Nature Notes: Three Firsts in Bird Count

In Latham’s day there were only five or six birders covering the entire 15-mile diameter count circle

    Two weeks and 109 years ago, Roy Latham and his farmer brothers undertook the first East End Christmas bird count centered in Orient. On Dec. 28, 2013, the Orient Christmas count was re-enacted for the 100th-plus time. None of the original cast of characters is still around to take part in this century’s Christmas counts. After the Lathams did it for 50 years or so, Paul Stoutenburgh took it over and carried it on for the next 27 years. Finally, 20 years ago, Mary Laura Lamont, who rangers at the William Floyd Estate and Fire Island National Seashore, became the count compiler and has run it ever since.

    While in Latham’s day there were only five or six birders covering the entire 15-mile diameter count circle, on the 28th there were a record 55 observers, as many women as men. They tallied 118 different species, only one less than the count record for 1997-98 and about 10 more than were counted on the Montauk count two Saturdays earlier. On the Montauk count there was a fierce snowstorm. The weather was well above freezing for the Orient count. There was a stiff southwesterly wind, however, and looking into it through binocs and scopes presented a challenge. Better to look downwind at such times.

    The Rubinstein sisters, Barbara and Karen, and I covered the waters and the land around Cedar Point County Park in East Hampton’s Northwest. Other South Fork parties covered Sag Harbor, Barcelona, North Haven, and Noyac, especially the Morton Wildlife Refuge. Sea ducks, gulls, starlings, and crows always total the most, but this year American robins joined the most numerous ranks. At least 1,000 were counted. My group tallied 150 or so and as far as we could tell, they were all males. The sexes segregate until it’s time to stake out territories and breed.

    When you take a walk in the vicinity of some mature eastern red cedars, from which the county park derives its name, you will find very few gray cedar berries among the green branches. Blame the robins for that. One hopes that there are enough holly berries, bayberries, and other winter fruit to last them until the worms pop out of the ground come spring. That same fruit supports a winter population of bluebirds and cedar waxwings, thus the “cedar” in their name.

    Another thrush, the official state bird of New York, the eastern blue bird, was also well represented. We saw four in the old Camp St. Regis athletic field off Mile Hill Road and almost every other party had at least one or two. The most bluebirds were seen in the Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island.

    There were two phoebes on the count, one that we saw along with the four bluebirds. Phoebes are flycatchers and almost exclusively insectivorous. How they managed to stay alive and look healthy at a time when almost no insects are active is puzzling. It is doubtful that they will be able to make it here until spring.

    This is the winter of the great snowy owl fly down. Altogether five were seen on the count. Mary Laura Lamont’s party covered Plum Island, where there were two. They were watching one when two peregrine falcons, male and female, kicked up a fuss nearby. It turns out that they were taking turns diving and screaming at a second snowy owl, which was cowering behind some driftwood. Finally, when it could no longer bear the harassment, it picked up and flew off towards Gardiner’s Island against a strong headwind. It got halfway there and turned around and came back, with the peregrines chasing all the while.

    A “count bird” is a species that has never been recorded on a previous count. There were three this time around, a rufous hummingbird on Plum Island and four red knots. The red knot is that sandpiper species that migrates to the arctic to breed in the late spring, then returns south come midsummer. They feed almost exclusively on horseshoe crab eggs along sandy shores on the way up, and that is one reason why horseshoe crabs are protected along most of the Atlantic Coast but especially in New Jersey. A third count bird was the black guillemot, spotted near Plum Island.

    We saw very few American goldeneye — “whistlers” in duck hunters’ lexicon, as they make a pulsating whistling with their wings when they fly, not unlike mute swans. They can be one of our most common sea ducks in the winter. This year two very rare-to-this-area Barrow’s goldeneyes, which breed mostly in northwestern America and Iceland, were counted in the Sag Harbor area. Also two of the world’s tiniest auks, or dovekies, were observed, one in the water off Sag Harbor, another in waters of the Morton Wildlife Refuge.

    While our party searched extensively for longspurs and snow buntings on the sands of Cedar Point spit, we came up with only one of the latter. However, on the North Fork snow buntings turned up in goodly numbers; at least 219 were counted. Two great egrets, one on each fork, decided to hang around and test the severity of the New Year’s winter. The four red-necked grebes, two on each fork, and the male and female harlequin ducks were a nice find. Disappointingly, however, there were no pintails, wood ducks, or teal on this year’s count.

    One looks at the large number of robins, the two egrets, the two phoebes, and the rufous hummingbird recorded, as well as some other warm-area birds, and wonders if we are not seeing signs of global warming right here on eastern Long Island. Maybe they are evolving to better stand the cold with each generation. While the egrets and blue herons can still find minnows to eat as long as the waters don’t freeze up solid, hummingbirds are nectar feeders. Where are the flowers with nectar to feed on?

    The results of all of the end-of-year counts, now a worldwide happening, give us the big picture of how birds are faring in general and which species are doing well, which worse. In the 1950s and 1970s when I went on these counts, there were many more men than women. It is promising that in the new millennium there are now as many female observers as males. Who knows, the next great field guide to the birds may well be authored by a woman.