There were snowy owls spotted from Orient to Jessups Neck. There were bald eagles all over the Peconic Bay. A rare rufous hummingbird made its way to a backyard birdfeeder in Southold. And Arctic harlequin ducks were happily swimming in Long Island waters.
This year has provided more glimpses of rare birds than any of the 110 years since volunteer birders began taking to the fields and the woods for the Orient Christmas Bird Count, which was started by Roy Latham on the North Fork in 1904, says MaryLaura Lamont, who has been compiling the count for 25 years.
“There were an incredible amount of rare birds, including ‘count birds,’ which have never been seen on this count before,” she said this week after she finished compiling the results of the Dec. 28, 2013 count.
The North Fork’s National Audubon Society-sponsored count is the oldest continuous count on Long Island, and it provides “excellent, excellent history,” said Ms. Lamont. All of the Audubon Society’s counts have covered a 15 mile diameter area since the count was standardized in the 1960s. Her Orient Count covers an area from Peconic to Plum Island, all of Shelter Island, Jessup’s Neck, North Haven and Sag Harbor Village.
Snowy owls have been all over the East End all winter, due to a stellar breeding year in the Arctic, fostered by a good crop of their primary food source: lemmings. A snowy owl can eat about 2,000 lemmings each year.
The so-called “irruption” in the snowy owl population has led many of the owls to fly south in search of more ample food supplies this winter, said Ms. Lamont.
Ms. Lamont said birders on her count saw two snowy owls on Plum Island, two in Orient and one on Jessup’s Neck in the Morton National Wildlife Refuge. She added that snowy owls have become so prevalent on the East End that photographers are beginning to make their lives difficult here.
“With rare birds, it’s not good to publicize their exact location,” she said. “There’s already been some interference on Dune Road where photographers have gone right up to the snowy owls, almost harassing them. It keeps the owls moving. In winter, it can be a stressful time for all birds. You don’t want to disturb them.”
Ms. Lamont said birder Richard Willott in Southold has had numerous sightings of a rufous hummingbird, a western species that until recently was never seen on the East Coast. Mr. Willott has been heating up nectar dishes since last week’s cold snap to help keep the hummingbird alive through the cold winter.
“For the last five to seven years, Christmas Bird Counts have been picking these up,” she said. “We had one last year in Central Park that survived most of the winter.”
“The rufous hummingbird is not native to the northeast, and should be in Mexico right now,” said Mr. Willott this week. “They are western hummers that nest north to Alaska in summer, but for some reason numbers of them have been showing up on the Eastern Seaboard in recent years. This number includes one that wintered near the Hayden Planetarium a couple of years back. No one knows why… This is the first one we’ve ever seen in our Southold backyard.”
Ms. Lamont said six separate birding parties on her count saw a total of nine bald eagles, though she believes some of those may have been the same birds.
“Island-hopping is nothing for an eagle,” she said. “They’re just all over the place in the course of the day. My guess is that there were five to six individual bald eagles seen, which is unprecedented.”
Ms. Lamont said high numbers of birds on any count has a lot to do with food supplies. The number of birds counted can also depend on the weather’s impact on visibility. This year’s count was on a balmy, sunny day where temperatures rose to nearly 50 degrees.
“When you see really rare birds, it has to do with food supplies,” she said. “With Arctic birds, in winter when they have 24 hours of nighttime, the immature birds fly south for food. With the good year for snowy owls, they had to expand. They can’t all fit up in the Arctic. Also with Guilimott, dovekies, harlequin ducks — they’ve gotta be going after food supplies. With waterfowl, when they have a brutal winter they come south where there’s more open water.”
Ms. Lamont said some of the changes are climate related.
“This year, we picked up over 1,000 robins,” she said. “Thirty years ago, we were luck if we got one. They used to migrate south. There’s a reason. It’s probably climate change. Bird are bellwethers for environmental issues. This really is good citizen science.”
North Fork Audubon is now getting ready for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, to be held Feb. 14 through 17. More information is online here.