Category Archives: Bird Feeding

Are There “No Birds Out There?” – A Day on a Christmas Bird Count as a Case Study.


It was a record year for Evening Grosbeaks in our CBC territory.

On Sunday, December 30th, Erin Walter joined me for the Freeport-Brunswick Christmas Bird Count (CBC). My annual territory covers most of Freeport west of I-295, with a small bite of Yarmouth, a sliver of Pownal, and a corner of Durham. It’s suburban and ex-urban, almost exclusively residential, and public open space is limited to Hedgehog Mountain Park and adjacent playing fields, Florida Lake Park, and Hidden Pond Preserve.

Like all of the CBCs I do, we walk…a lot. And this year was no exception. While the rest of the team abandoned me (the car was full just the day before!), Erin stuck with the deathmarch to its chilly end, and Jeannette (and Bonxie) covered the Hedgehog Mountain Park area in the early morning for us. With just a team of two for the day, Erin and I spent most of our time split up, dividing the length of roads we cover by walking mile stretches and leap-frogging each other with a car. Using that strategy, we cover a majority of the sector’s roads, and we cover it thoroughly: woodlots, fields, feeders, yards, etc, are all checked.

In the end, we walked up to 12 miles each, with a total of 17.5 miles covered by the two of us, and another 2 covered by Jeannette.  About 18 miles were covered by car. In other words, we spent most of the day outside, working each and every mixed-species foraging flock we encountered.

I have covered this sector for 13 of the past 14 years, and each year I have done it the same way. It’s nothing if not thorough as less than 8 hours of useable daylight can offer. Therefore, the 13 years of data provide an interesting little dataset, one that can be compared and dissected. That’s why I like to do this relatively unproductive (by coastal Maine standards) territory. And, this is why I am writing this blog today: because I think the consistency and standardization provides a way to contrast seasons more than just anecdotally.

With a cold – but not brutally so, it was -16F when we started last year! – and calm day, weather wouldn’t be a factor in limiting detections, so our count should be a little snapshot of “what’s going on out there.”  It’s a good way for me to collect data for my preconceived notions, or find out that I need to refute them. So what IS going on out there?

Total species were just below average for us, while total individuals were a little above average. Let’s try and break it down a bit.

After a very cold start to the winter, it’s been mostly above normal, and we’re down to just a patchy layer of icy snow. Some running fresh water is open, but most small ponds are still frozen. But our section has limited water, so waterbird numbers are uninspiring no matter what. The Cousin’s River Marsh west of the interstate was mostly frozen, and the little stretch of open water in the river was completely devoid of ducks. It’s a Sunday, so the Brunswick Landfill is closed, so we didn’t have the evening commute of gulls returning to roost on the bay to tally.

However, I know for a fact we cover the landbirds as exhaustively as anyone, and this is where the data gets interesting. Oak, beech, and White Pine nuts and seeds are virtually non-existent this year, as we all have been noticing. There’s not much spruce cone in our area either and very little Eastern Hemlock. Paper Birch and especially Yellow Birch, however, are in decent shape, as is Speckled Alder.  Ash seeds are in good supply.

With so little natural food resources overall, it was an extraordinary fall for bird feeding, augmented by the early cold and snow. Since then, however, it has felt like birds have “disappeared,” and many folks coming into the store are reporting slow feeding stations. Are there birds out there and just not coming to feeders? Or did everything move on? Or, is our perception simply wrong?  Erin and I wanted to find out.

As always, the answer differed between species. We had a record low for Blue Jays, more than 1/3 of average. Clearly, with the lack of acorns to cache, most of our Blue Jays simply moved on – those caches of Black Oil Sunflower seeds and peanuts they hoarded in the fall can only go so far. And we set a new record low for Rock Pigeons (0!) as they were all apparently at our store’s feeders outside our territory all day. And on some days of birding, you just don’t see a lot of raptors.

Woodpeckers were interesting. We were above average in Red-bellied (continuing their increasing trend in Maine) and Downy, but Hairys had their second highest tally – almost double average. They were also drumming more widely than usual for the end of the year; did that simply increase detection or are there more around this year, perhaps following a very good breeding season?

33 European Starlings was a new record high count for the territory. American Crows, Brown Creepers, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, and House Finches were all above average. The measly 5 American Tree Sparrows were a new record low, however, perhaps due to that early snowfall. Then again, Dark-eyed Juncos were well above average, so who knows?

Considering birch and alder are the only good tree seed crops around, we were not surprised to find an above-average number of American Goldfinches. Common Redpolls aren’t here yet, and the good numbers of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins from the fall have clearly moved on. However, the best winter for Evening Grosbeaks in at least 20 years continues – we had a new record high for the territory, with 2 in a yard on Hunter Road and 1 loner on Merrill Road in Freeport, and an impressive group of 26 on Webster Road, which Erin was able to extensively photograph.

But of most interest to me are the core members (joined by the woodpeckers and to a lesser extent some of the finches) of the mixed-species foraging flocks that travel our woods and pass through our yards. The “feeder birds and allies” if you will. The insect-eating Brown Creepers were above average, but Golden-crowned Kinglets were extremely low. I don’t have an explanation here, so I’ll concentrate on the seed-eating members of the flock.

We were interested to find that Black-capped Chickadees were just about average; they seemed low of late, making me wonder if they too moved further south this winter. Yet surprisingly, we had a new record high count for Tufted Titmice, more than doubling our 13-year average. Good breeding season, or do these resident birds not clear out when food resources are slim?  Both nuthatches were above average, but I was really surprised to find Red-breasted Nuthatches so common. I thought they too had continued on, but there was 1-2 with almost every flock we encountered.

But where we saw these birds was definitely telling. In an hour at Hedghog Mountain, Jeannette has all of 3 Black-capped Chickadees, 2 White-breasted Nuthatches, and 1 Red-breasted Nuthatch. Erin and I had absolutely nothing at Florida Lake Park.  Other stretches of mostly wooded habitat was very quiet. But in neighborhoods with well-stocked bird feeders? Lots of birds!  Although we didn’t necessarily see as many birds at feeders themselves as in and around yards that have them, I t’s clear that the supplemental food resources offered by people increases the number of birds in the area in winter. And on a relatively mild and benign day, they were mostly out feeding elsewhere – but we know where they’ll go as the pressure starts to drop this afternoon with the approaching storm.  And in contrast, while we had some goldfinches at feeders, we had most of them in birches and alders, even weedy areas –all natural food which is readily available at the moment, as opposed to many of the other tree crops.

So what does this all mean? Well, good question! And I don’t really know!  But clearly it’s not quite as “slow” out there as many bird watchers are reporting. While Evening Grosbeaks were rightly the star of the show today, I learned a lot about the current status of our “feeder birds.”  More questions and answers, as always, but I enjoyed the exercise of analyzing and postulating (i.e. pretending I am still a scientist). This small section of the state, on only one day, covered by only 2 people, can only tell us so much, but after 13 years of doing this essentially the same way, the numbers are easy to compare and contrast. And perhaps, after a handful of more years, we might even have a little fun with some trend analysis.

Until then, here’s our annotated checklist for the day (and yes, the taxonomy of my spreadsheet is woefully outdated). Averages are in parentheses.

Begin: 7:17am. 19F, mostly cloudy, very light NW.
End: 3:55pm. 23F (high of 25F), clear, calm.

Miles by foot: 17.5 + 2
Miles by car: 18.0

Total species (31.6): 29
Total individuals (903.5): 1017

Red-tailed Hawk (1.3): 1
Wild Turkey (11.2): 5
Herring Gull (24): 1 *record low
Rock Pigeon (25): 0 *record low.
Mourning Dove (50): 40
Red-bellied Woodpecker (.75): 3
Downy Woodpecker (17): 19
Hairy Woodpecker (12): 23 *2nd highest
Pileated Woodpecker (1.9): 1
Blue Jay (76.1): 21 *record low
American Crow (76): 103
Common Raven (2.6): 2
Black-capped Chickadee (307): 317
Tufted Titmouse (33): 72 *New Record
Red-breasted Nuthatch (17): 23
White-breasted Nuthatch (27): 37
Brown Creeper (3): 5
Golden-crowned Kinglet (11): 3
Eastern Bluebird (1): 4
European Starling (14.5): 33 *record high
American Tree Sparrow (23.2): 5 *record low
Song Sparrow (1.1): 2
White-throated Sparrow (0.6): 1
Dark-eyed Junco (28): 69
Northern Cardinal (11): 18
House Finch (8.4): 23
American Goldfinch (83): 119
EVENING GROSBEAK (2.4): 29 *record high
House Sparrow (13.8): 1 (was a lone House Sparrow the rarest bird of the day?)

To compare, check out my blog from late fall of 2017, entitled: “Why there are no Birds at Your Feeders Right Now,” for a completely different reason.

A Great May Week of Birding in Review, and Some Predictions for More Feathery Fun.

DSC_0027_SUTA,Georgetown1,5-6-14

Simply put, it has been a helluva week of birding in Maine!  Strong flights of migrants occurred on 5 of the last 7 nights, producing a whole lot of new arrivals throughout the region. And then there were rarities, but we’ll get to that shortly.

As for regularly-occurring migrants, birds are arriving right about on time now. By week’s end, some of the latest arriving warblers, like Blackpoll have begun to trickle in, while the early migrants like Yellow-rumped and Palm have thinned out considerably. Some locally-breeding Pine Warblers are rarely singing now, as breeding season for them is well underway.

Almost anywhere you went this week, 12 or more species of warblers was possible.  I enjoyed 15 species at Florida Lake on Monday and 17 species at Evergreen Cemetery on Thursday, for example. The third week of May is when the coveted 20-species morning total is most likely around here, so you know I will be gunning for that in the coming days.

I added Lincoln’s Sparrow, Lesser Yellowlegs, White-crowned Sparrow (#126, 127, and 128 respectively) to my Bradbury Mountain patch lists this week, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow was the first in our Pownal yard (#116) on Sunday. Meanwhile, a spiffy male Orchard Oriole was the 114th species at our store, a one-day wonder at our feeders on the 10th.  So it’s been a great week for patch listing as well!

And Scarborough Marsh was just awesome on Tuesday morning, when Katrina and I had unbelievable numbers (for spring) off of Eastern Road, including 1500+ Tree Swallows, 500+ Least Sandpipers, 400+ Barn Swallows, ~125 Greater and ~100 Lesser Yellowlegs, 75-100 Bank Swallows, 6++ Semipalmated and 2++ White-rumped Sandpipers (both FOY), 2 adult Dunlin, and the continuing Tricolored Heron. Nothing rare per se, but the biomass of birdage was impressive, and was definitely the highlight of the week.

Following the “Mega” rarity Northern Wheatear that was last seen last Saturday in Scarborough Marsh, rarity news has been decidedly southern in nature. Although small numbers of “overshooting” southern vagrants are typical in Maine every spring, the number of White-eyed Vireos (I caught up with one at Capisic Pond Park on Thursday with my friend Lois), Summer Tanagers (I saw one in Georgetown last week with Katrina; see above), and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (they’re everywhere!) is most impressive. Then there was a Painted Bunting on Monhegan this week, a Swallow-tailed Kite at the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch on 5/7, and a Mississippi Kite also at The Brad as the grand finale on the 15th.  The widespread smattering of Orchard Orioles is a little more typical.

This pattern of southerly vagrants is not caused by birds being “blown” here in a simple sense, but instead we believe it is caused by southerly winds facilitating their arrival beyond their normal range – perhaps by causing a bird to travel much further (in relation to the ground) in each night’s flight thanks to a favorable tailwind. Perhaps others were entrained by strong winds off the South Atlantic Bight and were pushed northwards until they made landfall in the Northeast (I wonder if the Boston Fork-tailed Flycatcher arrived this way?).

Less fitting of any particular pattern is the remarkable adult Black-headed Grosbeak that was on Monhegan this week – at the SAME FEEDER as the Painted Bunting, 2 Summer Tanagers, a Lark Sparrow, and a Dickcissel. <expletive deleted> And, not to be overshadowed, a dapper male Ruff was found in Bangor.

With a deep southerly flow continuing, and some very unsettled weather coming for the weekend, I think things will be getting quite interesting in the coming days. (I don’t want to know how many “Island Birds” Kristen Lindquist will pick up over me on Monhegan this weekend!).  Check out this wind map from the 15th, showing a very strong southerly flow originating all of the way from Florida and the Caribbean.

wind map, 5-15-14

For those of us not on Monhegan this weekend, I sure hope you’ll be birding hard – not despite the weather, but because of the inclement weather. At the very least, keep an eye on those feeders. Both here at the store and at home, we’re stocked up with mealworms, jelly, oranges, insect suet, and nut blocks. Not only will the cool, wet weather limit natural food sources, but the slow progression of the season continues to put a lot of important food sources well behind the birds’ required schedules.

For example, apples and cherries are only now starting to bloom. Early-arriving nectavores and insectivores flock to these (and other early-season bloomers like Shadbush, azalea, and quince) for both nectar and the insects attracted to that nectar. The lack of a lot of flowers so far this season has pushed many orioles (including some Orchards in addition to the regular Baltimores), Gray Catbirds, and Scarlet (and some Summers) Tanagers to feeding stations in above-average numbers.  I expect that trend to continue through the middle of next week, as a stubborn upper-level low remains locked overhead producing unsettled weather.

So keep an eye out the window, get outside, and find some good birds!  And regardless of rarities, it’s just a great time to be birding!