By Julia Purdy
On Jan. 2, Rutland County Audubon embarked on its 43rd year of tallying late-winter bird species for the Christmas Bird Count, a North American bird census founded 100 years ago by the National Audubon Society. The Rutland group joined 22 other groups from around Vermont, all either in the field or watching feeders.
The Christmas Bird Count began in 1900 as the inspiration of Frank Chapman of the nascent Audubon Society. The “CBC” illustrates the interdependence of sport hunting and conservation. At that time, the Christmas Day bird hunt was a popular tradition, and Chapman proposed swapping guns for field glasses and pencils. On the inaugural date, 27 counters noted 90 species, including 18,500 individual birds, from the Northeast, including Ontario, to California.
The 2016 statewide census areas consisted of 22 circles, each 15 miles in diameter. In Rutland County, eight field teams totaling 32 people took to the field in eight different “pie pieces,” while five “feeder watchers” monitored their birdfeeders at home.
The Rutland circle extended into Mendon in the east, Pittsford in the north, almost to Castleton in the west, and to in North Clarendon in the south. The center was the intersection of Route 4A and Route 3 in Center Rutland, near the Great Falls on Otter Creek. From there, the teams fanned out, following routes designed to avoid overlapping: seven in vehicles and one that traversed Clarendon Flats on foot, all day. (In 2015, 325 miles were traversed by car and the team on foot walked 20 miles.)
A bird does not have to be physically observed to be counted, if its call can be positively identified. Taking care not to double-count, the Rutland teams identified 53 species, including two firsts for the Rutland area: a vesper sparrow and a short-eared owl that was caught unawares at the edge of a cornfield.
That number is about average for the variety of habitats in Rutland County, said Marvin Elliott, president of Rutland County Audubon. Over the club’s 42-year career, a maximum of 101 species have been spotted at this time of year, said Roy Pilcher, charter member and past president of the club. Available habitat determines the numbers. “That number would shrink in a circle of limited variation in habitat,” Elliott explained. “An example would be in Alaska where we know they once recorded a single species, a raven.”
At day’s end, the teams gathered in the community room of the Proctor public library for a “countdown supper” to report and record the day’s counts. While enjoying a potluck supper (including roast snow goose), teams were called one by one to give their counts for each species, from bald eagle to winter wren and everything in between.
Since only one of the feeder watchers was present, the final figures were still being compiled as of this writing, but in 2015, for example, 8,488 individual birds comprising 51 species were counted in Rutland County on Christmas Bird Count day.
This year, 170 wild turkeys were observed, although that number was low compared to other times and some of the other species such as Canada geese.
“The turkey is a great conservation success story that many know,” Elliott said. “When this country was being settled we had thousands, they were decimated in numbers to near extinction, conservation began and the turkeys came back and are now plentiful. The lesson learned is that good conservation pays off.”
Among the raptors, two bald eagles were seen cruising above Otter Creek—“no longer a rarity,” according to Elliott. The adults are very large, with white head and tail contrasting with black plumage. Red-tailed hawks totaled 40, and one peregrine falcon was seen. Owls, which normally hunt at night, are venturing forth in daylight for food, and teams counted seven barred owls. One team, working in deep woods and forest edges, spotted three of the impressive birds. That team had a “skilled birder who does a great owl call which sometimes gets them to respond and be tallied,” said Elliott.
The short-eared owl, mentioned above, “is a little different,” said Elliott. Medium-sized and tawny, they frequent large, open farm fields and may be seen coursing low above the ground on the lookout for small rodents. Short-eared owls are common in Addison County, and this was an exciting first for Rutland County.
Tradition says that robins and bluebirds are the harbingers of spring, but on Jan. 2 a surprising number of both robins and bluebirds were counted—101 and 34, respectively—although, according to Elliott, it is not unusual for small flocks to overwinter here in sheltered, brushy areas, eating last year’s fruits. Bluebirds were spotted by four of the teams.
Preliminary figures showed that the two most numerous species that day were Canada geese and starlings. No great surprise there. Most of the 1,249 geese were observed at the confluence of East Creek and Otter Creek in Center Rutland. The Otter Creek floodplain south to Wallingford features many cornfields and pastures, offering good pickings for geese.
The starlings are a historical object lesson. That day they totaled 1,215 individuals and were reported by all teams. The starling has been around since Roman times in Europe and has spread prolifically worldwide. Introduced into Central Park in New York City in 1890 to control the invasive house sparrow (both were introduced by the same man), the starling succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and is now regarded as an invasive species with virtually no importance to conservationists. While they have marginal value in helping control insects, their huge flocks compete with and displace many native species, such as bluebirds.
As the counts were read off in the meeting, they were compared with all-time records for Rutland County and the years they were achieved. The group noted with interest that records seemed to peak in many cases in the 1980s. Older birders can recall very large flocks of various species such as evening grosbeaks that do not seem as numerous these days. National Audubon asserts that two-thirds of all species are in decline, through competition with humans for habitat and resources.
Many unanswered questions underscore the importance of the Christmas Bird Count. “Changes and variations in bird populations require careful study by trained biologists,” Elliott said. “We are helping them learn the answer to a question like that by providing them with the best data we can get.”
The final task was to enter the field data into spreadsheets for submitting to eBird.org, a joint project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that gathers and publishes data from around the world. Individuals as well as groups can conduct counting for submission to eBird. A visit to the Vermont section of the site offers the results of individual birdwatchers as well as birding “hot spots.”
Two outings are coming up for Rutland County Audubon in January. On Saturday, Jan. 14, the club will host “Winter Regulars and Rarities in the Champlain Valley,” and on Saturday, Jan. 28, the monthly bird monitoring walk will take place at the West Rutland Marsh, a well-known species-rich habitat. On Tuesday, Jan. 31, learn how sugarbushes foster biological diversity, 7 p.m. at the Rutland Free Library.
For more information and the places to meet, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Marvin Elliott
An Eastern bluebird scans its surroundings in Rutland County on Jan. 2, 2017.