The Christmas count roster for the Virginia/Washington DC region remained the same as it has been for the past four years, with one exception. Heavy rains and treacherous roads preceding the scheduled count day at Dismal Swamp N.W.R. cancelled that event for the second time in five years, bringing the regional total to 46. For the most part, the region was on the outskirts of wild weather that raged all around, especially to the west and north. Those milder conditions may have helped turn out a record number of 189 participants on the Washington DC count this year. That’s 42 more than the previous high of 147 set in 2007, and it is the all-time high number of participants on any count ever held in this region.
One of the best birds of the season was, without doubt, a Snowy Owl discovered and photographed while surveying Reagan National Airport from Gravelly Point. This is only the third Snowy Owl recorded on the Washington DC count. The other sightings were one bird in 1945 and another in 1949. Snowy Owls have been recorded there during count week in 1953, 1960, 1980, and 1986, but no photos were obtained of any of those birds. The only other Snowy found this year was one individual on the Washington’s Birthplace count, quite a come-down from last year’s record eight individuals from around the region.
There were some other very noteworthy sightings. Once again, that faithful Western Tanager was at the feeder of the Williamsburg compiler’s backyard feeder. That’s the sixth year in a row this little fellow has hung out there. Another rarity in the Williamsburg circle was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that was photographed during count week, but was not seen on count day.
A Scarlet Tanager spotted at Little Creek would be a first for Virginia Christmas counts if it is accepted by the Virginia Avian Records Committee (VARCOM). Unfortunately, a photo was not obtained and reviewers will have to make their decisions based on the write-up submitted. The outcome had not been received as of this writing. The report of a Blue Grosbeak at Central Loudoun County on count day was reviewed by VARCOM, but details of the sighting were insufficient for acceptance. There was also a Rough-legged Hawk in Mathews County, but the brief write-up was not conclusive enough to accept.
As is often the case, water birds dominated the scene on many counts, both in unusual sightings and numerous high counts. Tazewell had an outstanding count day, especially in the water bird category. Six Greater Scaup were a first for there. All-time high records were set for four species: 18 Redheads, 25 Bufflehead, nine Red-breasted Mergansers, and eight Ruddy Ducks. Three Horned Grebes were the first found there since 2003. For the first time, nine Greater White-fronted Geese were at Hopewell. That is the most ever seen in the state in one count season. Both Washington DC and Cape Charles reported count white-fronteds. Thirty-one Cackling Geese were the second highest number recorded for the region. Tundra Swan numbers were the lowest in 23 years. The one place where their appearance was surprising was Gordonsville when 17 showed up. Nice photographs were obtained.
The total for Wood Ducks was the most in four years, jacked up by 17 that were found on the Mount Rogers count, only the second occurrence for there. Overall numbers of Gadwall were not noteworthy, but this species showed up in places where it is not usually found - Mathews County with five, Gordonsville and Charlottesville with one each, and Calmes Neck with nine. Williamsburg counted almost 397, a record high for there. Eurasian Wigeon numbers in the region equaled the all-time high of six birds in 2008. Four were at Chincoteague, and one each was found at Little Creek and Nansemond River. Those at Chincoteague were the first for there on a count day since 1999. Walkerton has been the leading reporter of Northern Pintails for several years now. From 2009 to the present, birders there have chalked up around a thousand individuals each year as they raft up on the Mataponi River. This year 1050 were counted.
For three of the last four years, Canvasback numbers have barely reached over the 1000 mark. In the 1800s and early1900s, this was one of the iconic birds of the Chesapeake Bay, with counts numbering in the tens of thousands. Sightings of this magnificent species has dwindled alarmingly over the past 20 years. Just under 1500 were counted in the region this year. Only three counts away from the Bay area recorded any pintails at all this year - 13 at Banister River W.M.A., one at Waynesboro, and eight at Fincastle. On a more positive note, Hopewell more than tripled its highest count of Ring-necked Ducks with 3077 eclipsing the old record of 852 set in 1994. Nassawadox had a record high of 11 Common Eiders. Two others were spotted at Cape Charles and another at Little Creek. A White-winged Scoter seen during count week was a major happening for Williamsburg. Another scoter was seen on count day, but unfortunately, it could be identified only as scoter sp. Perhaps it was the same bird seen during count week, but observers could not pick up enough field marks to positively identify it. A single Surf Scoter was a first for Washington DC since 2004, another at Fort Belvoir was their first since 2006, and 600 individuals comprised an all-time high for Nassawadox. That count also had a record-breaking 552 Buffleheads. Though Hooded and Red-breasted merganser totals were average in the region, Common Merganser numbers were the second lowest in two decades.
In all of Virginia, only two Ruffed Grouse were seen on this year’s counts, one at Rockingham County, the other at Glade Spring. Numbers of this species has not fallen that low since the early 1940s. Wild Turkeys, on the other hand, have enjoyed an unprecedented resurgence. This year’s regional total of 1068 is only half of last year’s astounding all-time high of more than 2000 birds, but it is still an impressive number and certainly points to the success of the state’s restocking program. Even the populous Washington DC area can boast sightings. With the exception on 2006 when none were recorded, this was the 10th year in a row DC birders have found this species. Before that, turkeys were found only twice in the count’s span of 78 years.
This seemed to be an exceptionally good year for several grebe species. Nansemond River had a high count of 140 Horned Grebes, Blackford birders in the far western section of the region chalked up 36 Pied-billed Grebes, and four Red-necked Grebes were discovered at Wachapreague, the only record for there in 13 years.
It has been four years in a row now that American White Pelican have been seen on this region’s counts. This year’s nine individuals at Back Bay set regional record. Only five Great Cormorants were recorded on two counts, indicating a precipitous drop in their numbers. These birds were first discovered on Christmas counts at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel islands in 1970 with a mere handful of individuals counted for the next few years. After that, numbers skyrocketed with a peak count of 155 found in 1994. The population began to taper off around 2005 and has been dropping ever since.
Twelve Cattle Egrets were discovered at Back Bay this year. It is the first Christmas count sighting in the region since 2003. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, this species was a common visitor to the Eastern Shore of Virginia during count season with as many as 30 or more recorded some years.
White Ibis numbers continue to climb dramatically, with Back Bay being the only count to tally them this year, but the number of 510 set an all-time high for both that count and the region.
Black Vultures set an all-time high count. Blacksburg helped swell numbers with a whopping 781 individuals. Seventeen other counts also tallied three-digit totals. Overall Turkey Vulture numbers were average when compared to the numbers recorded for the past 15 years. Osprey numbers were down slightly, but single individuals at Nokesville and Fort Belvoir were somewhat unusual occurrences for those two places.
Bald Eagles broke another all-time high regional record with over 1200 birds found this year, with seven circles reporting record highs. The Golden Eagle found at Nassawadox was a first for that count, but the usual stronghold for this species, Blackford, in the western mountain region, reported only two individuals this year. Cooper’s Hawk is another raptor enjoying increases in numbers all around the region. Nassawadox, Mathews County, Williamsburg, and Northern Shenandoah Valley all reported record highs. The Peregrine Falcon at Brooke was only its second record. The first was in 1979.
Virginia Rail numbers were up considerably this year, with 45 overall, the most in 19 years. Glade Spring birders have found this secretive species in a wonderful little stretch of habitat for the last three years. Back Bay had an unusually high number (10) of Soras which jacked the total up to the most seen state-wide since 1975. Nansemond River and Williamsburg were the only other two counts reporting them. Fort Belvoir birders detected an unusually large number of American Coots - over 11,000 - and Banister River W.M.A. racked up 410.
Nansemond River has been the only site where American Avocets have been found since 2003. This year five individuals were present. Cape Charles’s all-time high of 804 Willets helped bring the region to its third highest total. A couple of unusual occurrences of this species was one at Back Bay and another at Mathews County. As usual, the only Whimbrels present were four at Cape Charles. Marbled Godwits were scarce with only the four Eastern Shore counts tallying 112 collectively.
In the small sandpiper category, Dunlin numbers rocketed up to 32,000, the third highest state total since 1973. On the other end of the scale, there were no Least Sandpipers at Hopewell for the third year in a row. That used to be one of the most reliable inland places to find this species back in the late 80s and early 90s.
Four Iceland Gulls were reported, two at Little Creek where they occur sporadically, one at Nokesville, a first for that count, and one at Washington DC, the sixth sighting there. Defining photographs were obtained at both sites. A Thayer’s Gull was at Little Creek. Also in that same circle, 10 Black Skimmers were present, the only sighting on a count day anywhere in the state since 2011.
A great photo left no doubt about Breaks Interstate Park’s first count record of a Short-eared Owl. One was also at Cape Charles hawking over the marshes near twilight. The only Northern Saw-whet Owl sighting was one on the Northern Shenandoah Valley count.
This was a big year for Red-headed Woodpeckers. The whole Piedmont section and the east-central area of the state seemed to be the “go-to” destination for these beautiful birds. Six counts saw all-time highs, or notable highs, and many others chalked up numbers that were significantly elevated over those of previous years, bringing about an state record high of almost 400 individuals. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also had a banner year. They numbered just over 1000, the second highest total ever. Downy Woodpeckers also appeared in great numbers with close to 3000 birds constituting the second highest count for the region. This species is increasing steadily, especially in the Northern Virginia area and around Washington DC. In fact, Washington broke all previous records with an astounding 469 Downies, eclipsing the old record set in 2012 by 30 birds. But as compiler Larry Cartwright has noted, several resident woodpeckers of that area have experienced increased populations. Hairy Woodpeckers are also doing very well, setting the second highest state total this year.
Disaster looms closer for the Loggerhead Shrike. Two counts, Blackford and Glade Spring with five birds each, saved the region from recording the lowest number ever. Other counts - Calmes Neck, Rockingham County, and Mt. Rogers brought the pitiful total to 13.
Triple digits of Tree Swallows at Little Creek, Back Bay, and Nansemond River swelled the total number statewide to over 1000. This is a big bang or bust species. Sometimes the air is full of swallows, especially on Eastern Shore, at other times, the entire regional tally can be counted on one hand.
This was not an outstanding year for Black-capped Chickadees. Only two sites reported them - Shenandoah (4) and Lexingon (12). And Red-breasted Nuthatches were also very scarce. They were reported from only 19 circles. Most were found on the Coastal Plain counts. Brown-headed Nuthatches continue their tenuous existence at Roanoke and Blacksburg. This is the 6th year in a row that this species has appeared on one or both of those counts.
House Wren turned up in a couple of unusual places. Four at Glade Spring was the first sighting there since 2005, and three were new to the Calmes Neck count. The rest of the state total of 38 were on the Coastal Plain. The only Blue-gray Gnatcatcher present in the region was at bawadox, constituting a first for there.
Charlottesville birders came up with an all-time high 123 Hermit Thrushes, eclipsing the previous high of 78 found in 2011, and 111 Eastern Bluebirds counted at Blackford doubled its previous high count for that species. Even though Back Bay came up with an impressive 7200 American Robins, the overall numbers around the region fell well within the yearly average for most areas. Among the mimids, the Brown Thrasher is the only species with numbers worthy of notice. This is the 5th year in a row that totals have risen above 200.
Unusual warblers simply were not around this year. The most noteworthy was a Yellow-breasted Chat at Charlottesville, only the third time that species has appeared on that count since it began in 1924. For the first time in six years, Eastern Towhee numbers topped 1000. Occurrence of towhees seem to wax and wane. But overall numbers are fairly consistent with a yearly average of around 1000 birds for the past 45 years.
Unusual sparrows were 16 American Tree Sparrows at Wachapreague and a Clay-colored Sparrow at Fort Belvoir. The only count reporting Seaside Sparrow was Nansemond River with six individuals. Lincoln’s Sparrows were slightly more numerous than usual. Chincoteague, Cape Charles, Fort Belvoir, and Hopewell all had one each. Very nice photos were obtained of the Fort Belvoir bird. Only one Lapland Longspur turned up this year. That was at Newport News, a count that rarely records this species.
Boat-tailed Grackle numbers continue to plummet. This year’s count 463 echoes the dismally low numbers of the past six years. Back in the 1970s this species was seen by the thousands. For decades four-digit state totals were commonplace. For the last seven years number have risen above 1000 only once. It was a good year for Baltimore Orioles. Five were at Hopewell, single birds were at Cape Charles, Nansemond River, and Williamsburg, and two showed up at Brooke.
Always scarce, and if they are going to be found at all, Roanoke is the most likely place to find Red Crossbills and this year there were three there, the only sightings in the state during the count season.
Those winter invaders from the north, Purple Finches and Pine Siskins, found Virginia and DC more to their liking this year than last. Numbers of both species increased by more than seven-fold during this season’s count period.
There were several sightings that had to be rejected because details were simply inadequate. Which brings me to that often-repeated plea: Take your camera along. With today’s photographic devices with their ever-increasing ability to take better pictures, some of those “could have been” observations could have perhaps been proven if only a photo or two had been obtained. That old adage - a picture is worth a thousand words - has never been more applicable than nowadays during Christmas bird counts.