Wow, how time flies! Once again it is time to start planning for the 50th annual Christmas Bird Count, which will be held on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010.

This birding extravaganza started in 1960, and has been conducted every year since then. And every year it seems to get bigger and better, as more and more people participate. Of course we count all the individuals of every species we can find, but we also count the number of people participating and the hours they spend in the field — these are both important measures of the effort expended.

Effort on the Christmas Bird Counts has grown tremendously! The first counts in the early 1960s included two field teams and five or fewer participants. Two years ago, in the 2007 count, we sent 67 people, divided into 13 field teams, out for the day to count birds in their assigned part of the Vineyard. We had an additional 35 people counting the birds at the feeders in their yards. Yes, that is an amazing total of 102 people watching and counting birds! Last year, in ideal weather, we slid back a little and had only 93 people counting birds.

We also keep track of the species we find. An amazing total of 210 species have been found on the 49 counts to date. We do not find anywhere near that number of species on any one count, however, with our single count high being 130 species in both 2003 and 2007. Not surprisingly, those two record counts are two of the three times we have had more than 60 observers in the field (61 field observers produced 127 species).

And of course, we are counting every bird we can find. We observed an amazing total of 134,963 birds on the 2002 count, by far the all-time high. More typically, we can expect to see 40,000 to 90,000 birds; the tremendous variability in numbers observed is due to the abundance of seaducks — principally eiders and scoters — visible within half a mile of the Vineyard’s shoreline.

The Christmas Bird Count has become a tradition for many of us. Despite the numbers recited here in this short history of the count, it is an exciting and fun day to go birding and socialize with others with similar interests. And it is a great opportunity to learn about our early winter resident birds.

Imagine the numbers of birds we can find if you join this tradition, either in the field or as a feeder watcher. Please join the fun on the first Sunday of the New Year by contacting me — I am the compiler — at either 508-693-4908 or

Bird Sightings

And now for the bird sightings. Has there been a lull in the southward migration of birds? Or maybe there has been a lull in our record-keeping. Either way, there are relatively few reports to write about.

Dale Carter called to report an incident with a less than obliging mute swan on the road near the Chappaquiddick Beach Club on Nov. 2. Traffic was stopped in both directions, as the swan could not be coaxed out of the road for five to ten minutes. Ms. Carter also reported that the swan had a pinkish bill, so it was probably a first year bird. We can only wonder if it was a juvenile tundra swan rather than a mute swan.

On Nov. 3, Simon Athearn was out at Katama at dusk and observed a short-eared owl hunting in a salt marsh. This species has become very scarce; it used to be a common year-round resident, but now is only an occasional winter visitor.

On Nov. 5, Happy Spongberg flushed a great blue heron out of the trees along Tea Lane in Chilmark. She commented on the loud startling noises made by the heron as it flew away. She also reports finding lots of golden-crowned kinglets and her first white-throated sparrows of the winter at the north end of Tea Lane.

On Nov. 7, both Pete Gilmour and Bob Shriber visited the Gay Head Cliffs. They found their first snow buntings of the season as well as a palm warbler, an adult peregrine falcon and four sharp-shinned hawks.

Cedar waxwings attracted Sally Scott Cook’s attention as they were gorging themselves on pokeberries at her house in Chilmark. There were also robins, chickadees and cardinals.

Jules Ben David had the first dark-eyed juncos of the season at his feeder on Nov. 10. He also noted that his tufted titmice were back at his feeder after having been away since the spring. Finally, he was at East Chop that afternoon and found three brant in with a flock of Canada geese. These small geese always come back at this time of the year, and will soon become easy to observe in their usual haunts at Ocean Park or the town beach across the road in Oak Bluffs.

Perhaps we can attribute the lack of sightings to the spectacular Indian summer weather we had over the weekend. While many of us were out enjoying the weather, I guess we did not have our binoculars along with us. While the peak migration of landbirds is over, the seabirds and our wintering waterfowl are going in full force. So please get out and look at them. And then report your sightings to the hotline at 508-627-4922 or by e-mail to


Robert Culbert leads guided birding tours and is an ecological consultant living in Vineyard Haven.