Bird counts go beyond Christmas

  • Turkeys looking for forage cut into a yard between a house and garage in Enfield, N.H., Tuesday, February 25, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/3/2022 9:20:27 PM
Modified: 1/3/2022 9:19:48 PM

In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed that Americans celebrate the Christmas season by counting birds instead of hunting them, and the Audubon Christmas Bird Count was born.

This year’s survey, which is still among the largest citizen-science endeavors in the country, wraps up on Wednesday. But birders won’t lack opportunities to strike out in the snow for the sake of birds this month, with counts of bald eagles, birds impacted by climate change and wild turkeys starting this month.

Vermont Audubon hosts the 2022 Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey, a national effort that launches on Wednesday and concludes Jan. 19.

When the midwinter survey of bald eagles began in 1979, “there was a fair amount of ice and so birds were concentrated in a place where there was open water,” said Margaret Fowle, a senior conservation biologist with Vermont Audubon. “But there is not always a guarantee that we have so much ice as we did back then.”

While the national survey enlists volunteers to monitor designated routes, Vermont Audubon also logs sightings from the general public. The dams on the Connecticut River, including the Wilder Dam, are likely spots to spy a bald eagle, she said.

“Dams tend to have open water, so the birds can hunt fish and ducks there most easily,” Fowle said. “Eagles are opportunistic hunters — while they are known for eating fish, they also take ducks, eat carrion and also hunt a variety of mammals.”

A bald eagle used to be a rare surprise, but now they are not so hard to spot, she said. That’s because their population has made a strong recovery. The bald eagle was proposed for removal from the Vermont State Endangered Species List in October after a decades-long recovery effort. Doug Morin, a biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, said that likely would be formalized in about a month.

This month, the National Audubon Society is also organizing its winter Climate Watch survey across the country from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15. Up to two-thirds of North American birds are vulnerable to extinction because of climate change, according to a 2019 Audubon report.

The survey targets at-risk species, including several varieties of bluebirds, nuthatches, sparrows and goldfinches. However, these are not the species most at risk; they are still prevalent enough to generate large data sets that will give researchers meaningful insights into how birds are responding to climate change, said Gwen Causer, an environmental educator at Vermont Audubon.

“One of the biggest things we’re looking at is their range — how their range is shifting in response to the shifting climate,” Causer said.

Meanwhile, black vultures and red-bellied woodpeckers are coming farther north. Vermont is likely to be a refuge for birds as climate change influences their habitat in other regions, she added.

Bird watchers should also be on the look out for finch species coming south from Canada, in part because of extreme weather, according to the Winter Finch Forecast. Over 200 forest fires raged from Northwestern Ontario to British Columbia, while high temperatures and severe droughts broke records in western Canada. Cones and other food sources that the birds of northern boreal forests depend on suffered, wrote Tyler Hoar, a forecaster with the conservation group. These conditions should make for “a good winter to see finches in traditional hotspots” including northern New England States and the Adirondack Mountains, he concluded.

“There definitely are some of these species in the area,” said Morin, the biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife. Evening grosbeaks and purple finches periodically arrive to the region from Canada, and there have been several sightings of snowy owls flying south from the Arctic, he said.

Winter is also the season to put out bird feeders because bears are safely in hibernation, he said. The mysterious great mortality event that struck birds dead in states to the south has dissipated, so people need not worry about hanging up feeders, which can be infection hotspots. Still, Morin recommends cleaning bird feeders every week or two with water and 10% bleach solution to prevent the spread of disease.

Meanwhile, wild turkeys often make a visit to backyard bird feeders to take their fill of nutritious seeds stocked for daintier birds. New Hampshire Fish and Game launched its winter wild turkey count on Jan. 1. It will continue through March 31.

Most sightings of wild turkeys in the winter months are at backyard bird feeders, although turkeys also like to eat acorns and beechnuts that fall from trees, according to New Hampshire Fish and Game. Severe weather and limited natural food supplies — especially when snow covers the forest floor — can make the winter months a challenge for turkeys. However, as with the bald eagle, wild turkey populations have recovered from historic lows in the Twin States.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727- 3242.

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