WORDS ON BIRDS 

2011 Was a Big Year
January 14, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     Most birders keep a life list, those species of birds they have seen wherever their travels take them. I, like many other birders, keep a yearly state list, a list of the birds that I see in Massachusetts every year. It gives me a barometer of the birds and of my birding activity around the state. It also gives me a way to reflect on a year and to start the new year with fresh eyes as every bird is “new” on January 1st.

     In Massachusetts, seeing 300 species in a year has always been a milestone that the more serious birders strive to achieve. I have reached 300 a number of times, sometimes by paying attention to making it a “big year” and trying hard the last few weeks to see species that will take me over the top. Other years, I just enjoy birding and don’t pay a lot of attention to the numbers. The past few years I have done more traveling to see birds outside the state, and sometimes outside the country. I also spent a lot of time the past five years concentrating on the Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas, watching breeding bird behavior and, thus, spending less time chasing birds to add to any year list.

     I knew that 2011 was a good birding year in Massachusetts. Many rarities had shown up during the year. Hurricane Irene brought different birds to New England. The weather patterns in general brought many southern and western birds to our state. But it wasn’t until sometime in November when I realized just how good a year it was. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had hit the magic number of 300 sometime back in September before I went on my California trip. In mid-November, I realized that a snowy owl was number 315 for the year, so I decided to look back and see what my personal all-time highest number of species was in any given year. In 2007, I had reached 322. But could I do better in 2011? Could I get eight more birds in about six weeks? It isn’t easy when you have already seen so many birds.

     A trip to Cape Cod on the 20th of November added black-headed gull to the list – not that rare, but few had been reported last year. It wasn’t until the Thanksgiving weekend that I thought I had a chance to beat my record. We spent Thanksgiving Day on the Cape and tracked down a rufous hummingbird still coming to a feeder there. The following day we headed to the UMass campus in Amherst and we worked hard to pick out a cackling goose (which looks like a miniature Canada goose) in a flock of several hundred Canada geese. The next day, we caught up with the rare Cassin’s kingbird at Cherry Hill Reservoir which, incidentally, is still hanging around there! Later that day, a much unexpected golden eagle flew over us at the Wilkinson Bridge, the bridge to Plum Island. That brought my total to 320, leaving just three more birds needed before the end of the year – seemingly very doable!

     But despite our best efforts, I couldn’t add a single bird in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Frustrating “wild goose chases” for a pink-footed goose in Lynn, hikes through marshes looking for the secretive Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow that we missed this fall, and trips to the western part of the state for stray winter finches, all turned up empty. Then a break – a Townsend’s warbler showed up at Jim Berry’s feeders in Ipswich on Christmas Day and, luckily, it stuck around for our return from the holidays on the 27th. That bird, as of this writing, is still coming to Jim’s offering of sunflower hearts and mealworms!

     The following day, we headed for the Cape once more to try to see a painted bunting, that was found on the Christmas Count, coming to a feeder in Eastham. It took some patience, but the green female bird finally showed up. Number 322 tied my previous record! One more bird needed!

     On our way back from the Cape, we headed to Dover to follow up on an eBird report of a tundra swan. We didn’t know the person who reported it, nor did we know the area, so our expectations were low. We parked along a brook area off the Charles River in an exclusive neighborhood and searched for swans. We initially found a family of mute swans with two adults and three immature, one of the young birds with a very dark bill, but they disappeared into the grasses before we could study them at length. We feared this might have been the bird errantly reported as a tundra swan, which has a black bill, (whereas mute swans bills are orange, though the young birds’ bills can be dark.)

     After prolonged viewing of the waterway on both sides of the road, I finally spotted a lone swan on the opposite side of the road from the mute swans. It had a black bill with a hint of yellow in the lores – tundra swan! Margo got photos and I digiscoped a few shots confirming number 323, and a new personal record for my year list!

     We spent two of the last three days of 2011 in the western part of the state and added pine siskin to the list, making my ending total 324. It was a good birding year indeed, with 23 “rare bird” write-ins to my Massachusetts checklist. But I was just as pleased to head out on January 1st to find robins, starlings and house sparrows as “new” year birds once again.

     If you would like to add a few birds to this years list, join me for a free Bird Walk on Sunday, January 15 for our annual "Eagles and Owls" Walk. We will meet at the Bird Watcher's Supply & Gift at the Route 1 Traffic Circle in Newburyport at 1pm to carpool and search for bald eagles along the Merrimack River as well as snowy and short-eared owls at Plum Island and/or Salisbury. Ducks, raptors and other wintering birds will also be seen. This trip is expected to last about 3 hours and preregistration is NOT necessary. Dress warmly, and bring binoculars, spotting scopes or field guides if you have them. Beginners and families are welcome. Hope to see you there!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher's Supply & Gift and Nature Shop at Joppa Flats
Newburyport, MA
BirdWSG@Verizon.net
978-462-0775

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