The 123rd Christmas Bird Count in South Carolina

This is my first year as regional editor for the state. I am taking over this role from Dennis Forsythe, who has been our state’s regional editor since the 109th Christmas Bird Count in 2009. I would like to acknowledge Dennis’s work and thank him for his years of volunteer service to this important wildlife census.

There are 30 individual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) circles distributed across South Carolina. Of these, 29 were surveyed during the 123rd CBC period, which took place between December 14th, 2022 and January 5th, 2023. These 29 counts consisted of 12 counts along the coast, six in the inner coastal plain, four across the midlands and sandhills, three in the middle piedmont, and four in the upper piedmont and Blue Ridge. Three new counts were added to the CBC this year – Edisto Island, James Island, and Lewis Ocean Bay H.P.–Waccamaw River. The addition of these counts creates nearly a contiguous transect of CBCs along the South Carolina coast. The Lake Wateree CBC was the only count not conducted this year.

Across these 29 counts, there were a total of 1364 participants. Of these, 1131 were field participants and 233 were feeder watchers. The Hilton Head Island CBC led the way with the most participants – an amazing 280 field participants and 99 feeder watchers! This participant total will likely rival the most of any count conducted during the 123rd CBC.

The field participants covered 1098 miles on foot (over 1273 hours) and 3986 miles by car (over 556 hours). The 233 feeder watchers spent 398 hours counting birds at their feeders. Combined with other modes of transportation, the total effort for this year’s count was 5823 miles and 2521 hours.

The weather during the three-week count period was overall very mild; many counts were conducted with high temperatures in the 60s or even low 70s. The exception to this was the extreme cold snap we experienced from December 24-26; the only count conducted during this time period was the Aiken CBC, which experienced a low of 12°F (and wind chill in the single digits). Kudos to the hardy birders that braved those cold conditions (cold for us in South Carolina, at least)!

Among the 29 counts conducted this year, a total of 393,022 individual birds were reported across 224 species. As is usually the case, the coastal counts produced the highest species totals. The McClellanville CBC had the highest total for the state with an impressive 181 species recorded. The next highest counts, Litchfield-Pawleys and Sea Islands, both had 162 species. Moving inland, the Santee N.W.R. CBC had the highest total among inner coastal plain counts with 127 species. In the midlands and sandhills, the Columbia CBC reported 95 species, while the Upper Saluda CBC had 88. The Aiken CBC managed to find 75 species during their cold, windy CBC. The York-Rock Hill CBC led the way in the middle piedmont with 77 species, while the Clemson and Spartanburg CBCs both reported 97 species in the upper piedmont/Blue Ridge.

There were several rare species reported on the 123rd CBC in South Carolina. Below in bold are some of the unusual birds seen this year.

Rare waterfowl included a Brant and Eurasian Wigeon (both on the Winyah Bay CBC), along with two Common Goldeneyes (Litchfield-Pawleys and Lower Saluda CBCs), a Common Eider (McClellanville CBC), and three Long-tailed Ducks (Litchfield-Pawleys CBC and James Island CBC). Noteworthy wading birds included a Least Bittern on the McClellanville count.

Among shorebirds, a Bar-tailed Godwit was found on the Sea Islands CBC again this year, likely the same individual that was reported in October 2021 as a first state record (and subsequently found as a first South Carolina CBC record last January). In addition, a single Long-billed Curlew was found on the new Edisto Island CBC.

A single Parasitic Jaeger and Short-eared Owl were reported on the McClellanville CBC, representing the only individuals of each species in the state during the CBC season.

Hummingbirds continue to be present in high numbers during the winter in South Carolina. A total of 48 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were reported across seven CBCs; both the number of individuals and number of counts reporting are record totals for South Carolina during the CBC period. In addition, a Black-chinned Hummingbird (James Island CBC) and three Rufous Hummingbirds (York-Rock Hill, Lower Saluda, and James Island CBCs) were also documented this year.

The new James Island count recorded the state’s only Western Kingbird, although the Lowcountry CBC did have a count week record for this species. A total of five Common Ravens were recorded this year in three upstate counts (Keowee, North Greenville, Spartanburg). Two Northern Rough-winged Swallows on the Savannah River Site CBC were a nice find.

A number of rare warblers were found during the CBC period, including an Ovenbird (Sea Islands CBC), Northern Waterthrush (James Island CBC), Nashville Warbler (Litchfield-Pawleys CBC), American Redstart (Hilton Head Island CBC), and Wilson’s Warbler (Litchfield-Pawleys CBC).

Perhaps the rarest bird of the count period was found on the North Greenville CBC – a Harris’s Sparrow was photographed visiting a feeder on count day. This is only the third record for this species on a CBC in South Carolina. In addition, other rare sparrows included Grasshopper Sparrow (one on both the James Island and Sea Islands CBCs), Henslow’s Sparrow (Congaree CBC), LeConte’s Sparrow (McClellanville CBC), and Lincoln’s Sparrow (James Island CBC). A total of nine Bachman’s Sparrows were found on five CBCs.

Two rare tanagers were found this year as well – a Summer Tanager on the Hilton Head Island CBC and a Western Tanager on the James Island CBC. A Dickcissel was also seen and photographed on the Litchfield-Pawleys CBC.

Rare blackbirds recorded this year included Brewer’s Blackbirds on three CBCs (Clemson, Santee, and Spartanburg), and a Bullock’s Oriole on the James Island CBC.

Lastly, though it was missed on count day, a Western Grebe was a nice count week find for the York-Rock Hill CBC.

Irruptive species were documented in mixed numbers throughout the CBC season. Purple Finches were reported in decent numbers (138 individuals on 19 counts), while Red-breasted Nuthatches were fewer in number (31 individuals on 8 counts) and Pine Siskins encountered even less than that (11 individuals on 3 counts).

There were also some notable high and low counts during this year’s CBC period. High counts included Wood Stork (585 – the third highest total), Anhinga (691 – the third highest total), and Roseate Spoonbills (192 – this is the highest total for this species, besting the number of spoonbills reported last year by one individual). We had the third highest total for Bald Eagles (434 across 25 counts; this is the highest ever number of counts reporting a Bald Eagle), our fourth highest number of Piping Plovers (65), and our second highest total of Baltimore Orioles (65).

Low counts for the 123rd CBC included some species already known to be in decline. Northern Bobwhites were again seldom encountered during the count (39 on 2 CBCs, 38 of which were on the ACE Basin CBC). This is relatively consistent with what has been reported during the last 10 years, but significantly lower than the number of Northern Bobwhites reported historically (the 10-year average from 1991-2000 was 167 birds found on an average of 10 counts). This year’s CBC also tallied only 164 Field Sparrows in South Carolina, the lowest total since 1948.

Thanks so much to all the participants that gave their time for the 123rd CBC.  I’d especially like to recognize the count compilers, who are essential to ensuring each count runs smoothly and that bird and effort data are reported accurately. We hope to see you all again for the 124th CBC!