We reached a milestone in our Block Island winter count project on Monday, with 
the 25th consecutive running of the Presidents Day Count. It hasn't been easy. 
Several PDCs were conducted under brutal conditions of wind, snow, or freezing 
rain, and some were re-scheduled because of appalling forecasts, imposing 
hardships on people traveling to participate. All of the people whose efforts 
have made this possible over the past quarter century have my gratitude and 
respect for contributing measurably to the humble discipline of purposeful 

This year we had almost unbelievably pleasant conditions, with a calm, sunny 
morning and temps rising into the mid 40s. This was fortunate because only 
three participants were able to cover the island this year. I'd like to think 
that Bob Emerson, Doug Wilson, and I were not only experienced, but also 
capable and even relatively spry. In any case, with the benefit of favorable 
conditions, we managed 23.5 party-miles on foot and covered almost all of the 
special sites and habitat features on the island.

Two aspects of the results are quite striking. First, the species total of 85 
was well above the average of 79 and even closer to the max of 90 than to the 
average. No scarce-but-regular species was missed for the first time, so I 
interpret this as showing that coverage was adequate.

Second, overall bird abundance was strikingly low. The trend toward low species 
counts was quite general and included several groups of species, such as Canada 
Goose, freshwater ducks, seaducks, and gulls, whose generally large total 
counts tend to arise from checking one or a few prime sites (such as the ferry 
crossing, the harbor jetties, etc.) and therefore wouldn't seem to be 
vulnerable to lower than average effort. Flocking passerines such as Starling, 
Robin, and boreal finches were also scarce or absent. The 3,271 total 
individuals was decidedly the lowest ever, and a metric of landbirds per 
foot-mile that we've found useful over the years was just above the lowest 
ever, at 55, vs. the average of 84.

To investigate these patterns, I divided this year's counts by their respective 
longterm averages, and examined which species were 30% or more above average, 
30% or more below average, or within 30% of expectation. Strikingly, Of the 26 
most numerous species (averaging counts > 50), no fewer than 20 were 30% or 
more below average, compared to five near average, and just one 30% or more 
above average. The examples of abundant species that were well below average 
this year were drawn from a wide range of ecological guilds and included Canada 
Goose, several freshwater ducks, several seaducks, Herring and Great 
Black-backed Gulls, American Crow, and various other kinds of passerines. In 
contrast, four of the six generally numerous species that were found in normal 
or greater than normal numbers were classic thicket birds, whose counts depend 
on beating the puckerbrush over miles: Carolina Wren (143, 1.53 x avg); Song 
Sparrow (225, 1.25 x avg); Black-capped Chickadee (116, 0.95 x avg); and 
Northern Cardinal (61 (0.73 x avg). (In a different category but deserving 
mention were spectacular flocks of Razorbills, totaling 541, far above average.)

Consistent with the last trend were numerous normal or above-average counts of 
thicket bird species that, though regular, occur in relatively small numbers: 
Winter Wren (8, 2.99 x avg); Swamp Sparrow (12, 2.31 x avg); Towhee (11, 1.57 x 
avg); Fox Sparrow (6, 1.22 x average); and Gray Catbird (14, 1.02 x average). 
We also detected a number half-hardies that are difficult to find on Block 
Island in February, including Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-crowned Warbler (2), 
Marsh Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet (2), White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned 
Kinglet (3), Brown Thrasher, Savannah Sparrow (10), and Field Sparrow (8). The 
only target half-hardy that was unusually scarce--and indeed nearly missed for 
the first time in 25 PDCs--was Hermit Thrush (1, 0.18 x avg).

Evidence of the mildness of the the 2019-2020 is discernible not only in the 
cases discussed above, but in the persistence of species such as American 
Woodcock, American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great Blue Heron, and 
Virginia Rail. Another highlight not mentioned above was an American Kestrel, 
just the second PDC record.

The full results are available on request.

Shai Mitra
Bay Shore


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1) http://www.mail-archive.com/nysbirds-l@cornell.edu/maillist.html
2) http://www.surfbirds.com/birdingmail/Group/NYSBirds-L
3) http://birding.aba.org/maillist/NY01

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