A Bird’s Tale

High Numbers of Some Familiar Maine Birds

Wed, 12/30/2020 - 8:00am

We wrote last week about our experience participating in the Augusta area Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) earlier in December and the impressive numbers of a special winter visitor, the pine grosbeak, that we saw that day.

It turns out that we were not the only ones to enjoy seeing pine grosbeaks! The total for this species for the Augusta CBC from all count teams was 130—the highest ever recorded over the 50-year history of the count.

Surprising to us though was some other new high total numbers for the count. This included 1,318 black-capped chickadees, 185 northern cardinals, 27 red-tailed hawks, 208 red-breasted nuthatches, 320 tufted titmice, and 282 white-breasted nuthatches. The numbers for tufted titmouse and red-breasted nuthatch were more than double any previous high count!

Although few other CBCs have reported results, we know of at least one other in our general area that had similarly new record-high numbers of many of the same bird species.

Are these high numbers a result of more people counting birds, particularly perhaps from home, because of the pandemic? Or are these numbers just simply higher than usual (we suspect that they really are). If so, are these higher numbers a result of the mild fall and winter season? An abundance of natural food? A very successful summer breeding season? Or something else? Nobody can say at this point. And it could be that the reason for high numbers of one species is unrelated to cause for record highs of the other species.

We do know that large numbers of red-breasted nuthatches and various northern finches, including pine grosbeaks, have been migrating into Maine throughout the fall, from Canada’s Boreal Forest region. Perhaps this southward irruption has also included black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches from Canada (possibly blue jays as well, as numbers seem to also be up in general for them in many areas).

All of us can contribute to a better understanding of Maine’s winter bird populations by participating in a historic project underway, funded by Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It’s called the Maine Winter Bird Atlas. We have written about the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas, run largely during the summer breeding season. The same organizers are using the same methodology to get a careful assessment over five years of the distribution of winter birds in Maine as well.

A winter bird atlas is a relatively new idea for the Americas, although the British had completed one in Britain decades ago. Now that many U.S. states have completed at least one and in some cases two or more breeding bird atlases, a few are also working on winter bird atlas projects. Maine is one of those few along with Oklahoma, Ohio, Louisiana, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. There may be more as well but these are some of which we are aware.

It is super easy to participate in Maine’s Winter Bird Atlas, and there are a number of atlas blocks even in our area that need more observations. If any of you are more adventurous, then you can check the atlas map to find some blocks farther north and east in Maine that have zero or very few observations and make a trip to help document what’s there! And, of course, you can always add any observations from your backyard, neighborhood, favorite nature preserves, or elsewhere.

For more info on participating in the Maine Winter Bird Atlas go to https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/maine-bird-atlas/get-involved/index.html.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).