The 123rd Christmas Bird Count in Georgia

With 27 of the 30 state counts held for the 123rd CBC season, most were finally able to be run more or less “normally” (i.e. pre-Covid). The three counts not held for various reasons were Bainbridge (GABL), Cumberland Island (GACI), and Okefenokee NWR (GAOK). All three of those counts have suffered from declining participation in recent years, but hopefully they can all be reinvigorated soon. A newly registered circle is the Thomaston count (GATH), which will help survey the under-reported SW corner of the state. Once again, this CBC summary will not rely on trend data as much as previous summaries due to missing counts over the last few seasons.

The state total of 216 species was about average. Birders logged 5723 miles by all modes of transportation. This is still lower than the last ten-year historical average due to counts that weren’t conducted. The weather was good for most, with no counts reporting heavy rain in the morning and only three reporting heavy rain in the afternoon (Blue Ridge - GABR, Chattahoochee National Forest Songbird M.A. - GACH, and Glynn County – GAGC).

Again, I will not be making my usual references to recent year averages for most species, except in a few relevant cases. These are where the state had high totals, even with fewer counts.  For context or trend information this will be using mostly the last 15-year rolling average (15RA). This will allow readers some perspective with which to judge new high or low totals since much older results are based on fewer counts in the state. I will still list high and low counts for the year but looking at longer-term averages often gives a more accurate perspective. In comparing counts, please note that this year’s count was the 123rd CBC season, run from December 14th, 2022, to January 5th, 2023. Comparing numbers to older counts will refer to the count number, which coincidentally and luckily for us is the same as the year the count period ends. The first time a count is referenced I will spell it out, all subsequent uses will be just the two-letter code. For example, Albany is GAAB, or just AB.

As is becoming the norm, the fall weather averaged warmer than historical fall and winter temperatures. This resulted in the same two effects we have seen the last couple of years: semi-hardy species that can withstand slightly cool temperatures will winter farther north than they normally would; and hardier more northerly species (like some gulls and some waterfowl) will not get pushed this far south at all and will simply winter farther north. These “abnormally” warm falls are becoming more normal as the temperatures slowly but consistently climb from year to year. Therefore, we are seeing more and more species lingering later and in larger numbers.

The 123rd CBC season in Georgia was again pretty dismal for puddle ducks, with the following species posting totals well below their 15-year rolling average (average in parentheses): Gadwall 537 (15RA 1166) is the lowest total in 18 years; American Wigeon 63 (203); Mallard 698 (1250); Blue-winged Teal 196 (596), the lowest total in 23 years; Northern Shoveler 1249 (2054); and Green-winged Teal 635 (2212). Diving ducks didn’t fare much better but were at least closer to recent average numbers. A couple of divers with very low counts were Ring-necked Duck 2376 (15RA 6662) and Lesser Scaup with 322 (1509). The only duck in Georgia that topped its 15-year average was Ruddy Duck with 1560 reported, just besting the average of 1520.

On a positive note, the total of 120 Northern Bobwhite was the highest in 19 years (15RA 46). Although AB had a whopping 85, they were only found on three counts. Wild Turkey numbers were down, with a total of 105 (15RA 328). That’s the lowest in 20 years. After four abysmal years, the count of 46 Red-throated Loons was close to the historical norm. This is one of the cyclic coastal species and is highly variable from year to year. The St. Catherines Island count (GASC) reported most of these, 45 out of the 46. Of the other five coastal counts that were run, Sapelo Island (GASI) had a single bird. Only 23 Glossy Ibis were found (15RA 76) and most were at Savannah (SV) with 16. Continuing a strong upward trend, the Bald Eagle total of 207 set a new high-count record. The 15RA is 149 and even the 5RA is only 176. The numbers of this species on the coast are vexing for compilers (and editors) due to the challenge of sorting out actual numbers versus repeat flyovers. The total of 207 is a conservative count. The Red-shouldered Hawk total of 483 was also a new high total (482 for the 117th season). The totals for this species have been creeping up as GA has added new count circles.

The first CBC Black-necked Stilt in seven years was observed at SV. The 132 American Oystercatchers (15RA 228) is the lowest total in 12 years. The 134 Wilson’s Plovers is a new high-count, with SC leading the way with 93. The old record was 103 on the 119th count season and the 15RA is 45. As warmer winters increase, so too will the CBC numbers of this plover. The 83 Piping Plovers reported is also a new record, again topping the 119th season’s total of 82. Little St. Simons Island (LS) had 41, SC had 36, and the 15RA is 50. While a rebound from last year’s dismal 33, the 91 Lesser Yellowlegs is still far below the 15RA of 220. The total of 85 Red Knots is lowest tally in five years, and well below the 5-year and 15-year RAs of 311 and 385. This species’ winter numbers are dependent on its preferred prey of small clams, which are also variable in number. The total number of Western Sandpipers was 1340, less than half of the 15RA of 2729. Short-billed Dowitcher numbers were much higher than usual; the total of 2455 is the largest number in 15 years and well above the 15RA of 1686. Their numbers were closely distributed among most of the coastal counts: GC 213, LS 250, Harris Neck (GAHN) 260, and SV 290. Only SI (3) and SC (1439) escaped the mid-200s. For once, SV did not have every Long-billed Dowitcher; it had 400 and GC reported the remaining 43.

A count-week Parasitic Jaeger at SC was the only jaeger found in the state. Last year’s 10,333 Laughing Gulls established a new state CBC record, only to be completely overshadowed by this season’s ridiculous total of 18,179. For reference, the 15 RA is 1484. Of this year’s state total, an estimated 16,000 were seen at a landfill on the new Richmond Hill (GARH) count (2nd year of this CBC). This year’s 14,363 Ring-billed Gulls is short of last year’s record of 16,318, but it is still the 2nd highest count ever. Once again, the RH landfill had the highest count with an estimated 10,000 birds. This year’s total of 1320 Royal Terns is also a new record, more than double the 15RA of 572. The two highest counts were GC with 451 and LS with 465. These counts are near each other and close to the highly productive Altamaha River Delta. Only 605 of the enigmatic Black Skimmers were counted, the 15RA is 1283. To illustrate how this species’ numbers change from year to year we can look at the last two seasons’ totals: Last year was 2039, and only 361 the year before that. A single Short-eared Owl was observed on the SV count and was the only one for the state. Another single owl was the Northern Saw-whet Owl recorded on the Floyd County count (GAFC); this is only the 4th CBC record for Georgia. Based on data from migrant saw-whet trapping efforts in the south, they are certainly present in GA every winter, but this tiny owl can be very difficult to locate.

Several woodpeckers set slightly higher records for Georgia CBC totals: Red-headed Woodpecker (498), Red-bellied Woodpecker (2196), Downy Woodpecker (1225), Northern Flicker (1080), Pileated Woodpecker (576), and Hairy Woodpecker had the 2nd highest total ever with 158. The general uptick in wintering Merlins continues, this year 25 were found (5RA 19, 10RA 17, 15RA 16). Four of these were reported from the new TH count, which was the highest count in the state.

One Say’s Phoebe at Lake Blackshear (LB) was the state’s 7th CBC record and could possibly be the same bird found on this count two years ago. Fish Crow numbers in the last seven years have dropped dramatically, as evidenced by the 5/10/15 year RAs: 408/855/1164. I don’t have a great explanation for this decrease but do note that the last seven years have all been close to the 455 reported this year. American Crow numbers have also been down compared to historical counts but have rebounded more obviously and quickly. Northern Rough-winged Swallow numbers have been increasing for the last 10 or so years and will no doubt continue due to the warmer fall and winter temperatures. This year’s 15 is a new Georgia CBC high-count. An amazing 14 of these were at Augusta (GAAU). The total of 2924 Tufted Titmouse is also a new record, this is clearly due to the addition of the new count-circles. Yet another new high count is the 928 White-breasted Nuthatches, another species that has been trending upward. Several of the new counts in the last few years are coastal, where this species is very local and only found in low numbers, so that’s not the only reason for the increase. The 15RA is 635. The total of 1759 Brown-headed Nuthatches is also a new record by almost 200, and that species has certainly been helped by adding new south GA counts. The 5/10/15RAs here are stable at 1294/1361/1306, but this year brought a large increase as TH alone added 142. Brown Creepers were again well above average with 63; the 15RA is 53. The semi-irruptive Golden-crowned Kinglet tied the state record of 1555 set in the 117th season, and the 15RA is 1078. Ruby-crowned Kinglet set a new high with 3335 (15RA 2625).

The Black-and-white Warbler total of 95 is also a new record, certainly the 12 from RH helped (15RA 71). The 171 Orange-crowned Warblers reported is an excellent total. This is second only to the 189 during the 121st season (the 15RA is 105). SV had a great tally with 40. On the 121st count, SV had 42, which certainly helped with the record. These numbers aren’t surprising as this is a southern count with lots of suitable habitat for this bird. Two interesting warbler species were reported from the GC count: American Redstart and Cape May Warbler. Both were seen well and photographed by Bob Sattelmeyer. The redstart was Georgia’s 11th CBC record and the Cape May was Georgia’s first CBC record. Cape May Warblers have been found on south Florida CBCs for many years (typically up to 10 per year), and then about five years ago the numbers jumped up to about 30 per season, so it’s not surprising that southern Georgia would get one also. Northern Parulas used to be unknown in Georgia in winter, but now they are almost annual here. This year’s only record was also at GC. The 14,042 Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers was the 3rd highest count for the state, and much higher than in recent years. The 5RA is only 7931 but the 15RA is 11,024. Previous higher counts were 15,155 (106th season) and 14,289 (103rd season), both back when GA got more with fewer counts. The only Yellow-breasted Chat this season was a GC count-week bird.

It’s difficult to evaluate trends with salt marsh sparrows due to variables such as tides, observer effort or boat access. The last three seasons have been awful for Nelson’s Sparrow: four, then nine, and this year only one on the SC count. The RAs for 5/10/15 are 53/56/53. Even worse was the state total of 19 Seaside Sparrows, which is the lowest total since the 92nd season. The numbers of this species have been declining on our CBCs for several years; the 5/10/15RAs are 179/217/275. The state total of 7003 Boat-tailed Grackles was a new record by several thousand, and the landfill on the new RH count provided 5016 of them. A Bullock’s Oriole at GC was the state’s first CBC record, and fortunately was photographed by John Skelton. The total of 363 Purple Finches was quite good since this irruptive species is extremely variable from year to year.