Christmas Bird Count an Educational Experience

What do 1,185 birds of 43 different species all have in common? They were all counted in one small slice of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count. I participated in the count for the first time and, as promised in my Dec. 24 column, I’d like to share my report of a fun and enlightening day with three exceptionally knowledgeable birders.

The Christmas Bird Count has been going on for more than 100 years and is managed by the Audubon Society. It occurs during the holiday season when thousands of volunteers from across the U.S., Canada, and many countries in the Western Hemisphere venture out to count birds during a 24-hour period. Each count takes place within a 15-mile diameter circle with volunteers following specific routes through a designated area of what is called a “count circle.” There are thousands of count circles throughout participating countries, and within each circle all birds sighted or heard are counted with efforts made not to count the same bird twice.

I joined one of four count circles within the 35 towns comprising The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. The circle I joined is called the Edwin Way Teale Trail Wood Circle — named for naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale from Hampton. The Teale Circle is comprised of eight sections, almost like wedges of a pie, with teams for each section all doing the count on the same day. The data and lists for the entire circle are sent back to Circle Captain and Count Compiler Susan Harrington for recording and forwarding to the National Audubon Society.

On the morning of Dec. 31, the thermometer read a deep cold of 5 degrees. I drove to the Brooklyn Recreation Fields on Prince Hill Road to meet up with Sue, her husband, Tom Harrington, and circle member Doug Warner to join their team for the Christmas Bird Count.

We split into two teams with Tom and Doug surveying the perimeter of the recreation park soccer fields, peering into the shrubs and trees lining the soccer fields, counting every species of bird they saw and heard. Sue and I focused on a nearby house with several feeders being visited by many birds, from cardinals and mourning doves to chickadee, nuthatch and titmouse.

Sue commented that the cold weather seemed to be impacting the number of birds usually sighted at that location. We loaded into the car and over an eight-hour period visited several other locations known to be good bird habitat. We visited side roads and farms just off Route 6 from Brooklyn to Danielson, then traveled south on Route 12 to Central Village and the Quinebaug Trout Hatchery. From there we went to locations east of Route 12 in Killingly, not far from the Rhode Island border.

Sue carried a clipboard with a list of all possible bird species in New England. She maintained the running tally of birds as we called out the species and numbers seen or heard. Our most successful location for sightings was the Quinebaug Valley Trout Hatchery.

The hatchery has seven small ponds, a mile of frontage on the Quinebaug River and a two-mile loop trail and road around the perimeter of a large open field. The river, ponds and open field provide perfect habit for viewing many species of birds, including water fowl and species that rely on aquatic animals for food. The hatchery is a birders paradise, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in bird watching.

We spent a wind-chilled two hours at the hatchery, where we counted the most variety of bird species of the day. I was amazed at how quickly Sue, Tom and Doug identified birds by sight or by sound. I know most of our region’s birds, but admitted to Sue that the many sparrow species can confuse me at times. Our list of birds was quickly filling up as we called out numbers of black-capped chickadee, blue jay, tufted titmouse, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, song sparrow and dark-eyed junco. The hatchery also revealed the most water fowl, with 135 mallard ducks, nine black ducks, 16 herring gulls, two ring billed gulls and 29 great blue herons.

The 1,185 birds counted also included 273 Canada geese, four bald eagles, 8 red tailed hawks, 37 crows and 29 common mergansers. At one farm location, we counted 216 European starlings. Almost all the Canada geese sighted were lying down in a sloping farm field in Brooklyn. They were bedding down among the corn stubble trying to keep warm. Across the road, an adjacent farm field had 66 wild turkey scratching through the corn stubble as they made their way to a woodsy wetland area to roost for the evening.

For me the highlight of the count was Sue sighting some golden-crowned kinglets. These beautiful little birds were flitting through the large stand of white pine trees along the access road to the hatchery. I don’t recall ever seeing this bird before, probably because they only visit our region in the winter.

Our Christmas Bird Count didn’t end until almost 4 p.m., when the fading daylight made it hard to see birds. As Sue, Tom and Doug dropped me off at my car, we said our goodbyes with my confirmation to join the team again next year. I learned a lot from these three bird experts and am pleased to add the Christmas Bird Count to my growing list of holiday season traditions.

It never ceases to amaze me the number of people actively volunteering time and expertise to gather data to help us better understand the flora and fauna of our region. Their dedication helps to make this region so very special. I hope you’ll join me and these vigilant volunteers as we work together to care for, enjoy and pass on this place we are so very fortunate to call home – The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 35 years and can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.