2015 is the 80th consecutive year of the Boonton Christmas Bird Count (CBC).
Within the boundaries of the Boonton CBC are vestiges of prehistoric Lake Passaic including Troy Meadows, Black Meadows, Lee Meadows, Bog and Vly Meadows, Great Piece Meadows and Hatfield Swamp. Bodies of water range from Boonton Reservoir to Lake Parsippany and the many lakes and ponds that populate Denville and elsewhere. The Passaic, Rockaway and numerous smaller rivers drain the region helping to create the wetlands and floodplains of the count area. The physiographic makeup of the count area transforms from Piedmont to the eastern edge of the New Jersey Highlands.
As with almost every Christmas Count area and Breeding Bird Survey route, the inevitable encroachment of human development has obliterated once productive habitats and altered strategies in avian censusing. The Boonton CBC is primarily in Morris County, but includes West Essex and a tiny corner of Passaic County. The count tells a story of modest beginnings with changes in personnel, and a growing numbers of participants and hours in the field. More than anything, it is a view into the changing natural world and the birds that inhabit it.
Floyd Wolfarth (1911-1987), one of the founding members of the Urner Ornithological Club and the historical patriarch of the Raccoon Ridge hawkwatch, receives credit for being the founder of the Boonton CBC. The inaugural Boonton CBC occurred on December 27, 1936. One party of five individuals observed 47 species and tallied 6,589 birds in eight hours. American Crow was the most numerous species, by far, with 5,000 individuals counted. Rusty Blackbird was second with 350. Since 1936, the original party has multiplied into twenty; the number of participants has grown to a maximum of 77 in 1975 and through 2015, 1,341,656 individual birds have been counted.
Each species tells a story with the ebb and flow of their numbers across a continuum of time.
- It was not until 1941, three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that the first Canada Goose, a total of 1, appeared on the sixth Boonton CBC. Canada Goose would not become a regular fixture on the count until 1956.
- The first House Finch occurred on the count one month to the day after the Kennedy Assassination in 1963.
- The now ubiquitous Red-bellied Woodpecker showed up for the first time during count week in 1955, then not again until 1 was counted in 1966 and then its uninterrupted growth went from 1 counted in 1972 to triple figures from 1994 onward.
- The first Black Vulture was counted in 1989, the 54th Boonton CBC, and has been a regular since.
- Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was not recorded until 1970 and has been counted most years since.
- Great Black-backed Gull’s first appearances on the count were 1 in 1957, 1 in 1962 and every year since 1969, except 2015.
- In the first 35 years of the count, a total of 255 Ring-billed Gulls were counted. In the 40+ years through 2015, 37,751 are tallied.
- Common Raven made its 1st appearance in 2002, the 67th count, and has been sporadic, but increasing, since.
- In the second decade of the 21st century, the Evening Grosbeak is perceived as a boreal species no longer occurring in our area (except for 2012) but it was annual on the count from 1968 through 1989.
- The last Virginia Rail on the count was in 1987. In prior years it was regular, sometimes occurring in double digits.
- The last Eastern Meadowlark observed on the count was in 2001.
- Ruffed Grouse was reliable in the 20th Century with a high count of 19 in 1980. There have only been 4 individuals recorded in the 21st Century and none since 2006.
- 1978 marked the maximum count of American Kestrel with 32. In 2015 there were none.
Starting in 1977 and continuing forward, the Boonton CBC frequently exceeded 100 total species, remarkable for an entirely inland CBC in New Jersey. As a body of work, the Boonton CBC is a long-running data collection exercise creating a valuable look into a defined area at a particular time of the year. For the individual, it is a chance to explore less-birded areas and to contribute to an effort aimed at preserving the wildlife we revere.