Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Photo Andy Morffew

The 24th Delaware Reservoir Christmas Bird Count was held on a day that began with a light snow cover and clouds, but cleared, warmed and was very pleasant for December 18th. Thirty-four participants in ten parties collectively spent 97 hr. 21 min. in the field and were joined by three feeder watchers. We saw or heard 68 species, which is our fourth highest species count, and we added two new and unusual species. Chloe Williams, a new birder on her first Count, saw two Greater White-fronted Geese among a substantial flock of Canada Geese. Modern technology provided quick verification. Chloe used her cell phone to summon Pam Burtt with camera and Pam got an excellent picture of the two geese. Chloe also called Sean Williams and Jed Burtt and the other members of the local count team who immediately returned from a fruitless search for mockingbirds. So within about 20 minutes the two Greater White-fronted Geese were found by Chloe, photographed by Pam, and seen by Sean, Jed, Cody Kent and Kyle Davis. Just to oblige us further they flew up and away from the pond with the Canada Geese thereby showing off their black belly markings. The other new bird was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher seen by Dan Fink and Leslie Yausey. Unfortunately, Pam was not nearby and when Dan called to Sally and Dan Yausey, who were on the other side of the spinney, the gnatcatcher dove into the thick brush, never to reappear. Sally, Leslie, and the Dans searched valiantly, but no gnatcatcher was to be found. We await the decision of the regional editor.

A number of other unusual species and numbers were part of the count. We had new high counts for Bonaparte’s Gull (161) and Ring-billed Gull (843). Pileated Woodpeckers reached a new high (9) as did Chipping Sparrows (4) and Rusty Blackbirds (59). Pied-billed Grebes (2), Northern Shrikes (2) and Tufted Titmice (94) all tied their highest previous counts. The warm weather and open water probably accounted for the Greater White-fronted Geese, the grebe, gulls and Buffleheads, which appeared for only the third time in 24 years. The absence of other ducks is puzzling, although hunters were common around the reservoir, which may have limited the use of that resource by waterfowl and the high rivers provided few quiet, backwater resting places.

The warm fall probably accounts for the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Chipping Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes (2), Brown Thrasher (1), Eastern Phoebe (1), and Eastern Towhees (5). All typically winter further south or are seen infrequently or in smaller numbers on our count. The very wet year probably is a factor in the explosion of Rusty Blackbirds, which favor wet fields and woods. This was only the eighth appearance on the count by Rusty Blackbirds and the previous high count was 10 compared to 59 in 2011. In general woodland species (e.g, titmice, chickadees, creepers, nuthatches and woodpeckers) had populations that were well above their 23 year average for the second year in a row. Perhaps the woods are maturing or the expansion of county parks is providing more habitat.

Unfortunately, birds of grassland are not so fortunate. We saw no Short-eared Owls or Eastern Meadowlarks. Northern Harriers (2) were at their lowest number ever. Horned Larks (59) were notably scarce. This continues a trend that has extended over several years for these species and probably reflects the conversion of fallow fields into housing developments.

Other species were up and down within relatively narrow limits.