The 123rd Christmas Bird Count in New Jersey and Pennsylvania

The 123rd CBC was run without the dark shadow of COVID limiting participation, which was at about the same level as pre-pandemic counts, but some compilers chose not to hold post-count gatherings. Participation was generally up from pre-pandemic counts. Species numbers were about average on most counts, but numerous compilers again mentioned the scarcity of some of the usually more common birds. Although it was once again not a winter finch year, a good variety of rarities and late-lingerers was encountered.

Twenty-nine CBCs were carried out in New Jersey, with Mizpah dropping out this year, while Marmora returned after a year’s absence.  The total of 202 species recorded was four more than last year, and a bit above average for recent years, but included two species new to the count: White Ibis and Warbling Vireo. Despite some windy but otherwise mild weather, Cape May improved by ten species over last year’s low count to reach 153 species. Barnegat Light hit 132 species for the third year in a row for second place, followed by Cumberland County (118) and Sandy Hook (113).  Six species were recorded in record high numbers, and four in record low numbers for modern CBCs.

The 37 species of waterfowl reported included single Greater White-fronted Geese at Long Branch and Warren–Northampton counties, and individual Ross’s Geese at Princeton and Trenton Marsh. A near record-tying 35 Cackling Geese were counted, two returning Trumpeter Swans, and just 25 Tundra Swans, the lowest total since 1968, reflecting a continued decline in wintering birds. Cape May had two Eurasian Wigeon and Oceanville one; the seven Blue-winged Teal (6 at Cape May and one at Sandy Hook) was a return to more normal numbers. Seventy-six Canvasback was a slight improvement over last year’s 30, a 70-year low. Barnegat Light had the only eider species, one King Eider and nine Common, as well as all but one of the 21 Harlequin Ducks; Cape May the other. Common Goldeneye numbers have declined steadily over the past several decades, and the 139 counted this year was the lowest total in 75 years.

For the sixth time in eight years, there were no reports of Ruffed Grouse, nor were there any Northern Bobwhite. Wild Turkey numbers have decreased in recent years, and the 603 birds tallied was far below the 2586 recorded just ten years ago. Horned Grebes, a species much scarcer now than several decades ago, increased to 250 birds, their best showing since 2004, while the two Red-necked Grebes at Lakehurst were the first in three years. A Pacific Loon was well-described at Sandy Hook, the first state CBC record since 2013, while Common Loon reached a record high tally of 745. Two American White Pelicans were at Oceanville, and a Brown Pelican was a highlight of the Barnegat count. Great Cormorant numbers remained steady at 40, but were still far below the totals from earlier decades.

The 184 Great Egrets recorded was the highest total since 2011, but a single Snowy Egret at Cape May and a Little Blue Heron at Barnegat were the only reports of these species. Just 22 Black-crowned Night-Herons were located, the lowest total since 1946, but a juvenile White Ibis that wintered in Cape May was the first ever found on a New Jersey CBC. The occurrence was not unexpected, however, given the hundreds now being seen in the area each summer.

Lakehurst and Ramsey each had an Osprey; Ramsey also had a Golden Eagle, as did Cape May. Sharp-shinned Hawks (150) remained steady, but Cooper’s Hawks reached a new high of 422, 108 more than the previous record set in 2005. Bald Eagles numbers (795) were down from last year’s record, but Red-shouldered Hawks (243) surpassed the former high of 231 counted in 2020. A single Rough-legged Hawk was seen in Cumberland County.

Both Clapper Rails (77) and Virginia Rails (59) were present in good numbers, but a King Rail calling and recorded at Cape May was the first on a New Jersey CBC since 1999. Cumberland County had most of the 59 Sandhill Cranes, the 44 found there being part of the resident population. Among the 18 species of shorebirds reported were 12 Semipalmated Plovers, continuing a trend of this species wintering in small numbers, while a single Piping Plover at Cape May was the first since 2014 and just the second in the past 20 years. Just seven Western Willets were tallied, six at Oceanville and one at Barnegat, the fewest since 1998. Cape May had the only Short-billed Dowitcher and Salem tallied all of the nine Long-billed Dowitchers.

The Barnegat CBC used a combination of shore-based and boat-based birding to record 13 Dovekies and 2551 Razorbills. Four other counts added a total 81 Razorbills to make the statewide total a record 2838, far exceeding the previous high of 545. A Little Gull at Barnegat was the first on a state CBC since 2015, while a Black-headed Gull at Lakehurst was just the second in the past ten years. Five counts contributed a total of nine Laughing Gulls, a bit above average, but only five Iceland Gulls were encountered (down from 16 last year) and a single Glaucous Gull was found at Belleplain. Cape May tallied a state record 134 Forster’s Tern, easily topping the previous high of 99 seen in 2004.

Owl numbers increased significantly over last year, probably due to better weather conditions, but there were no Barn or Snowy owls. Five counts reported a total of seven Northern Saw-whet Owls.  For the fourth year in a row, Cape May had a Ruby-throated Hummingbird coming to a feeder, but like last year’s bird it did not survive a January deep-freeze.

Thirty Red-headed Woodpeckers was a good showing, with most of them being in Boonton (14) and Great Swamp (15); Raritan Estuary had the other. All the other woodpeckers were found in typical numbers, with Red-bellied Woodpecker (2218) again topping Downy Woodpecker (1986) as the most common species. Falcon numbers dropped off slightly from the previous season with 104 American Kestrels, 58 Merlins, and 59 Peregrine Falcons.

The highlight of the CBC season in New Jersey was a Warbling Vireo, apparently of the Western Swainsoni subspecies group, discovered on the Cape May count and present for several days. This was a first for a state CBC and one of a handful of December records of the species in the east north of Florida. Blue Jay numbers seem to have stabilized, as have those of American Crow, although the counts of the latter are still only half of what they were a decade ago. Fish Crow tallies were down sharply from the previous year (2884 vs. 8951), but their numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year. Common Raven, however, continues to increase in all parts of the state and set a new record for the fourth year in a row at 269.

Black-capped Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse rebounded strongly from last year’s modern lows at 1623 and 4689, respectively. Red-breasted Nuthatches made a major incursion, the total of 519 being the second highest ever after the 702 recorded in 1981. Cumberland County had the only House Wren and one of the 10 Sedge Wrens, a species being found more frequently in winter in recent years. Barnegat and Sandy Hook each had a single Lapland Longspur, while five counts contributed a total of 184 Snow Buntings.

An impressive ten species of wood warblers were found on the CBCs, including a new regional high of six Ovenbirds on the New York City side of the Lower Hudson count. A Tennessee Warbler at Cape May was just the third for a New Jersey CBC and the 37 Orange-crowned Warblers was a new record high total. The other warblers detected included four Nashville Warblers, 10 Common Yellowthroats, one Cape May Warbler, 11 Palm, nine Pine, 1112 Yellow-rumped and one Wilson’s warblers. A Yellow-breasted Chat was present for some time on the New York City section of the Lower Hudson count.

As noted repeatedly in recent years, American Tree Sparrow continues to decline in our region, the total of 377 being the lowest since 1915; the record high was 8032 in 1969. The center of their wintering population is the upper Midwest. Cumberland County had two Vesper Sparrows and the only Lincoln’s Sparrow; Princeton added another Vesper Sparrow. A wintering Western Tanager at Cape May was a good find for that count, but a count week Painted Bunting just missed the right day. Cape May also had 20 of the regional record 27 Baltimore Orioles. It was yet another poor year for winter finches. Cape May had the only Red Crossbills (7) and two of the seven Pine Siskins; five other counts had one each. Sandy Hook had four Evening Grosbeaks and Northwestern Gloucester County and Walnut Valley each had one.

Eighty-three counts were submitted from Pennsylvania, with new CBCs at Belleville and Southeastern York County. Most of the counts enjoyed mild weather conditions, except those held during the second weekend of the period when snow and freezing temperatures hindered birding. Southern Bucks led the list with 100 species, followed by Delaware County (96), Southeastern Lancaster County (95) and Upper Bucks County (94). The state-wide total of 166 species was five above the ten-year average and included four species new to Pennsylvania CBCs: Common Eider, Magnolia Warbler, Townsend’s Warbler, and Lazuli Bunting.

An impressive ten species of warblers were found, winter finches were again scarce except for a small irruption of Evening Grosbeaks, and six species were recorded in record high numbers.

The 35 species of waterfowl recorded this year included individual Ross’s Geese at Bethlehem – Easton, Lock Haven–Jersey Shore, and Wild Creek–Little Gap plus a record number (49) of Cackling Geese. With plenty of open water, some duck species were found in excellent numbers. Gadwall increased again to 964, the second highest total, the 728 Northern Pintail was the best count since 2007, and the 522 Green-winged Teal was the most in 21 years. Culp had five Blue-winged Teal, a species not seen every year. The Common Eider in Linesville was the first ever for a Pennsylvania CBC and the first state record to be well documented. A Harlequin Duck was at Erie, where the species is not quite annual, and Erie also added 10 White-winged Scoters, two Black Scoters, and three Long-tailed Ducks. Harrisburg had the only Surf Scoter and seven Black Scoters, while Linesville added a Long-tailed Duck. Bufflehead continue to do well, with the 1255 surpassing last year’s total for the third highest tally.  The nearly 16,000 scaup at Erie was the highest ever for that species pair. Hooded Mergansers (2171) were just short of last year’s record high, but the 82 Common Goldeneye reported was the lowest total since 1948.

Only 14 Ruffed Grouse were reported from six sites, down from 33 last year, with four at Mansfield-Wellsboro and three each at Emporium and Pleasantville. The lowest total since 1948, this continues their steady decline over the past several decades presumably due to a combination of West Nile virus and maturation of second-growth forests. Wild Turkeys (4266) rebounded to the highest count since 2016 following several years of decline. Erie once again had the only two Red-throated Loons and 21 of the 39 Common Loons. Great Cormorant numbers dropped to just four birds on the three counts along the Delaware River, the lowest tally since it was missed in 1988. The peak year was 2007, when 76 were seen.

Delaware County had three Great Egrets and Lititz one, but Black-crowned Night-Heron was missed for the ninth time in 11 years after having been annual for most of the late 20th century. Black Vulture numbers (2010) were down from last year’s record 3217, but Turkey Vultures (5396) were down just slightly from last year’s record 5575. Four Ospreys, one each at Cowanesque Lake, Gettysburg, Lancaster, and York, were the most since 2003. Twelve Golden Eagles tied with 2017 for the second highest total after last year’s record 17. Sharp-shinned Hawks (206) were up slightly from last year, while Cooper’s Hawks (537) came up just short of the record 576 seen in 2020. Prior to 2004, Sharp-shinned numbers were always higher than those of Cooper’s, but the reverse has been true since then.

Bald Eagles (1092) set another statewide high, including 91 at Southern Bucks County, 89 at Southern Lancaster County and 69 at Linesville. The 439 Red-shouldered Hawk reported was also a statewide record high, surpassing the 2020 maximum by 89 birds. Red-tailed Hawks (3279) had the highest tally since 2016, but only 12 Rough-legged Hawks were encountered in another off year for that species. The only two Virginia Rails were in Upper Bucks County, while the 364 Sandhill Cranes (second only to 2017’s 374) were at Linesville (278), Grove City (72) and Butler County (14).

The five species of shorebird reported included a photographed Least Sandpiper at Reading and a Purple Sandpiper, the sixth state CBC record, at Erie for the second year in row. The lower Delaware Valley, especially Bucks County, continues to attract large numbers of gulls in winter. Southern Bucks County had the state’s only Laughing Gull, the first on a Pennsylvania CBC since 2012, along with the only Glaucous Gull and 13 of the 16 Iceland Gulls found in the state. A new state CBC record of 1257 Lesser Black-backed Gulls included 637 at Southern Bucks County, the highest single count in the country, 479 at Upper Bucks County, 127 at Central Bucks County and 14 more at four other sites. Southern Bucks also had the country’s highest total of Herring Gulls at 21,286.

A state record high total of five Eurasian Collared-Doves were tallied, with three at Newville and one each at Bernville and Clarion. Despite the species abundance over most of the country, it remains quite rare in the Northeast. Eight species of owl were recorded, including five Barn Owls, a single Snowy Owl at Gordon Glen Belsano, just the second in the past five years, and 92 Barred Owls, the second highest total after 103 in 2006. The seven Long-eared Owls, however, tied with last year for the lowest total since 1990. All of the region’s woodpeckers were found in good numbers. The 90 Red-headed Woodpecker tally was the most since 1996, but much of the recent increase is due to the addition of new CBC circles in the south-central part of the state. For the past seven years, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker have alternated as the most abundant woodpecker on Pennsylvania CBCs; this year was Downy’s turn (5864) to top Red-bellied’s total (5571). Pileated Woodpecker continue to do well, as this year’s 1034 just edged out 2020’s previous state high of 1033.

American Kestrels (786) made their best showing since 2012 but are still well below the numbers from the 20th century. Although it looked like the Merlin tally might be leveling off after three decades of steady increase, the species again hit a new record high of 82 individuals. As noted last year, as recently as 1994 the statewide CBC total for Merlin was one bird. Peregrine Falcons (40) were down ten from last year’s record 50. The long-staying Say’s Phoebe discovered on the Lancaster CBC was still present in late March; it marks the 8th CBC record for Pennsylvania. Likewise, the Ash-throated Flycatcher found in Philadelphia in early December was present for the Pennypack Valley CBC and lingered into late February; it was the first for a state CBC. Single Northern Shrikes were at Benezette, Johnstown, Linesville, and Northern Lycoming County, marking the ninth year in a row with four or fewer of this species; the last double-digit tally was 14 in 2011.

A Blue-headed Vireo at Juniata County–Lewistown was the 12th for a Pennsylvania CBC and the third in the past five years. The Blue Jay tally of 12,526 was down by more than three thousand from last year and may reflect continuing problems with West Nile virus. American Crows, on the other hand, rebounded strongly from last year’s 61-year low. Common Raven continued its steady increase with a count of 999 setting a new state high for the fourth year in a row, as 78 of the 83 CBCs reported the species. Pennypack Valley had all 80 of the Northern Rough-winged Swallows found in the state for the second highest CBC total for any count north of Mexico.

Both chickadees and Tufted Titmouse seem to be recovering from recent declines, although they still haven’t reached the numbers of a decade ago. The 456 Red-breasted Nuthatches recorded were indicative of a modest irruption. Both Winter Wren (447) and Carolina Wren (5795) were found in good numbers and were near their historical wintering highs. Single Marsh Wrens were found at Bethlehem–Easton, Linesville, and Pittsburgh. The Golden-crowned Kinglet tally (823) was barely half of last year’s total, but numbers of this species fluctuate widely from year to year.

The numbers of some frugivores drop significantly from last season’s high totals. American Robins were down to 20,422 compared to 46,189 the previous year, Gray Catbirds dropped to 33 from the 104 in 2021, and Cedar Waxwings fell to 1876 from 8381 last year. An excellent total of ten species of wood warblers included a new state high of 10 Orange-crowned Warblers, all from the southeastern counties. Delaware County had four, Pennypack Valley three, Southern Bucks County two, and Wyncote one. Five of the warblers were rarities: Nashville Warbler at Southern Bucks County was the 11th CBC record for the state, Cape May Warbler photographed at Culp was number nine, and Wilson’s Warbler at Bernville was the 13th for a state CBC. Magnolia Warbler at Pennypack Valley and Townsend’s Warbler at Reading were new for Pennsylvania CBCs.

The 2341 American Tree Sparrows reported was an improvement over last season’s 1552, but still far fewer that recorded several decades ago. As noted in the New Jersey summary, the winter range of this species is now concentrated in the upper Midwest. The 505 White-crowned Sparrows was the fewest since 1989. Lancaster had the only Lincoln’s Sparrow, a species that was formerly very rare in winter, but has now been recorded in eight of the past nine years and 20 of the last 24. Eastern Towhees (128) were down sharply from last year’s 705, but this species numbers tend to fluctuate widely from year to year.

A Lazuli Bunting discovered on the Pennypack Valley CBC was the first for a Pennsylvania CBC and only the fifth record for the state; it stayed for two more days. The 82 Eastern Meadowlarks was the best showing since 2012 and included 21 at Southern Lancaster County, 19 at Gettysburg, and 18 at Southeastern York County. Baltimore Orioles were at Southern Bucks County (2) and Pennypack Valley (1). Winter finches were essentially absent except for a minor irruption of Evening Grosbeaks. The 263 counted were second only to the 318 in 2020 for the highest total since 1998; gone are the days when they were tallied in the thousands. Single Red Crossbills at Lock Haven–Jersey Shore and Wild Creek–Little Gap, plus a lone Common Redpoll at Grove City round out another poor year for this group. Once again, I thank Nick Bolgiano for sharing some of his insights into the Pennsylvania CBCs in advance of publication.