The 115th Christmas Bird Count in Minnesota was well attended with good numbers of birds and unusually balmy weather. Seventy-six counts collected and reported data.
The state had a record of more than 1800 participants, including 500 feeder watchers, for an average of almost 24 per count, far better than last year's 19 per count. While 11 counts had six or fewer participants, five had 40 or more. As with last year, St. Paul had the most participants in field (56), while Henderson and Owatonna each had 75 and 52 feeder watchers, showing broad community support.
Weather was unusually balmy, perhaps the warmest count in our history. Half the counts had highs at or above freezing and almost half of those had lows at or above freezing. Only eight counts had lows below zero with Eagles Nest Lakes in the far north and the last count of the season, recording a low of minus 19. Only two counts had snow on the ground, compared to only 12 reporting no snow last year. Eleven counts reported no open water and with 58 counts reported lakes not completely frozen, compared to only eight last year.
Total count (242,797) was almost identical to last year’s count (245,877). Five species accounted for more than half of the total count, compared to seven last year. Some reports of slow, uneventful birding were countered by significantly greater numbers of Canada Geese and irrupting redpolls and siskins. The species count (132) was just one more than last year’s (131). One additional species was among the six reports that were not accepted due to inadequate documentation. Seven other species were found count week, including a California Gull, found only the second time in a count. A Common Eider found in Lake Superior in the Duluth CBC and a Eurasian Tree Sparrow at a feeder on the Hastings CBC were both new species for Minnesota’s CBCs. A Golden-crowned Sparrow in Duluth was the third occurrence during a count. Woodpeckers, grouse, Eurasian Collared-Doves, Common Mergansers, and Black-billed Magpies were up, with Pine Siskins and redpolls irrupting. Cormorants, waxwings, southern finches, thrushes, sparrows, and herons were down, some at the nadir for the last decade.
Waterfowl counts of almost all species were low, which did not relate to lack of open water. Three (Canada Goose, Mallard, Common Goldeneye) of most common five species all had below average counts, each having the third lowest in the last ten years. Trumpeter Swans numbers (2251) were lower than the last couple of year's high counts. Hopefully, this reflects success of a program to attempt to disperse the swans from their concentration at Monticello. Common Mergansers with 5903 birds were strong for the fourth year with the fourth highest number on record. The 27 species of waterfowl was not quite as good as last year’s 30 species. Uncommon species included the first record Common Eider in Duluth, interesting following last year's first King Eider, and first count record of Ross's Goose for Stearns County (St. Cloud CBC). Another Ross's Goose was reported on the Fairmount CBC. A Long-tailed Duck on the Northern Wright County CBC, a Wood Duck on the Morris CBC, and a Green-winged Teal on the Fargo-Moorhead CBC were unexpected. Also, count week reports included a Harlequin Duck at Grand Marais CBC and a Barrow’s Goldeneye in Duluth. Other water dependent birds were present in unremarkable numbers. Cormorants, usually present, were not found. Only three American White Pelicans were found, off from last year's record of 21. The six Great Blue Herons was the lowest number in over 20 years, while the eight Wilson's Snipe was the third highest in the last 20 years, and 29 Belted Kingfishers were below average. None of these are indicative of trends.
Upland game bird numbers were mostly considerable below average in number, however, Sharp-tailed Grouse numbers (222) were above all but last year's record numbers and Ruffed Grouse numbers (238) were the third highest in 20 years. Bald Eagle numbers (1043) were about average for the last five years, but that is a greater than 50% increase over the previous decade. Rough-legged Hawk numbers (117) rebounded from last year and, along with other hawks, was about average or showing no trends. The eight Golden Eagles, the third highest count, were all in the southeast, although a probable sighting in Sherburne County was not accepted for lack of adequate documentation. Barred and Great Horned owl numbers continue to be stable, but Eastern Screech-Owls numbers, while better than last year, have been the lowest for four years running than any time since the late 1970's. Snowy Owl numbers (14) were indicative of above average winter numbers and greater than last year's count, but was not followed by an irruption such as Minnesota experienced last year. Other owls were found in the low numbers expected in non-irruptive years. Falcon numbers were somewhat better than last year, but did not indicate any trends.
Ring-billed and Herring gull numbers rebounded from last year, but are too variable to trend. Uncommon gulls, though small numbers, were, for the most part, at the greatest numbers ever. They included Thayer’s (13), Glaucous (15), and count week finds of Glaucous X Herring, California, and Iceland. All were found along Lake Superior. Only Great Black-backed were missing. Rock Pigeon and Mourning Dove numbers were stable. Eurasian Collared-Dove numbers (291) were second only to last year’s record (327) and widespread, found on 23 counts, including first winter record on the Long Prairie count in Todd County and a record high count of 94 on the Cottonwood count.
Common woodpecker numbers were very strong, among the top three counts, with the exception of Pileated Woodpeckers with a record of 597 (vs. last year’s 552). Less common woodpeckers were about average with 15 Red-headed Woodpeckers from seven counts, 106 Northern Flickers, down from last year's record of 237, six Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, 14 Black-backed Woodpeckers, and two American Three-toed Woodpeckers.
Corvid numbers mostly rebounded from last year's lower numbers. Blue Jay numbers were strong, but off from last year's record. Gray Jay numbers were peaking in what appears to be a four year cycle. Magpie numbers have never been as high as these last three years with this year's 169 being a record. Northern Shrike and Brown Creepers declined for the second year. White-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees were almost unchanged, while Boreal Chickadees (72 with 48 on Isabella count) were up strongly with the highest numbers since 1986. Tufted Titmouse numbers (43) were strong with the eighth year of high counts not seen since the 1960's and found as far north as Cedar Creek Bog in Anoka County. Highly variable, Horned Lark numbers were down from last year. The only wrens found were a Carolina Wren in Rochester and Winter Wrens on the Minneapolis and Bloomington counts.
The most abundant thrushes, American Robins (2423) demonstrated their high variability and were down to less than 30% of last year's record numbers. Eastern Bluebirds (23) were down even more sharply to 12% of last year's record numbers. The uncommon thrushes all did as well as or better than last year including eight Townsend’s Solitaires (second highest number), four Hermit Thrushes, one Gray Catbird (Grand Marais count) , two Brown Thrashers, and a Varied Thrush. Golden-crowned Kinglets were found widely (20 counts) with numbers (56) not seen for 15 years. Bohemian Waxwings were rare with 197 reported in seven counts, representing the lowest number since 1982, when the observers and counts were much lower than now—a 96% drop from 2010. Cedar Waxwings (769) were less than 10% of last year's record numbers and the lowest in 20 years. Starlings were abundant, back to levels seen the last couple of years. House Sparrows numbers were high. Lapland Longspurs (1509) and Snow Buntings (2904) were down significantly from last year’s irruption numbers, but still strong. Half of the longspurs were found on the Jackson County count and almost 40% on the Owatonna count, whereas Snow Buntings were found in half the counts, although over 40% of the numbers were in large flocks in the Rouseau count. The only warbler, one Yellow-rumped Warbler, was reported on the Cottonwood count.
The two common winter sparrows which account for almost 99% of the sparrows in the state were far less common than usual. The 1749 American Tree Sparrows was the lowest count in almost 20 years and about one third of last year's count. The 7083 juncos was the second lowest count in the last 10 years and less than two thirds of last year's total. Seven other species of sparrow were found, including the third Golden-crowned Sparrow (Duluth count) in Minnesota count history, 64 White-throated Sparrows (highest number in 8 years), 10 Song Sparrows, six Fox Sparrows, four Harris’s Sparrows, six White-crowned Sparrows, and two Chipping Sparrows (Faribault count & Whitewater River Count). Cardinal numbers were the lowest in nine years. Blackbird numbers, which are highly variable, were low, about half of last year's.
Finch numbers all reversed last year's trends. For southern finches, House Finch and American Goldfinch, numbers were down. House Finches had the lowest numbers in 20 years and goldfinches the lowest in 12 years. Northern finch numbers, which can be the most variable in the state, were almost all up. Counters were treated with a strong irruption of Common Redpolls. This year's 12,355 followed last year's low of 179 and two years ago record of 23,579. Redpolls were widespread, but variability was not analyzed and may had to do with timing rather than location. The Isabella Count reported 1480 Common Redpolls (edging out the Duluth count with 1479), with all but three being found in the half of the circle with habitat that included birch trees. Hoary Redpolls (33) were considered to be significantly under reported. Pine Siskins at 4466 (3rd highest count in 10 years vs. 241 last year), Pine Grosbeaks at 864 (2nd lowest in 10 years vs. 489 last year), Red Crossbills at 69 (vs. 9 last year), White-winged Crossbills at 171 (vs. 31 last year), Evening Grosbeaks at 400 (vs. 133 last year), all were up, but still low, with the exception of siskins, which were irrupting. Once again, the only northern finch bucking this trend was the Purple Finch with 769, down from 833 last year.