A Banner Year for Winter Birds in Northern New England
Where have all the birds gone? It’s one of the most common questions asked of the Harris Center, usually by someone whose bird feeders lie idle. And the only way to answer, using something other than guesswork, is to employ science. This is what the Christmas Bird Count does. Every year across the Americas, thousands of volunteer birders fan out across the land to conduct this annual bird census, with each individual count happening on the same day within a prescribed 15-mile circle. In all, almost 2,500 counts will occur from December 14 to January 5, smoothing out the wrinkles inherent in citizen science through sheer force of numbers.
This year, the Peterborough-Hancock count took place on Saturday, December 19. My team and I split up into separate cars to focus on the town of Dublin as we do every year, with another 12 teams covering the other towns in the circle. It was a banner year, with many species present in record numbers — a story of range expansion and southward irruption.
Red-bellied Woodpecker (35 birds), Tufted Titmouse (639 birds), and Northern Cardinal (132 birds) — once considered southern species — have firmly established themselves in northern New England over the last few decades, and all tied or set record-high counts. To illustrate, on the 1974 count only two Tufted Titmice were found. Red-bellied Woodpecker was not recorded until 1988, and did not break double figures until 2013.
Several other species moved southward into northern New England in record numbers this winter, reflected in our count circle by Red Crossbill (42), White-winged Crossbill (172), and Red-breasted Nuthatch (535). Blue Jays were also abundant, and I witnessed a feeding station with more than 20 jays in attendance. These four species are known to wander in response to fluctuating food supplies, though I suspect the numbers of Red Crossbills and Red-breasted Nuthatches also reflect successful breeding seasons. Boreal Chickadees, by contrast, rarely venture south of the White Mountains. Two birds found on Thumb Mountain were a count first, and part of a remarkable pattern of occurrence throughout the Monadnock Region this winter.
With so many species and individual birds present (52 species totaling 6485 individual birds were both near record), the raptors took notice; 11 Bald Eagles, 5 Coopers Hawks, 2 Red-shouldered Hawks, and 3 Merlins were all record-high counts. While the eagles do not stand to benefit from the bounty, the other three species will readily take small songbirds.
The patterns detected on the Peterborough-Hancock count were reflected across New Hampshire and indeed northern New England. It’s difficult to assess the origin of these northern visitors, though several counts conducted in Newfoundland reported an absence of White-winged Crossbills and reduced numbers of Pine Grosbeaks relative to past years. If I were to get a phone call from St. John’s asking me where all their birds have gone, I might be able to help this year.
— Eric Masterson
For more information or to be added to the email list for next year’s Christmas Bird Count, contact Eric Masterson at (603) 525-3394 or by email.