|Wednesday, December 22, 2004
take census at Christmas Bird Count
STURBRIDGE— Fifteen years ago,
Mark Lynch went to southern Connecticut to wait by a feeder to see one
red-bellied woodpecker, a bird of the mid-Atlantic and Southern states
that rarely ventured north.
"Now it's in everybody's back yard," he said.
The red-bellied woodpecker's move north is just one change noted by the
annual Christmas Bird Count, an international effort to create a
database with which to better understand bird populations.
In the count, volunteers carefully monitor designated circles, 15 miles
in diameter, for one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
Mr. Lynch, who leads five of the more than 30 Christmas counts in
Massachusetts, said he and his wife, Sheila Carroll, started the
Sturbridge-area count nine years ago because the area is "just not well
understood as far as avian biology. It's not visited by a lot of people
(birdwatchers)," he said.
"People focus on the coast or big areas like the Quabbin or the
Berkshires. But this is a great area. There's still a lot of farmland,
marshes, freshwater ponds," he said.
Before dawn on Dec. 14, 40 volunteers in teams began moving through the
Sturbridge circle, which includes parts of Sturbridge, the Brookfields,
Warren, Spencer, Charlton, Southbridge, Sturbridge, Brimfield, Holland
They hiked until 5 p.m., when they gathered at the Wild Bird Crossing
store, 4 Cedar St., for pizza and a reading of the list of birds seen.
Mr. Lynch said the volunteers, exhausted by the time the numbers were
tabulated, had counted 18,117 birds of 78 species. The total was the
highest in three years, but less than the nine-year high of 27,218,
Along with 53 red-bellied woodpeckers, the birders noted 17 Carolina
wrens, another southern bird that continues to relocate north. Those
birds like the small, wooded lots that are increasing with urban sprawl.
At the same time, birds that like their forests large and unbroken, such
as the ruffled grouse (three were spotted), saw-shet owl (three) and
pileated woodpecker (one), are in short supply because of the loss of
habitat, according to Mr. Lynch.
Mr. Lynch said most of the volunteers have participated since the
beginning of the Sturbridge count. He said volunteers must be
experienced in identifying birds because of the importance of the work.
"We are literally tracking changing populations in the environment. We
are losing a lot of species, but we are also gaining some. It's
startling to see that in my lifetime," said Mr. Lynch, 53, of Worcester,
a master birder and teacher at the Massachusetts Audubon Society's Broad
Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester and
at the Worcester Art Museum.
"This state will not be the same place, from a biological point of view,
in 10 years. The No. 1 cause is loss of habitat. We are seeing
environmental change on a massive scale and it's not abating.
"What this (change) really represents is the sprawl that's occurring in
central Massachusetts, former farmland becoming housing developments.
"There's a lot of farmland in the Brookfields. Wales and Holland have
some of the best cattail marshes. There are still big woodlots left in
places like Brimfield," he said. "But that's all going fast."
William Cormier, who with his wife, Nancy, has owned Wild Bird Crossing
for 11 years, has participated in the bird count here since its
He said tourists sometimes stop by his store for information on
birdwatching when they vacation in the area, but this area is not a
destination for birdwatchers.
"This is not a hot birding spot like Cape Cod or Plum Island. But there
are a lot of good places here, such as Westville Dam, the Quinebaug
River," Mr. Cormier said.
He and Mr. Lynch said the first book detailing birdwatching in the
Sturbridge bird count circle area is "Bird Finding Guide to Western
Massachusetts," recently published by the University of Massachusetts
Extension Service. Mr. Cormier contributed information for the guide and
Mr. Lynch was one of the editors.
Mr. Lynch said that in addition to the importance of the information
gathered, the bird counts are "also a lot of fun" despite the long hours
and sometimes cold, wet weather.
"Anytime you're outside looking at the natural world is a good day. And
every time you're outside you can learn something, if you know how to
The species with the highest numbers in the count included the European
starling (1,992), the black-capped chickadee (1,539), Canada geese
(1,357) and robins (1,343).
Mr. Lynch said counts were high for less commonly seen birds such as the
hooded merganser, tufted titmouse, northern cardinal and red-tailed
hawk, which is commonly mistaken for a bald eagle.
Volunteers also saw one horned grebe, more typically seen on the coast
at this time of year, an adult bald eagle and a long-eared owl, a new
species for the Sturbridge count circle.
Birds that had lingered out of season included a ruby-crowned kinglet,
gray catbird, hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler and a Baltimore
He said the group saw too many of what he called "horrible birds," mute
swans, which he said are "amazingly aggressive" birds that kill or drive
out other native water fowl.
"I understand that people appreciate them visually - they are beautiful
- but they are an invasive species. A nasty bird."
A European bird, the mute swan moved up the Blackstone River to
Worcester from Rhode Island about 10 years ago. There were four spotted
in this year's count.
He had kinder comments for the wild turkey (97 counted), which has made
a comeback and is "always a spectacular bird to see."
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