Another year has passed. The Christmas bird counts are in the bag. It’s time to sit back and enjoy the cold weather.
One of the last-of-the-year counts was on the last day of the year. It was the Orient Count, which includes most of the North Fork, Plum Island, Shelter Island, and a small part of the northern South Fork — Morton Wildlife Refuge in Noyac to Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton. There were about 10 of us covering the South Fork portion. It was a warm day with on-and-off sunshine, intermittent showers, and barely a wisp of a wind. Unlike on the Orient count day last year, there was not a speck of snow and none of the waters were frozen. In other words, if not a harbinger of the coming siege of global warming and rising sea levels, it was a perfect day for seeing birds and listening to their calls.
I was blessed with being able to accompany two keen-eyed, keen-eared birders — John Gluth, who works in advertising in the city, and Vicki Bustamante, who lives in Montauk. Both of them had already participated in at least two other Long Island Christmas bird counts. Vicki took her birdsong player hoping that we would get some of the rarer ones to respond to the digital calls of their species. And one did.
It was a ruby-crowned kinglet that John thought he had seen in the brush along the shore of Cedar Point County Park. Vicki played the ruby-crown song and call and the bird responded, coming out in the open so John could verify it. My ears are bad on high notes; I couldn’t hear the kinglet’s response, or the songs and call uttered by the soprano and alto utterers, but I could hear the songs from Vicki’s device if the device was held close to my ears.
My eyes aren’t so hot either. Suffice to say, my role was mostly limited to four-wheeling the two around and writing down on a clipboard the birds seen and heard. We started around 7 a.m. at Cedar Point, finished at Barcelona at 4 p.m. In that time, we drove some 32 miles of roads and a couple of miles of beaches, including the Cedar Point spit.
Was it a sign of global warming, or was it just an unusually spring-like day at the end of December? Two of the most common land birds observed were robins and bluebirds, of which we counted about 75 and 20. Shouldn’t most of them have been in the Deep South by now? Except for the yellow-rumped warbler, or myrtle warbler, which feeds on cedar berries and other winter fruit, the New World warblers, which are primarily insectivorous, should be in the tropics or subtropics at this time.
How is it then, that Terry Sullivan and Al Daniels came up with an unmistakable black-and-white warbler in their territory, the Village of North Haven? If the sighting is accepted by the Audubon authorities, and it definitely should be, then it will go down in the annals of the 50-plus Orient counts as a “count bird,” one that has never appeared in any of the past counts.
Another bird that should have flown (or glided?) south by now showed up at Orient Point. Mary Laura Lamont, the count coordinator, and her husband, Eric, were coming back from surveying Plum Island, where they observed, among other biota, a house wren and an aster in bloom, when they looked up and saw a turkey vulture sailing by. Steve Biasetti observed another rare bird, a sedge wren (one of two marsh wren species) at Orient Point.
On our side of the Peconic Estuary we saw lots of different sparrows, including tree, field, song, and white-throated sparrows, juncos, and a large number of goldfinches flitting about. Off Northwest Road, the Peach Farm, which is depicted on an 1838 U.S. Coast Survey map as the only farm in that thickly forested Northwest area, is now a very low-density subdivision, with pastures and an old-time look. True to form, it turned up flocks of birds including eastern bluebirds, robins, and many more.
The waters were so calm that one could almost see the rafts of ducks sitting just off the shore of the North Fork from our South Fork vantage points. But there weren’t that many ducks to be seen. There were almost as many horned grebes as other waterfowl species. A few common loons gave their eerie calls, and the long-tailed ducks, or old-squaw, were very noisy. At other times it was so quiet that that the monotonic tremolos produced by the rapidly beating wings of the goldeneye ducks, or “whistlers,” scooting low over the water could be heard from more than a mile away.
With his powerful scope, John picked out a single razorback, one of the auks, far out on Gardiner’s Bay. A red-necked grebe showed up in North Fork waters along with a couple of harlequin ducks. Vicki Bustamante e-mailed me that another auk, a dovekie, was seen resting on the rocks 25 feet off Montauk Point on Monday.
One of the last birds to show up over Larkin’s Pond just before John had to leave, as he was going on a fourth count the following morning in Nassau County, was the fish crow. It flew over the pond from southwest to northeast repeating over and over that distinctive nasal caw which sounds like a crow with a head cold. This southern species has made an impressive beachhead around Sag Harbor and other parts of the East End. John says about 300 were tallied in the Captree count that covers part of Fire Island and the mainland area to the north.
Mary Laura has not yet received all of the results but she said from the looks of things that the final count will number well over 115 species. That’s a good number for Long Island; however, California and Central American Christmas counts generally run over 200 species. After 50 years of climate change, we may be pushing such a large quantity here.