2014-01-02 / News

Local birders will flock Saturday for annual winter bird count

By Ken Shane

A snowy owl was on the rocks at Beavertail Friday morning looking for mice to eat for breakfast. The owl was still in the park on Monday. 
Photo by Chris Powell A snowy owl was on the rocks at Beavertail Friday morning looking for mice to eat for breakfast. The owl was still in the park on Monday. Photo by Chris Powell While Jamestowners may not be listening to rock music this weekend, some will be counting crows.

The annual Christmas bird count will take place on Conanicut Island Saturday. Started by local birders Candy Powell, Chris Powell and Evelyn Rhodes more than three decades ago, the trio has continued to organize a winter and spring bird count each year since 1983.

According to Candy Powell, the idea of a Christmas bird count began with the National Audubon Society at the dawn of the 20th century. The group wanted to provide a consistent snapshot of the nation’s bird population.

“We had all been birders for a long time, so we knew about Christmas bird counts,” she said. “We often birded together anyway, so we thought we would just start our own count.”

Birders will meet at the police station on Saturday morning at 7 a.m. Everyone is welcome, she said. Powell also advised birders to dress warmer than they think they need to, and suggested sturdy shoes, binoculars and a field guide as well.

Birders will be divided into four groups: Beavertail, the North End, downtown and the farms. At noon, the groups meet back at the police station to discuss their findings. After a lunch break, birders can head back out for the afternoon session.

Distinguishing between birds is not always an easy task. Powell said the different kinds of sparrows are always difficult to identify, and they are given the nickname “LBJs,” which stands for little brown jobs. Some thrushes are a challenge as well, Powell added, but there is only one thrush that tends to hang around Jamestown in the winter. Hawks can be difficult to identify as well because they are most often seen flying.

People often make the mistake of associating a certain kind of bird with a location. For example, Powell gets calls reporting an osprey at the nest on North Road during the winter. The ospreys are in fact long gone for the season, and what people are actually seeing at the nest is a red-tailed hawk at this time of the year.

The recent sighting of a snowy owl at Beavertail created a lot of excitement in the local birding community. Another bird that would create that kind of enthusiasm is an eagle. There have been sightings in the western part of Rhode Island, and flyovers by bald eagles over Jamestown have been reported in the past.

Powell estimates the counts capture about 80 percent of the bird species on the island by covering the different habitats. Some of the most common local birds are black-capped chickadees, the tufted titmouse, northern cardinals, red-belly and downy woodpeckers, and song and white-throated sparrows.

There is no doubt in Powell’s mind that the best birding spot in the winter is Beavertail. She says there is a large influx of bird species this time of the year. These include sea ducks like the common eider, harlequin and golden eye.

“Everyone wants to go to Beavertail, but we can’t all go to Beavertail because we need people to go other places,” Powell said.

Last year’s Christmas count uncovered 77 species on the island. That was a record for the winter effort. The count can be influenced by weather because if it is particularly cold, not as many people come out. Thus there is less opportunity to spot birds. The spring count – not as weather dependent – is always considerably higher. 2013’s total revealed 103 species.

Powell said there hasn’t been an overall gain or loss of bird population on the island over the years. Certain species, however, like the American kestrel, which is the smallest falcon, disappeared about 10 years ago and no one knew why. Oddly enough, the birds have begun to return to the island recently.

Cardinals and tufted titmice, which had historically been southern birds in the past, have expanded their territories by moving north in the last two decades.

“I think we’re having more diversity now,” Powell said.

One of the most challenging aspects of the count is trying to tally an individual bird only once. This is a particular problem for large populations like geese and gulls. Powell said one way they handle the problem is having the groups meet at noon to discuss the birds they’ve seen. The also talk about where those birds were headed. So if the group at Beavertail had seen a flock of geese flying toward a farm, the people in the farm area negate their goose count.

There are other winter bird counts in the area. The annual Newport/Westport count takes place just before Christmas, as does a South County tally. Powell said there is a consistent core of people who return for the local count every year, as well as new faces.

The final count is reported to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island for recordkeeping. Residents can report birds from home on Saturday by calling Powell at 423-1492.

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