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January 2004

Coopers Hawk
Coopers Hawk


The Brattleboro Area Christmas Bird Count
by Chris Petrak

The Brattleboro Area Christmas Bird Count (CBC) took place last Saturday. Twenty-five people in seven teams covered an area with a 15-mile radius looking for wintering birds and late-departing summer birds. Each team spent an average of 6 hours in the field, drove an accumulated 323 miles and walked an additional 6 miles. In addition, about a dozen people did feeder counts and reported their species numbers. By the end of the day, 42 species had been recorded with a total bird count of 2,944 birds.

While the weather was cold and the wind brisk, the conditions generally were the best in several years. Skies were clear, the sun was bright, and the roads were clear. Thin ice in a few places prevented some exploration, and snow cover kept the number of miles walked on the low side. Veteran participants were enthusiastic about the good conditions.

On the other hand, the number of species reported, 42, was the lowest in over a decade, and in recent years, only 1999 counted fewer birds. The low number of species is probably due to winter getting an early grip. In previous years, the CBC has had such fair-weather species as Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Chipping Sparrow, Robin, Cowbird, and Towhee. No such fair-weather species were reported this year. Either they have all gone south, or the individuals that lingered were done in by the weather.

Winter finches were present as predicted for the most part. There were several small flocks of Common Redpolls, plus a single flock estimated at 80-plus, for a total of 165. The redpolls maintained their every-other-year pattern. Other species which follow a similar irruptive pattern were the Evening Grosbeak (36 in 2001; 47 in 2003) and the Red-breasted Nuthatch (22 in 2003, the highest number recorded on a Brattleboro CBC).

One surprise was the complete absence of the Pine Siskin. They follow a regular pattern of irrupting in the eastern states one year, and the western states the next. They were reported in November and early December in our area, but on the count day, they were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they continued moving south with the goldfinches with which they travel. Goldfinch numbers were okay, but the flocks seemed smaller than just a few weeks ago.

Bird population numbers can vary widely from year to year, impacted by the food supply during breeding season, and the food supply, winter weather conditions, disease, and many other factors during other times of the year. In 1999, it was difficult finding Blue Jays, and only 44 were counted that year. But their population rebounded the following year, and there has been a steady wintering population in the subsequent years. This year, 270 Blue Jays were counted.
Looking over the count numbers from recent years, Dark-eyed Junco may be another species that goes through irruptive cycles, or population boom and bust cycles. This year is one of the down years with 93. Previous counts for juncos are: 2002: 402; 2001: 37; 2000: 1101; 1999: 30; and 1998: 393.

Black-capped Chickadees are doing very well in our neighborhoods; at 572, it was the most commonly counted bird on this year’s Christmas count. Its cousin, the Tufted Titmouse, a southern species that has been extending its range northward, has also been increasing its wintering presence.
After the chickadees, the next-most-common species was the Rock Dove, now officially renamed as the Rock Pigeon, popularly known as simply “pigeon,” and sometimes referred to as “rats with wings.” At 414, mainly around Brattleboro, the healthy presence of pigeons also provides a good food source for wintering hawks, such as the Sharp-shinned (5), Cooper’s (1) and Red-tailed (6). There was also one late Red-shouldered Hawk (hatch year) soaring in the Black Mountain area.
All birds are wanderers during the winter, often traveling long distances in search of food. Some are highly nomadic, and it is chance that gets them seen and recorded. Cedar Waxwings, for example, winter in our area in substantial numbers, but their flocks are very nomadic. Only two count teams recorded waxwings this year. One team found a group of seven—the other, a flock of 80-plus.
A couple of weeks ago, someone called me with a very unexpected question. She wanted to know what had happened to all the starlings this year. As it turned out, it was a good question. The number of starlings counted this year was half of the next-lowest count for the last dozen years. Last year the number of starlings was 640; this year it was 187. Have they gone south? Or has something else, disease perhaps, caused a crash in their numbers? Most people I know would be happy to see this overly successful, exotic, invasive species disappear from North America. That is not going to happen. But why such a decline in numbers?

Red-bellied Woodpeckers, another species extending its range northward, continued their winter presence; three were reported. On the other hand, the Carolina Wren, which has become a regular, was absent. Additional “missing” species were Northern Goshawk, Ruffed Grouse, Great Black-backed Gull, Northern Flicker, all of the owls, and the Horned Lark.

In the middle of the week, three “missing” species were reported: Mallard, Common Goldeneye, and Hooded Merganser. Finally, the Pine Ciskin, Carolina Wren, and the Horned Lark made an end-of-count week appearance, as did the Peregrine Falcon, a first appearance in the history of the Christmas Bird Count.
Good Birding.

Christmas Bird Count 5 Year Comparison Statistics

This article first appeared in Chris Petrak’s “Tailfeathers” column in the Dec. 19, 2003, Brattleboro Reformer.


2003 Putney Mountain Hawk Watch Season
by Chris Petrak

The 2003 hawk watch season on Putney Mountain lasted longer than usual due to good November weather. From August through November, there were watchers on the mountain
on 76 days, logging 346 hours of coverage.

During September and October, only on rainy days were observers absent. This makes Putney Mountain one of the most thoroughly covered hawk watch sites in the northeast. Places like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and Cape May, New Jersey, employ naturalists in order to provide continuous coverage. Putney Mountain is all volunteers.

With this extensive coverage, the hawk count totals were the second-highest recorded to date, with 7,055 raptors counted. Only 1999, with 7,751, yielded a higher count.

Before continuing with the count numbers, however, an emphatic caution must be made. The hawk count numbers for a single site are meaningless by themselves. They acquire significance only when they are analyzed along with all of the other counts from the dozens of watch sites in the eastern flight corridor. Many factors can affect where migrating hawks fly. Some wind and weather patterns will concentrate hawks along the seacoast; others will concentrate them along ridge lines, and yet others will disperse them over a wide area.

For example, at 4,608, Putney Mountain had its second-best year for Broad-winged Hawks; the number in 2002 was 4,961. But does this mean that Broad-winged Hawks are doing well? Not necessarily. Watch sites in Massachusetts, such as Mt. Wachusett, had very poor count numbers; the numbers at Wachusett are normally several thousand more than at Putney Mountain. Putney Mountain’s numbers may be an exception. Or they may mean that the Broad-winged Hawks were dispersed from Putney Mountain and westward. The only thing that can be said with certainty, is that on Putney Mountain from Sept. 9 to 21, there were a bunch of really exciting days with up to a thousand broadies seen in a day.

The highlight of the season was the Bald Eagles. Clearly, they have been recovering in the East from near extinction, and that recovery had been reflected over the last decade with growing cumulative numbers from watch sites. In 2000, Putney Mountain set its site record for Bald Eagles with 40 birds. By mid-September, that number had been exceeded, and by the end of the season, shattered. Sixty-six bald eagles were seen by the Putney watchers this year. On two occasions, Sept. 5 and 9, there were 11 Bald Eagles! On Sept. 9, Broad-winged Hawk numbers were over 700. Watchers on the mountain on that day were soaring with the hawks!

John Anderson coordinates the hawk watchers to the degree that anyone can coordinate that group of hawk-obsessed volunteers. He keeps the official count records, and it is his report that provided the statistics for this column. In his report, he wrote: “About a million children came to the mountain this year. They were guided, instructed, and accepted by all ... even on peak Broad-winged days. Some of those children will be our future environmental stewards ... This is the report— the numbers—two-plus months of something we all lived—boiled down to statistics. It can’t do justice to the sun, the sky, the wind, the ever-changing clouds. Until another year, memory will have to suffice.”

Hawk Watch 5 Year Comparison Statistics

Adapted from Chris’s “Tailfeathers” column in the Dec. 26, 2003, Brattleboro Reformer.


Great Backyard Bird Count: Feb. 13-16, 2004

Sponsored by the National Audubon Society & the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

How is this winter affecting North American bird populations? You can help scientists answer that question by participating in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count. As Chris Petrak wrote in his article about the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch, bird counts are most meaningful when they can be analyzed from numerous sites.

Here’s how you can help:
Count the birds in your backyard, local park, or other natural area on any or all of the four count days. For each species of bird you see, record the highest number of individuals that you observe at any one time during your count. Don’t add a bird every time you see one; you could be counting the same individual.
Watch the birds for at least 15 minutes on each day you participate — longer is better.
Enter your highest counts at the Great Backyard Bird Count website:
… and visit the Map Room to track the results. The website also offers guidance for participating in the bird count, plus helpful “Birding Tools,” such as tips for bird watching and bird feeding, and ideas for educators.

for information contact
Chris Petrak














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