The 123rd Christmas Bird Count in Ontario

After two years of Covid-impacted counts, year 123 was close to a return to “normal” for Ontario Christmas Bird Counts. We had four counts back that missed year 122 but six counts went the other direction (or at least their data submissions did!). Ontario also welcomed one new counts, Goderich, to bring the number of counts run this year to 123 – tied with last year for the third highest total ever, just three behind the record 126 from three years ago. Hopefully count year 124 is fully back to our normal record-setting ways.

The weather patterns leading up to count day always play a big role. This year, the entire province saw fairly warm temperatures through November leading into the count period. Most counts were done in good conditions with below average snow on the ground, above average open water and above average temperatures. The major weather impact came in the form of a significant winter storm that hit right around Christmas Eve, centred on Niagara Falls and Buffalo, NY.

Count day weather was again pretty comfortable this year, with an average low of just -4.5° C and high of -0.1° C; just about as warm as ever. Forty-nine counts had temperatures that cracked the freezing mark this year, which, is up from last year’s 43 but lower than the two previous years of 73 and 51. Dunnville was this year’s hotspot with a count day high of 13° C. Thunder Bay and Hearst tied for the lowest recorded temperature at -24° C; we’ll give the tie-breaker to Hearst who only got up to -16° C. Just 37 counts reported a maximum snow depth of 10 cm or less, the fewest we’ve seen in several years (down from 91 last year!), so there was certainly more snow on the ground than we’ve seen in recent years, especially in the second half of the count period.

There were 3455 observers in the field this year, up about 50 from last year and inching closer to the record counts of close to 3700 in the years prior to the pandemic. Still, this total represents the fourth highest total ever. Feeder watchers were down about 50 from last year’s 1225, but good enough for third all time. Added together, field and feeder counters totalled 4626, good enough for fourth all time. A total of 8411 party hours were logged, which was down about 500 from last year’s record and good enough for fourth all time. Observers logged a very impressive 69,782 km on count days, about average for the last several years. For the seventh straight year, Ottawa-Gatineau led the pack with the most field observers, this year with 153. Kingston again led the way for feeder counters with a whopping 99.

A total of 179 species were reported from all counts, right on the average from the past ten years. That total increased by four with the addition of count week species (Great Cormorant, Osprey, White-eyed Vireo, and Mountain Bluebird).

Blenheim and Long Point have basically alternated for most species over the last several years and this year Blenheim held onto that honour with 113 species. Long Point (105) was the only other count that cracked 100 species this year. Just three other counts surpassed 90 species: Point Pelee (97), Hamilton (96), and Toronto (91). With five counts over 90 species, we were just below the recent average of six. In general, it was a pretty average year for most counts, with the average count species total of 50.9 almost bang on the recent average of 51 and a fairly even split of above average and below average individual species totals. London (79), Ottawa-Gatineau (77), and Kitchener (70) led the way for inland counts. Nipigon-Red Rock led the way among northern counts with 34 species, followed by Fort Frances (32) and Thunder Bay (31). Blenheim again led the way with 20 provincial highs, and it was the usual suspects rounding out the top five: Long Point (14), Toronto (13), Ottawa-Gatineau (10), and Point Pelee (8). Blenheim led the way for Canadian highs as well, with eight, followed by Toronto (6), Long Point (5), Point Pelee (5), and Cedar Creek and St. Clair N.W.A. both tied with three each. In total, 32 Ontario counts records a total of 64 Canadian highs this year.

A total of 1,324,754 individuals were counted, the highest since count year 116 and about 50,000 higher than the recent average. The top five species this year were the same species (but slightly different order) as last year with American Crow (225,900), Canada Goose (196284), European Starling (127,633), Mallard (74,359), and Black-capped Chickadee (55,286).

Despite it being another overall better than average count year, some species were noticeably down. The following 28 species were recorded in numbers of 50% or less of their 20-year average: Canvasback (3136), Greater Scaup (18,343), Lesser Scaup (2048), Ring-necked Pheasant (18), Gray Partridge (7), Red-throated Loon (8), Rough-legged Hawk (222), Bonaparte's Gull (4018), Little Gull (2), Thayer's Gull (1), Glaucous Gull (59), Great Black-backed Gull (936), Snowy Owl (27), Great Gray Owl (1), Long-eared Owl (8), Short-eared Owl (12), Boreal Chickadee (25), Marsh Wren (3), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (9), Northern Mockingbird (75), American Pipit (10), Yellow-rumped Warbler (31), Eastern Towhee (9), Rusty Blackbird (96), Purple Finch (165), Red Crossbill (49), White-winged Crossbill (39), Common Redpoll (1673), Hoary Redpoll (3), and Pine Siskin (920). Some of the waterbirds were down at least partly because of the missed Niagara Falls count. Other low counts (e.g. Boreal Chickadee, Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-necked Pheasant, and Gray Partridge) are part of well-documented and long-term trends. Irruptive finches and owls make up the bulk of the remaining species in this category this year.

There were a few relatively big misses this year, most notably Eastern Meadowlark (missed only once in the previous 39 years). Vesper Sparrow (recorded on six of the past ten counts), Northern Hawk Owl (last missed in count year 108), and Pine Warbler (seven of the last ten) and Orange-crowned Warbler (nine of ten) round out the other “big” misses this year.

There were some excellent counts recorded, even with fewer counts reporting. The following 32 species reported counts of 50% or more of their 20-year average (five fewer than last year): Greater White-fronted Goose (7), Cackling Goose (104*), Mute Swan (2800), Trumpeter Swan (1505*), Northern Shoveler (572), Northern Pintail (431), Green-winged Teal (89), Redhead (24651), Harlequin Duck (14), Surf Scoter (325), Hooded Merganser (2271), Ruddy Duck (3981), Sharp-tailed Grouse (206), Wild Turkey (11,992), Horned Grebe (147), Red-necked Grebe (224), Turkey Vulture (172), Bald Eagle (1920), Sandhill Crane (4856), Killdeer (73), Sanderling (2), Dunlin (10), Wilson's Snipe (8), Iceland Gull (99), Red-bellied Woodpecker (1861), Merlin (123), Peregrine Falcon (48), Tufted Titmouse (261), Carolina Wren (544), Bohemian Waxwing (18,739*), Dickcissel (2*), and Evening Grosbeak (8533).

Just four of those species (marked with an asterisk; down from 18 last year) above also set new record highs. The theme for species with good showings this year were waterbirds (20 species), especially shorebirds and then another big group are species that are showing long-term increasing trends (e.g., Trumpeter Swan, Bald Eagle, Merlin, Red-bellied Woodpecker etc.). Two irruptive species (Bohemian Waxwing and Evening Grosbeak) also made the list, in stark contrast to the majority of irruptive species that made the “other” list.

As mentioned above, it was mostly a very poor year for irruptive species on Ontario CBCs. Owls were all very low (e.g. lowest Snowy Owl result since count year 111 and lowest Long-eared Owl total since count year 63 and we completely missed Boreal and Northern Hawk owls). Irruptive finches were also very low with the exception of Evening Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing which both had good showings, particularly the latter which set a new provincial high.

There are always some exciting finds on CBCs, and this year was no exception. While we did not add any new species to the all-time list, some of the highlights included Western Sandpiper on Blenheim (just the 2nd ever on an Ontario CBC), Green Heron on Kettle Point (4th), Yellow-throated Warbler on Delta (5th), Indigo Bunting on Nipigon-Red Rock (5th), Spotted Sandpiper (6th) and Barn Owl (8th) on Blenheim, Northern Waterthrush on Cedar Creek (9th),  Sanderling on Long Point (11th), and Dickcissel on both Long Point and Point Pelee (14th).

All in all, it was another excellent CBC season here in Ontario with highs, lows, and everything in between. Here’s to all the hard work the huge team of volunteers put in to making the count a success and for another good year in count year 124-it’s just around the corner!