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One rarity tops them all on annual bird count

This photo of an eastern towhee male, taken by Lillian Stokes of Hancock, will appear in the Stokeses' new guide for beginning birders, due out this year. The backdrop may be different than the wintry setting of the towhee sighted in Dublin, but the male's dramatic plumage is the same.

This photo of an eastern towhee male, taken by Lillian Stokes of Hancock, will appear in the Stokeses' new guide for beginning birders, due out this year. The backdrop may be different than the wintry setting of the towhee sighted in Dublin, but the male's dramatic plumage is the same.

The 41st annual Peterborough-Hancock Christmas Bird Count took place just before serious snow started falling as predicted. Some 50 participants bundled up against single-digit temperatures and gave up their Christmas shopping Saturday, Dec. 14, to search all day for birds.

For the first time, the annual post-count potluck gathering over hot soup and pizza was cancelled because of the predicted storm. And as luck — bad luck — would have it, the Dublin team had a notable bird to report, a new species for the count.

Here’s how the potluck goes. After thawing out over food and drink, we gather in a circle as count organizer Dave Rowell reads off species, snow goose through house sparrow, and the various teams report: “zero” on up.

Around the circle we go as teams report what they found on their assigned routes within a 15-mile diameter circle that encompasses Peterborough and Hancock and parts of nine surrounding towns.

As participants arrive at the evening gathering, we survey each other, reading birder behavior — perhaps averted gaze or a Mona Lisa smile in response to the question, “Anything interesting on your route?”

After Dave goes through the list of species seen over the years, ranging from commoners through to rarities, he asks if any team saw a species not on the list.

An expectant quiet follows. Any team with a rare bird wants to play up the drama.

The Christmas Bird Count data collected nationwide and beyond by National Audubon provides important information on bird population trends.

The trends of course are important, but — truth be told — it’s the rarities that spark the potluck, along with tales of falling through ice and who started out in the most frigid temperatures. The daylong goal is a rare bird followed by the fun of sharing it that evening.

And there we were, the Dublin team, no potluck and a rarity that Tom Warren had been keeping an eye on at the Campbells’ on Snow Hill Road: a migrating species that failed to migrate. Eric Masterson is a key member of the team, and his recently released book “Birdwatching in New Hampshire” indicates that our mystery species shouldn’t linger beyond October. A declining species, it’s increasingly difficult to find during the breeding season.

A lot of our banter after sighting the bird had to do with cancellation of the potluck. We imagined the scene, how we’d deliver our news, maintaining the Mona Lisa smile while joining the general conversation about low numbers in general this year. Open water had frozen after two frigid nights. One Canada goose would be the count’s only waterfowl — a record low for ducks and geese.

None of the northern species that head this way in winter — different species in different years — were encountered. That was also a first for the count. The good news is that adequate food supplies across Canada was keeping northerners home. It’s food shortages that drive them our way.

Snowy owls are the one exception, irrupting south in record numbers this winter, but our region lacks the open spaces these tundra birds seek. There was lots of talk of snowies, but none sighted.

The quiet year would make our rare bird all the more fun; transmission of results by email to Dave definitely lacked the fun component.

I sent the email with the numbers seen, species by species, followed by the following imagined conversation at the end.

Scene: the annual potluck.

“So, anyone got any other species?” asks Dave, after the traditional potluck tally of birds seen. All agreed it was a quiet year for birds. No winter finches. Quick overnight freeze of open water sent lingering ducks on their way. Dublin Lake froze almost overnight.

As people turn towards the desserts, David (Baum) mutters something about a bird. Asks Tom (Warren) if there wasn’t another bird the Dubliners saw. After lunch when all were a bit logy. “You know. At your friend’s house, Tom. She’s on the Dublin BudCom with you?”

“Oh. Right,” says Tom. “The yard with all the homemade birdfeeders. On a tree with Christmas lights. That bird?”

Eric (Masterson) pipes up. “Yah, that one. In with all the chickadees.”

“Yah,” says Bill (Preston). “We saw a lot of chickadees today. Not much else. But that was one odd bird in that crabapple with all the birdfeeders and Christmas lights.”

“Oh,” says Tom. “The one in the yard of my BudCom pal? That’s been hanging around for a month but not seen for a couple days? With its back to us? Showing some black. And that rust. But not a winter robin down from Newfoundland?”

The group as one, prompted by the meandering conversation, thawed by woodstove, beer and food, rouses and remembers the bird.

In unison, David, Eric, Tom, Bill and Francie (Von Mertens): “Rufous-sided towhee!” (the heck with its bland, new species name).

And thus an eastern towhee — a colorful male — was added to the list: By my count the 98th species encountered on the local Christmas Bird Count.

It was a quiet year, with 42 species total. Notables were a record number of cedar waxwings (718) and bluebirds (30), perhaps reflecting the outstanding year for apple and crabapple production.

A record number of red-bellied woodpeckers (15) continues the trend of a northerly range expansion for this non-black-and-white woodpecker.

The cold might have been a record, too, but as always the good company of birds and their admirers and advocates warmed the soul.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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