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Winter rarities and Christmas bird counts

Nature's Notebook

One of the great things about winter birding is the anticipation of seeing one or more of the winter rarities that visit our area.

In past columns I have written about migratory birds from our area that head south for the winter. No doubt many people would like to follow them there and share the warm weather. Though many of our birds do winter in parts south, there are many birds that fly south from Arctic areas above us and make our area their winter home. Juncos and white-throated sparrows are two of the more common species that fit this bill. Evidence also indicates that the robins that are here in the summer fly south in the winter and are replaced by robins from parts north.

As winter unfolds, birders both in the field and in their armchairs overlooking their birdfeeders are on the lookout for uncommon “winter finches” such as grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls and siskins. In addition, this year, snowy owls have been the “talk of the town.” Flying south from the northern-most frozen tundra in search of food, they are typically spotted on the shoreline in the winter at places like Hammonasset State Park. They are more rarely seen in inland towns such as New Milford — where one put on a good show a few weeks ago.

Birding listserves on the Internet have recently lit up with multiple sightings of snowy owls in the Lower 48, from coast to coast — in other words, it’s been an irruption year!

Volunteers participating in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which has been going on now for 112 years, contribute data to the world’s most extensive database of bird population trends. Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then-budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition: a “Christmas Bird Census”that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

Our local CBC was held this year on a very cold Sunday, Dec. 18, from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. Eight teams and 25 volunteers scoured our count circle, which consists of the area within 7.5 miles of the intersection of routes 112 and 41 in Lakeville; beautiful habitat indeed, including Lake Wononscopomuc, the Twin Lakes, the Housatonic River, Indian Lake and Rudd Pond across the border into New York, and all the fields and forests in between.

Our teams came up with a respectable 70 species (the all-time high of our 51-year-old count is 80 species). Because our water bodies were relatively open this year, ducks and waterfowl made a good showing including green-winged teal, gadwall, common goldeneye and ruddy duck.

Our adventurous owlers, who were out before dawn, came up with eastern screech owl, great horned owl and barred owl. Other birds of prey included bald eagle, Cooper’s hawk, an albino red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and a nice sighting of a rough-legged hawk. Black vultures, whose range has been shifting northward, were seen on the count but turkey vultures were not.

Our avian visitors from the north included white-throated sparrows, the common dark-eyed junco and horned larks. Horned larks nest as far north as the Arctic Circle and are found down here in the winter in farm fields — especially those that have been freshly treated with cow manure.

Birds that people usually don’t associate with winter, but that are generally here all winter long, included American robin and the striking eastern bluebird. However, with the exception of pine siskins, the elusive “winter finches” were nowhere to be seen, at least not yet. This gives us even more reason to continue to get out and look for what winter has to offer us!

Thanks to Bob Moeller, our CBC compiler, and all the volunteers that helped with this important annual bird count. Happy holidays to everyone and please take some time to enjoy nature with your friends and family this holiday season.

Scott Heth is the director of Audubon Sharon and can be reached at sheth@audubon.org, (subject line: Nature Notes).