The 123rd Christmas Bird Count in Atlantic Canada

The 123rd Christmas Bird Count season was an excellent one in Atlantic Canada – a great combination of fun birding, wintry weather and celebrating our communities. A typical fall with plenty of winds from the south and west led to an array of vagrants and displaced migrants hanging on into winter, while a cold snap in December signaled an early start to winter. The weather fluctuated across the region and throughout the season, with some circles reporting colder than average temperatures and others slightly milder.  All in all, it was an interesting time!

A total of 92 counts were completed in the Atlantic region this season: with 48 in New Brunswick, 31 in Nova Scotia, 10 in Newfoundland & Labrador and three in Prince Edward Island. Participation was excellent as always with ~2105 total participants, 1390 of which put in nearly 3500 hours in the field. The bird tally was down slightly from last season with 184 species recorded throughout the region (including a few count week observations) – but there were still many highlights, including a number of rare and lingering species.

A long-staying Pink-footed Goose was once again recorded in St. John’s (NL), placing this rare species on the list for the sixth season in a row. A notable 14 Snow Geese were spotted in NS – the only other species of goose in the region besides the widespread Canada Goose. Tufted Duck numbers were up modestly over last year, with 64 in St. John’s (NL) and individuals in both Chezzetcook and Halifax-Dartmouth (NS). A total of four locally rare Ruddy Ducks were spotted in NB and NS.

Shorebird diversity was up significantly compared to the last two seasons with a total of 14 species recorded, mostly in NS.  The most exciting report was Nova Scotia’s third ever Black-tailed Godwit in Halifax-Dartmouth – a huge surprise, especially at this time of year, when it was discovered the day before the count. Other notable records included four Long-billed Dowitchers and three lingering Lesser Yellowlegs in NS. Tallies of 361 Sanderling, 144 Dunlin and 14 Red Knots are also high for the region. Only three Wilson’s Snipe were reported in the region, although a count week American Woodcock in NS was a little surprising. Purple Sandpipers were somewhat below average with a total of 308 (221 of which were recorded in NL).

Willow Ptarmigan were recorded in three different circles in NL, including six at Cape Race. A total of three Rock Ptarmigan were spotted during the Bonne Bay (NL) count, no doubt atop the Long Range Mountains which are not accessible some years. A record 313 Wild Turkeys were recorded on 13 counts in NB - the bulk from Woodstock (90), Hartland (53), Perth-Andover (47), and Mactaquac (43) which are all near the border with Maine. These birds represent the only established population in the region but do appear to be spreading. Unfortunately, the often-elusive Gray Partridge on PEI did not make an appearance during counts this season.

Diurnal raptors are always a highlight during the season, and there were plenty of notable reports this year. Turkey Vultures continue to establish in the Maritimes, with an excellent 137 recorded across NS and 87 in neighbouring NB. Much rarer, but showing up more regularly in Atlantic Canada, was the Black Vulture spotted at Pictou Harbour (NS). Bald Eagles are also doing well, although totals were down slightly from last year with 1603 individuals reported across all four provinces. Single Broad-winged Hawks were reported in both NB and NS – down slightly from recent years, but still notable at this time of year. A Gyrfalcon at Restigouche (NB) is always exciting, and the only one reported this season. A grand total of 21 Peregrine Falcons, 36 Merlin and ten American Kestrels was also a good showing for the region.

It was another slow season for Snowy Owls, with just single individuals reported from NB and NS. Barred Owls put in a good showing with an impressive 41 reports from NB (6) and NS (35), reflecting their steady increase in the Maritimes. Northern Saw-whet Owls were pretty much on par with 18 individuals, while the number of Great Horned (14) and Short-eared owls (3) were both slightly below average. Four Long-eared Owls in NS round out the list of six species found this season.

Woodpeckers were on great display this year including a record 75 Red-bellied Woodpeckers in NS & NB, as well as one each in NL and PEI where they are locally rare. Six Black-backed and a lone American Three-toed Woodpecker which often goes undetected during the count period were tallied in NB and NS. Four Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were notable for the time of year. Carolina Wrens, which have been increasing in the Maritimes in recent years, were detected in only NB (10) this season. A total of ten Winter Wrens, four Marsh Wrens, and one House Wren were also reported in the region. Tufted Titmouse was reported in four different count circles in NB – a small but notable increase for this species that just barely makes it into Canada.

Rare and lingering warblers are often a “prize” of the season in Atlantic Canada. A total of eight species were recorded this year, down slightly from the boon of recent years. Yellow-rumped Warblers were once again abundant in NS with a total of 172 reported, including a remarkable 78 at Yarmouth, 24 at White Point, and 21 at Lunenburg. Other more-or-less expected species included Pine Warbler (26), Orange-crowned Warbler (22), Yellow-breasted Chat (18), Common Yellowthroat (4), and Palm Warbler (2). The hands-down rarest warbler of the season was a Hermit Warbler discovered in St. John’s (NL) – a surprising 5th record for the province! Yellow-throated Warblers were recorded in Mactaquac (NB), Truro (NS) and St. John’s (NL).

Other lingering birds of note in the region included 14 Great Blue Herons (NB, NS & PEI), one Great Egret (NB), 11 American Coots (NB,NS & NL), four Eastern Phoebe (NS), nine Gray Catbirds (NS), 22 Northern Mockingbirds (NB & NS), two Eastern Bluebirds (NS), six Hermit Thrush (NB & NS), 21 Brown-headed Cowbirds (NB, NS & PEI), 12 Baltimore Orioles (NB, NS & NL) and four Rusty Blackbirds (NB). A total of 1327 Northern Cardinals were recorded across the region.

One of the most exceptional records for Atlantic Canada was a Green-tailed Towhee, which lingered for four weeks this winter at Sackville (NB). Also remarkable in the region at any time of year were a Little Gull at Pictou Harbour (NS), a Common Gull at Springville (NS) and a Snowy Egret at Cape Sable Island (NS). Vagrants from western Canada also put in a showing including a Mountain Bluebird at Cape Tormentine (NB) and Western Tanager at Antigonish (NS). Other notables for the area included a Brown Thrasher (NB), two Eastern Towhees (NB & NS), three Dickcissels (NS & NL), and an Orchard Oriole (NS). Locally uncommon sparrows were a Field Sparrow (NB) and two Clay-coloured Sparrows (NS).

Overall, finch numbers continued to decrease for the second season in a row after a large irruption two winters ago.  Only Pine Grosbeak (846) and Evening Grosbeak (6658) showed slight increases overs last season. White-winged Crossbill (81) was down significantly after a banner winter last year, with Red Crossbill (85) also showing a drop in numbers. Purple Finch (291), House Finch (58), Common Redpoll (674), Pine Siskin (343) reports were well down from recent years, while American Goldfinch (11,544) returned to near-average levels. Interestingly, House Sparrows (1043) reports were down ~40% across the region compared to recent years.