The 115th Christmas Bird Count in Ontario

We had a total of 112 counts in Ontario this year, up two from last year with several changes: Five counts that reported last year were missing (or at least their data was) but we welcomed back Parry Sound and Fort Frances after one year absences. We are also happy to report the addition of five new counts (Gananoque, Kapuskasing, Moonbeam, Orono, and Skunk's Misery). A special shout-out is due for Lynne Stevenson who compiled two of those new counts. Welcome to all of the new counts!

As is usual for Ontario, the weather leading up to count day plays a big role and this year was no different. Most of the province experienced a warm fall, with the exception of a late November blast of winter that likely pushed many lingering species south. However, December was very mild and many inland bodies of water that froze in November were open up again by the time count day rolled around. The mild December surely helped boost the number of counts reporting lingering waterbirds and even some insectivores. Most counts reported ideal conditions with calm winds and warm temperatures, with an average low of -4.5° C and high of 0.5° C. Halton Hills was subtropical on count day, recording a balmy 10° C for the highest temperature in the province while Ear Falls took the less-coveted coldest temperature award with count day starting at -30° C and only rising to -22° C. Walking conditions were also ideal on most counts with a provincial average of 12 cm for maximum snow depth including 34 counts reporting no snow cover at all. Moonbeam took the award for deepest snow at ‘only’ 121 cm.

There were at least 3075 observers in the field this year, about the same as last year’s excellent count. Toronto, as usual, took top honours with the highest number of field observers (142) but Ottawa-Gatineau (132) wasn’t far behind. Those observers put in an impressive 8117 party hours, up almost 10% from last year, and 61,086 party km (37,958 miles), down almost 10% from last year. The rise in party hours but decline in party km may be explained by the fact that many observers took advantage of the excellent weather conditions on count day to walk rather than drive. On top of the field observers, 1066 feeder counters also helped collect data – exactly the same number as last year.

A total of 183 species were reported from all counts, up six from last year and seven shy of the 113th season total. An additional two species (Pine Warbler and Yellow-headed Blackbird) were reported during count week. Long Point was back on top with 106 species, followed by Kingston, Blenheim, and Oshawa who all made it into the ‘100’ club. Wallaceburg (81 species) and Ottawa (78) led the way for inland counts. Thunder Bay, with 57 species, had the highest total amongst northern Ontario counts although Nipigon-Red Rock had a very respectable 36. In general, most counts reported average to above-average species totals.

A total of 1,367,978 individual birds were counted, up 27.5% from last year and just slightly ahead of the 113th count year. The top five species this year were Canada Goose (213,304), American Crow (199,508), European Starling (116,132), Greater Scaup (109,575), and Mallard (85,640). Some very high counts included 40,374 Canada Geese at Kingston, 134,000 American Crows at St. Clair N.W.A., 45,864 Greater Scaup at Point Pelee, 26,081 Redhead at Long Point, 8449 Red-breasted Merganser at Kingston, 7913 Tundra Swans at Blenheim, 730 Sandhill Cranes at Long Point, and 113 Rough-legged Hawks at Linwood.

Despite (or possibly because of) the pleasant count day conditions, many counts reported a general lack of activity, especially at feeders. However, we weren’t without our highlights. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a repeat flight of Snowy Owls. After last year’s record-breaking count, who would have thought that the 115th count would tally 347 (63 more than last year)? Fifty-five counts were in on the Snowy Owl party, with Kingston leading the way with a count of 48, followed by Blenheim with 26 and Linwood with 21.

After last year’s dismal-showing, it was hoped that winter finches would make a good flight south out of the boreal forest, but it was another relatively low year. The one bright spot, however, were Common Redpolls, reported from 85% of Ontario counts with a total of 14,558 individuals – a total that would likely have been much higher had the CBC period been two or three weeks later as this species really moved into the province deeper into the winter. While no where near the 41,298 on the 113th count, this year’s total was the second highest of the past six seasons.

Ontario counters were also hoping that berry-eating species (mostly just American Robins and waxwings in Ontario) would put on a good showing this season but that was not in the cards. American Robins had a below-average year with only 4780 tallied (35% below the ten year average) but the near absence of this species was even more obvious when one considers that almost 80% of this year’s total came from the five counts along Lake Ontario between Toronto and Niagara Falls – it was literally slim pickings for everyone else (and any robins that dared linger). Cedar Waxwings, with 2661 tallied on 50 counts, showed a similar trend with only three lower counts in the past 25 years. Bohemian Waxwings didn’t really come south, either, with just 1476 counted, widely scattered across the province, with, strange for a species known for massive flocks, many counts reporting single birds.  

Maybe it was the perfect conditions for listening for the sound of woodpeckers working on trees during count day, or maybe it is a result of Emerald Ash-borer’s widespread destruction, whatever it was, woodpeckers were abundant this year. Red-bellied Woodpecker (1299), Downy Woodpecker (6851), Hairy Woodpecker (4006), Pileated Woodpecker (795), Northern Flicker (241), and White-breasted Nuthatch (7142) all set new highs in the province. It will certainly be interesting to see if this is a trend or a blip.

Other, more clear cut trends were in evidence again this year: After a small blip last year, Bald Eagle continued its almost 40-year rising trend with a new record set this year with 1186 tallied. The same is true for Red-bellied Woodpecker, which continues its northward spread. Going in the opposite direction, unfortunately, only 293 American Kestrels were reported, up from last year’s 211 but otherwise the lowest in 40 years. 

We always like to focus our attention on highlight species and this year’s count had no shortage of these. Many came in the form of lingering insectivores that are normally much further south by the time CBC season rolls around. Most impressive of all were the “Sedgewick Five” (named for the park where they were found) on the Peel-Halton CBC which included Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, and Wilson's Warbler. This represents the first record of Tennessee Warbler for a Canadian CBC and only the third Ontario record for Wilson’s Warbler. Toronto had a couple lingering birds of their own which included a White-eyed Vireo and a Black-and-white Warbler, representing the eleventh and fourth Ontario CBC records, respectively. The Belleville compiler hosted a beautiful Cape May Warbler at his feeder, marking only the fifth time one was seen on count day in Ontario. Ruby-crowned Kinglets also had a good showing with 31 reported from 12 counts, good enough for the second highest total in the past 20 years. Finally, also in the lingering category, the three Rose-breasted Grosbeaks tied four other years for the high count.

The list of highlights continued past lingering species and included a long-staying Painted Bunting on the Peel-Halton count (where else!?). This bird was thought by many to be an escapee from the illegal cage bird industry as it had a damaged bill and off-coloured plumage. Regardless, it certainly added some colour to winter in Ontario! Eurasian Collared-Dove, still very rare in Ontario, was reported on two counts (Point Pelee and Kitchener) for only the second and third provincial CBC records. These were outdone by the Eurasian Tree Sparrow at Niagara Falls, a first provincial CBC record and only the eighth record ever for the province. Also very exciting were a Harlequin Duck and Townsend’s Solitaire at Thunder Bay, Forster’s Tern at Blenheim, Varied Thrush in Orillia, Harris’s Sparrow at St. Catharines, and four Gyrfalcons with two coming from La Foret Larose alone.

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 116.

Stay abreast of Audubon

Our email newsletter shares the latest programs and initiatives.