The 121st Christmas Bird Count was another one for the record books—not as much for the results, but because it happened at all.
The COVID-19 pandemic consumed the world after the end of 2019. Even as summaries were being written for last year’s 120th CBC, it was clear that the coming 2020 season—the 121st CBC—would be drastically affected by all the shutdowns and governmental regulations at all levels that had been put in place in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. For a period, it appeared that, for the safety of participants, Audubon would need to cancel the 121st CBC—potentially resulting in the first time in 120 years that a Christmas Bird Count was not held. But COVID-safe guidelines were developed and approved—and followed by compilers—and the count went on.
The COVID guidelines affected how, and if, a compiler held their count. Audubon understood that some compilers, especially in areas most affected by the pandemic, would prefer to cancel their counts. For some 250 or so circles, this was the case. For the counts that were conducted masking, social distancing, and individual travel was the rule. And perhaps most important of all, no compilation gatherings could be held. No hosted dinners, no potlucks, none of the in-person camaraderie that we all crave after our count days. Instead, it was primarily solo or “pod” birding, then go home and report sightings by email, eBird, or Zoom.
It's hard to think of positive effects of the COVID pandemic, but one thing it reinforced is how beneficial spending quiet time in nature—and yes, birding—is for the human psyche. Birders went out and explored local patches, usually on foot, day in and day out. We learned how fascinating and wonderful our local avian neighbors are—and how they can lift our spirits in the dead of winter as well as depths of a global pandemic. We also watched as thousands, if not tens of thousands, of friends and neighbors also discovered the soothing magic of the *local* outdoors, and the birds therein. In many cases, non-birding friends and family became birders themselves, captivated by their own backyard birds. And by the time December 14, 2020 arrived, we were primed and ready to head into the field to do our patches of the 121st CBC.
All told, birders covered 2,459 circles during the 121st Christmas Bird Count, with 1,842 counts in the United States, 451 in Canada (including St. Pierre et Miquelon), and 166 throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. While the total number of counts is lower than any season since the 114th CBC, it is still remarkable given the challenges we all faced. And despite the pandemic, a host of new Christmas Bird Counts are included in the 121st results. Table 1 lists the 43 new circles (13 in Canada, 16 in the United States, and 14 in Latin America) included this season. Welcome one and all, and we look forward to many more successful years!
As would be expected given the decrease in number of counts, the overall number of observers—while still extremely impressive—was down significantly with about 10,000 fewer observers than last season’s record high. For the 121st CBC, 72,815 folks tallied birds across the hemisphere and beyond: in the United States, 54,533 folks (45,726 in the field and 8,807 at feeders) contributed; in Canada, 15,327 (10,741 afield and 4,586 at feeders); and 2,955 (2,780 in the field and 175 at feeders) elsewhere. One of the reasons for the decline in observers was interstate travel restrictions. On a personal level, I was only one “observer” this year (normally I am three) because I could not travel to Rhode Island to do two of my three traditional CBCs. And state regulations also varied in terms of how severely they affected the number of counts in each region; California was in especially dire straits with COVID during December 2020, and many of the larger CBCs in that state were cancelled outright. Latin America was also severely affected; the long-standing count with the highest overall species total, Yanayacu, Ecuador, was not submitted this season.
Though numbers of participants were at least slightly reduced in most areas, still a great host of compilers were able to rally their forces and encourage 100 or more folks to attend their counts; Table 2 lists the 76 circles with 100 or more participants in the 121st Christmas Bird Count.
Not surprisingly, with an army of birders out in the field during the 121st CBC season, some amazing finds turned up. All told, there were 664 species tallied in the United States, plus 69 infraspecific forms, 40 exotics, and eight Count Week only species. In Canada, 284 species were found (and eight Count Week only), plus a “yellow-bellied kingbird” that was exceptional no matter which species it was! All counts in all regions tallied 2,355 species and 497 forms, this total of course including the species in the U.S. and Canada. This overall number is down somewhat from the past few seasons, not surprising given that a fair number of CBCs in the far-flung regions of Latin America were not conducted this season due to COVID.
New species to the overall CBC list are always a high-level treat for counters during a given season, and the 121st Christmas Bird Count did not disappoint there either. One new species was added to the cumulative CBC list from Canada—Common Pochard (though frustratingly Count Week only) at Parksville-Qualicum Beach, British Columbia. New species to United States and overall CBC lists included Cuban Pewee and Black-faced Grassquit at Lower Keys – Key Deer N.W.R. in Florida, the Red-legged Thrush at Key West in Florida, and the Siberian Accentor at Homer in Alaska. Very frustrating for CBC observers, the Spotted Rail at Choke Canyon S.P. Texas, a first for not only the Christmas Bird Count but the entire American Birding Association area, was only tallied during Count Week.
Even with the adjustments needed to do a COVID-safe Christmas Bird Count, pretty much across the hemisphere compilers and participants felt that both the numbers of birds tallied and the array of species found were as high as, if not a bit higher than, average. Lots of species were found in just about every region, and a good number of counts, as usual, were blessed with both the observers and habitat variety to tally great numbers of species. Table 3 below contains the list of 78 counts in the US and 47 counts in Latin America that were able to tally 150 species or more in the 121st CBC. In the United States, Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, Texas once again tops the list, this season with 224 hard-won species. In Latin America, for the 121st Count Mindo-Tandayapa, Pichincha, Ecuador is at the top of the list at 374 species, regaining that spot after several years from Yanayacu, Napo, Ecuador. Congratulations to all—and here’s to another great season approaching.
Of course, bird counts in most regions cannot hope to tally 150 species, either by virtue of latitude, restricted habitat diversity, or unique geographic location. But participants on every Christmas Bird Count can hope to turn up the most species in their region! Table 4 includes the list of circles per region that tallied the most species in the 121st CBC season.
As mentioned above, most compilers and regional editors reported that numbers of birds were surprisingly good this season. Interestingly, despite the fact that the 121st CBC had ten percent fewer counts and around 10,000 fewer observers (again roughly 10 percent), the number of birds tallied was higher in the 121st CBC! All told, 121st CBC participants tallied 44,583,127 birds, with 40,680,794 in the United States, 3,504,648 in Canada, and 397,685 in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. That number is around two million birds higher than the 120th CBC, when the total was just over 42 million. How could that be?
First, it seems likely that for most counts conducted in the 121st CBC under COVID-safe guidelines, participants covered each individual circle a bit more thoroughly. Instead of a few larger groups of observers for each count circle, folks were in more and smaller groups, and spent a higher percentage of their time on foot rather than car birding. Second, in general the continental weather during the weekends of the 121st CBC count period was less inclement than during the average season. The upshot? Numerous small groups of birders spending more time on foot, and generally favorable counting conditions, likely resulted in more birds being tallied this season.
Let’s delve into the effort numbers a bit more, comparing the 121st CBC with the previous ten seasons. This past season, the total from all counts included just over 130,000 hours and roughly 539,000 miles by all types of daylight effort. The first of the two tables below shows the total hours and miles of effort on CBCs from the 110th through 121st Counts:
Overall Effort Numbers, 110th – 121st CBC
Year: 110th CBC: 123,603.30 hours; 572,116.00 miles
Year: 111th CBC: 126,202.50 hours; 585,792.50 miles
Year: 112th CBC: 123,238.77 hours; 551,792.15 miles
Year: 113th CBC: 121,521.80 hours; 556,726.28 miles
Year: 114th CBC: 120,802.46 hours; 552,942.45 miles
Year: 115th CBC: 126,518.22 hours; 565,412.21 miles
Year: 116th CBC: 126,505.22 hours; 572,113.93 miles
Year: 117th CBC: 118,153.12 hours; 536,605.47 miles
Year: 118th CBC: 124,729.38 hours; 560,685.80 miles
Year: 119th CBC: 125,298.46 hours; 559,746.41 miles
Year: 120th CBC: 126,990.13 hours; 558,143.32 miles
Year: 121st CBC: 130,059.39 hours; 539,359.53 miles
Above, we can see that despite fewer participants and fewer counts, the actual hours spent on the 121st CBC were *more* than any other season since the 110th Count. However, the combined miles traveled by all daytime effort types was less than for any season except the 117th Count, which was about the same. How can that be? Probably because observers significantly spent more time counting birds on foot, and less time birding from cars, than other seasons.
Now let’s break these numbers down a little farther. The following table shows the total number of counts, field observers, feeder watchers, number of parties, hours at feeders, and nocturnal hours (a.k.a. “owling”) for the same 110th through 121st CBCs:
Specific Types of Effort, 110th – 121st CBC
Year # Circles # Field # Feeder Max Feeder Nocturnal
Parties Hrs Hrs
110 2165 51,544 9297 21,744 20,786.50 4273.00
111 2218 52,882 9775 22,780 20,495.00 4665.50
112 2254 54,415 8969 22,477 18,754.66 5792.22
113 2374 60,537 11,075 24,268 22,868.97 5291.42
114 2411 60,989 10,693 24,470 22,584.60 5026.54
115 2467 62,044 10,358 26,923 21,930.38 5668.60
116 2508 66,099 10,109 27,142 21,679.45 5541.35
117 2538 62,559 10,481 25,896 21,903.03 5136.26
118 2585 66,329 10,549 27,029 21,720.32 4990.13
119 2616 69,034 10,459 28,055 21,069.11 5273.97
120 2647 71,075 10,567 29,421 20,928.81 5059.13
121 2459 59,247 13,568 30,660 28,403.10 7822.34
Here the numbers are even more informative. Despite a relatively low number of counts and observers in the field, in the 121st Christmas Bird Count there were more feeder watchers, more field parties, more hours at feeders, and more nocturnal birding hours than any other season since the 110th Count. This shift in overall effort, combined with often favorable counting conditions, resulted in the relatively high species totals and increased number of birds tallied during the 121st Christmas Bird Count.
The Audubon Science team had wondered how running a COVID-safe 121st CBC would affect the results. Would the data be meaningful? Would this season’s information be comparable to other Christmas Bird Counts? Would we be able to include the 121st CBC in the overall early-winter trend data for bird species across North America? The answer to these questions is a resounding “YES”! This was a grand experiment forced upon all of us by a global pandemic, and we needed to find out if we could run a program like the CBC safely in the face of a disease like COVID-19. Thus far it appears that the variables that needed to be introduced into this season’s data, while somewhat different from any other set, fall within the “normal” amount of year-to-year variability that needs to be accounted for when analyzing a data set like the Christmas Bird Count. The weather in seasons leading up to any given season, the weather (especially on weekends) during a given season, if the holidays fall on the weekends, and just plain how many folks are able to participate each year all introduce year-to-year variability that can be accounted for when we analyze CBC data in decade increments. These are the things that allow Audubon and other researchers to generate the incredibly valuable trend data for birds from the CBC that are so important for bird conservation. We were all part of a grand experiment in the 121st CBC, one that wasn’t planned for, but which was very educational in the final result.
In addition to the great birds and overall numbers mentioned above, there were other avian events of interest documented this past season. While winter raptors were somewhat scarce overall, and though there was not a “superflight” of winter finches as happened a few seasons back, individual species did move in large numbers. There was a huge southward irruption of Purple Finches, especially across eastern North America. This species inundated feeding stations as far south as northern Florida and the Gulf Coast, providing rosy and stripy spice to backyard birding in those regions. And for the first time in many years, a modest southward movement of Evening Grosbeaks occurred. It was not a flight echoing the decades in the early to mid-1900s, but it did give hope for the return of this glorious species at least in modest numbers. The likely cause of this uptick in Evening Grosbeaks is the continuing spruce budworm outbreak in the northeastern coniferous forests, and it will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the next few years.
Other species of note; Pileated Woodpecker numbers were up across much of the continent. This spectacular woodpecker, our largest remaining in North America, in recent decades has slowly switched from being a sought after but seldom seen phantom of deep forests to a backyard suburban denizen. Pileateds are welcome and surprising visitors to backyards in many regions, even coming to some bird feeders like giant Downy Woodpeckers. It’s a great success story for this species, mostly due to its willingness to adapt to human-altered environments.
On the other side of the trend coin, Ruffed Grouse numbers continue to decline just about everywhere the species is found. Given that in some regions wildlife agencies manage habitat to benefit Ruffed Grouse it is something of a mystery why the decline continues, but this species is naturally cyclical in its populations so hopefully we are at the bottom of the ebb these seasons. Christmas Bird Count results over the next few years will hopefully help track the resurgence of Ruffed Grouse numbers.
Two other trends seen on Christmas Bird Counts, and especially notable in the 121st Count, are the increasing number of hummingbirds wintering farther and farther northward, and the ever-growing variety of normally Neotropical migrant warblers that are lingering in North America during the CBC period.
While the Gulf Coast has been a hotspot for both number and variety of species of hummingbirds in recent decades, formerly Ruby-throated Hummingbirds mostly vacated the continent apart from the Gulf Coast and southernmost Florida. This species is becoming regular on CBCs up the Atlantic Coast as far as the Outer Banks, and this past season was seen on several counts as far north as Virginia and Maryland. It used to be said that if a hummingbird showed up in northeastern North America in fall/winter it was going to be a western vagrant; while that is also happening with considerable frequency, more and more Ruby-throats are lingering well northward as well. This is all probably the result of a combination of moderating fall and early-winter temperatures, as well as the increase in number of late-blooming flowers and human-supplied hummingbird feeding stations across the region.
While there is a good number of species of warblers that winter regularly in the United States, especially on the west coast and in the southeast, many are long-distance migrants that are “supposed” to have vacated the mainland of North America by the time the Christmas Bird Count season rolls around. This season’s results included quite an array of wood-warblers that are not normally expected in the United States or Canada, including American Redstart, Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided, Grace’s, Lucy’s, MacGillivray’s, Prothonotary, Tennessee, Worm-eating, and Yellow warblers. Some of the more regular birds also appeared in above-average numbers and locations, including Blackpoll and Cape May warblers. The number of Tennessee and Yellow warbler reports are especially noteworthy. What can be going on here?
Again, as fall and early winter conditions moderate, and as less and less geography around the continent is frozen or snow-covered by December 14th, late migrant birds, even insectivores like most warblers, are more likely to be able to survive later in the year. Additionally, birders are becoming better and better at both noticing and identifying “mystery” birds that appear in fall and early winter mixed foraging flocks of chickadees, kinglets, and “expected” warbler species. But for a few of these species, another factor is likely coming into play—as was already mentioned for the Evening Grosbeak—the spruce budworm infestation in the eastern boreal forest. Tennessee and Cape May warblers (among others) are also “spruce budworm” birds, following the budworm infestations in the breeding season across the forests and producing a bumper crop of young warblers that can gorge on the abundant insect crop. So, in recent years there have been lots more young warblers around in Fall migration, some of which haven’t yet made the move southward.
There are a few programmatic updates to pass along as we look forward to the 122nd Christmas Bird Count this coming season. First, in the 120th season’s summary it was mentioned that a name change for the Christmas Bird Count is under discussion. As many of you know from the emails, webinars, and questionnaires that have been sent out this past year we are seeking input from a wide variety of people invested in and involved with the CBC regarding the idea of a name change, among other things. Audubon is still in the information gathering stage, and no decisions have been made at this time regarding the name of the CBC program.
The Audubon Science team, Birds Canada, and eBird have been working together to make it easier for CBC compilers and participants to share their CBC data during and after the appointed count days. We’re excited to announce the development of a new tool in eBird that will help with this task, the new trip report feature that will be live in time for the 122nd CBC this coming December. If you’re an eBirder try it out this season and let us know what you think!
One of the themes present in the responses to the online polls and webinars that we’ve conducted in 2021 is that some potential new counters have had difficulties getting connected with a Christmas Bird Count where they can participate. Christmas Bird Counts should be welcoming and open to newcomers of all abilities and experience! Inexperienced birders can easily be partnered with CBC old sages, and this provides a wonderful opportunity for mentoring of new birders of any age or ability. Don’t forget that it can be the newbie that finds the most amazing bird of the count…you don’t have to know what something is to be the first one to notice it. This is especially as we “experienced birders” think we “know” where the next great birding spot is going to be…and we focus on getting there, rather than birding the way there. A new participant can be like a sponge…absorbing everything the day has to offer…including looking for birds between stops. They could easily be the one to notice the best bird of the day…even if they don’t recognize what it is!
Along this line, we have partnered with Birdability, an organization dedicated to making birding accessible to everyone, to help make portions of existing Christmas Bird Count circles accessible. This isn’t a complete re-structuring of any CBC, rather recognizing where folks who have mobility challenges can get out and contribute to the count. It’s an empowering exercise…think about this on your next CBC!
This past 121st CBC season, with COVID travel restrictions in place I was unable to do my two traditional Christmas Bird Counts in Rhode Island that I have been part of for over 40 years. Were there COVID police in place at the state lines, restricting access? No, of course not. But as the person in charge of the entire CBC program internationally, it didn’t seem right to bend the rules, risk potential infection, and do my usual counts. So, I stayed home and was only one “observer” on my local Northampton CBC, rather than three both here and in Rhode Island. My old friend the Lesser Black-backed Gull was present on the CBC at Ninigret N.W.R., but I didn’t get to see it…for the second year in a row.
This is the 34th Audubon Christmas Bird Count summary I have written. Susan Roney Drennan, my amazing mentor and boss for many years at Audubon, after an interview hired me on the spot…much to my surprise…and I started working for the National Audubon Society on December 7, 1987. At that time, during the transition from the 87th to the 88th CBCs, the entire program was paper based. There was no database…no online data entry system…no industry of use of Christmas Bird Count data for bird conservation…just 16-page pamphlets mailed to all compilers everywhere, all hand-edited by me, sent for typesetting, proofed, and resulting in the published “telephone book issue” of 700 pages or so of CBC results in print.
Today it’s a very different world. The Christmas Bird Count is entirely online—all 120+ years of results available to the public—populated via online data entry system. Conservation researchers world-wide use the CBC database for a myriad of reasons, not just in the Americas but around the world, as it is the prime example of how a community science database can help us learn about the species we’re interested in locally.
I hope to get back to Rhode Island for the 122nd Christmas Bird Count season. I know my old friend the Lesser Black-backed Gull is back at Grassy Point, Ninigret N.W.R., Rhode Island, for its who-knows-what’s next winter. I’ve tallied that one amazing bird (among many other highlights) on that CBC for nearly 20 years now, over half my tenure as CBC Director for Audubon. I can’t predict what the future will bring for either of us—but I’ll keep looking.