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For Bird-Watchers, the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Common redpolls feed on the ground in Norwich recently. The species accounted for 283 of the 12,557 individual birds spotted during the Hanover-Norwich section of the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.
Photo courtesy Doug Hardy

Common redpolls feed on the ground in Norwich recently. The species accounted for 283 of the 12,557 individual birds spotted during the Hanover-Norwich section of the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count. Photo courtesy Doug Hardy

Never mind Santa Claus’ hefty gift inventory. When the holiday season arrives, it’s bird enthusiasts who have the most items to account for.

Billed as the longest running citizen science project on the planet, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count attracts tens of thousands of volunteer birders to observe and record sightings across North America and South America.

Divided into more than 2,000 individual groups and setting out into respective areas with a search area spanning 15 miles, birders tabulate and submit data the NAS uses to help assess the health of bird populations and at the same time guide conservation action.

With outing dates selected over a three-week period (Dec. 14-Jan. 5), some group members record feeder activity while others venture into natural habitat, binoculars and notepads in tow, to jot down figures.

Groups centered in Hanover and Woodstock have participated for years. The Hanover group drew 29 participants for a New Year’s Day outing this year, while Woodstock attracted 17 for its count day on Dec. 28.

While the numbers recorded always vary, participation from the Upper Valley groups have been consistent. Of the 113 editions of the Christmas Bird Count, a group centered in Hanover or Norwich has taken part 51 times, while the Woodstock group celebrated its 38th year of participation.

Sally Laughlin, a former Woodstock resident who now resides in northern Vermont, returns every year for the Christmas Bird Count. She has been in on the action since the Woodstock group’s inception in the 1970s.

“It’s the same area every year, east-to-west from the eastern edge of Woodstock village to Killington and north-to-south from just south of Barnard village to South Woodstock,” said Laughlin, whose group recorded 44 species and 3,536 individual birds this year. “We set out around 7 a.m. and cover a lot of ground throughout the day, driving as well as on foot.

“We break off into two main areas and drive along the road, stopping every mile or so to go into the woods or fields and see what we find. When you count up all of the hours and mileage of everyone involved in our group, it’s about 22 hours and 19 miles of walking, and 21 hours and 276 miles of driving. A 15-mile diameter might not seem too large, but it covers a lot of ground.”

The area centered in Hanover begins north of downtown and spans into parts of Norwich, Hartford, Lyme, Enfield, and Lebanon.

This year’s outing produced a group-record 12,557 individual bird sightings, nearly 600 more than the previous mark set in 2002. The total species detected by the Hanover group was 54, just four fewer than its record of 58 found in 2000.

Rare finds this year included the eastern towhee and hoary redpoll, both firsts for the Hanover group, while a rough-legged hawk and merlin were each discovered for just the third time each. Record highs this year within the Hanover area included sightings of mallard (840), the Carolina wren (18, doubling the previous mark) and 6,000 American crows, many of them roosting near the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“Our guess is that all of the crows within our area came to roost around the same spot, around the Centerra Plaza and the hospital,” Lebanon resident Daniel Crook said. “It was about 5 o’clock at night, and to see 6,000 of them all roosting together was kind of eerie. It definitely had an Alfred Hitchcock kind of feel to it.”

More species that have historically wintered south of here — such as the Carolina wren, cardinals and the tufted titmouse — are beginning to appear more regularly during the Christmas Bird Count. While global climate change may be a factor, the increased availability of food thanks to bird lovers who install feeders, also plays a role, birders say.

“All of the feeders make a big difference, because a lot of birds fly south in the winter,” Laughlin said. “Not so much because of the cold, but because of a food shortage. Forty years ago, you wouldn’t find cardinals and tufted titmice around in these parts, but more people have feeders out now and it can actually help the health of a migratory species, to stay put and have that reliable food source.

“The problem comes if people sell their homes, stop living here year-round or can’t afford to fill the feeders anymore. There are usually birds that have grown to rely on those sources.”

More species naturally stick around during exceptionally mild winters, such as 2011-12.

“Last year, there were hundreds of ducks roosting above Wilder dam (during the Christmas Bird Count), because there was no ice to kick them out,” said Norwich resident George Clark, who joined both the Woodstock and Hanover groups this year. “Usually by that time of year, ducks are well into Long Island Sound or New Jersey.”

Harsh northern winters can also help increase local counts, ushering even the hardiest species such as snow buntings, snowy owls and some finches from Canada into New England.

“For them, it’s pleasant, sunny Vermont,” Laughlin said. “Again, it’s less about the extreme temperatures and more about that if it’s so snowy that it cuts off their food supply.”

While participation in the Woodstock group has waned from its peak of about 30 birders per year to about a dozen these days, Laughlin still gets the same communal feeling during the Christmas Bird Count outings. The collaborative effort and enthusiasm makes it a highlight of the holiday season.

“We had someone bring his 12-year-old son and someone else, (South Woodstock resident) Larry Roberts, who is 90,” Laughlin said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.