When Frank Chapman published the results from the humble beginnings on December 25, 1900—27 people tallied birds and their combined effort in 25 locations across the continent—it was probably unfathomable to him that the brand new “Christmas Bird Census” would last well over a century, and grow to cover the entire Western Hemisphere and beyond. And as we completed the 12th decade of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count during last season’s 120th CBC, we did so in fine style with another record-breaking season!

So, what was the 120th CBC like? As expected, the weather and environmental conditions in the months leading up to the 120th CBC period played a major role determining what birds were around, in which regions, and in how great numbers during the count. Wild food and seed crop production in the boreal forests was excellent in the summer of 2019, which led to a good crop of small mammals. The significant availability of food resources to birds held many irruptive species northward—and typically north of most CBC count circles—leading to an ebb of winter finches and boreal raptors and owls during the 120th season and in our data. Additionally, a major Arctic air mass moved southward during the latter half of November, leading to record cold temperatures and a major freeze-up of water bodies two to three weeks before the beginning of the CBC period. This weather event clearly hastened any lingering southbound migrants along their way in many regions.

But there are always great birds to find and old friends to see on CBCs, and when we headed to the field starting on December 14th, we did so in record numbers. The 120th CBC had a remarkable total of 2,646 counts included in the 120th CBC database (up from the 119th Count then-record 2,616). These counts had 81,601 total observers (71,040 in the field plus 10,561 feeder watchers), also up over the 119th Count’s 79,000+ counters. Of the 2,646 counts, 469 are included from Canada, 1,992 from the United States, and 185 from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.

A good representation of new circles is included in those numbers. Table 1 presents the list of 40 new CBCs included in the 120th Count: seven counts in Canada, 23 from the United States, and ten from Latin America. Of particular note in the new counts from Ecuador is the Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos circle—the first ever from the marvelous natural history classroom of Las Islas Encantadas where Charles Darwin first hatched his ideas about speciation and evolution. Given the tremendous number of endemic species found on the islands, it is no surprise this new count has added a considerable number of new species to the cumulative CBC database. We heartily welcome the inclusion of a count in the Galápagos Islands, and all of the new CBCs this season.

More than 81,000 observers divided among 2,646 counts presents the opportunity for plenty of attendance on many CBCs, and the list of counts where compilers marshalled 100 or more participants in the 120th CBC is presented in Table 2. This season we reached an interesting milestone—there are 100 counts in Table 2, each with 100 or more observers! The specific breakdown of the 81,601 observers is as follows: 14,817 total observers in Canada (11,170 afield plus 3,647 at feeders); 62,421 in the United States (55,630 in the field and 6,791 at feeders); and 4,363 observers in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Pacific Islands (4,240 afield and 123 at feeders).

Of course as we head out each season one question in our minds is something like “… what birds will we find, and will any be new species to the count?” And given the geographic scope of the Christmas Bird Count there is always a tremendous cumulative list tallied on all counts. This season we tallied 2,566 total species (and 484 forms), very slightly down from the 119th CBC’s total of 2,638. In Canada, the 120th CBC list includes 296 species (none new to the national Canadian CBC list), while in the United States the cumulative total of species was 672 species (plus 58 forms and 44 non-established exotics). Included in the United States are two species new to the all-time CBC list; Far Eastern Curlew at Midway Atoll, Hawaii, and Scaly-naped Pigeon at Sanibel-Captiva, Florida.

In terms of individual CBC tallies, one benchmark by which participants (at least those in areas blessed with the overall diversity of species and habitats where it is possible) measure the success of the day by is making the annual table of 150 or more species. Table 3 lists the 81 counts during the 120th CBC in the United States and 47 counts in Latin America that were able to tally that lofty total. Perennial chart toppers Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, Texas and Yanayacu, Napo, Ecuador retained their titles at the top of each section of the list this season, TXMM with 229 species and ECYY with 453.

Given that most of us do not attend counts that have any possibility of finding 150 species, we can set our sights on topping our own count’s cumulative record, or perhaps tallying the most species in our respective region. Table 4 lists the Regional High Counts in the 120th Christmas Bird Count.

Given all the effort, coverage, and species included in the 120th Count, it seems both surprising and worrisome that the total number of birds tallied this season dropped to 42,704,077 birds (39,062,097 in the United States, 3,017,077 in Canada, and 624,903 elsewhere). That total is around six million birds lower than last season’s also very low cumulative number, particularly given the greater number of counts and participants in the 120th season. One cannot help but wonder what’s going on and what may be causing it. We plan to do a future analysis of long-term CBC results, looking at species groups, numbers of birds, and the total effort each season, to look into where the largest declines seem to be happening.

Here are a few other highlights to point out, and trends to note, from the 120th Christmas Bird Count. These are among the many you’ll find in the regional summaries, listed here. A Common Ringed Plover was tallied on the Shemya Island count, far out in the Aleutian Chain of Alaska. The Eurasian counterpart of our widespread Semipalmated Plover here in North America, this species has only included on a count in the US or Canada once before—at Midway Island in the 100th CBC. This species is included on CBCs occasionally in the Pacific Islands, but it was definitely a great find this season on Shemya.

An *almost* 120th CBC record (only because it didn’t show up on count day) was a Rustic Bunting that had been present on the Washington side of the Columbia Estuary, Oregon CBC. I’m sure the participants there can empathize with the folks at Anchorage, Alaska that had a Dusky Thrush for *three winters* in their count circle but never found it on count day!

Anna’s Hummingbirds are doing exceptionally well these days. This species’ numbers are increasing on counts in the Pacific Northwest. It is also being tallied in increasing numbers on counts in Southeast Alaska. This year Anna’s Hummingbird was also found in far-flung CBC locations including Columbia, Missouri, Northern Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, and for count week in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Barred Owls are strengthening their presence in the Pacific Northwest, which is not necessarily good news for their beleaguered close cousins, Spotted Owls. Barred Owls have the tendency to out-compete Spotted Owls when both are present in a given territory.

Sandhill Cranes are taking advantage of milder winters and less snow and ice cover, and are lingering into the CBC period far north of their “usual” southwestern and south coastal wintering grounds. Counts across the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeastern states are tallying good numbers of Sandhills with increasing frequency, and other Sandhills linger even farther northward on occasion. It is an interesting situation with this species, where the breeding range is extending southeastward from east-central Canada, while the wintering range is extending northward, at least in the eastern two-thirds of North America.

Another species that seems to be “short-stopping” with increasing frequency, and in increasing numbers, on Christmas Bird Counts is Northern Rough-winged Swallow. The long-standing wintering flock at Pennypack Valley, Pennsylvania numbered 80 this past season, and it was tallied in record numbers at Moorestown, New Jersey, and Henderson, Nevada.

With the great increase in breeding populations of Arctic-nesting geese, formerly top notch rarities are becoming somewhat “expected” annually with the wintering flocks of Canada, Cackling, Greater White-fronted, Snow, and Ross’s geese. Barnacle and Pink-footed geese are tallied annually in several varying locations in recent seasons, adding spice to any wild goose chase. What is also being found with increasing frequency are hybrid geese; one in particular to note is Barnacle x Cackling Goose. Sometimes family groups are found, with one parent of each species and an attendant small group of hybrid young. Such sightings always keep us on our toes with waterfowl identification!

On a neutral note, Eurasian Collared-Doves present an interesting picture. The numbers of this relatively recent colonizer are either stable or declining in some areas where they first became established in the Southeast, especially in Florida. Having taken over much of the continent other than the Northeast, this species numbers have somewhat stabilized in many regions, even while they are increasing and expanding their presence along the northwestward vector that seems to be this species’ pattern. This season Eurasian Collared-Dove was tallied on eight CBCs in Southeast Alaska, throughout British Columbia, and even on two counts in the Yukon Territory. In summer they’ve been found as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska, and who knows how far they will move.

On the other side of the coin, Northern Bobwhite, if mentioned in regional summaries, was noted by its absence or in very low numbers, even in areas that should be strongholds in the Southeastern states. This species seems to be hanging on in Texas and some other south-central regions, but some of those numbers may be inflated by released domestic stock for hunting purposes. The only native quail east of the Mississippi River does not seem to be doing well, and has been declining for quite some time.

Also declining dramatically is Great Cormorant. Formerly tallied in large numbers on coastal counts in the Northeast and Atlantic Canada, this species’ numbers have plummeted in recent years. As a specific example, the Newport-Westport, Rhode Island-Massachusetts CBC tallied the all-time high for this species in the 85th CBC, at 3,482—I remember trying to count them all! This past season the same count had the 120th high count; 98. It is unclear what is happening with this coastally-restricted seabird, but something is definitely going on.

In addition to all the usual features included in the 120th CBC’s summary of results, this year we are pleased to also present two features only compiled every ten seasons. In addition to the United States and Canada 120th CBC seasonal high-count features, now we also have the All-time Highest Counts of Individual Species on United States CBCs 1-120 by Brent Ortego and the All-time Highest Counts of Individual Species on Canadian CBCs 1-120 by Yousif Attia at Birds Canada. Traditionally these summaries are compiled at the end of each decade; who knows what we will find by the final high-count tallies in the 130th CBC ten years from now!

The Lesser Black-backed Gull mentioned regularly in these summaries at the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island was back last season, spending its 18th winter around the unique, fascinating, and wildlife-diverse salt pond there. Some Rhode Island birders have named the bird “Lester,” and it has become somewhat of a local celebrity. Unfortunately on the day of the South Kingstown CBC last season the refuge was closed for a deer hunt, and entry by the public (yes, even CBC birder participants) was strictly prohibited. In other seasons when the hunt has been going on we have managed to find the bird flying over neighboring properties, but not during the 120th Count. We entirely missed seeing my ageing friend on the CBC.

(As an aside, I did start this year by birding in Rhode Island on January 1st, and there was my old friend, on its rock, in its cove.)

With the COVID-19 pandemic that has become all-consuming since March of 2020, it will be an “interesting” Christmas Bird Count season for the 121st Count, one like none other in history. We hope to be able to do some counts under strict COVID-safe guidelines, but many will likely be cancelled. With state and local curfews and travel restrictions in place I doubt I will be able to visit my friend the Lesser Black-back this season. But I hear from friends that the bird is back for it’s 19th winter at Ninigret.

As the Christmas Bird Count as grown over time and geographic scope, so has the diversity of the participants involved. But there is still a long way to go. The majority of CBCs are conducted in the United States and Canada, and the groups tend toward homogeneity. We often stick with our “known quantity and quality” participants—the ones who participate almost every season and so know their areas and birds pretty well. But for continued success, the CBC needs to be a welcoming activity to new birders and participants. Established participants must encourage those people who may never have had a chance to see their “spark bird” so that they may develop the love of and caring attitude toward nature and the environment that often follows. 

Those of us who have done CBCs for decades have a wonderful opportunity to become mentors to a new and more diverse audience of birders, and the CBC can be a perfect introduction to new, inexperienced, but highly motivated future “nature nerds.” I personally love taking new birders of any age or ilk out; as “old hands” we know where we’ve always gone to find lots of great birds, and we tend to move quickly from place to place without necessarily looking at the birds in between. New birders frequently absorb—and see—everything, especially during their early outings. A person doesn’t need to know what something is to be the first one to find it, especially if it’s between our usual birding spots, or buried in with a flock of regular species. Many times, when on a birding outing with new folks, the best bird of the day was found by enthusiastic new eyes—the first one to see it and ask what it was, a species that perhaps would have been missed as we bird our usual locations!

Diversity, equity, and inclusion needs to be a focus of the CBC and all community science programs as Audubon and other organizations move forward. Recently, Audubon has shifted from the term “citizen science” to a more inclusive “community science,” in response to a groundswell of concern in areas where “citizenship” is synonymous with “citizen” and the term was a barrier for involving new, local participants. In the spirit of that shift, we are now aware that there is a movement away from the name “Christmas” in the official CBC name. A discussion is beginning internally within Audubon regarding a potential name change of the program, and soon we will be engaging the CBC audience of compilers and participants to hear your thoughts on the idea.

As the long-time Editor-in-Chief of American Birds Susan Roney Drennan always used to say, “Stay Tuned!”

Table 1.  New counts in the 120th (2019-2020) Christmas Bird Count​

Count Code Count Name
ABVI Viking, Alberta
BCDE Denny Island-Bella Bella, British Columbia
BCKU Kuskanook, British Columbia
NLGW Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland
NSSI Sable Island, Nova Scotia
ONHO Hornepayne, Ontario
SKBP Buffalo Pound P.P., Saskatchewan
ALWD Wheeler Dam, Alabama
CONJ North Jeffco, Colorado
COPN Pawnee National Grassland-East, Colorado
CTNO Norwich, Connecticut
FLCC Clay County East, Florida
ILAL Allerton Park, Illinois
ILSL SangChris Lake, Christian County, Illinois
KSHO Holton, Kansas
MNMS Mille Lacs Lake South, Minnesota
MNNF Newfolden. Minnesota
MOJS Johnson’s Shut-ins S.P., Missouri
NMHI Hillsboro, New Mexico
NYSC Southern Columbia County, New York
NYWR Wallkill River, New York
ORGR Gresham, Oregon
SDHC Harding County, South Dakota
TXRR Round Rock, Texas
TXWG West End Galveston Island, Texas
VACJ Cedars Preserve-Jonesville, Virginia
VAHC Highland County, Virginia
VAMP Middle Peninsula, Virginia
WICB Cobb, Wisconsin
WIRS Rome-Sand Valley, Wisconsin
CLSR Santa Rosa, Cauca, Colombia
ECCC Cumandá, Chimborazo, Ecuador
ECRG Runahurco-Gualaquiza, Morona Santiago, Ecuador
ECSA Samikim, Morona-Santiago, Ecuador
ECSC Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos, Ecuador
ECTI Tiwintza, Morona-Santiago, Ecuador
MXBM Reserva Ecologica Bahia Santa Maria, Sinaloa, Mexico
MXPF Puerto del Fresno, Minatitlan, Colima, Mexico
MXSH San Martín de Hidalgo-Región Valles, Jalisco, Mexico
MXSP San Pancho-La Cruz-Punta de Mita, Nayarit, Mexico

Table 2.  Counts with 100 or more participants in the 120th (2019-2020) CBC

ABED Edmonton, AB 431 (169 + 262)
ORPD Portland, OR 381 (269 + 112)
MANO Northampton, MA 357 (271 + 86)
SCHH Hilton Head Island, SC 346 (266 + 80)
WASE Seattle, WA 324 (220 + 104)
BCVI Victoria, BC 316 (286 + 30)
CAOA Oakland, CA 288 (254 + 34)
MACO Concord, MA 264 (173 + 91)
OREU Eugene, OR 242 (161 + 81)
BCVA Vancouver, BC 232 (207 + 25)
PAPI Pittsburgh, PA 228 (207 + 25)
CASB Santa Barbara, CA 218 (214 + 4)
DCDC Washington, DC 213 (209 + 4)
ABCA Calgary, AB 206 (119 + 87)
WAED Edmonds, WA 201 (94 + 107)
SCSC Sun City-Okatie, SC 198 (197 + 1)
NJLH Lower Hudson, NJ-NY 193 (193 + 0)
COCS Colorado Springs, CO 187 (169 + 18)
ECCH Chiles-Chical, Carchi, Ecuador 187 (187 + 0)
CAPR Point Reyes, CA 186 (185 + 1)
CODV Denver (urban) 185 (167 + 18)
VAFB Fort Belvoir, VA 184 (174 + 10)
AKAN Anchorage, AK 177 (119 + 58)
MDSE Seneca, MD 176 (157 + 19)
CODE Denver, CO 175 (163 + 12)
NYIT Ithaca, NY 165 (154 + 11)
ONOH Ottawa-Gatineau, ON 162 (137 + 25)
CAOC Orange County (coastal), CA 161 (161 + 0)
BCPM Pitt Meadows, BC 158 (144 + 14)
CASD San Diego, CA 158 (158 + 0)
ECNM Mindo-Tandayapa, Ecuador 153 (123 + 30)
WAEV Everett-Marysville, WA 152 (77 + 75)
WIMA Madison, WI 152 (137 + 15)
BCPI Pender Islands, BC 151 (127 + 24)
VAWI Williamsburg, VA 151 (73 + 78)
AKHE Healy, AK 150 (138 + 12)
RIBI Block Island, RI 148 (14 + 134)
OHCF Cuyahoga Falls, OH 147 (120 + 27)
CRLS La Selva, Lower Braulio Carillo N.P., Costa Rica   146   (146 + 0)
NYBW Bronx-Westchester Region, NY 145 (134 + 11)
COBO Boulder, CO 144 (139 + 5)
CAMC Marin County (southern), CA 142 (137 + 5)
AZTV Tucson Valley, AZ 140 (131 + 9)
CASF San Francisco, CA 140 (138 + 2)
AKFA Fairbanks, AK 139 (109 + 30)
ONTO Toronto, ON 138 (138 + 8)
VAMB Manassas-Bull Run, VA 137 (137 + 0)
CARS Rancho Santa Fe, CA 136 (131 + 5)
FLSR Sarasota, FL 136 (134 + 2)
ONLO London, ON 136 (107 + 29)
FLGA Gainesville, FL 133 (121 + 12)
WASD Sequim-Dungeness, WA 131 (110 + 21)
ONKI Kingston, ON 130 (60 + 70)
CAON Orange County (northeastern), CA 129 (129 + 0)
NSHD Halifax-Dartmouth, NS 129 (99 + 30)
NYBR L.I.: Brooklyn, NY 128 (128 + 0)
ONHA Hamilton, ON 128 (109 + 19)
QCQU Quebec, QC 125 (112 + 13)
VACL Central Loudon, VA 124 (124 + 0)