For the Birds – Maine Christmas Bird Count Highlights I
This column is the first of three on the results of the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts (CBC’s, for short) conducted throughout the state of Maine. Each count could be conducted on any day between December 15 and January 5.
The greatest value of the Christmas Bird Count database, now spanning 107 consecutive years, is the opportunity to monitor changes in abundance of our regular winter birds. Because counts are strongly influenced by the weather, a dip in numbers in one year of a common species like the Black-capped Chickadee is not a cause for concern. But several years in a row of reduced counts suggest a change in abundance is occurring.
A pattern evident from the Maine counts already completed is that the number of species counted seems to be around normal but the abundance of birds is down for many species. I expect that the lower abundance is not a real decrease in numbers but rather a result of the warm weather we have experienced so far this winter. With virtually no snow cover, land birds can forage effectively on natural foods and therefore are widely scattered across the landscape. Many people have noticed relatively few birders at their feeders so far this winter. So far this winter, irruptive species like Bohemian Waxwings and the northern finches are rare or absent. Most bodies of water in the southern half of the state are still open. Waterfowl are not concentrated in isolated ice-free patches as in most years on Maine CBC’s.
A lot of the anticipation and excitement for a CBC stems from the hope that an unusual species will be sighted or high count of a particular species will be tabulated. Those highlights will be the focus of these columns on this year’s Maine CBC’s.
Today we’ll consider four inland counts, all done within a three-day span. Despite the geographic proximity, these four count circles produced quite different lists of birds.
The Lewiston-Auburn count resulted in a total of 42 species, a bit below the average of 46 species. One of the highlights was a Red-necked Grebe on Lake Auburn, a first for this CBC. An inland Red-necked Grebe in Maine is always a notable sighting. A Peregrine Falcon was the most unusual diurnal raptor to go along with seven Red-tailed Hawks and four Bald Eagles. Only six species of waterfowl were tallied although the 75 Greater Scaup were excellent finds. This diving duck has appeared only four times on the Lewiston-Auburn CBC and the total this year sets a new record number. No Hooded Mergansers were found this year. A single American Coot was a nice find.
Surprisingly low numbers of Herring Gulls (36), Black-capped Chickadees (259) and American Tree Sparrows (19) were found this year. Four lingering American Robins were found as well as four Northern Mockingbirds.
The Augusta CBC was held on the same day (December 16) and produced a list of 57 species. In addition to the expected Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls, two Iceland Gulls, two Glaucous Gulls and a first-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull were found by Augusta birders. Eight species of waterfowl as well as Common Loon were found in the mostly open water in this area. The most surprising species were Bufflehead and Long-tailed Duck.
Other highlights were lingering Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Mockingbirds and Yellow-rumped Warblers as well as Pine Grosbeaks, a Red Crossbill and a Peregrine Falcon.
The Waterville Count (December 17) yielded 50 species. The Kennebec River at the confluence of Sebasticook Stream produced the usual Common Goldeneyes, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers. This year, these species were joined by an amazing drake Harlequin Duck that has been present since the middle of November. Winter inland sightings of Harlequins in the northeast are extremely rare. Four Greater Scaup were also noted.
In the zany department, a male Yellow-throated Warbler was found in Waterville; this species normally winters in Florida, the Caribbean or Central America and nests well to our south. At the same time, a female Black-backed Woodpecker was discovered; the closest population of these birds I am aware of are in the Flagstaff Lake region.
Finally, the Unity CBC was held on December 18 and produced a count of 48 species, a record total for this count. Highlights were a mix of southerly and northerly species. A Red-bellied Woodpecker occurred again this year, perhaps indicating this southern species has gained a foothold in the Unity area. A Black-backed Woodpecker was found as well. Lingering birds included Northern Flicker, Swamp Sparrow and Pied-billed Grebe.
[Originally published on January 5, 2006]