Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Birdwatchers take census at Christmas Bird Count

John Dignam

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 and Wales.

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, counted in1997.

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 beginning.

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 look."

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 oriole.

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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