7 Surprises From the Christmas Bird Count

Birders around the country witnessed quite a few stunners this winter.

The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count never fails to amaze, and this year’s sightings were no exception. Though there were no human remains on the bill—yes, that happened during the 2005 count in Oakland, California—this winter did present some debutants that hadn’t been seen or heard for over a decade. There was an unprecedented flight of cranes and an abundance of Snowy Owls, plus an extraordinary nautical performance of the non-avian sort.

Here are the seven most buzzed-about sightings from Audubon’s 115th Christmas Bird Count.

Florida: A young pelican gets a taste of the epicurean life.

On December 14, the first day of the count, Ellen Westbrook of the Florida Keys Audubon Society spotted a juvenile Brown Pelican in distress at Higgs Beach.

Westbrook noticed the bird sitting on some rocks along the shoreline, just a few feet away from her. “[The pelican] was hunkered down, hardly moving,” she said. Westbrook asked the rehab expert at the Wild Bird Center nearby to help her examine the weak and weary female. No obvious injuries were found. Nonetheless, the young pelican was sprayed for parasites, treated to a fish buffet, and granted a few days of R&R at the aviary.

Well played, young pelican.

California: Birders are an earshot away from a reunion. 

Oakland’s bird count also took off on the 14th, in Redwood Regional Park. Early risers picked up on the low, breathy hoot of a Long-eared Owl, last heard during this count 11 years ago, according to Dave Quady and Bob Lewis of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Another long-awaited reunion was that with a Barn Swallow—only the Oakland survey’s second sighting since 1974. Smitten counters designated this swallow, seen flying over Alameda, the local CBC’s “Best Bird” of the year.




Washington: It’s not just a bird count.

On the weekend of December 20, volunteers in Tahoma witnessed a sudden and lovely mammalian display: about a dozen orcas swimming and jumping through Puget Sound. Two of the whales were identified as 16-year-old “T036B” and her 2-year-old calf “T036B2.” Though these populations have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 2005, orca numbers in Puget Sound have continued to bottom out.




New York: Eagles stage a glorious comeback.

An even 46—the number of bald eagles tallied this year by Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge counters in New York State. Bald Eagles were virtually missing in New York by the ‘60s, with only one active nest known in the state. Restoration efforts saw baby eagles released into the refuge, which now sustains six active nests. With such a tumultuous history, 46 eagles is quite a significant number, says Claudette Thornton from the Montezuma Audubon Society.


Illinois: Counters crane their necks for a parade of migrants. 

By the final week of December, counters in Chicago enjoyed the spectacle of some 900 Sandhill Cranes soaring overhead. This total wallops the previous high for this specific count: just six cranes. Usually, the birds migrate from northern Illinois by late December, so to see such a big flight is strange, says Chicago’s CBC organizer Joel Greenberg, “Perhaps they are getting hardier.” An additional 17 cranes were seen flying above the Des Plaines River between Illinois and Wisconsin.




Alaska: Determined doves stick out an Arctic winter.

Alaskans reined in their fair share of rarities as well. CBC volunteers in Delta Junction, a two-hour drive from the city of Fairbanks, Alaska, recorded some hardy and ambitious doves. Two of four Eurasian Collared-Doves, first seen in the area on a sunflower seed feeder last summer, stuck around for the Christmas count. “As the weather cooled down throughout the fall I observed the birds several times,” says Delta count leader Steven Dubois. “They were noticeably fluffed up, trying to stay warm as the temperature dropped.”

Previous CBCs show that collared-doves typically only fly up to Cordova, 250 miles south of Delta Junction. Dubois told the local radio station that he suspects these doves are expanding their range north due to the warming climate—a common trend seen in several bird species right now.

Gail Mayo of the Arctic Audubon Society agrees. “We are having a very warm winter,” she says.

Several locations: Snowy Owls dazzle counters for the second year in a row.

Early morning at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. greeted counters with the rare view of a Snowy Owl—the first to be seen here during a recent Christmas Bird Count. The owl disappeared, but emerged again in late afternoon, and was spotted near the airport runway. “It was being buzzed by a Peregrine Falcon and had its wings raised in a defensive posture,” says local count leader Bill Young, who suspects that the owl might stick around for a while: “An ample supply of rats seem to be available in the area.”

This winter’s data won’t be analyzed until the summer, but Snowy Owl totals are projected to be high. Last year’s Snowy tally came to 1,117, nearly double the CBC’s previous record from 2011, Christmas Bird Count Director Geoff LeBaron told Reuters. This rising number of Snowy Owls, which are seldom seen outside the Arctic, was observed across southern Ontario, the Great Lakes, and the U.S. Northeast during this year’s count.