Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count Summary
By Robert A. Culbert
The annual Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count for 2002 was held on January 5, 2003. It is a fun one-day long event where we try to count all the birds on Martha’s Vineyard. The results of our efforts are listed below and were submitted to the National Audubon Society, which compiles the results of almost 2000 counts from across the continent.
Our results were amazing! We saw 134,963 birds, more than double our previous high of 66,999 individuals observed in 1984. Our count has been conducted annually since 1960, but in only 5 of those years did we exceed 50,000 individuals.
So why did we see so many individuals this year? A hint comes from the fact that only two species of sea ducks, common eider and black scoter, account for almost 92,000 individuals. And when we include the scoters that were too far away to identify to species, the total becomes almost 103,000. These totals are about double our previous high counts for these two species. Why so many this year? Either they are more abundant this winter or the viewing conditions on count day were so ideal – a flat calm ocean – that we could finally see the ducks that are there every winter. Or both. These immense flocks continue to be a spectacle that can be observed from Squibnocket to the Gay head Cliffs and off Chappaquiddick beaches; Vern Laux recently reported 100,000 common eiders easily visible in the ocean off Wasque.
For thirteen other species we counted more individuals than we had in any other count. Two of these species – American oystercatcher and tufted titmouse – are relatively new to the Vineyard in the winter, so seeing three individuals is a high count. Other species where the counts increased by more than 10% are: lesser scaup, belted kingfisher, Carolina wren, yellow-breasted chat and northern cardinal. The rest of the species listed here set new high counts, but the increase is relatively minor (less than 10%): sanderling, winter wren, eastern bluebird, northern mockingbird, savannah sparrow and American goldfinch.
Two species unusual to the island were observed on the count. A tufted duck was observed at close range on Crackatuxet Cove, and was observed by many others in the days following the count. This old world species becomes the 206th species we have observed on the Vineyard Christmas Bird Counts since 1960. Two black guillemots were observed at approximately the same time on opposite shores of Vineyard Haven outer harbor; the only other time this species has been observed on a count was in 1987.
On a less positive note, we observed only 116 species on one of the most ideal days for viewing birds that we can expect in Massachusetts in the winter. Temperatures were not too frigid, visibility was excellent and winds were light; it was an ideal day for finding birds. This is only the sixth time since 1980 that we observed fewer than 120 species, and most of these low counts were handicapped by fog or other adverse weather conditions.
So why didn't we see more species? We missed three species on Count day that were observed either a few days before or after the count: Barrow’s goldeneye, Iceland gull and lesser black-backed gull. And we missed the following species that are found on about three quarters of our counts: pied-billed grebe, wood duck, redhead, American coot, killdeer, American woodcock, and horned lark. So we did not find a lot of species that probably were on the island; one count will not find all the species that are here.
This unpredictability of what we will find is one of the reasons why we conduct this count. But most importantly it is a fun day to be with other bird watchers as they find, count and learn about the birds. The resulting data tells us a lot about the patterns of bird distribution across the island, patterns that we could not recognize without doing this effort.
So plan to join us for the next Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count, tentatively scheduled for Sunday, December 28, 2003.
The final results of the January 5, 2002 Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count follows.