By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor
JAMESTOWN, R.I. — In 1962, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson imagined a nightmare future bereft of birdsong due to the effects DDT and other pesticides. Thanks in part to a changing climate, Rhode Islanders can take joy in the songs and sights of a great diversity of birds year-round, even in the dead of winter, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
To help get a handle on today’s diversity of bird life, the 31st annual Conanicut Christmas Bird Count took place on a cold winter’s day earlier this month with 21 local birders identifying a record 81 bird species on the island. Every year a dedicated group of naturalists count birds to document diversity or a lack of it.
“Bird counts are important because they are a snapshot of bird populations in a particular geographical area during approximately the same few weeks of a year,” organizer Candy Powell said. In this case in Jamestown during the last few weeks of December and through the first week of January.
Powell and her husband, Chris, came together with Evelyn Rhodes three decades ago to count birds in the inaugural Christmas count. Every year since, they have conducted both a winter and spring count.
On Jan. 5, with 6 inches of snow on the ground and calm winds, 14 field observers set out across the island from Beavertail Light to the north end. Seven home observers joined those in the field and by noon they had tallied 73 species. Morning sightings included harlequin ducks, common and red-throated loons, common eider, brown thrashers and an eastern bluebird.
Afternoon sightings included a merlin at Beavertail, Barrow’s goldeneye on the north end, a purple finch, a barred owl, two great-horned owls, a ruby-crowned kinglet and a hairy woodpecker. There were single sightings of a Chinese goose, American bluebird and red-necked grebe, and 5,667 sightings of American robins.
The fidelity of data varies based on the number of participants, their expertise, weather conditions, and whether the same geographical areas are effectively covered each year, according to Powell.
“But it is still considered a worthwhile exercise to look at trends, movement of birds — some southern birds have moved their range farther north (northern cardinals and tufted titmice are two examples) during the past 15 years,” Powell said. “A big impact is determination that any trends in bird population through the years may relate to environmental issues, such as climate change, industrialization and the spread of housing onto farms or other previous open spaces.”
This year organizers awarded birder Dan Berard with the much coveted “Pink Flamingo” — for spotting a rusty blackbird and assisting the identification of a pine warbler.
Candy and Chris Powell first took up birding more than 40 years ago while living on a naval base in Virginia. One day their backyard clothesline was covered with American goldfinches. Another day, evening grosbeaks landed on a nearby tree branch. The couple was hooked.
Chris’ standout birding memory is seeing the rare cock-of-the-rock on a trip into the Brazilian rainforest; Candy’s is helping to place a radio transmitter on an osprey a few years ago, and this month she sighted a rare male king eider at a marina in Dennis, Mass.
Beyond the beauty of birdsong, birds play an practical role within the ecosystem, serving as seed distributors and, like bees, wasps, and butterflies, many bird species are also pollinators.
These twice-annual counts are reported to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Sightings across the Ocean State are reported daily in a Rhode Island log hosted by the American Birding Association.