Athol Bird and Nature Club marks 51st  year of annual bird survey

  • A Barred Owl graces the cover of the Athol Bird & Nature Club’s 2019 calendar. The owl was photographed by Sandy Mallet.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/18/2019 9:00:48 PM

ATHOL — This year’s annual Christmas Bird count organized by the Athol Bird and Nature Club saw fewer birds than years past, but a diverse array of species and the return of a bird not seen in a decade, the evening grosbeak. 

On Saturday Dec. 15, a group of birdwatchers gathered at Soup on the Fly early in the morning for breakfast and spent the day counting birds in the forest, fields and bird feeders. The event is sponsored by the National Audubon Society as part of a citizen science initiative to gather data and recognize trends in bird migration.

Together the team of bird watchers counted 7,191 individual birds and 66 different species. The annual bird count usually yields around 60 different species and between 10,000 to 12,000 total birds, according to Athol Bird and Nature Club president Dave Small, who says that several factors could have contributed to the low counts but high species diversity.

The lack of snow and frozen water on the day of the bird count led to fewer birds around the bird feeders and more sightings of waterfowl like ducks. The warmer weather brought an influx of winter finches from the north, Small said, which feed on the vegetation and ground not covered by snow.

“The feeders weren’t as productive as they could be,” Small said. “Once the natural food gets covered up with snow the feeders get more popular.”

A total of 44 people participated in the 51st annual Christmas Bird Count, with 29 in the field and another 15 watching bird feeders. At the end of the day, they met for a potluck celebration at the Millers River Environmental Center while the final counts were tallied.

For the first time in a decade, birdwatchers spotted an evening grosbeak, a ground- foraging bird with irregular migration patterns. 

“A continued incursion of these colorful birds from the north is expected to continue through the winter,” Small said. 

Over the last decade the average number of birds tallied is 9,048,5, according to Small. Last year the total bird count was around 9,300 and the year prior the total was around 7,200. In 2012 the birdwatchers counted the highest number of species, with 70 different types of birds, while the lowest species count was in 2016 with 53 different species. 

“The species numbers we are seeing are actually going up, pretty much in general which is kind of interesting,” Small said. “This could be because of the milder starts to winter.”

In the Templeton area, the first ever Peregrine Falcon was spotted during the Christmas Bird Count, a late Gray Catbird was observed in Orange and an Eastern Phoebe near the airport. There were fewer hawk sighting this year, too, with no Cooper’s hawks or Sharp-shinned hawks counted. 

One possible explanation for declining was the killing of trees by Gypsy moths in southern Massachusetts, Small said. While the Athol area hasn’t seen as much damage from Gypsy moths as other places, Small says they could have had an impact on the number of birds counted in December. 

Sarah Robertson can be reached at

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