Alabaster swans and charcoal coots

2016 Community Bird Census
Sun, 01/01/2017 - 7:00am

On Dec. 26, 2016, the Ocean View Foundation organized its 16th annual Community Bird Census (CBC) in the tradition of Elizabeth Dickens, who for nearly 50 years orchestrated the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count on Block Island. Each of those years she would rally the island’s students and her neighbors to go afield on the day after Christmas to make a list of birds seen.

This year — in terms of numbers — was the best in the last 16 years. The accumulated efforts of Block Island students, residents, and visitors saw 64 species, and took note of more than 2,445 individual birds. We saw species reported on Elizabeth Dickens’ 1916 CBC list (horned grebe); we saw species (northern cardinal) that she did not see until late in her life because cardinals did not advance this far north until the late 1950s; and, we did not see some species (horned lark) that she saw on almost every Christmas Bird Count that she led, because their open field habitat is nearly gone.

However, in my experience, it is not the numbers and species count that makes a “best” year, or day. Whenever any of us go walking, we are apt to come upon a scene that will stick with us, and perhaps become the marker for that walk. These views may be tiny — the season’s first icy pane on a puddle — and they may be fleeting, such that the remembrance does not last much longer than the end of the walk. On other occasions, the view may be so beautiful, or haunting, or surprising, that the image remains in our mind for days, or years, and becomes a bookmark for that walk, and maybe the hallmark of an individual’s “best” year.

I doubt that any of us on that first OVF walk in 2001 have forgotten the image of the snowy owl perched on the far side stone wall of a field that stretched, newly dusted with snow, down to Middle Pond. I suspect it will be decades before this year’s image fades in my mind; the 2016 CBC will be indelibly linked with tundra swans and American coots. We gathered at the turnout along the eastern edge of Sachem Pond. Ten of us, spanning seven decades in age, piled out of vehicles in great good cheer, donning hats and gloves, and buttoning coats, all the while realizing, that for once, this CBC morning was fairly warm and we barely needed insulation from cold or wind. We were almost exuberant as we clustered at the guardrail with binoculars raised, and waiting turns at the spotting scope. The weather was wonderful. The sunlight perfectly positioned on our rear quarter. We were among kindred spirits. And, the pond surface was crowded and dappled with dizzying activity. Yes, there were swans — tundra and mute — there were wigeons galore, and the buffleheads and hooded mergansers were up one minute and then — plup — they were under water the next. There were rafts of Canada geese, half of which were at any given moment tipped tail-side up. Patches of stiff-tailed ruddy ducks floated throughout the pond, while a single flotilla of greater scaup drifted at ease in the morning sun.

But it was the quiet cove in the northeast corner of the pond that has provided an image that is seared in my mind, like an artful etching in black and white. Three large, and stately, alabaster white tundra swans, with coal-black bills, were slowly and gracefully feeding on vegetation. Dipping their long necks into the water, sometimes they reached so far down and under their own body, that it seemed they must have been standing on their heads in some adroit and nimble swan yoga stance. Juxtaposed, American coot completed the image. A half-dozen small, industrious, multi-hued charcoal black coots, with ivory-white bills, swam and dove among the swans. Feeding on vegetation the swans had loosened from the pond bottom, the coots were quick and lively among the seemingly stationary and deliberate swans. Together, those tundra swans and American coots have provided an image that is stunning on so many levels, and will be forever tied with the 2016 CBC.

I can’t speak for the other participants of the day, but I’m guessing that each has an image to carry forth, which may, or may not, be connected to the following reports. Jon Peterson had the group’s only sighting of ring-necked ducks — 40 holed up in the back of Seneca Swamp. Susan Matheke and Willie Feuer were the sole reporters of five feral turkeys strolling up their road toward their hay barn, much to the dismay of Della, the horse, and the delight of their three adolescent “cowboy” cats. Heather Hatfield got great views of a hairy woodpecker (a new species for the OVF/CBC) at her window feeder, and a rare December sighting of a great egret in a swamp off Corn Neck Road. Scott Comings almost got rear-ended as he veered off the road to confirm the only American kestrel of the census, sitting on a wire near Scotch Beach. Additionally Scott contributed northern gannet, surf and black scoter, Cooper’s hawk, hermit thrush, and a slate-colored junco. Chris Blane started his pre-dawn day with a barn owl lofting over his field, and later added additional birds of field and swamp: American woodcock, Wilson snipe, bluebills (lesser scaup) and northern goshawk. While enjoying a late afternoon walk at Charlestown Beach to New Harbor, Andy Perry, a Christmas visitor, observed two Snowy owls.

Sometimes as a group, sometimes in pairs, and individually, our thin ranks covered as much of the island as our schedules and time allowed. Bird by bird, person by person, we built a community bird list (see below) that recorded a species list that bested, by three, the previous high (60 species in 2014) in the history of this modern day event. And, two new species (tundra swan and hairy woodpecker) were added, now bringing the 16-year species list to 111.

Birds seen during the Community Bird Census, Dec. 26, 2016

Common loon – 10

Horned grebe – 1

Northern gannet – 1

Great cormorant – 3

Great blue heron – 1 

Great egret – 1

Mute swan – 10

Tundra swan – 10

Canada goose – 165

Mallard – 39

American black duck – 58

Gadwall – 13

American wigeon – 59

Ring-necked duck – 40

Greater scaup – 9

Lesser scaup – 18

Common goldeneye – 40

Bufflehead – 51+

Common eider – 30

White-wg scoter – 43

Surf scoter – 4

Black scoter – 6

Ruddy duck – 45

Hooded merganser – 17

Red-breasted merg. – 61

Sharp-shinned hawk – 2

Cooper’s hawk – 1

Northern goshawk – 1

Northern harrier – 7

American kestrel – 1

Tim’s feral turkey – 5

Pheasant – 7

American coot – 10

Black-bellied plover – 42

American woodcock - 1

Common snipe – 1

Sanderling – 75

Herring gull – 857+

Ring-billed Gull – 1

Gr. B-b gull – 132+

Bonapart’s gull – 1

Mourning dove – 31

Barn owl – 1

Belted kingfisher – 1

Northern flicker – 1

Downy woodpecker – 7

Hairy woodpecker – 1

Blue jay – 11

American crow – 130+

B-c chickadee – 32

White-br. nuthatch – 3

Carolina wren – 4

American robin – 110

Hermit thrush – 1

Myrtle warbler – 7

E. starling – 183+

House sparrow – 8

S.C. junco – 12

N. cardinal – 13

American goldfinch – 4

House finch – 8

White-throated sparrow – 6

Song sparrow – 4

Total Species: 63   

Individuals: 2,444


Jon Peterson and family (Janie, Andy, Kathy), Scott Comings, Elspeth Crawford, Heather and Blaize Hatfield, Susan Matheke, Willie Fueur, Chris Blane, Ken and Beckett Kirschner, and KG;

Weather: 38 to 48 F sunny in morning, cloudy in afternoon, sprinkling rain at 5 p.m., wind from the east-northeast to southeast 10 +/- MPH.