail, two ring-necked ducks, six Barrow’s goldeneye, and a singleton ruddy duck.

Grebe and loon numbers were on the low side: six red-throated loons, 118 common loons, 31 horned grebe and 30 red-necked grebe.

Lingering birds included three double-crested Cormorants, six turkey vultures, three northern harriers, an American coot, a killdeer, six belted kingfishers, three yellow-bellied sapsuckers, 11 northern flickers, eight Carolina wrens (all-time high for this count), a ruby-crowned kinglet, 40 eastern bluebirds, five hermit thrushes, two gray catbirds, five yellow-rumped warblers, four Savannah sparrows, a Lincoln’s sparrow and a white-crowned sparrow.

Whew! That is a remarkable list of birds, most of which are surely struggling to survive in Maine while other members of their species are in much more equitable climes.

The eight snowy owls were a high total for this count. Three peregrines were nice to see.

Six species of gulls were found, with only one Bonaparte’s gull found. Both species of white-winged gulls were found: two Iceland gulls and seven glaucous gulls.

No irruptive finches were found; American goldfinches and House finches were the only finches tallied.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at:

whwilson@colby.edu

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