I met Steve Kotchko along the banks of the Connecticut River in Wethersfield several weeks ago to participate in the 118th National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. Checked my journal and found that I participated in my first Christmas Count in December 1984, so this was my 34th year. Pretty sure it was Steve’s 32nd year.
Over the years, we’ve seen it all in terms of weather. Mild days with temperatures getting to 50 degrees, or snowstorms that lasted all day, or bitter cold, clear days when the snow squeaked beneath our boots. It was clear and quite cold for our 8 a.m. start – 14 degrees – and it never got above 17 by late morning. We’ve had about 9 inches of snow so far this season, but only a few inches remained on the ground. There was no wind, and we were dressed for cold, with long underwear, fleece-lined pants, parkas, ski hats and gloves, and insulated boots, so we were reasonably comfortable.
But the early morning cold kept the birds down. We scanned the river time and again, scoured the low vegetation and the skies overhead. Birds came few and far between.
In the shrubs were juncos and white-throated sparrows, as always. The finding of the morning was a flock of about 30 horned larks, pecking about in one of the cut-over agricultural fields near the river. We don’t see them every year.
Christmas counts are held throughout Connecticut, the U. S. And Canada and begin from a central point — in Hartford it is the Old State House — and extend in a radius of 7.5 miles. The Hartford count includes all or parts of Hartford, East Hartford, Windsor, West Hartford, Farmington, Bloomfield, Windsor, Avon, South Windsor, Manchester, Rocky Hill, Glastonbury and Wethersfield.
The Hartford count began in 1907 and, with the exception of a few years, most in wartime, it has continued ever since. The first Hartford count was conducted by a single birder, who saw a grand total of 10 species. Much has changed, Jay Kaplan, director of the Roaring Brook Nature Center and co-compiler of Hartford count results, said 91 observers this year saw 89 species, pretty typical. One anomaly is the comparatively small numbers of downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, Robins, Cardinals, red-winged blackbirds and American goldfinch.
I left late morning, but Steve continued to bird until late day, picking up bald eagles, hooded mergansers, common mergansers, Cooper’s hawk and fish crow, among other species. A most interesting find on Steve’s part were 14 rusty blackbirds at Wintergreen Woods in Wethersfield, a small town preserve about two miles from the Connecticut river as the crow flies. I checked my journal again and see that I spotted rusty blackbirds in the exact same location – a little brook near the entrance to the preserve – 30 years ago. They are pretty much a rarity in Wethersfield.
Since the late 1980s, Steve, myself and other members of our Capitol Bird Club – all journalists – have conducted the count in Wethersfield. We’ve had as many as a half dozen of us tromping around looking for birds. But it was just Steve and I this year.
Our species total count this year was 35, the low-end for us. We’ve had years where we hit 40 species.
Our list for the 2017 count: Canada Goose, Mallard, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Greater Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Flicker, Blue Jay, Crow, Fish Crow, Horned Lark, Chickadee, Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Robin, Starling, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Junco, Cardinal, Rusty Blackbird, Grackle, House Finch, Goldfinch, House Sparrow.