By Thana McGary
Margery Salmon, Marsha Booker and Steven LaMonde search for and identify birds in Rutland.
By Katy Savage
Sally McLaughlin has an unusual holiday tradition.
Each December, she drives 1 ½ hours from her home in Cambridge, Vermont, and spends a day counting birds in Woodstock.
McLaughlin, 76, founded the Audubon Christmas Bird Count for the Woodstock region 44 years ago and has been leading it since. “I just feel so connected with Woodstock after all the years of doing the count,” she said.
McLaughlin, a former Woodstock resident and former director of Vermont Institute of National Science, got her interest in birds through the organization.
The Christmas Bird Count is a national tradition. Volunteer bird counters spend a day counting birds within a 15-mile radius any day between Friday, Dec. 14, 2018 and Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 and report their results to the National Audubon Society.
Audubon uses the results to track bird habitat, population and migration patterns.
This was the 119th count. Counters in Rutland, Springfield and Woodstock regions reported a significant drop in the number of birds. About 27 volunteers counted 36 species and 1,885 individual birds in the Woodstock area – about a third less than the six-year average of 2,800 birds seen.
The Woodstock count comprises the towns of Killington, Woodstock, Plymouth and Bridgewater.
Hugh Putnam, who has been leading the bird count for the Springfield area since 1978, said this year was the lowest counting of birds since 1979.
His team of 14 volunteers saw 5,221 individual birds – down from the average of 7,465.
In Rutland, a total of 7,536 individual birds were seen by 48 birders.
It was unclear to counters why they saw fewer birds this year.
“The climate is warming,” suggested Putnam.
Edward Hack, a longtime Woodstock volunteer who co-founded the count with McLaughlin said the count could be down due to lack of food. The ground was frozen over during this year’s count, making food resources scarce.
Long-time counters said they’ve noticed changes in bird population since the 1970s.
Redbellied woodpeckers, once extremely rare, are now among the most common birds. Bird counters in Springfield also saw 51 eastern bluebirds this year—the highest ever.
Turkeys are also becoming more common since they were reintroduced to Vermont in Rutland County in 1970. Bald eagles are also increasing in population.
Two bald eagles were spotted along the Ottauquechee River in Woodstock this year. Two were also seen by bird counters in Rutland County.
“In all the years I’ve been doing this count, I’ve never seen one myself,” McLaughlin said.
For McLaughlin, the Christmas count is an important tradition.
Many of the Woodstock counters no longer live in Woodstock, but come back for the count year after year.
“We usually only get together once a year,” McLaughlin said.
Once they are done counting for the day, they have homemade roast turkey dinner at a local church and then go outside and listen for owls.
“It’s so much fun to watch the birds,” she said.