Hurricane Sandy struck the region on October 30, causing major damage in many parts of New Jersey and some in eastern Pennsylvania. This had a major impact on some of the Christmas Counts. November was colder than normal, but a near normal December and generally favorable conditions during the count period led to some exceptionally high totals. Many rarities and late-lingering species added to the excitement and the modest irruption of winter finches even included a few Evening Grosbeaks in Pennsylvania.
The impact of Hurricane Sandy on the CBC season was most pronounced along the New Jersey coast. The Sandy Hook count was cancelled because Gateway National Recreation Area comprising most of the count area was closed. Road closures severely limited access to the oceanfront and bays for Long Branch, Lakehurst and Barnegat, and the Oceanville count could not do the wildlife drive at Forsythe National Wildlife Area. Nevertheless, the 29 counts located a record 209 species, besting by one the 30 year old record of the 84th CBC. Cape May, with a long list of rarities, counted 169 species, beating its previous high total (2001) by two. Cumberland County had the second highest tally with 130 species, followed by Barnegat (121) and Oceanville (120). For an inland count, Boonton had an impressive 115, beating the previous record by three. One new species, Townsend’s Warbler, was added to the overall state CBC list, bringing the total to 316. A count-week Pink-footed Goose on the NW Hunterdon CBC would have added another.
Thirty seven species of waterfowl were found, highlighted by a Ross’s Goose at NW Hunterdon and a pair of Barnacle Geese on the Princeton CBC; nine counts totaled a new high of 31 Cackling Geese. Cape May and Walnut Valley each had a Eurasian Wigeon, while the presence of a total of six Blue-winged Teal on four different counts was a good tally. Cape May had the only King Eider and 17 of the 126 Common Eiders. Barnegat had most of the rest (101) plus all 16 Harlequin Ducks. A new high of Hooded Mergansers (3735) was reached, as every count but Pinelands recorded the species.
Walnut Valley once again reported the only Ruffed Grouse (2), but Wild Turkeys rebounded from last year’s low number to easily set a new record of 2586. Walnut Valley also found the only two Northern Bobwhite, most likely released birds. The statewide count for this species has only exceeded 13 once in the past decade (23 in 2008), whereas the average for the decade from 1973-1982 was 462. Five different counts had individual Red-necked Grebes, but Cape May went one better with a Western Grebe, present for several weeks. Four American Bitterns were about average, Tuckerton had the only Snowy Egret and Cape May the only Little Blue Heron, plus eight Tricolored Herons. Barnegat also had a Tricolored Heron, while Cumberland and Great Swamp each found a Green Heron. Glossy Ibis is seldom recorded on a New Jersey CBC, so the one well photographed far inland at Princeton was very unusual.
Three Ospreys included singles at Oceanville and Cumberland, as well as a surprise addition to the Princeton count. Rough-legged Hawks were scarce again, with only nine reported, but numbers picked up later in the winter. A record 22 Sandhill Cranes was tallied on five different counts, including a single at Ramsey and a flyover flock of eight in NW Gloucester County, where the species was new to the count. Once again, 19 species of shorebirds were located, the only unusual one being a well-documented Spotted Sandpiper at Cape May. An impressive 11 species of gulls were found, highlights being a Little Gull at Cape May, Black-headed Gulls at Cape May and Cumberland, a Glaucous Gull at Trenton Marsh, and a Black-legged Kittiwake at Cape May. Cape May also contributed all 20 Forster’s Terns. The big Dovekie flight seems to have bypassed the Christmas Counts, with only singles at Cape May and Long Branch, but Razorbills were well represented with a total of 96 on five coastal counts.
New Jersey’s lone pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves was present for the Cape May count, while the Rufous Hummingbird at the Palmyra Cove Nature Center was a highlight of the Moorestown CBC and remained throughout the winter. There were no Snowy Owls this season, but Somerset County and Walnut Valley each had a Barn Owl and seven counts tallied Northern Saw-whet Owl. It was not an invasion year for Red-headed Woodpecker, as only Mizpah (6) and Cape May (1) could find any. An Empidonax flycatcher was found on the Assunpink CBC and the continuing Ash-throated Flycatcher at Medford WMA was a highlight of the Moorestown count.
Assunpink, Warren County, and Walnut Valley each had a Northern Shrike, Cape May produced a White-eyed Vireo (present all winter), and Belleplain a Blue-headed Vireo. American Crow numbers still have not recovered from the pre-West Nile Virus days, with totals less than half those of the 1990s, but Common Raven continues to thrive, this year’s 43 just two shy of last year’s record. Trenton Marsh turned up three Tree Swallows, while Cape May had the only other one. It was a good year for Red-breasted Nuthatches, following last year’s dismal showing, as all but two of the counts recorded the species, with a total of 430 individuals.
Cape May reported six of the ten House Wrens and an impressive four Sedge Wrens; Cumberland added the only other Sedge Wren. Cape May also had the only Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and nearly half of the 227 Hermit Thrushes tallied statewide, the lowest total for that species since 1990. The eight species of wood warblers included single Nashville Warblers at Cape May and Lower Hudson, a Northern Parula in Oceanville, and the state’s first CBC Townsend’s Warbler, a long-staying female in Cape May.
The long list of rarities at Cape May included the only two Vesper Sparrows and a well-photographed Le Conte’s Sparrow. Lower Hudson and Moorestown each recorded an unseasonal Lincoln’s Sparrow. A female Painted Bunting was the highlight of the NW Gloucester County CBC. Lower Hudson found the only Baltimore Oriole seen on count day, but Cape May had a count-week male in full adult plumage. For the first time in many years, winter finches were widely recorded. Most counts had Purple Finch and Pine Siskin, while Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, and Common Redpoll were tallied on 11 or more counts. The more elusive Pine Grosbeak and Evening Grosbeaks were not among the visitors.
A record 74 Christmas Counts were submitted from Pennsylvania with the addition of new counts at Benezette, Gordon Glen, and York Springs, and results were generally very good. The total of 170 species was down four from last year, but still well above the long-term average. Southern Lancaster County retained its position at the top of the list with a count-high 115 species, followed by Harrisburg (106), Lancaster (105), and Western Chester County (100). In addition to Southern Lancaster, long-running counts at Bushy Run, Butler, DuBois, Johnstown, Lancaster, Linesville, and Rector achieved new count records.
The 32 species of waterfowl included just two Greater White-fronted Geese (Southern Bucks County and Lehigh Valley), but also five Ross’s Geese, with two each at Bethlehem and Lehigh Valley and a single at Hamburg. Fourteen counts had a total of 41 Cackling Geese, while Linesville had three Trumpeter Swans and Erie one. The total of seven Blue-winged Teal was exceptionally high, and Ring-necked Ducks exceeded last year’s record with 1311. Erie, as usual, had the greatest variety, with an impressive 25 species including two scoters and a staggering 24,973 Red-breasted Mergansers. Ten other counts added another 158 birds to bring the state total to 25,131 Red-breasted Mergansers, exceeding the previous high by more than 20,000.
Ruffed Grouse dropped to 80, less than half last year’s total and Wild Turkeys again declined by about 10%. Northern Bobwhite was missed for the fourth time in the past six years; their numbers peaked at 76 in 1986, but it’s been downhill ever since. Individual Red-throated Loons were found at Butler, Erie, Indiana and Reading. Bethlehem had two Eared Grebes and Lebanon County a single, but there were no reports of Red-necked Grebes. Delaware County, Erie, and Harrisburg each had a Great Egret.
Black Vultures reached a new high of 2264, as 35 of the 74 counts recorded the species. Two Ospreys were reported, surprisingly both from the western part of the state at Bushy Run and Butler. Bald Eagles again set a record with 443 individuals tallied on 59 counts, led by Linesville with 50 birds, and Cooper’s Hawks reached a new high with 463 birds, easily outnumbering Sharp-shinned Hawks for the ninth year in a row. Rough-legged Hawks (22) were up from last year, but still not abundant, while the nine Golden Eagles recorded on five counts was the highest total in 11 years. American Kestrels have held steady in recent years (this year 868), not showing the drastic decline seen in New Jersey, but are still only about two-thirds the numbers seen in the 1980s. The Newville Prairie Falcon put in another appearance this season, its fifth in the past seven years.
Butler (26) and Linesville (47) combined for an incredible 73 Sandhill Cranes, beating last year’s record by 44 birds. These numbers are even more amazing when one notes that the species was recorded on only three occasions (one bird each year) from 1984 to 2002 and no more than two were found until 2008. It was not a good year for shorebirds, with a Purple Sandpiper at Erie being the only unusual bird among the four species. A Laughing Gull in Southern Bucks County was a good find, as was a Black-headed Gull at Butler, the third for a state CBC. Erie produced some impressive gull numbers, with 6381 Bonaparte’s, 40,079 Ring-bills, 3402 Herrings, 1 Lesser Black-backed, and 121 Great Black-backed, the latter a good total for Lake Erie. Most exceptional of all was the Parasitic Jaeger discovered and photographed on the Johnstown CBC, the first of its kind on a Pennsylvania CBC since 1985.
Eleven Barn Owls on six counts comprised the highest total in almost 20 years, and the 53 Northern Saw-whet Owls easily topped the previous record of 42 on the 105th CBC, but Snowy Owl went unreported. Lititz had two Rufous Hummingbirds, while Lewistown and Pittsburgh each had one, but the prize went to Central Bucks County with Pennsylvania’s first CBC record of Allen’s Hummingbird. Unlike in New Jersey, where they were scarce, the 51 Red-headed Woodpecker total was the highest in ten years, led by 17 at Gettysburg.
Eight Northern Shrikes was about average, but a Blue-headed Vireo at Lock Haven-Jersey Shore was only the 9th for a state CBC. Common Raven continues to thrive, with a record 427 individuals, while the wintering Northern Rough-winged Swallow flock that first appeared in 2005 continued at Pennypack Valley with a total of 150 individuals; Lehigh Valley and Harrisburg each added one to the count. The Pennypack Valley flock is the only one regularly found on a CBC north of the southern tier of states. As elsewhere in the Northeast, the Red-breasted Nuthatch irruption was the first large-scale one since 2005, with 71 of the 74 counts recording the species. Southern Lancaster had two House Wrens and Linesville one, but the 516 Winter Wrens was a new state high. Delaware County added two Marsh Wrens.
Nine species of wood warblers, about average, included Orange-crowned Warbler at Pennypack Valley and Black-throated Green Warbler, only the third of a state CBC, at Delaware County. Single Ovenbirds were at Pennypack Valley and Upper Bucks County, two Wilson’s Warblers in Southern Lancaster, and Yellow-breasted Chat was at Bethlehem-Easton. The 122 Chipping Sparrows represents a new state high, echoing the trend in New Jersey, although increased effort accounts for some of that trend; likewise, the 246 Savannah Sparrows also was a record high total. A Clay-colored Sparrow at Reading was the 5th for a Pennsylvania CBC, but the first since 2001, while the Le Conte’s Sparrow at Delaware County was only the third for a state CBC. Lehigh Valley and Western Chester County each had a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Butler County added two Dark-eyed Juncos of the “Oregon” group.
Western Chester Count had a Yellow-headed Blackbird, but the only Baltimore Oriole was at Pittsburgh. Winter finches were a highlight of the CBC period, with every species but Pine Grosbeak being reported. Red Crossbills were found on 16 counts, with a total of 127 birds, the highest since the major irruption of 1997. The cousins, White-winged Crossbills, were even more widespread with 33 counts tallying 751 individuals. Common Redpolls were primarily in the northern part of the state, where 29 counts recorded 1607 birds, making this flight comparable to 2007 and one of the top ten for the species. The Hoary Redpoll in Northern Lycoming County was only the third for a Pennsylvania CBC. Evening Grosbeaks made their strongest showing since 1999, with 164 birds on 10 counts led by 95 at Pleasantville, but these numbers are but a fraction of the totals seen from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, when the peak was 11,271 in 1985. Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.
Find Your Bird-Friendly Plants
Join Audubon's Plants for Birds, supported by AVEDA. With our native plants database, you can easily find the best plants for the birds in your area.
Become an Audubon Member
Membership benefits include one year of Audubon magazine and the latest on birds and their habitats. Your support helps secure a future for birds at risk.
Strengthen the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Millions of birds die unnecessary deaths each year because of deadly hazards such as uncovered oil pits.