For many birders in the New World, the event of the year is the Christmas Bird Count, a program run since 1900 by the National Audubon Society and conducted these days in local 15 mile-diameter circles between 14 December and 5 January, inclusive. Due to extensive and intensive effort to find and count birds during the CBC season, a large number of rarities are turned up, continent-wide, as a result. What would this year's Cape May count uncover?
With no significant cold spells this fall and early winter in Cape May, there were high hopes for a high count, with visions of barely-hardy warblers and other wee beasties to get the blood racing. In the days leading up to the count, conducted 18 December, a goodly number of interesting/locally rare birds were found or noted as continuing (e.g., Redheads in a couple places, the Cape May Point White-winged Dove, the Cape Island Preserve Ash-throated Flycatcher, and the Beanery Bell's Vireo). Unfortunately, the White-winged Dove and Ash-throated Flycatcher went missing even before count week (three days on either side of count day), but the Redheads and Bell's Vireo stayed put to be tallied.
What was probably the best among individual birds found on count day (that is, not known to be present previously) was the Western Kingbird seen well in flight at the Coral Ave. crossover on Cape May Point by Glen Davis. Unfortunately, it apparently kept going and was not seen again. A bird heard calling at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (aka 'The Meadows') that may have been a King Rail was reported by Rick Mellon and company. As far as I know, the final verdict on that remains up in the air. A Common Merganser was a good find on Lily Lake. A hummingbird seen four times by Melissa Roach and Tom Johnson, but exceedingly briefly each time, went unidentified in the town of Cape May. There were no other unexpected surprises (if that's not too redundant of a term) and the tally included only four species of warbler (Orange-crowned - which were more numerous than usual, Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm.
The number of staked-out goodies bagged for the count were many and varied and included: Cackling Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, a Plegadis ibis of uncertain species, Osprey,Eurasian Collared-Dove, Rufous Hummingbird, Red-headed Woodpecker, and the aforementioned Bell's Vireo.
However, a number of species were notable by their absence on the count: Tricolored Heron, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Least Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Eastern Phoebe, Horned Lark, Common Yellowthroat, White-crowned Sparrow, Snow Bunting, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin. Considering the large number of lingering Great Egrets counted, the lack of a Tricolored Heron in any of the extensive back bays seems incredibly odd, as the species is not all that rare here in winter. And given the benign fall, the lack of Eastern Phoebes -- a species that is present here in even atrocious winters -- is doubly odd.
So, the day ended with a fairly average count of 151 species. Still, that total will be one of only two count totals exceeding 150 species north of 38 degrees N latitude and away from the West Coast, and the other is south of us (Ocean City, MD). As per usual in an area as well birded as Cape May, the list of count-week species -- those found within the period on three days either side of the count, but not on count day -- is long: Laughing Gull, Common Tern, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Dickcissel, and White-winged Crossbill are the ones that come to mind at the moment.
Ah, perhaps next year we'll get back over 160!